Hugo Saavedra, co-founder and CEO of Hugo & Debra Naturals, has never been able to tolerate impurities. A former herb farmer, he avoided all pesticides because he couldn’t stand the idea of polluting his crop. This zero tolerance for the use of chemicals informed his brief career as a chef, and ultimately inspired him to create an organic line of beauty and skincare products “good enough to eat.”
Hugo & Debra Naturals began as a soap stand at the Farmer’s Market. In 2006, when the company officially came into being, Hugo and his wife Debra were able to hire a single additional employee. Fast forward just six years, the company has an expansive product line, including bath products, moisturizers, hair care, aromatherapy, and baby products, 89 employees, $7-9 million in revenue for 2012, and a three-year growth rate of 82 percent.
The Los Angeles-based Hugo & Debra Naturals is one of the companies vying for a spot on the 2013 Inc. 5000. As applicants arrive, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of these fast-growing private companies. (For more information and to apply, go here).
Originally from Argentina, Hugo came to the states 35 years ago. He worked in Louisiana for many years as a chef, eventually opening two of his own restaurants. In the early ‘80s, he moved to Los Angeles, where he operated a 20-acre herb farm that supplied ingredients to up-and-coming chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal, the chef behind the gourmet French restaurant Patina in downtown Los Angeles. These chefs--who were spearheading the California organic movement--shared Hugo’s obsession with natural produce unadulterated by pesticides and fertilizers.
One fateful day, Hugo turned on the TV and stumbled upon a show about a couple who made organic lipstick in their bathtub. Hugo was riveted, particularly by the ingredients, which included rosemary oils and mint. The next day, Hugo stopped by the public library and scoured the stacks for instructions on how to make lipstick. All he could find was a book of soap recipes.
Undiscouraged, Hugo checked out the book and began experimenting with the recipes at home; he found that he was instinctively good at it. “My knowledge about cooking made the transition to making soap very easy,” he says.
Hugo and Debra started selling their soaps at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market in the early ‘90s. The response was so enormous that Hugo quickly sold the herb farm so that he and Debra could concentrate on producing their rapidly expanding line of natural products full time.
Their big break came in 2005, when the couple was invited to Whole Food’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, to demonstrate their products. “We went all out, covering the table with rose-petals, allowing customers to sample our lotions. It was an incredible success,” Hugo recalls.
At first, only one location in North Ridge California stocked Hugo & Debra Naturals, but the products sold so well that they were soon rolled out at Whole Food stores across the country.
Currently, Hugo & Debra Naturals can also be found at Sprouts and Wegmans retail locations. Hugo isn’t content to stop here, however. “I want to make the business a household name. I want to make it a billion dollar company,” he says. He also wants to open his own storefronts, starting with a location at Columbus Circle, in New York City.
Much of Hugo’s ambition is motivated by his desire to raise awareness about the many different ways in which the term “organic” is abused in the United States. “The truth is the FDA does not regulate the industry at all.” Chemicals, such as phenol (found in coal tar, and heavily restricted in Canada and the EU), are used in skin products and advertised as organic in the U.S., Hugo says.
“The word organic is being corrupted in America. People use it as a marketing tool, and companies use it to confuse the consumer.”
In contrast, Hugo emphasizes, Hugo & Debra Naturals use only food-grade ingredients; all products are manufactured right in Los Angeles and are vegan and gluten-free.
Hugo’s philosophy is simple but absolute: “For me, whatever you put on your skin, you should be able to eat,” he says. “The skin is the largest organ we have--it absorbs everything. We tend to take the skin for granted.”