Mar­kets a boon to ar­ti­sans

Soap

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - D contributed by austin silly soap Con­tact Nancy Flores at 912-2559.

mar­ket across the coun­try nowa­days that doesn’t have a soap ven­dor. And in Austin, our eco-friendly aware­ness cou­pled with a strong pride in buy­ing lo­cal also has helped cul­ti­vate healthy soap sales.

But it hasn’t al­ways been that way. South Austin Peo­ple launched in 2004 and founder John­Paul Fierro re­mem­bers that when he first started, there wasn’t much mass ap­peal for hand­made soap which “seemed to be more as­so­ci­ated with the gra­nola crowd, peo­ple that like to eat health food.”

“Most of the time, back then, peo­ple just called it ex­pen­sive soap,” Fierro says. “I was happy to sell a few hun­dred dol­lars when I first started, just enough to cover the rent.”

Fierro says hand­made soaps in the early 2000s could be found mostly in gift shops, for peo­ple look­ing to buy “high­dol­lar fancy things.” Th­ese cus­tomers would splurge for a spe­cial gift oc­ca­sion, but not pur­chase reg­u­larly. And, of course, hand­made soaps also could be found in stores that sold healthy food like Wheatsville Coop, Fierro says. But there seemed to be a stigma as­so­ci­ated with buy­ing or­ganic that had noth­ing to do with health and ev­ery­thing to do with sta­tus.

As peo­ple be­gan grow­ing more in­ter­ested in the chem­i­cals and tox­ins they were eat­ing and putting on their skin, con­sumers be­gan ask­ing more ques­tions and giv­ing nat­u­ral soaps a try. The cus­tomer base has ex­panded in the last four years, Fierro says, to in­clude mid­dle-class folks also in­ter­ested in healthy liv­ing.

When com­par­ing hand­made nat­u­ral soaps to com­mer­cial soaps, lo­cal soapmakers say it’s much like drink­ing gas sta­tion cof­fee ver­sus fair trade cof­fee or generic beer ver­sus craft beers. Fleegal’s an­swer to cus­tomers who ask why they should pay $5.50 for her hand­made soap is: “It’s about paying for your health now or later. Kind of like food.” She says that Fleegal Farms keeps pack­ag­ing sim­ple and for­mu­lates soap to last longer than com­mon soaps for bet­ter value.

Fierro, who earned his de­gree in chem­istry, says that some peo­ple find that their skin itches and then learn they can’t han­dle de­ter­gents in com­mer­cial soaps. “Most of the soap to­day is ac­tu­ally de­ter­gent,” he says. His com­pany web­site ex­plains that com­mer­cial soaps are “of­ten a mix be­tween an­i­mal byprod­ucts and pe­tro­leum de­rived de­ter­gents and chem­i­cals.”

Fleegal be­gan mak­ing nat­u­ral soap for her per­sonal use af­ter deal­ing with eczema is­sues on her face and arms. “I tell peo­ple I don’t really think it’s any­thing in the bar,” she says. “As much as what’s not.”

Fierro didn’t grow up think­ing he’d be a soap­maker and busi­ness­man. His ap­pre­ci­a­tion for nat­u­ral hand­made soap grew through chem­istry.

As a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Texas, he be­gan re­search­ing and study­ing veg­etable oils as pe­tro­leum al­ter­na­tives in dif­fer­ent prod­ucts. He be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with var- ious veg­etable oils and cre­ated his first soaps. To­day, us­ing veg­etable oils is still a big part of his soap line.

For Austin Silly Soap Founder Ni­cole Sul­li­van, bar soap was ac­tu­ally a turnoff. She al­ways found some­thing gross about it and pre­ferred body washes in­stead. But when search­ing for an af­ford­able gift for a friend, she found soap­mak­ing kits at Hobby Lobby and thought she’d give it a try.

She ended up per­son­al­iz­ing the soap with an in­side joke for her friend and dis­cov­ered she had a knack for mak­ing fun soaps with a hu­mor­ous twist. When more and more of her friends be­gan ask­ing for her silly soaps, Sul­li­van and her boyfriend and busi­ness part­ner Jess John­son took a leap of faith and dove deep into soap­mak­ing re­search, study­ing ev­ery­thing they could about the best soap­mak­ing prac­tices.

They now work with a soap­maker in Washington state who pro­vides the base for their prod­ucts, and they re­work it to add ex­fo­liants, es­sen­tial oils, herbs or her fa­mous silly twists such as feath­ers or toys.

Austin Silly Soap will soon cel­e­brate it’s first an­niver­sary. “It’s grown so quickly that it’s been a chal­lenge for us to keep up,” Sul­li­van says. Sul­li­van hopes to even­tu­ally open a spa that will com­ple­ment her body care prod­uct line. Whole Foods Mar­ket on North La­mar Boule­vard will be­gin car­ry­ing Austin Silly Soap this month.

Af­ter six years in the soap­mak­ing busi­ness, Fleegal says Aus­tini­ties love laven­der and minty soaps. “Dif­fer­ent ar­eas will crave or love par­tic­u­lar scents,” she says. (Dal­las loves cin­na­mon.) She’s no­ticed that in Austin, the first-time cus­tomer has more cau­tious buy­ing habits, pur­chas­ing just one bar of soap at a time. “But they be­come loyal cus­tomers once they try it.”

Fleegal finds sat­is­fac­tion in the artistry of the process. Her fa­vorite part is un­mold­ing and cut­ting the block of soap af­ter it’s been set­ting overnight to see how it turned out. Although Fleegal Farms has grown each year, Fleegal says be­com­ing a gi­ant com­pany is not her dream.

“I really want to be the maker of my soap,” she says. “I can’t see some­one else do­ing my swirls. It’s very per­sonal to me. It’s like my art, you know?

Austin Silly Soap uses nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents.

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