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Viral videos spur sales success for Maui Babe

Locally made lotions in high demand after trend of backyard ‘quarantanning’ hits

Christina Park, Maui Babe CEO and president, shows some of the products made by the Wailuku business founded by her father, Joe Rossi. The company was selected to represent the state in the Made In America Product Showcase at the White House. The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photos

WAILUKU — A family-run suntan lotion company has seen a boost in business in the pandemic, thanks to a couple of social media videos that went viral as summer was approaching.

The TikTok backyard “quarantanning” videos showing girls applying Maui Babe’s Original Browning Lotion led to so much demand that stores were selling out of the product and the company’s website crashed from millions of views, said Christina Park, CEO and president of the business.

“It was crazy,” she said. “It kept us busy all summer because stores were closed, so the website took over. And it took care of us and a bunch of small businesses.

“We couldn’t get it out fast enough.”

The small business got more recognition when Maui Babe was selected to represent the state in the fourth Made In America Product Showcase at the White House.

Ramona Pullman, production manager at Maui Babe, uses a pump bucket run by a compressor to fill bottles with after sun lotion at the Wailuku business Thursday afternoon.

Park and her sister LeAndra Livingston, executive assistant for the business, had made plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for the event, which had been scheduled for today, before it was postponed when President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19.

Park said she had hoped to give the president some of the company’s signature Original Browning Lotion.

The sisters plan to attend when the event is rescheduled.

“We have been really blessed this year,” Park said.

It wasn’t what might have been expected in March, when nonessential businesses were closed in the COVID-19 crisis.

Maui Babe employee Jacqueline Pullman checks bottles of Original Browning Lotion, which is made and packaged at the business in Wailuku.

At first, Maui Babe kept its 10 to 12 workers employed while partnering with Hawaii Sea Spirits to make hand sanitizer for first responders and others in need, including homeless people and senior citizens.

“We got to take care of our kupuna,” Park said. “That kept us until we went viral.”

At one point, the company had trouble getting bottles for its lotions as hand sanitizer production ramped up across the country.

As the weeks went by and the pandemic continued, Park said she worried about her employees and went to the bank to talk about getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan for small businesses.

She was told a loan could help the company.

Corey Silva (left) and Shandon Pullman work the line producing bottles of Original Browning Lotion at Maui Babe in Wailuku.

“But I went home, started crying, got on my hands and knees and prayed,” she said. “The very next day, we went viral on TikTok.”

A week earlier, Park’s niece Alexia Alizna, who handles social media for the business, had created an account for Maui Babe on the TikTok social media platform for sharing short videos.

With people tanning in their backyards in the pandemic, girls in two Mainland states posted “backyard quarantanning” videos taken as they were putting on Maui Babe Original Browning Lotion. The videos happened to be posted about the same time.

“It started trending,” Park said.

After the videos went viral, 12 to 14 million people tried to get onto the company website, which crashed, she said.

With summer starting, employees were handpacking thousands of boxes a day, including “a lot of one-bottle orders” at its warehouse and production center at Mill and Lower Main streets in Wailuku, Park said.

“It was crazy, but it was the best crazy we could have ever dealt with,” she said.

While handling what orders it could, the company also referred shoppers to other businesses, including ABC Stores, boutiques and swimwear shops, that carry Maui Babe products.

“It helped a lot of other small businesses too because we couldn’t do it all,” Park said. “What a great opportunity.

“They were coming to the door buying it by the cases every couple of days. They would bring us desserts because they were so thankful they were able to still work.”

Maui Babe was founded by Park’s father, Joe Rossi, who had a wife and four children and was facing foreclosure when a United Airlines strike and the Gulf War affected his once profitable flower shops.

He went on the roof of the house to pray. Then he got the idea of making suntan lotion, mixing in local ingredients of kukui and macadamia nut oil and aloe, and deciding to add coffee.

He was the first to have coffee in an external suntan lotion, Park said. “People thought he was crazy.”

He passed out small bottles of his lotion, which he made at home, doing his “New York hustle” to persuade people to try it.

The company was established in 1996.

“Little by little, inch by inch, we became what we are today,” Park said. “We’re all over the world.

“Dubai, Australia — you name it, it’s gone there. They find us on the internet.”

After starting out making the lotion in his garage, Rossi ran the business in its current Wailuku location, also buying the property next door when an automotive company went out of business.

Rossi died five years ago from cancer. “But he left us with a really big blessing,” Park said.

Her mother, Judith Rossi, now owns the business that employs other family members and has grown to include nine products, all made on Maui except for a reef-safe sunscreen, which is made for the company in California.

Park created the Browning Lotion with coconut oil, as well as a coffee scrub using grinds that the company used to give away. The company also has a body butter, hydrating mist and after-sun skin care, adding one new product every two years.

“When I watch all these other small companies, it breaks my heart,” Park said. “It’s hard for me to say how well we did when other businesses are closing.

“We were able to complete our summer like it never hit us. We were very, very blessed and fortunate.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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