Businesswoman returned to International Falls for family support and cheap rent

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – RaeAnne Conat was all energy as she rattled off an imposing to-do list from behind the counter of her store, Swanky Sweet Pea, on the main drag in International Falls. She sells bath products that resemble dessert items to shops all over the country and her counter was buried in frosted cupcakes that looked like they should be eaten rather than tossed into a bath.

Rethinking a Company Town

“Today and tomorrow we have to make 300 soap popsicles, 100 soap donuts and 200 layered soap bars,” she said.

Swanky Sweet Pea owner RaeAnne Conat (MPR News photo/Derek Montgomery)

Though Conat maintains this storefront downtown, decked in vibrant pink with thrift store furniture and hand-made labels, the vast majority of her business comes from places as far away as Boston and Germany. She ships to 20 or 30 locations every week during the holiday season,  no small feat from a city as remote as International Falls, which hugs the Canadian border in northern Minnesota.

“There is no way I would have moved back home and opened a business to rely on main street traffic,” she said. “There are more days of the week than not when nobody comes into the store.” When Conat was a kid growing up here, her mom ran a gift shop with candy across the street. “Downtown was hustling and bustling,” she remembers. “Now people drive right on by. I’m trying to get funding for a pink and white striped awning so people get in that mindset that, I know what’s there.”

Still, she managed to sell $160,000 worth of products wholesale last year. The business brings in more income from kids’ birthday parties, hosted in the store.

Conat's store, in downtown International Falls. (MPR photo/Derek Montgomery)

While Swanky Sweet Pea may not draw a lot of local shoppers, it has benefited from local support, especially from Koochiching Economic Development Authority Director Paul Nevanen and Jenny Herman of the local Small Business Development Center.

Both are part of a widespread effort to broaden the job base in International Falls, where the main employer has long been the Boise paper mill. The mill completed a round of layoffs in October that left 265 people out of work and was recently sold to a packaging company based in Illinois.

If Nevanen and Herman are to be successful in creating a more entrepreneurial culture here, they will need more people like Conat.

“When I got here, Paul and Jenny right away told the newspaper about me,” she said. “They did a two-page article on me coming to town.” Then, she said they nominated her for a Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award, given annually by the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Center for Economic Development. She won this year in the micro-entrepreneur category. “I never thought I would win it,” Conat said, with the kind of enthusiasm that makes you think there is no way she wouldn’t have won it.

It’s been almost two years since Conat returned to International Falls with her daughter, now eight, from Tacoma, Washington, where her husband is stationed at McChord Air Force base. He flies home for weeklong stretches once a month and has about a year left of service. Both graduated from the local high school in the late 1990s. “Like every other kid, I had to get out of here,” Conat said.

Strawberry skinny mini cupcake bath bombs at Swanky Sweet Pea. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

She started her bath products business while living in Washington, after being turned down for a retail job. Indignant, she decided to work for herself. After a few misfires, she came up with Swanky Sweet Pea, so named because her husband calls their daughter “sweet pea.”

She moved home in a hurry after getting her first big order from a woman in Boston and realizing she needed to quickly increase production. “I looked at my husband and I said, ‘I have to go back.’ I said, ‘We need a facility.’ I flew here on Thursday, rented a facility by the lake on Friday, set up on Saturday, and started the order on Sunday. I was not going to let this lady know I hadn’t done anything like this before. It was like, no problem. And then, holy cow.”

Conat, in the Swanky Sweet Pea basement, where many of her products are made. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

Back in International Falls, her family, including her mother-in-law, who is integral to the business, could provide more help. And rents are cheap. “I had to come here, where I already had people who knew the ropes,” Conat said. “It made more sense financially. In Tacoma, you are paying $1,200 a month for a facility at least.” In her current location, she pays $550, including utilities, which she calls, “Crazy.”

She also bought her “dream house,” an old place near downtown with a wrap-around porch. She painted the trim pink. “We wanted our daughter to grow up the same way we did in northern Minnesota,” Conat said. “To go to the woods and the lake and have grandparents around and family. That was our goal, so it made sense.”

Inside Swanky Sweet Pea, Conat showed off some of her newer merchandise, like old-fashioned candy and bacon-flavored toothpaste. She’s trying to draw more walk-in traffic. She picked up a packet of wrapping paper printed with images of raw hamburger and steak. She noted with a hint of wonder that the paper sold very well and she expects to see a lot of Christmas gifts this year that look like meat.

Some of the candy Conat now sells at Swanky Sweet Pea. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

Conat said others have moved back to International Falls to start businesses, especially among her cohort. She listed Hollie Bahr as an example, a local who moved away after high school but returned and started a massage therapy business in 2010 called Local Relief.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Conat said. “My friends and I love to get together for wine. We have all these ideas and are looking to work off each other. There is so much talent and so many little tiny businesses in this town that nobody knows about.”