Alina Roytberg of Fresh: Building an Empire

How the founders of Fresh borrowed $10,000, created one bar of soap ... and eventually built an international company.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
January 08, 2013

Back in 1990, newlyweds Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg were sitting in a bar in Boston’s South End neighborhood when Glazman, owner of a commercial cleaning company, revealed a radical plan. He pointed to a store across the street and told Roytberg that he wanted to open a beauty market in that location.

This was an unconventional concept at the time—when beauty products were sold only in department stores, not freestanding boutiques. Even so, Roytberg, a fashion designer, was thrilled with the idea, partly because of her background. Like Glazman, she was an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, a place where the idea of beauty was all but obsolete. Both were fascinated by fragrance and wanted to create a store that sold natural products, a nod to their childhood days of using natural ingredients by necessity.

The store across the street from the bar serendipitously went out of business just six months later. Glazman and Roytberg, armed with $10,000 borrowed from family and friends, rented the space, named the store Fresh and stocked it with natural soaps and cosmetic products from Italy and France. Two years later, they relocated to Boston’s bustling Newbury Street and consumers came in droves.

Around that time, they made a bar of their own soap, wrapped it in nondescript craft paper and put it out on the store’s front table. The response was tremendous. For $7.50 (expensive for soap at the time), customers cleaned out the soap inventory in less than a month. This success inspired Glazman and Roytberg to create more of their own products, from shampoos to body scrubs to perfumes.

Today, Fresh is a household name. The company, now based in New York City, has a research and development office in Boston, 200 employees and 14 stores stateside, and a robust business in Asia. All products are natural and made in-house.

Katie Morell: Tell me about the early days of Fresh. How were you able to open a store with just $10,000?

Alina Roytberg: It sounds pretty crazy now, right? We borrowed the money and then asked an architect friend to renovate the space for us on the cheap. It's amazing that it worked. We only had enough money for the security deposit, the lease and to place a few orders.

The company's flagship store in New York City's Union Square. (Photo: fresh.com)

KM: How did you get funding to keep going?

AR: It was tough. As we grew, we continued to borrow money from people. We would borrow from Peter to pay Paul and Paul to pay Peter. By the time our daughter was born in 1993, we were in a pretty bad place. Our families were tapped out. We had to go to loan sharks.

KM: Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it?

AR: No, we always had faith. From the day we opened our first store, we had a good feeling about the business.

KM: How did your business change when you moved to Newbury Street?

AR: Well, we knew that we wanted to grow, but we didn’t have the money to move, so we had to take a partner. It was a private individual who liked what we were doing. With that money, we were able to open the Newbury Street location and then everything changed. We started creating more products, selling them wholesale—our first client was Barney’s—and exhibiting at shows in New York. We opened our first New York store in 1998 and by then, our stores were stocked almost entirely with Fresh products.

KM: Beyond your private investor, did you ever look for outside money?

AR: Yes. The first time a bank came into Fresh, to provide a credit line, was in 1998.

KM: What's next for you?

AR: We're looking to do more in Asia. We’ve been in Korea since 2003 and Hong Kong since 2005. Last year we took over the Asia business from a distributor, so it is Fresh Asia now, which is exciting.

KM: Could you share some secrets to creating a successful business with your spouse? I can’t imagine it’s easy.

AR: It’s actually been pretty great to work with Lev. Our trick has been to define our roles from the very first day. That way, we don’t get in each other’s way. It's great having a partner. There are days when you feel down and need support, but with a partner, one of you can always be strong for the other.

Meet more entrepreneurs in our Building an Empire series. 

Photo courtesy of Fresh

Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed