By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
Ali Florsheim’s journey to entrepreneurship was sparked by her love of produce wash.
The family court mediator and arbitrator and mother of four keeps her kitchen stocked with fresh produce. She prioritizes feeding her family healthy food, and doesn’t want them to ingest pesticide residue, wax, preservatives or any of the germs that come from being handled by so many people from the field to her grocery sack.
When she discovered a fruit and vegetable wash at her local market, she bought it on a whim and was delighted with the way the product worked. In that joy, she found an opportunity.
“I had this great produce wash and really liked it, but I thought it was unfortunate that people didn’t buy this as well. It’s such a healthy thing to do. I had a lot of friends and family who just never even heard of a produce wash before and I thought there was a clear hole in the market. With some creativity and passion, we can change some consumer habits locally.”
Her friend, Melina Marcus, was enthusiastic about the idea as well, and joined her in the project.
Florsheim thought, “I can try to get a few more people to use a fruit and vegetable wash if I can make it more attractive so consumers will leave it on the kitchen sink with the dish and hand soap. Nobody will use it if it’s industrial looking and that means nobody will get the benefit of clean food. They will just throw it under the sink about the next bacterial produce scare. We formulated it with very clean ingredients and we hired a graphic designer to make our label. We purposely designed it to be innocuous to produce departments so that it didn’t make the fruits and vegetables look like they’re dirty. It was approachable and didn’t look like an industrial cleaner at all. It had a very friendly, retro-looking feel that would really be compelling to customers who’ve never tried before.”
“We also wanted to make sure it was under $5 because that is an accessible price point,” she continued. “We thought this would be great. We’ll get into a couple stores, and it’ll be a terrific project for us, a great side business.”
It soon grew into much more.
Launched in 2009, Rebel Green’s produce wash lined the shelves of local retailers like Sendik’s, Outpost and Metcalfe’s. On the wave of its initial success, the product was picked up by Whole Foods, and The Fresh Market followed soon after. Within two years, the product was available in thousands of stores.
After eight years of strong sales and being the top wash nationally, retailers wanted more from Rebel Green.
“Our retailers would say to us, ‘you are really consistent, you always do what you say you’re going to do. The product is selling much faster than the competition, do you make anything else?’ And that’s when we decided to think about expanding our line,” Florsheim said.
Today, the company offers 50 different natural cleaning products for household and personal care, and the line is found in over 7,000 stores nationwide. Rebel Green manufacturers its products in Wisconsin and fulfills orders from its Ozaukee County warehouse.
Marcus heads the marketing efforts and Florsheim takes the lead on product development and sales. Longtime employee and friend Kristina Nosbisch handles the day-to-day operations of the business. A true family-run business, the Florsheim kids and grandparents are also an integral part of the business, having spent untold hours loading pallets and fulfilling orders.
The whole team is led by Rebel Green’s guiding principles, which are integrity and transparency.
“We have a responsibility to create transparency and high quality with the ingredients we use. It’s central to who we are as a brand that consumers can trust what is in our bottles. Every consumer deserves to know what is in the products used next to their skin with laundry detergent and what is in the air with their cleaners and what is used to wash their food. Florsheim said.
“I think when you don’t list your ingredients fully and transparently, you’re not giving the consumer a choice to decide what they’re buying because they don’t even know what’s in your bottle,” she continued. “So, number one for us is transparency and letting consumers know what it is that they’re purchasing. If you can’t provide that for your retail partners and consumers, you are in the wrong business.
This commitment extends beyond the ingredients in its popular products. The women-owned company has earned the USDA Organic certification, the Leaping Bunny certification, which verifies they do not conduct new animal testing, and is a Certified B Corporation.
“B Corp certification is the ultimate in certification” Florsheim explained. “That’s really the most stringent certification you can go for and they look at your manufacturing processes, your hiring practices, your product development processes, what you do to serve the environment, what you do, what your future plans are, what your intentions are.”
“It’s really a very comprehensive process and I really feel comfortable with using their criteria to guide our business along the way, because if we can be B Corp certified, we know that we’re moving in the right direction. I’m confident that it made us a better brand by going through the process,” she said.
The bootstrapped company has its eye on the future, and that future does not include an imminent exit plan. “There are just a handful of disruptive family-owned natural cleaning brands out there. We are very proud to be a family-owned business in this space.”
Rebel Green plans to continue to grow its profitable company. Already on the shelves at Walmart nationally, and most other national retailers, the startup is focused on adding Kroger and Target to its list of customers. Founders Florsheim and Marcus are calculating whether that growth might require capital from a like-minded investor.To follow the growth of this company on the rise, connect with Rebel Green here.