Antidote 1848 Aims To Be The Go-To Natural Hair Care Brand For Small Salons Across America

Antidote 1848 is bringing natural hair care to cities and towns across the country one salon at a time. Formed by an atypical pairing of salon owner Abigail Kuehl and former Unilever executive David Calle, the brand has a unique perspective on the professional hair care segment that’s hard for bigger players to copy. It can sell better-for-you products to hairstylists because it grasps what inspires them to sell better-for-you products to their clients. “In many small towns across the country, the boutique salon is almost like a community center. It brings life to the downtown. We have to understand their needs and help them have products that are special and exclusive, so they’re proud to talk about them,” says Calle. Beauty Independent talked to Calle and Kuehl about manufacturing natural products, building a business inside salons, forging a fruitful partnership and steering clear of Amazon.

What led to your involvement in the beauty industry and your partnership?

Kuehl: I’m from Wisconsin. I own a boutique salon in Appleton. That’s where met David. I got into this industry in high school. I started working in a salon at the front desk. I had really no inkling that I was going to end up in the beauty industry, but I was directed down that path by different mentors. I’ve always enjoyed making natural products and finding better, healthier options for people. That’s how it all got started.

Calle: I came into the industry from a different angle. I’ve always loved consumer products. I love the idea that little things people use everyday can make big differences in how they look and feel, and in their health. I spent most of my career with Unilever. I was there for 20 years. I was a senior executive there, head of strategy for North America and a divisional CFO based in Europe. I moved to Wisconsin four years ago and met Abigail. I immediately connected with her passion for plant-based solutions. I originally was excited about her idea and was encouraging her. I told her she should go for it. Before I knew it, we were trying out novel ingredients and testing them on people.

David Calle and Abigail Kuehl

When did you cement your business relationship?

Calle: We got serious at the end of 2015. We met multiple times to talk about the philosophy of the brand. What would a clean, professional, cool brand be? How would it be different from what’s out there? Then, we got consumers involved in the idea. We asked them, “Would you buy this and be interested in it?” In the initial focus groups, people were so excited, and that kept us going. We started mixing the first products in early 2016, and we launched in October 2016.

What was your vision for Antidote 1848?

Kuehl: The vision for the brand was to create a professional, clean, cool brand for consumers, salons and stylists to use. The products we launched with were the Ginseng Shampoo and Conditioner, and the Keratin Shampoo and Conditioner. A lot of people in my salon and my family have struggled with really dry scalp, and nothing out there was helping alleviate that issue. That’s how we arrived at the Ginseng Shampoo. It addresses the root of the issue that your scalp is skin.

Calle: Professional is really critical. It’s by professionals for professionals to work in the pressure cooker of the professional salon, where people want to look and feel their best. You won’t find us on Amazon. We are not looking for big retail partners.

How long did it take you to develop Antidote 1848, and how much did it cost to develop?

Calle: It took us basically a year to develop the first products we launched. We shared a commitment to starting this with a very lean model. The revenue of our first products would fund the next round of products, and we did a lot of things ourselves like website development. Our investment was around $30,000 to $50,000. We had a lot of mentors, veterans from places like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, help us. They coached us through a development process that could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.


What was surprising in the development process of Antidote 1848?

Calle: Working with natural ingredients was a complete shock for me. I’m used to working with products that have artificial colorants and fragrances. They’re very stable and easy to work with. I took that for granted.

Kuehl: Working with plant-based ingredients is very tricky and, also, there’s a cost for the quality ingredients. We source our ginseng, cranberries and sunflower oil from Wisconsin. To get those ingredients, there can be a higher cost, but we know where they come from, and we know they are better.

When did Antidote 1848 reach profitability?

Calle: We broke even in 2017. As you can imagine, especially when profits are funding the growth, it comes down to a matter of how much we invest in adding salons.

Who is the target customer for Antidote 1848?

