Natural Choice Company of St. Marys was recently named the Kansas minority manufacturing business of 2021. Governor Laura Kelly, Lt. Governor David Toland and the state’s Office of Minority and Women-Owned Business Development recognized Natural Choice and its owner Dora Garcia at the 36th annual awards event luncheon Oct. 20.
The company’s success, however, didn’t happen overnight. Its origin story reads almost like a novel.
Dora’s family moved to Chicago in 1977 from Guatemala. She was 14 and spoke no English. She was befriended by an eighth-grade classmate who had previously emigrated from Mexico, and she often went to her friend’s house after school for help translating her schoolwork. While there, she met her friend’s older brother, Miguel. Fast forward a few years, and Dora and Miguel started dating, then got married in 1984.
The couple started their family in Chicago, then moved to Kansas in 1995. Over the years, their family grew to include 15 children, including one baby that died tragically just weeks before birth. Professionally, the Garcias and a couple of partners started a military and tactical supply business, Patriot Outfitters, which eventually grew to 24 retail locations in multiple states.
From young sweethearts to enterprising startup, the Garcias' history reads like a great American success story. But there’s more to their personal journey that led to their most current professional enterprise.
Making the Natural Choice
Dora grew up in a family that used herbal teas and other plant-based medicine to alleviate almost any illness.
“If we had a stomachache, we drank mint tea, chamomile tea to relax, lemongrass tea for inflammation, lime juice for insect bites and so forth,” Dora said. “We brought those natural remedies with us when we came to the U.S.”
However, as they acclimated to American culture, built their first business and raised their family, the couple adopted modern medicine practices. But in 2004, Dora felt called to return to her roots. She started doing extensive research on plant-based products to use with her family. Over time, she began creating products like lip balms, hand and face scrubs, eczema cream, household cleaners and essential oil soaps, sprays and roll-ons.
Then in 2006, their son Rafael was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and that news changed the course of Dora and Miguel’s life forever.
Rafael’s tumor was inoperable, so they didn’t even try chemotherapy or radiation. Instead, the family committed to what they knew — natural medicine. They believed that switching to an all-natural diet they could give him a better quality of life for his remaining days. While Rafael died within three months of his diagnosis, the change the family implemented due to his illness became permanent.
Two years after losing Rafael, Dora gave birth to twins born prematurely and with Down syndrome. Their birth presented the family with a new challenge.
“Those first few years were very rough, as the twins had a lot of respiratory issues. I dove deeper into natural remedies and products. We began using essential oils and a vitamin C regimen to build their immune systems,” Dora said. “We’ve seen natural remedies work. The twins rarely get sick anymore. None of us do.”
Dora’s interest in natural healing products planted a seed for what eventually became the family’s second business.
Expanding Their Business
After many years of personal success with Dora’s products, the family decided they wanted to expand her operation. In 2017, they sold Patriot Outfitters and planned to use those proceeds buy another business making natural health and beauty products. The couple spent eight months diving deeper into the manufacturing side of the industry. But then the acquisition fell through.
“We decided to do it ourselves. From scratch,” Dora said. “We love a challenge.”
In 2019, they began to scale up their new venture and called it Natural Choice Company. They found and partnered with a century-old essential oil manufacturer with direct-to-grower relationships around the world to source raw ingredients from. They leveraged local resources and started working with the Washburn Small Business Development Center to figure out their manufacturing process, with help from experts at Kansas State and Washburn universities. They hired independent labs to assess their formulas and prove their products inhibit the three most common bacteria — listeria, salmonella and E.coli.
In 2020, in response to the pandemic, they decided to also create a line of alcohol-free towelettes for hand sanitation and surface cleaning. They received an e-community loan with help from the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation to help purchase the manufacturing equipment necessary for towelette production. An e-community loan is a revolving loan fund for local businesses and entrepreneurs that is a resource available through the NetWork Kansas E-Community program, of which Pottawatomie County is a member.
Miguel says the towelettes are the most innovative product they’ve created yet.
“You rub it on your hands, and as long as the cloth is wet, you can reuse it,” he said. “The oil becomes a barrier, a virtual glove, that won’t come off your hands until you wash them. This means you don’t have to use hand sanitizer every two minutes. We also have cleaners that are excellent at degreasing the kitchen, cleaning appliances and so forth. You don’t get chemicals on your skin or breath them in through fumes.”
Today, the company is going full steam ahead. They have two retail locations — an original store in St. Marys and a newly opened store at Manhattan Town Center — and they have recently revamped their online store. They’re also launching an Amazon store and expanding into wholesale sales. They’re even working with social media influencers to get the word out about their products via platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
A Family-Focused Enterprise
For the Garcias, business has always been a family endeavor. The entire extended Garcia family works closely together doing much of the manufacturing by hand. Their children bottle products, adhere labels and help with everyday chores in their production facility and retail outlets.
Their commitment to their mission and inexpensive packaging helps keep their prices affordable so other families can adopt a more natural lifestyle.
“Our prices are one-third of our competitors, but we offer the same quality,” Miguel said, comparing their products to those offered by multi-level marketing companies. “That’s part of why we wanted to do it. We want to provide other families with quality products they can afford on their budget and so they can experience the benefits of the oils.”
The Garcias plan to expand their retail operation to other communities. They’ve also started The Rafael Foundation to help other parents with children who have a terminal disease with extra expenses that come about when having to travel for medical care.
Learn more about Natural Choice Company, the family behind the brand, and their products at naturalchoicecompany.com, or visit their locations in Manhattan or St. Marys.