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WORKING : Fragrant Business Deal : Two mothers came up with the idea of marketing their aromatic homemade play dough. It washes out easily and does not stain.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: <i> Karen E. Klein is a Monrovia writer</i>

Diane Sidabras and Maryanne Gallagher were toying around in their kitchens last year when they hit on an idea for a children’s product they hope will bring them fame and fortune.

They created Aroma Dough--an all-natural, non-crumbly, fragrant play dough--out of frustration with crumbly, messy doughs and modeling clays. They began selling the dough at swap meets and craft fairs last summer, then moved on to toy stores and educational supply stores. Now, they send shipments as far as Guam, Alaska and Mexico, and recently sent the product to 125 Natural Wonders stores nationwide. The Price Club discount warehouses have allowed them to demonstrate and sell Aroma Dough at booths in the stores.

“Every once in a while, you start to get disillusioned and you think, ‘Is this ever going to work?’ But then a mom who has seen the product demonstrated will call up and say how much they love it and how much they support us. That really feels great,” said Gallagher, 35.

Because they hated cleaning up commercial children’s doughs (Sidabras used to joke that when she wanted to get even with someone, all she had to do was give that person’s child a stick of modeling clay or can of play dough), the women routinely cooked up their own homemade dough when their children got together to play.

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The two were mixing up a batch of the flour-and-salt goop one day when they decided to add some fragrance. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is great!’ ” said Sidabras, 34.

They experimented with ingredients until the dough, with its pliable texture and bubble gum, orange, lime and berry fragrances, was a hit with their kids. And because it does not stain and washes out easily, they said it quickly became popular with other mothers in their play group.

The feedback was so positive that they formed De & Me & Co. and decided to sell the product.

Two mothers who dream up an idea for a new toy is not that unusual, said Bob Hawkes, executive director of the Santa Clarita Valley Small Business Center. The partners have gotten free consulting from Hawkes, whose nonprofit center is funded by the city of Santa Clarita and the Newhall Land & Farming Co. to provide resources, education and advice to small business owners.

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“A lot of people have ideas. But these two are unique because they’ve taken a good idea and worked really hard to make it go forward,” Hawkes said. “They’re both intelligent and very aggressive. They’re determined to do what they need to make this succeed.”

What makes Sidabras and Gallagher’s work so far especially admirable, Hawkes said, is that they have found a niche in the well-established, extremely competitive toy industry.

Sidabras was in public relations and marketing before she became a full-time mother to her two boys, Troy, 5, and Trent, 3. Gallagher quit her job as a buyer in a teaching hospital in 1989 to stay home with Kaitlin, 5, and Peter, 3. The two met at a community pool in Valencia and became fast friends when their children hit it off.

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Working out of Gallagher’s kitchen and garage while their children were in preschool, the women cooked up large batches of Aroma Dough and began taking it to craft fairs and swap meets. They set up eye-catching booths with low tables that allowed children to play with samples and adults to test it. They talked it up, handed out brochures, and demonstrated it for the people who started buying it.

Their husbands initially were lukewarm to the idea, but that did not deter the women. “We realized that males are not the ones who have to clean (dough) up off the carpet,” Sidabras said.

Since last summer, they leased 1,000 square feet in a Sylmar warehouse for making industrial-sized batches of the dough, packaging it in tubs with plastic cookie-cutters and shipping it.

Whenever they can, they hire other mothers to work in their plant and demonstrate the dough at stores and shopping malls around the country.

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The two women jointly employ another mother to supervise their preschoolers three afternoons a week, and their husbands frequently find themselves in charge on the weekends.

Financially, Aroma Dough is just about breaking even, Sidabras said. She and Gallagher each invested $3,500 to buy equipment, labels and packaging when the project got off the ground, she said, and since then, everything they have earned has gone into expansion. They project gross sales of $350,000 for 1993, and recently engaged sales representatives who are trying to get Aroma Dough into more stores before Christmas and into some 1994 toy catalogues.

“We have a couple other ideas in the works, but we’re so busy now with Aroma Dough, they would probably never get off the ground,” Sidabras said.

WHERE TO GO

What: Aroma Dough made by De & Me & Co., Suite 5125, 23120 W. Lyons Ave., Newhall 91321.

Call: (800) 959-1944.


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