Soap business expands naturally to family enterprise

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
For nearly two decades, Cheryl Christian has used her artistic talent to create handmade beauty.

But in October, the former hairstylist’s artistic medium switched to soapmaking, with the incorporation of a new business, Whispering Sage Soapworks.

Christian runs the business with her two daughters from her home in rural Hillsboro.

“When I was doing hair, I was doing a different kind of art, and now it’s kind of coming full circle,” she said. “I’m doing something a little different, but yet that art’s still there.”

Christian has been tweaking her all-natural soap recipe for years, she said, ever since learning the art of soapmaking while living in Pagosa Springs, Colo.

A soapmaking friend in Pagosa Springs was familiar with the process and “walked me through it,” she said.

Christian followed up that lesson by getting some books on the subject and teaching herself the finer details.

But it was her move to the prairies of Kansas five years ago with husband Jon that prompted a real pursuit of soapmaking as a hobby and eventually a business.

“Being here, I had a little more time to think about it,” Christian said. “It was something I really wanted to do, and I’d been in hairdressing for so long that it was time for a change.

“I needed to get out of the chemicals that I was doing with the hair,” she added.

So Christian dug back into another passion of hers, organic gardening, one that she said went hand in hand with soapmaking.

From lavender to peppermint, she uses homegrown, pesticide-free herbs and botanicals in her soaps to”capture the essence of the Kansas prairie” in a variety of natural scents and colors, she said.

For a while, Christian experimented with her soaps mostly on family, particularly daughters Jessica Craney and Autumn Daily.

Now the help of these two women has inspired their mother to expand her soapmaking into a family business venture.

“A lot of people say it starts as a hobby and snowballs from there,” Christian said. “It’s always been an interest of mine, but I never ever thought I’d start a business.

“Then I thought, I can do this-I’ll just sell out of the back of my vehicle,” she continued. “Well, with the business stuff going, it’s snowballing and so we want to do more than that.”

Christian said her younger daughter, Daily, has been instrumental in getting the “business stuff” going.

Daily graduated in May from Tabor College with a degree in business administration and serves as the company’s webmaster and marketing coordinator. She lives with Christian, who helps take care of Daily’s son, Reese, while Daily works as central business district coordinator and historical preservation planner at the Newton Chamber of Commerce.

Older daughter Craney lives not far away with husband Vince and children Cody and Paige. She worked as a paraeducator for Hillsboro High School until just recently, she said.

“I quit so that I could be home with Paige, and kind of help Mom out a little more,” she said.

“I’m going to tap into her more,” added Christian.

In less than eight months’ time, sales of the handmade soaps and spa lotion bars have been “insane,” Daily said.

“Last month we had 900 hits on our Web site,” she said. “And that’s about our average.”

Online orders had Daily going to the post office nearly every day for a while, she said.

“I don’t know how people are finding it, but they do,” Christian said of the company’s Web site.

“We haven’t really gotten wild with getting the word out,” she added. “It’s just now starting to really get out.”

Christian’s husband inadvertently became the No. 1 salesman of last year, she said, when he took soaps to work with him one week at Hospira Inc. in McPherson.

“He sat there (and) didn’t say one word about it,” she said. “In two days he had $200 worth of orders. I didn’t even pursue that because that was at his business, and I didn’t want to push it. It just kind of sold itself.

“If it’s that easy to sell, and we’re not real high-pressure salespeople, it could be an interesting summer,” she said with a smile.

Various Kansas retailers have started carrying their soaps, including The Garden Center in Hillsboro, Hot Headz in Hutchinson, Kimple’s Furniture in Ellinwood, Kansas Originals in Wilson and Northshore GuestHouse in Marion.

The women have point-of-sale shelves holding 30 soap bars each that the retailers can purchase for a more organized display.

Word-of-mouth is responsible for these businesses picking up the Whispering Sage Soapworks products, the women agreed.

“Everyone’s called us,” Daily said. “The only one we pursued was Kansas Originals, because we wanted a place where the Kansas artisan was emphasized.”

Word-of-mouth may have accelerated the surprisingly “insane” success of the budding business, but there’s no substitute for the old-fashioned hard work Christian and her daughters have invested into making a high-quality, beautifully packaged product.

“It’s a lot of work, surprisingly, even though it’s fun,” she said.

It’s their work ethic that sets their product apart from other handmade soaps out there, said Craney.

“Our attention to detail is key for us,” she said. “We’re all such perfectionists.”

Their other unique selling point is the variety of contemporary fragrances they offer, many based on the scents in products by Bath and Body Works and other companies.

“We’re using the latest scents,” Daily said. They’ve given them names like “Sweet Paige,” “Cool H2O” and “Moonbeam” to help consumers identify which popular fragrance the soaps replicate.

The process of making these all-natural soaps is more complicated than one might think, especially for women like Christian and her daughters who strive for quality from start to finish.

It starts with growing and buying the best ingredients, Christian said, whether the organic herbs and botanicals she grows in her garden or the essential oils, vegetable oils, fragrance oils and color pigments she orders online.