Kuehl: We have two targets: Boutique salons with the vision of cleaner products in the industry and for their salon, and somebody who wants to live a healthier lifestyle. They are active and looking for healthier alternatives in their lives. Our focus is supporting the boutique salons. They’re recommending products to their guests, and our products are meant to be talked about. We want to make sure stylists’ experience with the brand is a good one.


What’s the key to breaking into the salon market?

Kuehl: In this day and age, salons need so much support. We give them support through education and having a cool brand that’s different. On the other hand, the products have to work. There’s a lot of natural brands out there, but, in a salon environment, finding something that works is important.

What’s your educational program like?

Kuehl: We host classes with the salons. We do a product knowledge class, and we really educate the salons on what different ingredients are good for skin, scalp and hair. A key component is educating them on what’s inside of the products that is actually working for their guests. We also get into health and wellness. Many people might not know about the benefits of Wisconsin ginseng, but there are many benefits, and that’s why we use it.

Calle: It’s not one salon per class. We invite all the salons in an area to come together to create a community of salons. These are independent businesses, and they usually don’t get to meet each other. They get to exchange ideas on how products are used, but also on how to improve retail and merchandise better.

Where do natural products stand in the professional salon segment?

Calle: Salon owners have a growing appreciation for more natural solutions. They drive longer-term benefits to hair and skin. The frustration that we hear is, “Why are products sold on Amazon?” They feel they are undercut. They’re interested in an independent brand that’s exclusive to salons. A lot of brands start that way, and then the growth pressures come in. They feel they deserve exclusivity, and they can get that from an indie brand, but they can’t from a bigger company.


Is the salon channel too limiting for an indie brand?

Calle: I think it’s too limiting for a brand that has investors who are looking for the brand to be huge. If you want a billion-dollar brand, yes, it’s limiting, but there are 90,000 salons in America.

Kuehl: It can take more time to build in salons in terms of exposure. If you’re on Amazon, you can get exposure very quickly.

What is Antidote 1848’s e-commerce strategy?

Kuehl: We are sold on our own website. People can go to our website and purchase the products. There is a lot of information on there for users. Our focus is the boutique salons. There is a trust relationship between the stylist and the user. We want that feeling of trust between the brand and people when they use the products, so they feel how much we really care about what’s behind each product and what it’s doing.

Calle: We are one-third direct and two-thirds through salons. We are intentionally not on Amazon. We want people to get advice, and to be able to connect with their professional stylists and have the experience that the salon environment gives people when they come in the door. We have started to explore some clean beauty sites where consumers are immersed in a clean beauty environment.

Pretend we’re a salon. Give us a quick pitch on why we should take Antidote 1848.

Kuehl: We are very strategic about who we reach out to right now. Before we reach out to them, we will do a sweep of their social media and website to see if they are a good fit for us. We are slowly growing, and we want to make sure our growth is done the right way with partners who support the vision behind the brand. The short pitch would be, “I’m a salon owner. I get it. I know what’s going on in the industry. It can be tough. This is an opportunity for your salon to grow in sales and grab onto something unique that’s coming up in the industry. We are here to support you through your journey. This is better for your stylists and guests coming into the door. It’s a professional brand with clean products that are just for you.”

Antidote 1848

What is the brand’s hero product?

Kuehl: It’s the Ginseng Shampoo. That was one of the first products we created, and it really focused on getting a healthy scalp. It’s a mild formula that’s really conditioning. It has ginseng from Wisconsin, and that’s a really cool story for people to talk about behind the chair.

What are the prices for Antidote 1848?

Calle: Price points are $20 for a shampoo and $18 for styling products. Prices go up to $36 for the concentrated hair oil. We want the brand to be accessible. We did a lot of benchmarking with competitive brands in the salon. We didn’t want to be the highest price point or the absolute lowest, but we wanted to be at a place where people could feel comfortable indulging and taking care of themselves.

How do you make Antidote 1848 products?

