At Her Arkansas Plant, Ex-Model Patti Upton Blends the Sweet Smell of Christmas and Success
Any other woman from the hog state of Arkansas might turn up her nose at being called “the Smell Queen of the United States.” Not Patti Upton. To the former Miss University of Arkansas and ex-model, who turned down a chance to strut for Dior because she was “too homespunny,” the nickname suits just fine. It captures the essence of Upton’s burgeoning success in the room-fragance business: Sales of her “Smell of Christmas,” in plain plastic bags for about $6 or $12, recently topped $1.5 million, hardly a figure to sniff at. “We’re on a roll,” says the housewife of her two-year-old company, Aromatique, “and our phenomenal success makes grown men cry.”
The idea for her incredibly popular product was so obvious that Upton, 46, nearly stumbled over it in her own yard. She had moved into the family’s lake house so her twin boys could go to school in Heber Springs. Bored with staying home all day while her sons studied and her husband, Dick, tootled around as eastern Arkansas distributor for Anheuser-Busch, Upton began hanging out at a gift shop owned by Sandra Home, “like guys hang out at bowling alleys.” Soon she was helping with displays, and one day Home asked her to dream up something decorative for the shop’s Christmas open house.
“I went home to the lake and noticed the wind had blown hundreds of pine cones and nuts across the yard, and it was beautiful,” she recalls. “Nature is really beautiful if people would take the time to look.” She gathered up nature’s discards and put them in a large wooden bowl, along with a sprinkling of crushed bay leaves and chopped chrysanthemums, but something was missing: It didn’t smell. Upton, who claims she never cooked a meal in her life, added cooking oils and spices, then stuffed the concoction into plastic corsage bags and voila—”I had my first room fragrance.”
At the gift shop, customers took one whiff and began buying. The Uptons’ twins, Paige and Peyton, now 20, were less taken with the product. “They didn’t want their friends to know their mother was making this funny stuff,” Patti recalls. Undaunted, she and Horne made daily pilgrimages into the woods for raw materials and to lumber yards to buy shavings to add to the mix; then Upton used a mop handle to stir it all in a plastic garbage can. “We took the grass-roots approach,” she says proudly. “We even called it a ‘smell’ instead of a ‘scent.’ ”
Sensing a hit, the two women began calling friends all over, asking them to scout the best boutiques as outlets. “We told owners that if they didn’t sell them, they could return them at our expense,” says Upton. The no-risk marketing approach got them in the door and “most all the shopkeepers called back to see how quickly they could get some more.” Aromatique decided to “go for broke.” Using Upton’s stake of $10,000, the two fledgling entrepreneurs moved the operation out of Path’s dining room to a small building and instituted a sophisticated delivery system: They hung a red bandanna in the window whenever they had a shipment for UPS.
Today, Upton commutes via helicopter from her main home in West Memphis, Ark. to her stylish executive suite in a new Heber Springs plant—an 8,000-square-foot building, with another 5,000 feet of storage space in an abandoned schoolhouse and in a truck trailer hooked up to the plant. But the operation is still resolutely simple: no sales reps and no ads. “Good accounts breed good accounts,” says Upton. “Good customers breed good customers.” She and Home still occasionally trek to the woods to ferret out cones and nuts, and they’re also willing to buy from scout groups and schools, provided the kids don’t get too greedy: Posted on Aromatique’s entrance, along with a list of needed materials, is the message, “Please leave enough for the squirrels.”
Upton still blends the oils herself, but employees—there were 47 full-timers at last count—mix raw ingredients and oils in motorized mixing machines. Nearby, other workers brew up Aromatique’s new line, the Smell of Spring, a blend of Moroccan rosebuds, bay leaves, wood shavings, baby’s breath and a heady dose of secret oils that Upton buys from a company that creates scents for Ralph Lauren. Aromatique also bottles refresher oils so customers can save their mixtures and revive them the following year. Having garnered 525 retailers to peddle her products in 40 states, Israel and Puerto Rico, Upton doesn’t worry about losing repeat business—or anything else. “I’m loving making money but that’s not the drive,” she says. “You might say it’s a profit-making ego trip. I once told Dick, ‘Just think what I could do if we needed this money.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Not nearly so well, my dear.’ But it never dawned on me I’d lose. I don’t lose.”
Dick, who doubles as veep of Aromatique, is beginning to believe. “There aren’t many who can go out and rake the front yard, put it in a sack and sell it, but that’s exactly what she did,” he says in awe. “After a few months, they had made their first $100,000. I just looked unconcerned and told Patti that was about normal. Then I went into the closet, closed the door and banged my head up against the wall, because I know that things like this are unreal.”