Bobby and Palita's venture began when the pair bottled and branded locally-sourced lemongrass and started selling the essential oil at Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok. While peddling their natural mosquito repellant, Bobby and Palina perfected blends of oils and got hands-on studying the science of aromatherapy.
After two years of lugging their products across the city every weekend to set up their small stall at the stifling hot and crowded market, the hard-working pair got their first big break, and they found themselves rushing to put together their first wholesale order for a major hotel chain.
Word quickly spread and the orders grew, so it was soon time to set up the first store in the Lemongrass House franchise, which opened in Phuket in 1996.
Nearly 20 years on, Bobby is a busy man. The 42nd Lemongrass House store has just opened in Hong Kong and three more are opening in Geneva, Muscat and Istanbul. Bobby and his team also help hotels and spas create bespoke collections with Lemongrass House products in about 400 hotels and in the top 100 spas worldwide.
The Lemongrass House team's claims to fame include Time Magazine's "Best Spa Products in Asia" award; featured in The New York Times; and the flagship store voted "Best Shopping Location in Phuket" on the Condé Nast Traveller Hotlist.
For a man who clearly has a lot on his plate, Bobby comes across as relaxed and carefree, with barely a furrow lining his brow.
At the Bangtao store a team of about 30 staff distill, mix, bottle, package and deliver products as well as servicing customers with hundreds of products lining the shelves. Bobby spends time chatting with hoteliers and spa managers, working on creating signature scents and packaging.
"Helping hoteliers develop unique scents and designs for their hotels is fun and rewarding. We design packaging in-house for our hotel customers, who typically want to create a unique scent for their hotel or spa. We work very closely to come up with distinct aromas and blends for a variety of situations," said Bobby.
The most challenging aspect of running the global operation is ensuring consistency for the brand.
"Every new Lemongrass House store should have the same look as the original – a rustic-industrial arrangement of shipping containers and rugged wood.
When someone invests in a franchise, it's understandable that they often have their own ideas about how their new store should look so we have to be quite vigilant about that," said Bobby.
"Lemongrass oil itself is quite common in Thailand but you have to be careful you are getting the best quality. I've never understood why manufacturers put lower grade oils in different products. Our philosophy is to always use the best quality oil available," said Bobby.
Literally thousands of products fill the shelves at Lemongrass House in Bangtao. There is an abundance of sweet smelling flowers in Thailand that make excellent essential oils, supplied by more than 40 local producers. In the lab, bottles of pure essential oils line the shelves, ready to be blended by the in-house aromatherapists.
After a brief forray, Bobby returns cradling one of the most expensive oils in stock: Siam Magnolia, which requires thee tons of flowers to make just one kilogramme of oil and costs about US$35,000 – quite symbolic of the grassroots business that simply grew and grew.
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