Nine years ago, Gina Almonte found herself frustrated at a park when she realized she only had a water bottle and a baby bottle nipple, but no bottle to feed her 1-year-old son. She asked her friends, wouldn't it be so much easier if there was some kind of adapter to turn water bottles into baby bottles?
That's how the elementary school teacher started Refresh-a-Baby, a company that creates bottle tops that can be used on a variety of beverages to help on-the-go parents feed their babies.
Building the business has been a slow process, Almonte says, but two years ago she left her job at the school and decided to dedicate all of her time to growing the company.
This month, she's finally getting some traction. After a year-long application process, Toys R Us agreed to display her product near registers as a test in 300 stores. The product will also be featured in the register lanes at 45 buybuy Baby stores. Another large chain in Texas, HEB, is also selling her product in 396 stores. All three deals came through in one week.
That means Almonte has gone from packing products at her dining room table to working with MacDonald Training Center in Tampa to fulfill orders. Her manufacturers are all local, in Zephyrhills, Largo and Clearwater.
Almonte's product started out in small boutiques. The bottle tops sell for $6.99 per top or $9.99 for a package of two. Two years ago, she presented her business idea at the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and was invited to be part of the city's Startup Scholars program. The program helped her make connections with the business community, including Busch Gardens and the Stellar Partners airport stores.
“It helped me with confidence and everything,” Almonte says. “You need it to work with the big dogs out there.”
Until this month, Refresh-a-Baby was in about 100 stores, including a number of boutiques and Tampa-area Walgreens. Stellar Partners helped Almonte get the product into airport stores in five states. She works with distributors in six other countries across the world, after connecting with them at the biggest baby show — the ABC expo in Las Vegas.
The connection with Busch Gardens has gotten her into the Sea World amusement parks, and courting Mickey Mouse is her next goal. “Disney is the next step in my dream,” she says. She's also started talks with Target.
But the growth has come with challenges. To concentrate on bigger retailers, Almonte had to give up her biggest customer, Zulily, an online store with daily sale events.
She also had to develop packaging that met the large chains' demands. “They are picky if you want to be at the register lane,” she says.
Capital has also limited her operations. To prepare for the increase in demand from her new retailers, Almonte just confirmed an order to make 28,000 units. “I would have put in a big order, but I don't have the capital,” she says.
Almonte is hesitant to rely on an investor. She needs the money to fulfill orders, “but it's not just about the money. It's feeling comfortable with the person; it's like a marriage,” she says. “Right now I don't want to do it because I'd be selling myself short because now I'm at the breaking point.”
Thus far, Almonte has used her savings and family money to cover her $100,000 investment to start the company. “I'm trying to get more sales to pay the bill,” she says. This year she's also about to debut another product, a sippy cup adapter for water and beverage bottles like Gatorade, milk and juices. She's waiting on the patent, but expects to be ready to sell in the next few months.
Almonte says right now she can't predict how quickly she'll need to fill another order. Last year her total sales were 13,000 units, so she's figuring out how to manage the larger scale of the business. “This is a huge year” she says. “A huge learning year for me.”