“Moving here I’ve had to learn where I can order my stuff, because some of the oils are kind of hard to find around here,” she said. Most of Christian’s products come from Utah, although the online community makes it possible to find other quality sources from a variety of locations.

The expensive essential oils, such as peppermint, ginger, rosemary or patchouli, are crucial to the soapmaking equation, she said.

“You have to be very careful where you’re getting your essential oils, so that you’re not getting ripped off,” she said. “And if you get bad oils, it can ruin a whole batch of soap.

“Not that I haven’t had a batch of soap ruined,” she added with a laugh. “It’s trial and error.”

Addition of fragrance oils and color pigments keeps some of the soaps from being completely all-natural, but Christian said these high-quality synthetics allow for a variety of scents and colors that cannot be duplicated in nature.

“I try to do all-natural, but the girls wanted more scents,” she said.

She said fragrance oils are made almost completely from essential oils, but “if there’s one thing in them that’s synthetic, they can’t be called an essential oil.”

These essential and fragrance oils are added to the base vegetable oils like coconut, palm and olive oils. Other oils used to “super-fat” the soaps include almond, apricot kernel, grapeseed, hemp, avocado, safflower and shea butter oils.

To ensure maximum quality control, Christian makes the soaps in small batches using the cold-process method. She heats the oils and mixes them with sodium hydroxide, or lye, creating a chemical reaction called saponification that makes it into soap.

But it’s no lie that unlike the soapmaking of previous centuries, no lye remains in the soap.

“The way the recipes are now, it’s better than what the homemade soaps were way back then,” she said. “They used a lower-grade lye, probably something they made out of wood ashes.”

Christian then pours the mixture into wooden molds and lets them set overnight.

“And then the next day, you have soap,” she said.

But the process is not complete at this point, she said, because the soap is too strong to use on skin.

“Then you have to cure it for three to four weeks,” Christian said. “The longer you cure your soap, the milder it gets. Usually by three weeks, you can use the soap, but if you can let it go four weeks, it’s good.”

Christian emphasized that this method of soapmaking keeps in the glycerin that commercial soap manufacturers take out and resell to make high-end cosmetics, which leaves the consumer with a bar of mostly harsh detergent.

“Glycerin is a humectant, which attracts moisture to your skin,” she said. “That’s one of the cool things about handmade soap.”

Because the composition of handmade soaps is different than that of commercial soaps, customers are encouraged not to put soap or lotion bars near direct sunlight or heat, and to keep the soaps dry and on a dish in between uses to ensure longer soap life.

Soap sells for $4 and lotion $6 per 4-ounce bar. Both are available with neither fragrance nor essential oils in the “Plain Solitude” bar. A variety of scents are available with either or both essential oils and fragrances. All ingredients are listed on product packaging.

Gift sets of various sizes and prices are available for sale on their Web site.

An all-natural aromatherapy insect-repellent bar is also sold for $7.50 per 4-ounce bar and $5.50 per 1.5-ounce bar, Christian said.

“We use lemongrass, eucalyptus, citronella-all the things you hope a bug won’t like,” she said.

And for upcoming craft fairs throughout summer and fall, the women said they will add an assortment of other products, including lip gloss, bath salts and lavender eye pillows, to the Whispering Sage Soapworks line.

“I think we better stop at that, or we’re going to go nuts,” Christian said with a laugh.

“All three of us are going to be definitely put to the test when we start doing the shows and all that,” she added. “We’re already seeing we’re going to have to get with it.”

To balance out the addition of other products, Christian said they will likely pare down the number of soap scents they offer.

“We have a lot of them now, but we’re using them as marketing, to find out what people really like,” she said. “We may narrow it down or even change a few.”

If their booths at events such as the Wa-Shun-Gah Day Festival in Council Grove June 18-19 and the Hillsboro Arts and Crafts Fair in September bring the sales and new clientele Christian is hoping for, expansion of the business may be just around the corner.

“My house is already getting too small for this,” she said. “This is like a cottage industry, what we’re doing right now. But we’d like to expand and someday, it’d be really great to have a storefront.

“I’ve already decided we need a factory somewhere,” she added with a laugh.

“You know, the sky’s the limit,” she said. “It depends on just how big we want to get. But I don’t want to lose sight, you know, that this is a small company,” she added. “I don’t want to get where it’s so big that you don’t have the quality.”

And quality is what Christian hopes will keep them in business when others stay only for a season.

“There are a lot of soap companies out there,” she said. “They come and go depending on the quality and the marketing.”

The sheer number of this type of business is what led them to choose Whispering Sage Soapworks as their name.

“We had some neat names, but you have to go with what you can take when you incorporate,” Christian said.

But as far as Christian knows, Whispering Sage Soapworks is one of the only soapmaking businesses in this corner of the prairie lands, giving them at least a local market with little competition.

“It’s something that the consumer right now is wanting,” she said. “I see things happening.”

To purchase their products, visit www.whisperingsagesoapworks.com or call Cheryl Christian at 947-2938.

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