Local Soap Supply Chain
Metaphor began in many ways inside-out. We started with principles and larger goals, and then tried to figure out how to make them work within practical business constraints. One ideal was to establish all-local supply and distribution chains. We got our first batch of oil 4 blocks away from our house at Rainbow Grocery, and our essential oils around the corner at S.F. Herb Co. To obtain the lye took a slightly greater trek to the Ace Hardware store at the corner of Church and Market. Our first wholesale account was a whopping 1 block away at the Mission Statement, followed by Viracocha and Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper all within a half-mile radius. Mission accomplished, right?
Local Soap Distribution
Well, we quickly discovered there are a limited number of accounts available within bicycling distance that would carry our soap. Maybe 10 in S.F. To pay ourselves full-time we would need more like 50 to 100. And small gift shops from around the country (and world) began to seek us out! We soon took the same stance as a lot of people who are vegetarian for environmental reasons, or "meat minimalists." That is, dramatically cutting back achieves nearly the same result as eliminating it altogether. So we decided to be "carbon minimalists," which is, indeed about as far as you can go when even breathing releases a bit of CO2 into the air!
Expanding Beyond the Bay Area
Today we sell soap as far away as South Korea. However, the majority of our accounts are still in the S.F. Bay area. We also occasionally table at local artisan fairs, and since last winter, we've been workshopping products to find what sells best at these. Now we've figured out a pretty good lineup to offer and are in the process of getting established at a couple weekly farmer's markets. The volume of soap sold at one market in one afternoon is often equal to what might sell in a small gift shop in several months, so a couple markets a week could dramatically shift our focus back local again.
More Sales, More Problems
Around the same time we started getting inquiries from stores outside of California, it also began to make sense to get our supplies in larger quantities, which meant ordering base oil from a soapmaking supply company all the way in Columbus, Ohio. Whoa, not local so much! For a while we just kept making soap, but after the holiday rush, we started again trying to work our way back to original ideals. The biggest breakthrough at this point came when I found a local supplier for our olive oil, a grower near Modesto, CA.
Finding a Local Olive Oil Supplier
Although we originally found our supplies at local retailers, those same suppliers did not necessarily get their oils from local farms, etc. We were lucky that Rainbow Grocery did in fact get some of its olive oil from a local farm, which is the same place we eventually began to buy it in bulk. Olive oil alone makes an okay soap bar, but not with quite the lather that our customers came to expect. We also use coconut oil, for example. I spent about a month scouring soap making forums, and it turns out you need a saturated fat to contribute some of its properties to make the excellent soap bar that we were used to producing. Our only choices are to use an animal fat or a plant source that grows mostly in the tropics.
One All-Local Soap Bar
Today we do have an all-local soap bar available: the Savon de Castille bar, which, being just pure saponified olive oil, is also our most hypo-allergenic. Developing it was an excellent experiment, and I haven't yet completely given up on sourcing more of our ingredients locally. An inexpensive source of milk fat might work in place of coconut oil, and there are a few species of palmetto growing wild in California that produce the right type of oil if we ever get big enough to charter a Metaphor Organic farm. You never know.