Three years ago, our Source Newcomer award winner Jodi Breau took early retirement from her job as a school librarian at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland. She had two reasons, the first being that she didn’t want to “be one of those grumpy old librarians.” The second was so that she could take her long-percolating plan to become a sustainable dental floss mogul to the next level.
Her dental floss, Dental Lace, hit the shelves at a couple of local grocery stores just this month, including the Pond Cove IGA in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth and Lois’ Natural Marketplace in both Portland and Scarborough. Breau is shopping it around to other retailers and is also selling it online at her website, dentallace.com.
Dental Lace is made from silk and comes in reusable glass containers with colorful designs on them (colors include “granite” and “sea rose.” Cute was always a motivating factor for Breau, who says she’s always been a dedicated flosser. So dedicated that she’d floss at her library desk. “I would eat lunch at my desk and I would get food stuck in my teeth.” Why not repair to the bathroom? “School libraries are very busy places. I just didn’t feel comfortable leaving.”
But she hated having the “ugly” plastic containers in her purse, and she’d tell the students that she wished there were an alternative. Then she started thinking, why couldn’t she make a prettier alternative? She’d run her master plan by the teenagers, who actually encouraged her, she said. “My students drove me to do it in a way because they thought it was cool.”
She put her librarian skills to work. “I researched, researched, researched,” Breau says. “It’s what I do.”
In the summer of 2014 she began working with Alan Shaver, a business mentor through SCORE, a nonprofit association that provides free counseling to small businesses. Shaver, a former corporate attorney and small-business owner, has been mentoring Maine businesses for 18 years.
“She has been one of the most disciplined and methodical clients I have ever seen,” Shaver said. Breau is not afraid to go back to the drawing board, he said. “She is not easily discouraged.”
The more she researched, the more she began to focus on sustainability. She learned that if Americans follow the directions of their dentists, the amount of floss containers discarded by them every year would fill a landfill the size of a football field, six stories high. She found bloggers writing about zero waste who complained about plastic coatings on dental floss. She decided she didn’t want any plastic coating on the floss she’d make. She was drawn to silk.
And while another sustainable floss company was offering its product in a recyclable cardboard container, Breau balked at its single-use aspect. “I wanted to come up with something that would withstand time and multiple uses.” While Googling she landed on AliBaba, the Chinese version of Amazon and found a tiny glass container that was pretty and durable, with a metal lid that could cut the floss and allow for easy refills.
Dental Lace is made in China, which means a bigger carbon footprint than Breau would like, and she had to put aside her fear of not being able to control quality, as well as labor and environmental issues, from such a distance. The manufacturer is certified by the International Organization for Standardization (SO), and has approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which helped convince her, and so far, she’s been satisfied. It’s full steam ahead for the former librarian now. Does she dream of being as big as Tom’s of Maine? Yes, and with a similar commitment to the environment.
“What I want to do is get big enough so that all those other dental floss companies change what they are doing,” she said.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: