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Chad Ekstrom (left) gives away diaper tote bags while his wife, Julie, holds a drawing for free diapers for customers of Little Neetchers in West Duluth on Tuesday. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Bottoms up for Esko natives who launched cloth diaper business

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Duluth News Tribune
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Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

By the time Chad and Julie Ekstrom and three of their five young children pulled up alongside Little Neetchers on Grand Avenue on Tuesday, there were already several women and children rummaging around inside the store.

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Some were still pregnant. Many parents were carrying their infant children in a variety of wraps and carriers — they describe themselves as “baby wearers.”

The patrons and their papooses were all there for a free cloth diaper, and to meet the Ekstroms, whose company, Kangacare, is helping to revive the practice of cloth diapering.

“We tested 70 different brands of cloth diapers on our four kids,” said store owner Joshua Herbert, “and Rumparooz made the cut.”

Rumparooz is the name of the best-selling cloth diaper that launched the Ekstroms’ company. It’s been a wild ride from their first cloth diaper to opening manufacturing facilities in China.

This week, they’ll relax and enjoy the Fourth of July holiday near Chad’s hometown of Esko. Their company is located in Golden, Colo., where they have a showroom, a warehouse … and a paucity of fireworks due to the high threat of wildfires.

“After last year, I said, ‘We’re going to Duluth for the Fourth of July,’ ” said Chad, a 1996 graduate of Esko High School.

Coming home via Winnebago emblazoned with the “Kangacare” logo allows the family to stop in at the boutiques and other alternative shops along the way that have been partly responsible for their company’s rise.

At Little Neetchers, they gave away the roughly $25 cloth diapers to every customer in the store. Chad thanked the people for supporting cloth diapers and Little Neetchers for supporting the product line. At every opportunity, Chad gave credit to his wife, whose revolutionary “inner gusset” is the patented technology that distinguishes their product and contains a baby’s messes. Think of the gusset as another, inner line of defense in addition to the outer elastic that clings to the baby’s legs.

“They’re pretty bulletproof,” Julie said.

The Ekstroms met in Colorado shortly after Chad graduated from Concordia College. He was a cook and she was a server at a restaurant. They fell in love, had kids and he went to work building a career at Wells Fargo, while she stayed at home to raise children.

It was their second child, Autumn, who spurred their now worldwide business. Her bottom was stricken with a nasty skin reaction doctors couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t a yeast infection. It wasn’t impetigo. Finally a doctor suggested using cloth diapers.

“ ‘No, you’re joking,’ I said,” Chad recalled. “I had the same stigma in my mind: no one uses cloth diapers anymore.”

But they listened and their daughter was healthy within a matter of days.

The couple soon found they didn’t like the cloth options that existed. They leaked out the sides. Julie thought, “I could do this,” and started making her own.

“Her dad tells me she’s always been like that,” Chad said of his wife’s penchant for sufficiency and innovation.

Her friends saw the diapers and wanted them. And then friends of friends wanted them. Soon, she was selling them on the internet.

“She sewed the first thousand by hand,” Chad said, still admiringly. “I’d come home from my nine-to-five and cut and sew. We’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning.”

The company took off. They’re now manufacturing in China, where the couple vetted factories to make sure they avoided sweatshop conditions and found a place with Swiss Accreditation.

Things are going so well, the company is talking with big box stores about mainstreaming the product. Chad quit his job with Wells Fargo a year ago — after 11 years on the job.

Embraced by the “baby wearers,” the Ekstroms are now a far cry from the days when Julie was considering starting a day care.

“It’s better for the babies’ bottoms,” said Jessica Forsman, one of the women who received a free cloth diaper. “You’re doing something good for the environment, too. Washing them is no problem.”

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