N is for Natural @ Nat & Helens in Chicago

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by Meg Bartholomy of Olliegraphic

I live in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  I love it here.  The neighborhood has everything I need; a movie theater, a cheese shop, a friendly coffee place (with free wi-fi) and lots of great restaurants, all within walking distance.   Lakeview is also home to several charming specialty shops, such as Nat & Helens.  I popped in this little storefront one day for a birthday gift and fell in love with the products and philosophy.

Nat & Helens offers high quality, high style organic and sustainable baby clothes, toys, eco-friendly baby products that we can all feel good about.  The business only buys organic, sustainable, or eco-friendly baby products made in the United States or in fair trade factories around the world. To give back to the community, a portion of Nat & Helens’ yearly profits go to charities supporting children and the environment.

When I learned this month’s theme “Handmade Here” at OMHG, I knew I wanted to feature this little shop.  Owner Mandi Altepeter shared a little bit about her background, passions and business.

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Tell us a bit about yourself and about Nat & Helen’s.

My background is in fashion design, but it’s always been my dream to open my own store. When I finally decided to take the plunge and quit my job in order to pursue starting my own business, I decided to focus on organic goods because the organic industry is something that I’m extremely passionate about (and I knew I would need my passion to sustain me through the long hours and sleepless nights). When I first started Nat & Helens, there weren’t a lot of cool, hip and modern organic stores for kids so I thought it was a good place to start. Now, Nat & Helens carries organic and eco-friendly baby and toddler clothing, wooden toys, organic personal care products, and BPA-free, glass, and stainless steel bottles and food storage.

How did you choose Chicago (and the Lakeview neighborhood) as the home for your storefront?

Well, it’s where I live, first of all. I love being able to walk to work and really getting to know my neighbors. It was also one of the few neighborhoods without a local kids shop already there.

How did you come to the decision to maintain both a physical storefront and an online shop?  Which came first?   What has been the most challenging aspect to each?  The most surprising?  Most rewarding?

I started the online store in 2006 and opened the storefront in 2009. I’ve found that local customers check out the website first, but still like to come in the store to see things in person. The best thing about having a physical storefront is being able to interact directly with the customers. I have regulars who come in whom I’ve really gotten to know. From a business standpoint, it’s also great to be able to see what people respond to immediately, what they pick up, and how they relate to the items in the shop. It’s much harder to get feedback about products online.

What is a typical day like at Nat & Helen’s?

Between emails, helping customers, researching new products, inventory, merchandising, accounting, payroll… there’s really not a “typical” day here!

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What challenges do you face as a business owner committed to organic and sustainable practices?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the decisions you have to make on a daily basis. What kind of shopping bags and gift wrap should I use? What to do with all of the packaging waste that new products get wrapped in? Should I turn my heat up a few degrees? I research all of the options out there and try to make the best decisions that I can and realize that it’s an evolving task.

Do you work with any local artists?   Do you think the current trend towards eating local and/or organic affected your customers’ buying practices when it comes to children’s goods?

I carry a few local lines of clothing and am constantly looking for new ones! I definitely think that as people become more aware of the benefits of eating and buying local and organic, they translate that to other aspects of their lives. People also seem to be much more conscious of what their kids are putting in their mouths (and it’s not just food) then they are for themselves.

What are your plans for Nat & Helen’s in the future?  Are there any new projects/products/storefronts in the works?

I have a few new designs that I’m working on now, some new t-shirts and items made from recycled fabrics. I’m really excited about them!

To learn more, check out the Nat & Helen’s website www.natandhelens.com or visit Mandi in person at 3125 N. Broadway in Chicago.  You can also find Nat & Helens on Twitter and Facebook.

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