Bug repellent's success overwhelming Columbus Junction mom-pop business

Owners looking to keep operation small to continue employing in Louisa County

Essential oils are mixed together while making a batch of Bug Soother at Simply Soothing in Columbus Junction. (Liz Mart
Essential oils are mixed together while making a batch of Bug Soother at Simply Soothing in Columbus Junction. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Jim Sojka jokes that he had to use his best "salesman" approach during last year's drought to give away samples of Bug Soother, an all natural gnat, mosquito and insect repellent developed by his wife, Freda.

Fast forward to this year when spring rains created standing water in fields, spawning swarms of pesky gnats and mosquitoes.

With several thousand retailers in Iowa and adjacent states selling out of Bug Soother, the Sojkas are struggling to meet demand with the help of employees, family members and friends.

"I receive corporate emails everyday wanting to get Bug Soother, and we're just trying to catch up with our existing customers," said Freda Sojka, president of Simply Soothing in Columbus Junction. "It's a crazy place around here because many of the corporate warehouses have been cleaned out.

"We've been working nearly 'round the clock to catch up. We want to make sure our existing loyal customers receive what they need before we take on any new accounts."

Sojka developed the recipe for Bug Soother before June 2008 when Iowa was dealing with historic flooding along the Cedar and Iowa rivers.

"I have a sister who was flooded out on the Cedar River and she tested it for me," Sojka said. "A team of surveyors were traveling up and down the river, measuring where the flood waters had reached. They were being eaten alive by gnats.

"My sister sprayed them with Bug Soother and the gnats vanished. They went back to their hotel, woke up their boss and told him that he needed to buy the stuff.

"He came in the next day and bought up everything I had."

In 2007 while operating a small store in Columbus Junction, Sojka was approached by her insurance agent to create a scented product that would repel mice at his cabin.

"I took crushed corn cobs, soaked them in peppermint, and put them in a little muslin bag that I printed with a small T-shirt press," Sojka said. "Mice really hate the smell of peppermint. I called it 'Mice Be Gone' and it really took off."

Sojka, who readily admits she is not a chemist, began researching what scents repel insects after the success of Mice Be Gone.

"I just threw some things together without really knowing whether it was going to work," she said. "I had a five-month-old grandson in 2008 and I wanted something to put on him that did not include DEET.

"I started with a body spray base and added essential oils."

Bug Soother contains an essential oil blend of lemon,lemongrass and vanilla with distilled water, castor oil, soya lecithin and Vitamin E. While Bug Soother is not patented, the formula is classified as a secret recipe, which affords some piracy protection.

The explosive sales growth of Bug Soother began after it was stocked by an Ace Hardware store in Washington, IA.

"Other Ace Hardware stores picked it up when their owners heard it was selling like crazy in Washington," Freda Sojka said. "The next thing we knew, we received a string of emails telling us that we were in Ace Hardware's distribution center in La Crosse, Wis.

"That was news to us because we had never asked to be there."

The Sojkas were encouraged by a buyer for Ace Hardware and other chains to set up a booth at the company's annual international trade show in Chicago at a cost of $3,800. While initially rejecting the cost as too much, Simply Soothing was able to get a state grant for $3,000 to help defray most of the expense.

"At the show, we received orders from two Ace Hardware owners who had stores on islands 500 miles apart," Freda said. "The state grant money really helped us level the playing field with large corporate vendors like General Electric."

With production outstripping their existing building, the Sojkas are seeking to expand Simply Soothing's storage facilities.

"We're talking with the owner of a former bowling alley in Columbus Junction," Freda said. "We're also working with a man who makes medical equipment to develop a larger mixing system to help us get ahead. If we can mix it in larger batches, we can increase production."

Sojka launched Simply Soothing about 10 years ago, initially selling scented items such as air fresheners, bath and body products and candles.

"My husband and I are what I call 'second-wind entrepreneurs,'" Sojka said. "I had taken early retirement from Monsanto and Jim worked in bridge construction. I was looking to start a business I could operate with my daughter (Nikki Celek, now chief operating officer of Simply Soothing)."

While enjoying the success of Bug Soother and growing sales of their original products, the Sojkas plan to keep Simply Soothing a small, local manufacturer providing employment in Louisa County.

"I've had a lot of good mentors who have encouraged me to sell our products through large national retailers," Freda said. "As long as I'm in control, we're not going that route because they really don't do anything for a community."We like Ace Hardware because it has mom-and-pop store owners people like us." 

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