Local organic mattress manufacturer hits the national market.
Michael Penny worked for Atlantic Futon, a Charlottesville mattress and bed store, for several years before he set out on his own and opened The Savvy Sleeper in Ivy Commons in 2003. From humble beginnings in what was once a motel room—Savvy Rest, Inc. now occupies several connected rooms—the company has grown meteorically and now uses 20,000 square feet and three loading docks in Crozet’s old ConAgra freezer building as its warehouse and shipping base. It turns out there is a great demand for an organic mattress, one that is not going to provoke allergic reactions, can be set up in individualized firmness levels, and is more portable than a traditional mattress.
Penny started out as essentially a Tempurpedic dealer. In those days, his wife Heather, who owned Fabulous Foods, a natural food store in downtown Crozet that has since closed, developed a headache that seemed to be worse when she woke up. Hmmm.
“A lot of people came in [the store] looking for an all natural latex mattress,” Michael Penny recalled. “I didn’t have it and I couldn’t find one being made. You could find ‘natural’ that felt like lying on rocks and soft that was all synthetic, so I set out to make it both natural and comfortable.
“A defining moment was when Heather and I had been sleeping on a Tempurpedic we loved, but she developed headaches. So she found a ‘natural’ pillow and the first day she woke up and said, ‘I can breathe better.’ That’s when it hit me in the face. We don’t know what the chemicals in the mattress are doing. So we got rid of it and over time the headaches cleared up.
“Most people will never experience symptoms as a direct result of sleeping on a synthetic mattress,” Penny said. “At some point most people experience symptoms, but they don’t know what caused them. So, to me, it’s safer to be with something for that one-third of my life that’s all natural. The conventional mattress industry says that all those chemicals used as fire retardants are safe. We don’t think about our mattress because we are not conscious of it while we are asleep. Would you leave your hand in a can of oil for eight hours? Many people have multiple chemical sensitivity. We give people samples so they can test it.
“We are pip-squeaks in the mattress industry. We don’t register with them. We are for sure on the radar of the organic mattress manufacturers, so people are trying to copy us. I say they can copy what we do, but not us.”
The Savvy Rest mattress is also on the leading edge of the sustainable products movement because a latex mattress will biodegrade. “Only the brass zipper would take a while,” said Penny.
He says the company’s buzzwords are: comfortable, durable, customized, all natural, and from fair trade labor.
Savvy Rest moved into one third of the 60,000 square-foot ConAgra freezer space, partitioned off from MusicToday operations, in 2008. On the east wall the sturdy pipe racks that once held pallets of frozen food two stories high were left standing, but the racks across the rest of the floor were cut out to allow for storage of rough-cut latex.
Penny orders about two shipping containers of latex, landed at Norfolk from India, every month. Last year he received 26 containers. Each has about 200 pieces of latex in it.
“When we started, I needed credit. I couldn’t come up with $30,000 [for a container load]. They had never extended credit, but the rep liked me. I had been in a yoga community and I knew a lot about things he was talking about.”
The foam pads, each about 3 inches thick, come in firm, medium and soft densities and in rough twin, full, queen, king, and California king (4 inches narrower and four inches longer than a regular king) dimensions.
The density, softness, is rated by the weight of the latex per cubic meter. The more latex, the softer the it feels,” Penny explained. “It’s how you stack them up that creates the amount of firmness. Three layers is the most popular. From two to fours layers is usual. You can assemble any combination. There are as many as 2,000 possible combinations, but there are 10 to 15 that most people choose.”
The mattresses lie on foundations—“Slatted surfaces that don’t give,” Penny explained—rather than box springs. “The idea of having softness on top started with water beds in the 1970s. Before that mattresses were hard and it was the box springs that gave the give. We designed our own foundations. It’s not self-supporting. They are meant to fit in a bed.” The company also sells an adjustable bed that allows the head or feet to be raised or lowered.
There are two kinds of latex, known by the processes that produce them. One is Dunlop, made since 1929. In that process, latex is poured into molds with ranks of pins in them—the number of pins creates the degree of softness—and heated at low temperature. After 45 minutes the piece is removed from the mold, dried, and then rinsed five times.
“Rinsing takes out the proteins and that is what people are typically allergic to,” Penny said.
In the Talalay process, developed by a Connecticut company, Latex International, in the 1950s, latex is poured into a mold, which is then covered, sealed and vacuumed. The vacuum draws the latex throughout the mold and means that less latex is needed to make the pad.
“The Talalay feels softer than the Dunlop,” said Penny. “But you can mix them. Dunlop on bottom and Talalay on top makes pretty nice mattress.”
Waste from trimming is being ground up and this year Penny will begin selling dog beds with latex filling.
Mattresses go in what Penny calls a casing. “This is everything,” he explained. “The U.S. has a number of requirements about selling a mattress. One is having a label, another is passing a fire test three times. A gas burner is set on top of the mattress and one along side and the mattress can’t ignite for 30 minutes. They say that fire safety requirements are saving about 200 people a year from being burned up in their beds,” Penny said.
The casings are made to Savvy Rest’s specifications in High Point, North Carolina, long famous as a seat of the furniture and mattress industry. Penny buys all the components needed for assembly. The casing is made of organic wool, certified by labs in the U.S. and Germany, and organic cotton.
People like the mattresses, so business is growing. “Until 2008 we grew incredibly well,” Penny said. “It was unbelievable. I would say to myself, ‘This happened through me?’ From then until October 09, it was sort of even. We expect to grow 20 percent in 2010. We can do that without straining our resources.” In 2008 he had 35 dealers carrying his mattresses and he added another 20 or so last year. He now has 14 employees; 9 are in the warehouse.
Penny does profit-sharing with his employees and gave out Christmas bonuses this year.
He lived as a yoga renunciate for 20 years, a lifestyle he compared to a monk’s. “To suddenly own possessions and a thriving business is other-worldly, meaning surreal, to me. You go where the universe wants you to go, and you ask yourself, ‘How am I being guided today?’ I don’t always like it. You have to be open. It’s a challenge, but you have to apply passion in a dispassionate way.”
These days, he’s tracking his guidance pretty successfully.