The small business of sundries: Natural, nourishing, local

The Soap Chest owner Gail Horn

The Soap Chest owner Gail Horn
The Soap Chest owner Gail Horn uses natural ingredients to make high quality soaps. Many of those ingredients come from her garden in the Fern Prairie area of Camas. Photo: Buck Heidrick
As the “buy local” movement has gained traction across the country during the past several years, the Pacific Northwest has been at the forefront. Proponents of local purchasing emphasize the benefits to the local economy, to small businesses and to the environment.

Southwest Washington is home to several home-based businesses dedicated to producing personal care products that are natural, healthful and environmentally friendly. Local proprietors say that the area is uniquely favorable for their growing companies.

Marianne Wilson Stein is the owner of Gifts from the Earth (www.giftsfromtheearth.com), which produces a range of natural skin care products.

“The thing I love about this area is that people are so supportive of local businesses, and they love supporting the unique, individual, smaller, handcrafted businesses,” said Stein. “People here are really open to trying something that is new.”

At The Soap Chest in Camas (www.soapchest.com), Gail Horn agreed.

“There’s a trend in the whole Northwest toward small farmers and organically-grown food, which is a great climate for products like mine. I feel that spirit of cooperation, especially at the farmers market. Everybody is supportive of everybody else’s business,” she said.

Horn’s company makes an array of handmade, high quality soaps, using natural ingredients such as dried herbs from her home garden, and goat milk from a local farm.

Farmers markets: Incubators for small businesses

Each of these entrepreneurs pointed to local farmers markets as being vitally important in establishing and growing their businesses.

Inger Genest started her home-based business, MeMe Cosmetics (www.memecosmetics.net), after making a batch of soap with a friend in 1997.

“One of the main reasons I am such a loyal farmers market vendor is because there are very few storefront spaces available in Vancouver that can guarantee anywhere from 10 to 15 thousand people walking by my store on any given day, which we can get on a busy weekend in Vancouver.

“The cost to rent a booth space at the market is significantly lower than a storefront.” Genest said.

At River County Soapworks (www.rivercountysoap.com), Robin Herz also got her start at the Vancouver Farmers Market.

“It’s a fun place… you get to meet and talk with people, and that’s a joy,” she noted.

While Herz is finding less time to attend farmers markets due to the success of her online and wholesale efforts, she finds that the markets are often the best places to learn what customers want.

“I like to [visit the market] so I can get out and about and talk to people… find out what they like,” she said. “…I use [it] as a place to do market research because I get such good feedback.”

Herz said that input from the farmers market has been instrumental in her adding new ingredients and developing new products.

“That’s what is so good about being at a market; people will actually tell you what they want.”

Natural and nourishing

As the number of personal care companies based in Southwest Washington increases, a common theme among them continues to be high quality, natural products with nourishing properties.

At The Soap Chest, Horn said that one of her most popular products is a soap called Mona Lisa, made with spearmint essential oil from Oregon. The soap also contains ground oats, poppy seeds and mint flakes. Other soaps include ingredients such as goat’s milk, cocoa butter, essential oils and other wholesome ingredients.

At Gifts from the Earth, Stein asserted that fresh skin care products are undoubtedly better for the skin.

“If you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin,” she said. “As ingredients age, they lose their effectiveness.

“You wouldn’t want to pull food from the fridge that was a year old, so why would you want to use skincare that’s been sitting around in a store or a salon?” she added.

Genest agreed that product freshness is a key concern. She holds diplomas in herbal medicine and aromatherapy, and said that MeMe Cosmetics are designed primarily for their therapeutic value.

While the botanical and herbal ingredients provide a naturally pleasant scent, “it’s not there to be a perfume,” she said. “It’s there to help whatever issues you might have, whether you have dry skin or oily skin, or a combination of issues.”

At River County Soapworks, Hertz said production quality is a key focus.

“A basic bar of soap contains olive, coconut and palm oil,” she noted. “I like it richer, so I like to add butters, for instance shea butter – which is really good for dry skin – cocoa butter and almond oil.

“We cure them for two months before they are sold,” she added. “The soaps have a lot of the water content removed, which makes for a nice, hard, long lasting bar of soap.

“Customers get value for their money because we take the time to do it right.”

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