When you walk off a bustling New York City street into one of the city’s three Sabon stores, it’s the heady smell that grabs you first.
It is only after you finish sniffing the intoxicating array of lavender, vanilla and apple scents that you notice the unique décor. There are huge multicolored mounds of soap on heavy wooden slabs facing you on the counter. The shelves lining the store are stocked with rows of creams, gels, moisturizers and other products in thick glass bottles.
In the center of it all is a big old-fashioned sink with sample products around you – soaps and salt scrubs, creams and lotions, together with a big wooden vat and a metal scoop are a pile of soap flakes, which are sold for use as soap, decoration, or are be wrapped in organza bags and sold as potpourri, to be put in closets or drawers to provide a pleasant aroma.
While the average customer figures that Sabon is probably the name of the store’s owner, those who speak Hebrew understand that ‘sabon’ means soap.
And there lies the hint – this rapidly growing skin-care products chain in the US is actually an American version of a successful Israeli chain called ‘Sabon Shel Pa’am’ – ‘Old-Fashioned Soap.’
The unique and successful concept is the brainchild of young entrepreneurs Avi Piatok and Sigal Kotler Levi. In addition to the New York stores and 31 shops in upscale Israeli shopping districts, Piatok and Levi, along with an American partner have also opened stores in Chicago, Los Angeles, and eight in Europe.
Sabon’s nostalgic twist stands out in places like New York, where most of the retail outlets aspire to look as sleek and modern as possible. The combination of the old and the new reflects the Sabon stores’ slogan: ‘We believe in delivering a message to the future while keeping the best of the past.’
All of the outlets look essentially identical and carry the same products that are developed and manufactured in the company’s facilities on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Piatok, an athletic 38-year-old in jeans, sunglasses and a navy blue polo shirt that matches his eyes, nurses a cappuccino in the café across the street from the flagship ‘Sabon Shel Pa’am’ on hip Sheinkin Street, his first location. He looks a lot more like the average dot.com entrepreneur than his business role model: Estee Lauder.
Indeed, he never dreamed he’d be in the feminine business of creams and lotions. “I was like any other little boy growing up. I wanted to be a pilot or a soccer player,” he told ISRAEL21c.
But as he grew older, his dreams turned to business success, he says. He’s made them come true, thanks to what he views as the most important qualities in any entrepreneur: “Hard work, persistence and desire.”
Initially, he hadn’t been sure in which direction to point his ambition. After completing his service in the Israeli army, he knew he wanted to open “some sort of store.”
“Originally, I was involved with other partners and was going to open a candle shop,” he recalls. “But then I saw a new trend – these natural soaps, created in big blocks and sold by the pound. And I saw many soap companies which were succeeding.”
He wasn’t a total stranger to soap. Growing up, he traveled a great deal with his parents and liked to collect soap samples from around the world, with different colors and smells.
To implement his new business idea, Piatok teamed up with a friend from high school, Sigal Kotler Levi. As soon as Kotler Levi completed her army service they turned to an Israeli manufacturer, and asked him, instead of making small bars of soap, to keep the soap in large blocks.
In 1997, they opened their first tiny soap-by-the-pound store on Sheinkin Street. Customers quickly learned that they couldn’t just walk in and pick up a bar of soap – they pointed to a slab of their chosen soap and had a piece of it cut off in the dimensions they specified. It was then weighed on a scale, wrapped up, and the price was calculated – just like buying fruit and vegetables at the grocer.
As the store succeeded, Piatok started developing other skin care and cosmetic products, which they began selling two years after opening their store. Their timing was perfect: it was a period when Israelis were returning from overseas loaded down with high-quality natural creams and gels from the Body Shop and their competitors because local equivalents were few and far between.
The concept of ‘old-style soap’ was a unique one, and they decided to make the niche their own and expand the design idea into their other products, choosing, for example, to sell their wares in reusable glass bottles instead of plastic.
“Since we started with selling soap by the pound, we decided to stay with the concept of being old-fashioned,” Piatok said.
From the beginning Piatok has been the primary force on the business side, while Kotler Levi -who is now 35 and married with two children – is responsible for the stores’ design concept, from the décor to the bottles. The chain thrived, and after they had opened 17 stores across Israel, he decided the time had come to look abroad.
Whereas once Israelis had brought Body Shop products home to Israel, now the traffic was going in the other direction.
“Many Israelis were sending presents from our company abroad. So when it became clear that there was an international demand for our products, we decided to expand and open branches overseas,” Piatok said.
Teaming up with partner Sharon Hasson, the company opened the first Sabon store in New York – their most recent shop just opened in Soho.
Even with a market full of Body Shops and their clones, Piatok says that Sabon is able to hold its own with a unique brand identity, based on their ‘old-style soap’ pitch.
“It is a special concept that we developed – and proof of its strength and success is that others are copying us,” he notes.
Piatok has no formal background in cosmetics and perfumery, but is self-taught and says that by now, his instincts serve him well. Working with his employees and consultants, he is in charge of deciding whether the store will smell like cinnamon, apple, or the latest line the chain has unveiled: Basil Lemon.
“New fragrances are generally created in England and in Provence, France. I travel there regularly and look for new scents,” he explains. While the stores carry the same products everywhere, he says that there are some national and cultural preferences that make some fragrances more popular in some countries.
“I find that New Yorkers are the most sophisticated in their choices,” he says. The ‘in’ smells right now, he says are lavender, apple, ginger, and orange (and soon, he hopes, Basil Lemon.)
The company is upfront about its Israeli identity and takes advantage of its production location by selling products based on Dead Sea minerals, salts and oils.
Piatok is all ambition: poised and ready to keep growing. He says that he doesn’t have a problem with running an international operation from his base in Israel.
“I have a big team here. I built it looking to the future. I would say that our infrastructure here will be able to handle as many as 50-70 stores. And we will have at least that many – there is great potential,” he says. “Our secret from the beginning has been doing what we believed in. Doing it our way and believing that it can sell everywhere.”
At this point, the appeal of Sabon is so apparent that most of his new overseas franchisees have approached him. He has also had inquiries from some multinational cosmetics giants and doesn’t rule out selling to one of them someday, although “I would prefer to become one of them.”