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When he decided not to shave during a Florida vacation last November, Roger Zerbe had no clue his whiskers would be the springboard into a new business.
“I just wanted to see how long I could stand it,” Roger told the Wausau Daily Herald (http://wdhne.ws/2c9BXcS ). He was referring to his facial hair. But the comment could also apply to his devotion to Northwoods Beard Co., the business that he and his longtime girlfriend, Dana Buehler, launched together in March. Since then, nearly all of their free time has been devoted to thinking about beards, talking about beards, producing and selling products for beards, and, in Roger’s case, continuing the cultivation of a beard.
Roger, 47, has a great beard. It’s got to be, of course, as it’s front and center in the Northwoods Beard Co. marketing strategy. The beard is red mixed liberally with gray, or vice versa, and falls a few inches below his chin. When he was manning the Northwoods Beard Co. booth at a recent Food Truck Thursday event on Wausau’s East Side, he wore a black T-shirt, black baseball cap (both sporting Northwoods Beard Co. logos) and white sunglasses. He looked like a short-shorn member of ZZ-Top, or a modern-day version of a Viking.
Dana and Roger have developed a line of more than 20 beard-related products. There are 10 versions of beard oils and balms. There are wooden beard combs. There is one version of mustache wax. There are a couple versions of T-shirts. They sell their products online, in person from a booth at arts and crafts events and Food Truck Thursday. And their products are in a few different stores, notably in Hayward and in Wisconsin Dells.
The business squarely scores on some hip trends. Roger and Dana use only natural products in their formulas. They play up the fact the products are made in Wisconsin, giving them a rugged-guy cache, while also tagging into the buy-local vibe. The Roger-designed logos spin off masculinely-centered themes of motorcycling, outdoor adventure, cycling, and retro style. Of course, there is the beard mania itself, a fashion trend that they hope won’t diminish anytime soon.
Look around, and you’re likely to see beards on a lot guys. We’re in Wisconsin, so it’s nothing new or uncommon. We’ve always had the lumberjack/farmer/hunter/fisherman vibe going on here because, well, a lot of us are lumberjacks, farmers, hunters and fishermen. But visit the trend-setting urban centers such as Los Angeles and New York, and you’ll see the craze manifest itself in beards of all shapes, sizes, colors and lengths, ranging in looks from deranged to meticulously groomed, Hercule Poirot-style.
It’s easy to get sucked into a beard vortex. Type in “beard trend” into an internet search engine and hundreds of advertisements, memes, blogs, photos pop up. Magazines such as GQ and Esquire have devoted pages of copy designed to help guys grow and trim beards.
In 2014, an associate research fellow for the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter in England named Alun Withey wrote a piece for the UK newspaper The Telegraph headlined: “The real reason why beards go in and out of fashion.”
Beards have been grown to exude manliness and sexual potency, instill fear in enemies and connote individuality, Withey said.
“How long this current beard trend will last, and indeed also what lies behind it, is difficult to say,” Withey wrote. “Perhaps masculinity is under threat now, from changing gender, sexual and emotional boundaries, and the pressures of modern life.”
Nor is it only a modern phenomenon. In his book 1861, about the beginning of the Civil War, author Adam Goodheart briefly veered into the subject of men’s beards.
“As early as 1844, one physician began inveighing against ‘woman faced men’ with their habit of ’emasculating (the) face with a razor,’ even suggesting that shaving caused diseases of the throat. At the time, this was still an eccentric opinion. By the following decade, however, talk of a `beard movement’ was sweeping the nation,” Goodheart wrote. “… (A)ntebellum beards bristled with political connotations. American newspapers reported that in Europe, beards were seen as `dangerous’ tokens of revolutionary nationalism, and claimed that the Austrian and Neapolitan monarchies even went so far as to ban them. In England, they were associated with the sudden burst of militarism at the time of the Crimean War. The phenomenon — like other European fashions — reached America slightly later, and the connotations of nationalism, militarism, and revolution traveled with it.”
Roger considered none of that when he started growing his beard, nor was he following any fashion trend beefed up by coastal hipsters. He liked the idea of seeing what a beard looked like on him. And it helped that growing a beard meant he didn’t have to shave day after day after day.
Dana says she has no strong emotions pro or con about beards. She does not want to tell Roger how he should look.
“After all, I don’t want him to tell me what I should do with my hair,” she said, with a laugh.
The modern beard mania grabbed Roger by his whiskers while he was thumbing through his Facebook feed. He came across an advertisement for a beard balm and was instantly intrigued. He clicked on the ad, and learned that the only way he could get that particular product was to order it.
“Well, I’m an impatient guy,” Roger said. “When I want something, I want it now.” So Dana and he jumped into a car and started driving to Wausau-area stores that stock hair-care products. They found not a dollop of beard balm, not single drop of beard oil. So they went home, and Dana went to work on an online search of her own.
Dana and Roger met at the State College of Beauty Culture in Wausau. He was aiming to become a barber, she a stylist. So they understood the concepts behind hair-care products and what they need to accomplish. Dana also is a chemist at heart, and she took some online recipes for beard balm, added some of her own expertise and started experimenting in the couple’s kitchen. She took meticulous notes on what worked and what didn’t. And ultimately she gave Roger some beard balm to try.
He liked it. He liked it a lot.
Roger was working in a factory at the time (he now works in a customer service position for UMR, the health insurance administration company). A lot of his colleagues there wore beards, and he started talking about Dana’s homemade beard balm. He took some samples in for them to try.
“They loved it,” Roger said. “They kept saying, `You should sell this.”’
Northwoods Beard Co. was born.
They don’t know how long the beard boom will last, nor do they know where the business will take them.
At this point, Northwoods basically pays for itself, Roger and Dana say. Dana still enjoys the meticulous production of their wares, and Roger likes talking to people about beards, and helping direct the marketing campaign for the company.
Would they like to make their livings exclusively off the company?
“Sure,” Roger said. “But we’ve got no expectations. We’ll just see what happens.”
Northwoods Beard Co. aside, Roger has no plans to shave his beard.
“I’ve got a lot of time invested in it,” he said, running his fingers through it. “I would like to get it trimmed a bit though, to give it some shape.”