Calle: We produce the products from scratch now. Coming from a big company, there is obviously the model of someone that has a formula out there, and you just go with that. Abigail was very adamant about having as few ingredients as possible. Because all the products are handmade, we are able to improve the formulas based on feedback we’ve gotten along the way. Most of the formulas now are stable and where they need to be. There are only a few items that we could do with an outside manufacturing process. There are different routes we could go in for that, but we have to find someone who can keep the integrity.


Would it be difficult to find an outside manufacturer to meet your requirements fo Antidote 1848?

Calle: There are some great folks out there, but the industry isn’t really built for what we do. We are a natural, plant-based brand, and a lot of the manufacturers out there are used to working with synthetics. Secondly, volume is a big thing. A lot of companies want to work for someone who is getting Walmart or Costco orders. Location is the third piece. What we are finding is there are pockets of this work on the coasts and in Canada. We want to keep things made in America, but, if you are on the coasts, you are shipping products. We want to keep the environmental footprint low.

What’s been the worst day at your business, and why?

Kuehl: In the manufacturing process, it’s very strategic how the mixing goes with the order of ingredients. If you put ingredients in when the temperature isn’t right, that can determine how the product settles. We had an ingredient that was added at the wrong time, and the heat was too hot. We poured the pomade, and it was splitting. We had to get rid of all that product and start over. That was a hard day because of the time and money that got wasted.

What’s something your most successful partner does that you wish would become an industry standard?

Calle: It would be understanding what’s going on in terms of ingredients and clean beauty. We are just at the beginning of a growing awareness in the professional market that you can have clean products that work and that work differently. We hear sometimes, “Oh, your shampoos don’t foam the same as Pantene.” That’s because we don’t have harsh cleansers. The salons that inspire us understand natural products and are able to articulate the differences. It doesn’t mean that they don’t sell more traditional lines, but they have knowledge about natural products.


Have you done any fundraising for Antidote 1848?

Calle: We haven’t done any fundraising. We aren’t planning on doing any traditional fundraising because we want to be able to grow at a pace that works for us and not have the pressure that comes with outside investment. However, we are experimenting with pre-selling through a Kickstarter-type campaign. We are looking at it as an opportunity for people to buy products in advance. It would allow us to gauge interest and also provide investment for production.

How much have Antidote 1848’s revenues grown?

Calle: The way we look at revenues is by the number of salons. We started last year with one salon. We had two by the end of summer, and we ended the year with five salons. Our revenue mirrors that. It grew [by a factor of five], and we’re looking to double that this year.

Salons are often faulted for being poor retailers. What’s your take on the retail component of salons?

Calle: Retail is a huge opportunity for them. It kills me to walk into salons and see poor merchandising and underutilization of the retail space. We hope to play a role in helping them realize the retail opportunity. Most of our salons have brands other than Antidote 1848, but we make sure it is complementary, so it provides incremental sales, and we have tips and tricks on how to get the consumer to try the product. We can do incentive programs for stylists in the salon. Also, there should be an awareness of benchmarks. A successful salon as 10% to 15% of its revenue coming from retail. So, I ask them, “What’s the role of retail for them? How big is it, or how big should it be?”


How do you two work as a team?

Kuehl: We didn’t meet that long ago, but I feel I’ve known David my whole life. To me, it doesn’t get any better than what we have. We really complement each other with our skill sets, and that’s a huge advantage for us working together.

Calle: We really invested a lot upfront in our partnership. We spent months asking each other about our philosophies. We asked tough questions about business. We know we are going to go through some hard times together, and it’s not going to be easy, but we have the same business principles. It doesn’t happen that you bump into somebody and it works. You have to invest in the relationship, and we did. I feel so lucky to have found Abigail.

What goals do you have for Antidote 1848 going forward?

Kuehl: One of the big goals is the next phase of what we are doing on the production side and outsourcing a few of our larger products while keeping the integrity of the ingredients. We are very open to feedback, but we make sure the feedback that we are given falls in line with what our brand is.

Calle: A big goal for me is doubling our salon coverage and rounding out the line, particularly in skincare and maybe in kids. Our goal is to eventually be in every boutique salon in America, and help them be more profitable, and their professional stylists and guests be healthier.