Entrepreneur Sara Lee Goff sells safe-and-funky sex in the city, suburbs

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from www.dallasnews.com – Sara Lee Goff is considered a giant in the romance industry. Now she has a trophy to prove it.

Last week in Las Vegas, the 67-year-old grandmother and founder of Condoms To Go was proclaimed a pioneer at the International Lingerie Show for daring to venture into a business that even brave men wouldn’t tread 20 years ago.

That’s when Goff opened her first condom shop at Greenville Avenue and Lovers Lane.

“I was in landscaping and had a lot of friends who were dying of AIDS,” says Goff at her newest “romance boutique” in Far North Dallas. “People like me were divorcing and getting back into the dating scene. I figured if there was some way of promoting the use of condoms — otherwise you had to go to the filling station or have some embarrassing encounter at the drugstore — it would save some deaths.”

If you wanted to add a little vibrancy to your sex life in those days, she says, you had to sneak into the red-light district of Harry Hines Boulevard to pick up some cheesy product.

Today, Goff is owner and chief executive of Richardson-based Lexus Group Inc., a highly profitable chain of 15 stores in North Texas operating under the names Condoms To Go, Sara’s Secret and a new leather-and-fetish concept, VerLes, which is more hard core.

“When Sara Lee started out, this [business] was really taboo,” says Carmen Mortazavi, the vice president of ID Lubricants who was in Vegas to honor her friend and customer. “It’s more acceptable and mainstream now. We’ve been able to go into the pharmacy and grocery stores that carry toys and lubricants. She was a pioneer, not just for the time, but for the state that she lives in.”

Goff has never posted a down year. Revenue in 2011 was $8 million with double-digit profits. She expects 2012 sales to be $9 million-plus.

“Romance is like liquor. It sells,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the economy is.”

Goff’s bright-and-cheery shops look a lot like a Sally Beauty until you examine the bottles, boxes and packages on the shelves and walls. The intimate paraphernalia comes in every shape, color and speed.

“Whatever is on Sex in the City, Oprah, Dr. Oz or in a movie, we’ll tell our buyer, ‘Get this in immediately,’” Goff says as she picks up a $156.99 remote-controlled vibrator featured recently on Dr. Oz. “These are flying off the shelves. Products are much more higher-end. Everyone wants perfection.”

I try to look cool and unfazed.

Condoms To Go has always been a slight misnomer. Goff sells nearly 200 varieties of FDA-approved condoms — a half-million of them last year — but there’s no way she could pay the rent just selling condoms. The name was also a lightning rod for trouble as she tried to expand into the suburbs. “Once we switched to Sara’s Secret, we didn’t have the issues,” she says.

Toys account for 65 percent of sales, followed by lingerie at 15 percent. Novelties run from the relatively tame — cake pans in the shape of body parts and groom voodoo dolls — to unmentionables in a family newspaper.

Valentine’s Day is by far the biggest holiday, followed by weddings (and all those bachelorette parties) in May, June and July. After that, there’s Halloween and Christmas. Forget Mother’s Day.

Her clientele is predominantly women and couples. Less than 10 percent are lone males, who mostly come in for herbal performance pills and lingerie for their partners.

Goff is a serious businesswoman who doesn’t take business too seriously, says Gary Krupkin, who took down his law shingle to work full time for his client as her second in command four years ago. He recalls how they came up with a new corporate name in 2006. His dog, Lexus, jumped into his lap. “I said, ‘What about Lexus?’ and she said, ‘OK.’ And that was that.”

“You would think that a lot of people involved in this industry have horns and hold pitchforks,” he says. “But these are some of the most gracious and honest people who I’ve ever dealt with. Sara Lee’s integrity is unquestioned.”

Her Texas earthiness comes from having grown up in a Catholic family of four in Henrietta, where her father was a rancher.

She planned to become a teacher but got married her junior year at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) and dropped out to put her husband through school.

When they divorced in 1980, she opened a residential landscape design company in Plano, sold it seven years later and went to work for North Haven Gardens in Dallas.

In 1991, she told her son, a sophomore at North Texas, and her daughter, a junior at Plano Senior High School, that she was ready to start dating. “My son said, ‘Mother, if you’re going to be promiscuous, you need to be safe,’” Goff recalls with a laugh. “So he gave me this gag gift — a ‘safe-sex kit’ — for Christmas. It was hilarious. It had a feather, a condom and a magnifying glass to see the guy.”

The joke spurred her into serious action. “I thought, ‘I’d better get this thing going because I have two kids to put through college,’” Goff says. “I called my college roommate in Florida, flew to Fort Lauderdale and said, ‘Take me to sex shops.’ She was a teacher and wouldn’t even get out of the car. I would talk with the people — I wasn’t a threat to them because I was from a different state. I came back, wrote my business plan and opened my store three months later. That’s how I operate.”

Goff continued to work full time at North Haven while manning her store at night and on the weekends. First-year sales were $75,000.

Three years later, Goff picked Carrollton for her second location — an honor that city officials didn’t sidle up to. Six months after giving her a certificate of occupancy, Carrollton filed criminal charges against her, saying the condom shop was really a sexually oriented business. She hired Krupkin to fight back. In less than 10 minutes, the municipal court jury ruled in her favor.

That verdict served as leverage with other North Texas cities, says Krupkin, now the company’s senior vice president running the day-to-day operations. A federal appellate court ruling in 2008 opened up sales of intimate devices in Texas, enabling the stores to expand their offerings.

In addition to seven stores in Dallas, Goff has stores in eight North Texas cities: Carrollton, Corsicana, DeSoto, Frisco, Kaufman, Lewisville, McKinney and Plano.

‘Dark side of romance’

Her latest fantasy island at Preston Road and LBJ Freeway has a split personality. A softer Sara’s Secret side is paired with a “dark side of romance” called VerLes — an Americanized version of the German word verlies, meaning dungeon.

Frankly, Goff’s not all that comfortable with the concept, which features leather and latex clothing, chains and collars, and outrageous boots and high-heel shoes that Abby Sciuto might wear on CBS’ NCIS. There are restraints and other kinky implements that Goff doesn’t plan to do personal product research on.

But her buyer thinks it’s an ignored niche, and Goff is willing to give it an 18-month trial. If it fails, she’ll just ease Sara’s Secret into the space.

Asked if she tries out products on the Sara’s Secret side, Goff says that’s like asking a car dealer if she does test drives.

“I think I’ve seen everything, but then I go to a show like the one in Vegas, and I realize I haven’t,” she says. “There were several really neat things out for women — especially older women. I was amazed.”

Somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to ask her what those eye-opening products were.

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