Westby, Wisconsin — For years, Sue Kastensen traveled from town to town in an orange Volkswagen bus, selling homemade lip balm in parking-lot bazaars outside Grateful Dead concerts.
She traces the birth of her business back to 1982, when she took an ethno-botany class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, the salve supported Kastensen, her two children and their travels.
But for her and many others, that lifestyle ended in 1996 when Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia died. Gone are the fans who sold toast-on-a-stick, tie-dyed T-shirts and free hugs.
But life after the Dead has been kind to Kastensen.
Now she’s 37 and the CEO of Sun Dog, her own business based in Westby. She manages nine employees while sitting on a large plastic exercise ball in an office adorned with batik fabrics and, of course, a portrait of a bearded and bleary-eyed Garcia.
The product? Hemp oil body products ranging from soaps and lotions to “Sue’s Amazing Lip Stuff.”
“I didn’t mean to become a manufacturer,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘What am I doing here?”
She traces the birth of her business back to 1982, when she took an ethno-botany class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She said she studied with a mushroom expert and learned to make healing solutions and other medicines from plants.
That’s when she honed her first recipe for homemade lip balm, using oil, wax and peppermint.
“I started making it for my friends and family. I would make it and give it away,” she said. “People started asking for it, and I thought, ‘Maybe this would be a product.”
Soon she was selling “Sue’s Amazing Lip Stuff” out of her home, and later her salve made its way to the shelves of local food co-ops. When the business took off, she was told she would have to find a distributor.
These days, Sun Dog’s manufacturing plant in Vernon County churns out $500,000 a year in hemp oil products, which two distributors send to health food stores and gift shops throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
After a few years on the road with their mother, Kastensen’s children — Alex, now 17, and Natalie, 16 — are students at Westby High School.
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