As a business owner, oral therapist and tooth fairy, Stephanie Roper runs two Queensland practices that are unlike any other dental clinic in Australia. By Frank Leggett
When Stephanie Roper opened her practice in 2004, she was the first oral therapist in Queensland to own a dental practice. Prior to 2003, the opportunity was only available to dentists or those with a provider number. However, when a legislation change opened the doors to oral therapists, hygienists and non-dentists to become business owners, Roper jumped at the chance.
“I was scrutinised by everyone on the dental board,” says Roper, who prefers to be addressed as Fairy Steph. “I think they were a bit uncertain about a tooth fairy-themed practice but everything we did was legit and above board. Personally, I never had a doubt that we would be successful. As a child, I had a bad dental experience, so my dream was to be a tooth fairy for children.”
Unfortunately, after leaving high school, Roper couldn’t afford to complete a dental degree so she undertook dental therapy at Yeronga Dental Therapist Training Centre, just south of Brisbane’s CBD. She worked as a dental therapist for a few years in Australia and then went to work as a dental hygienist in Switzerland. On return home in 1996, she upgraded her qualifications to become an oral health therapist. Her dream to open a dental practice specifically designed for children became a reality in 2004.
With a clear vision and understanding that her own practice would be unlike any other dental clinic in Australia, Roper went ahead and set up Tooth Fairy & Co in the regional town of Thornlands. Creating a brand new practice is expensive and risky, and Roper was gambling that her fairy-themed clinic would be successful.
“Everything was designed and in place before we opened our doors,” she says. “There were murals on the walls, a fairy forest, dimmed lighting and a whole non-dental atmosphere. I was dressed as a tooth fairy and had the most wonderful dental assistant as a second costumed fairy. We wanted the experience for our child patients to be as far removed from a typical dental practice as possible.”
What she didn’t expect was the volume of referrals from other local dentists. “The nearby dentists didn’t really want to spend the time with children,” she says. “They’d suggest to patients that they go and see the tooth fairy and the parents did. After the children’s appointment, many of the parents asked if we also treated adults and of course, we do. Initially, our clients were 80 per cent children but now it’s probably a 60/40 split.”
While it was a huge advantage having a real, live tooth fairy on the premises, that’s simply not enough to grow a business. It’s about how the children are treated and their experience in the clinic. It’s about the interaction with parents and the professionalism of the team. It’s about outstanding results in a fun environment. “Putting on a fairy dress and tiara is not going to help these kids if you haven’t got the right passion,” says Roper. “And passion has always been my gift.”
The other issue Roper faced when setting up the practice was a resistance to the concept from prospective dentist employees. There was opposition and mocking of her fairy motif.
“A lot of male dentists were very dismissive,” she recalls. “They thought the whole idea was a joke and refused to even consider working in a tooth fairy clinic. I take my hat off to the first dentist to come on board—Dr Sonya Tran, a young mum and a beautiful person. She absolutely loved the concept. Once she was involved, the other dentists were a little easier to convince.”
Today, the Thornlands practice consists of six chairs with eight dentists, five oral therapists, two fairy rooms, four tooth fairies and one Captain Canine, an orthodontist and periodontist. It’s a busy, vibrant clinic that not only achieved all the goals Roper had envisaged but also successfully reinvented Roper as Tooth Fairy Steph. Before too long, it was time to expand.
Opening in March this year, the Ormiston branch of Tooth Fairy & Co is a glam, sparkling dental practice. It’s a state-of-the-art facility that looks like it’s been encrusted with Swarovski crystals. This isn’t just a fashion statement—it’s in keeping with the tooth fairy philosophy of making the practice not look like a dental clinic.
There’s a decorative fairy mural on the wall and fibre-optic fairy lights that twinkle and shimmer. There is a dedicated fairy room and fairy music is streamed throughout the practice. Roper and her husband, Barry, also make their own scented candles and branded comfort teddy bears.
“Sight, sound and touch are very important for our special-needs kids,” says Roper. “Our products are available for families to purchase before or after their treatments.”
While kids make up 75 per cent of its clientele, adult patients are treated in a massaging and heated dental chair. During its opening week, Roper ran a tooth fairy day and was booked from 8am to 7pm. The surprising thing is that the vast majority of appointments were all new patients.
A particular passion of Roper’s is to address the dental health of special-needs children. These young patients need an environment that is safe with low lighting and an understanding staff. When the tooth fairy is present—well, that’s just the icing on the cake!
“We’ve hardly done any advertising,” says Roper. “I just started telling patients that we are set up to deal with special-needs children. I also visited special-needs schools to do some little shows as the tooth fairy. We had so many children during the first week that I knew the word was already out there.”
Roper plans to initiate Tooth Fairy Mondays for these children who visit in small groups. Along with her tooth fairy dental assistant, Fairy Rainbow, they will undertake toothbrushing lessons to slowly build up the children’s confidence. It may take three or four visits until the child is ready for a dental check-up but that’s just fine with Fairy Steph and all the other tooth fairies.
The funny thing is, the lessons she’s learnt from dealing with special-needs kids work just as well with others. Taking that extra time to comfort and reassure them makes for happy, unstressed patients. “When the kids come in, I always sit down low to address the child first,” says Roper. “Then I’ll say, ‘Oh, I see you brought mummy with you today. Hi, mum.’ So many dentists speak over the children and only address the parents.”
A common complaint with many of her child patients is that they don’t like the taste of toothpaste. They commonly find it too minty or spicy so Roper decided to make her own flavoured toothpaste to appeal to children. Her first stop was to talk to an industrial chemist—her husband. “Steph approached me and said, ‘I want to make a sweet-flavoured toothpaste’,” says Barry Roper. “At first I thought she was nuts but somehow she talked me into it.”
Barry realised that to make a product appealing to kids, it had to have the right flavour and texture with an aftertaste that was not too strong. After creating a smooth, creamy paste, he started working on a variety of different flavours.
“It’s fair to say I made some shockers,” he admits. “When we asked the kids what flavour they would like, high on the list was cookies and cream. Unfortunately, the best toothpaste I could achieve was brown in colour and tasted… weird.”
After much experimentation, Barry developed Fairy Floss Tooth Fairy Paste. The toothpaste is made with TGA-approved products in a TGA-approved facility. While it doesn’t contain fluoride at present, that option is currently underway for the near future. The fairy-floss flavoured toothpaste is sold in both of Roper’s practices and the uptake has been spectacular, with Channel 7 news featuring a story in March.
“After the kids taste it, the parents taste it and then they go home with a couple of tubes. The next thing I know, their neighbours are ringing the practice to find out if they can also buy some. I’m very proud of this product and the talents of my brilliant husband,” says Roper.
Roper believes there is still room for expansion of Tooth Fairy & Co. “The only problem is, you can’t franchise a passionate personality,” she says. “I don’t want my concept to end up like a chain of fast-food restaurants. I want to run businesses staffed by caring, passionate people.
“I’m very fortunate with the staff I have now—they’re all beautiful, enthusiastic people. Tooth Fairy & Co is my baby and I feel very protective of it. However, I’ve seen the good it can do and I would love to share the experience with as many people as possible.”