When first starting out, a lot of luck lead us to success with the small gift shop market. At the same time, another impulse has been driving our process. Simplicity. We feel almost compelled to make great soap with minimal packaging. It's the kind of soap we would buy. Offering soap out-of-the box not only appeals to the conscientious minimalist, it also allows us to lower the price point substantially. The cost of the actual boxes is a relatively small, but by not hand-stamping the boxes and placing the soap inside, we can cut production time in half. For the past few months we've been offering unboxed soap at various craft and farmers markets to a decent reception. Eventually we'll have soap-in-the-loaf for sale at $1.20 per ounce. You'll show us how big a slice you want, we'll chop it, weigh it, and figure the price. It's the same way you buy pizza in Sicily. For the gift-givers and admirers of great design: don't worry. Boxed soap is still available. And for the sake of logistics, the unboxed soap on our website will stay a standard 5 oz size.
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.
Soap and wine have a lot in common. Both are obviously necessities, haha. Both are made from natural materials grown perhaps not too far away, or perhaps all the way across the world. Both have basic economy versions available on the market and also more choice, luxury vintages. Some people pay hundreds of dollars for one bottle of wine that lasts a few hours, so our bar of soap that lasts a month is, by comparison, a bargain! Both need to age a bit before they are fit to use. But while fine wine only gets better as the years go by, fine soap is ready in about a month, and past its prime in a year or so. So maybe the better metaphor is to compare soap to cheese!
Bad-Scented Soap. But why?
I was having dinner with an old friend the other day. It wasn't anything too fancy, but still a nice place: one of the better pizza restaurants in Portland, Oregon, in fact. It was the type of pizza that would go well with a decent beer or a more expensive glass of wine. I ordered beer and my friend ordered wine. She spent a lot of time deciding on the right wine, swirling the samples around the glass and asking the server a lot of questions. A few minutes later the drinks arrived.
After a couple sips of beer, I noticed an off-scent: somewhat citrus-like, but also very acrid. My friend let me try her wine and I continued to smell the off-smell. It was the soap from the bathroom! It was the kind that comes in a dispenser and turns into foam when you squeeze it into your hands. The lingering scent of it was more than enough to notice whenever I lifted a hand near my face. I find it very interesting that people can spend so much time, attention, and money on achieving the perfect food/wine combination, but something like the soap can toss such a discordant note into the composition. Not only did the smell clash with the pizza and wine, but it also smelled quite bad on its own!
Unscented Soap, or the Best Essential Oils?
One possible solution is to stock unscented soap, so that it doesn't contribute anything either way to the dining experience. An even all-natural and unscented castille soap still has its own mysterious array of fatty and fragrant notes, but it certainly doesn't leave any extra perfume on your hands. Another solution would be to stock a soap whose essential oils would complement the cuisine. Of course, sliding farther down this slippery slope, so to speak, might land one in a whole new league of of food/wine/soap combination ridiculousness.
I like to imagine my soap will someday be regarded with a little more scrutiny than your average two buck chuck. In all seriousness, the smell of the soap may matter to people who pay attention to the details of their sensory experience, especially when it follows you back to the meal.
At Metaphor Organic we think a lot about small scale production. How do you run a factory out of your basement, apartment kitchen, or even less space? At the beginning we decided to focus on rustic production methods to produce a rustic product. The soap would be handmade. We even made the soap molds by hand!
Poetry teachers say that form should match content. In industrial design, this is less an aesthetic imperative and more an inescapable law of the universe. In the book, The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaites says it's almost impossible to create a perfect product using handmade tools, but at the same time, it's also equally impossible to create an imperfect product with state-of-the-art tools such as CAD software and a CNC milling machine.
If you haven't read The Toaster Project, it chronicles one fellow's attempt to build functional but very ugly toaster from scratch. That is, he begins with mining the iron ore for the frame, the smelting it in his parking lot, etc. The passage about production methods comes in the chapter about pouring the plastic housing using a mold carved out of a tree trunk. Deja vu.
I'm going to insert a paragraph of disclaimer here reflecting my opinion, anyway, that neither rough nor precise methods have greater potential to produce a more or less beautiful product. At that point, it comes down to individual taste. One choice, however, is far more feasible for beginning makers. And the toaster, just incidentally, ended up very very ugly.
The Toaster Project is an excellent investigation into where our stuff comes from, and much more thorough than our humble soapmaking experiment. I reference it every time I teach a soap class and students are awkwardly lining the soap molds. I remind them that even though the soap molds are ugly, they will still make beautiful soap.
Metaphor Organic was born in the Fall of 2009/Spring of 2010 when Adam Bienvenu and I were living in the Mission District of San Francisco, but in many ways, it started much earlier. Adam will have to write his own blog post about what combination of street art insight and product design savvy lead to our logo, box design, and general aesthetic. For me, the possibility of a small soap company was sown a decade ago when I was still in college. My English and writing major wandered toward a minor in contemporary ethics. Three years before "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, two other undergraduates and I assembled and taught a one-credit course in environmental ethics and consumer culture as our senior capstone project. So for two semesters I spent a lot of time reading blogs like "Gardening as an Anarchist Plot" and articles about how planting fruit trees in your yard is a good idea. Maybe gardening will yet save the world. At that point, we still thought that making conscientious decisions about even the smallest details of one's own life could, through leading by example, somehow spark a resonance of cultural change. I ended up thinking a lot about stuff like soap. At this point in my life, I'd only known Safeway, and I'd eaten a lot of meals out of cans. The organic grocery co-op in my college town was a wondrous discovery. And a little farther down the road was a roadside produce stand that also sold a few other household items. And for while you could buy bags of about 5 little puck-soaps there for like 5 bucks. That is probably what planted the seeds of Metaphor Organic in my imagination: this basic, natural thing, one of the necessities besides food and clothing, inexpensive, and made probably fewer than 10 miles away.
Well, this little soap company has been going for almost 5 years now. Aside of gifts and samples for market research, I've used my own soap exclusively. I use it for hands and body. A big bar sits next to the bathroom sink as well as one in the shower. There's a small plate next to the kitchen sink with a large pile of soap shavings.
I also use our soap as shampoo. My hair regime happens in 3 steps: soap to cleanse, cider vinegar to balance ph, and just a bit of oil to replace what was lost in the wash. Same goes for the beard. When I do shave, you guessed it, I use soap, lathered in a thrift store mug with a boar-bristle brush.
We even wash the dogs with the soap! This started with a bunch of leftover "shampoo bars" from an experimental batch and continues with odd pieces and ends of the loaf. The regular Metaphor bar leaves the dogs even softer than the shampoo bar did. Our soap works as an effective pre-treatment for stains on clothes. The moisturizing qualities make it not the best choice for dishes, but it will work in a pinch.
I also use only my deodorant, although I skip some days. One of the best things about it is that it travels well so I can take it with me and apply as needed.
Along this journey, I've come to appreciate the different personalities of the different soap formulas. Our regular bar produces a lush, abundant, soft lather, while the castile bar is soft and creamy. The sea salt bar lather is light, perhaps even mysterious, and it rinses away quickly.
I could write on and on about soap, but you need to get back to your day. I will say that using an organic (very) locally-made product seemed unusual at first, but now, like tending our garden, it feels only natural.