It’s an amazing bows-to-riches tale that started with a $90 investment.
You can find Bardel’s bows on the furry heads of poodles, terriers and cocker spaniels in all 50 states and four continents. Bardel’s bow-makers fold and loop together some 30,000 bows a week. They ship out more than 1 million a year in a city known more for Bluebird buses and peach orchards.
Delise and Paul Knight don’t even own a dog. They have two cats. But they are the answer to a trivia question. In the spring of 1994, Delise coated their white standard male poodle, Tedi, with a nontoxic pastel chalk and unofficially introduced the first pink poodle at the Cherry Blossom Festival.
They weren’t really looking to move to Fort Valley 20 years ago this September. They had been married for two years and had recently remodeled their home in Macon.
That changed when they went for a Sunday afternoon drive and spotted a “For Sale” sign in front of the historic home and farm property on Taylors Mill Road. It was named Pineola after some of the oldest long-leaf pines in the county.
Delise, the dreamer, was ready to move right in. Paul, the pragmatic, was slower to warm to the idea.
The first chapter of the bow story began in 1982. Delise was a dog groomer and owned a pet store at Hatcher Square Mall in Milledgeville. When Walmart opened and began to undersell her store, she moved across the street to Old Capitol Square. She hired a young lady who had just graduated from vet school and had a mobile unit but was looking for a bricks-and-mortar place to land.
Delise called it “Pet Plus,” the early definition of one-stop shopping. In 1986, The Telegraph published a story about it that was picked up by The Associated Press and carried in newspapers all over the country. (Delise isn’t certain it was a 100 percent original concept but likes to think she was PetSmart before there was a PetSmart.)
“I was a groomer, and dogs that went out of the shop always had to have bows in their hair,” she said. “I made all the bows. I had five girls who worked for me and none of them knew how to make a bow. I realized my time was more valuable doing other things than making those little bows.”
At the time, there were only two companies in the U.S. that made dog hair bows, and Delise was not impressed with the quality of either. One night, sitting at her mother’s dining room table, she suggested they open their own dog bow business.
Although Barbara thought it was a “silly idea,” she called the next morning and gave her daughter the green light. They got “Bardel” from the first three letters of Barbara’s name and the first three letters of Delise’s name.
They spent $90 on ribbon, packing envelopes and printing their price list. In the days before the internet became a household word, the mother-and-daughter team used the old-fashioned approach of knocking on doors. Barbara went to the Washington Library and researched the Yellow Pages to find every dog groomer within a 150- to 200-mile radius.
“We came home, addressed envelopes and put bows in every one of them with our price list and telephone number,” Delise said.
Barbara Chapman died in 1993, so she never got to see the company experience its growth.
“She would be absolutely tickled and absolutely amazed,” Delise said. “I know I am.”
Bardel now employs 33 bow makers, four office workers and hires two college students in the summer to help keep pace with demand. The Knights go to several trade shows every year. They recently attended a show in Tacoma, Wash., before flying across the country to another in New York.
They usually take four employees with them to a huge, annual trade show in Hershey, Pa. “We write a ticket every three minutes for three solid days,” Delise said,
She credits her husband’s computer skills and on-line marketing savvy for taking the company to another level.
Bardel is known as a “cottage industry,” since the bow makers work out of their homes. And Bardel’s home office has literally been a 600 square-foot cottage.
The move is a short one, just a few steps across the back yard at the edge of a pecan grove. The restored cotton barn was brought over from across the road, and the Knights have been using it for wedding receptions and other events. With two floors and 4,200 square feet, Bardel will now have plenty of leg room.
“We feel like Bardel has now found its ‘forever’ home,” Delise said. “We have always dreamed and hope it would be able to support this barn and building.”
Seven of their nieces will cut the ribbon at 3:30 p.m. One of them, Alexandra Chapman, designed the company’s logo eight years ago, when she was 9 years old.
Delise laughs about having an unlimited supply of ribbon for the ribbon cutting.
“You can rest assured there will be a big bow in the middle of it,” she said.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.