The bright colors catch visitors’ eyes just a few seconds before the scents of gardenia, lemon and sandalwood waft to the door at Bartlett Soap Company.
Since the store opened two weeks ago, owners Jennifer Ziemianin and Brad Kellum said their word-of-mouth sales have been good. Customers who liked the pretty, smooth soaps at last year’s local craft fairs remembered Ziemianin’s enthusiasm and knowledge, and they have been visiting in a steady stream.
“We’ve paid our bills for the month, and we still have 15 days to go in the month,” Ziemianin said. “So I can’t complain. And for a first month, I think that’s pretty good.”
The new business is just behind Exlines’ Best Pizza in Bartlett, and the store’s big front window displays orderly rows of handmade soaps, solid lotion bars, skin scrubs, lip balm, face creams and more. The organic, vegan soaps have no preservatives or detergents. Oxides provide color. Most of the scents are essential oils, and the few fragrance oils used are free of pthalates and paraben.
“That’s really important,” Ziemianin said. “We make sure they don’t have any of the bad stuff in them.”
The soaps are plant based with natural oils like coconut, palm, castor, olive and sweet almond. Cocoa butter and shea butter make an appearance in some products. Even the exfoliants are natural — oatmeal and rosemary.
“Natural soap’s just so much better for you,” Ziemianin said.
She held up a white bar with little “glycerine rivers” streaking the soap. “It’s just pure glycerine, and it makes your skin feel soft and smooth, and you don’t have that itchy, tight feeling like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta run for my lotion bottle’ right when you get out of the shower.”
Many customers with allergies or skin conditions like eczema come in, looking for natural soaps, Ziemianin said. Some swear by the oatmeal soap, while others love the tea tree oil bars. Current bestsellers are Oatmeal, Milk, and Honey Soap, along with the chunky back-and-gray Man Soap.
The bars last about three weeks — four, if customers allow them to dry out between uses, Ziemianin said.
Kellum said they began using gentle organic soaps themselves after learning that commercial soaps can be based on animal fats as well as detergents that strip the skin of moisture. Then they researched cold-processed soapmaking back in June 2013 and quickly grew from a garage-based experiment into an online and craft show-based business in September. Ziemianin delivered to local customers who didn’t want to pay shipping charges. When demand grew, the next logical step was a storefront, which opened on Dec. 30.
Ziemianin, a former emergency room nurse, was a stay-at-home mom for their five-year-old son, Ethan, when the business venture began. Kellum is a third-year law student at Nashville School of Law with a goal of being a public defender. He is also a former full-time paramedic firefighter for Memphis, a career he still practices part-time on weekends for Shelby County. Meanwhile, Ziemianin tends the growing business.
Just behind the sales counter, the production area is in plain sight for customers who want to watch the process. Ziemianin makes two loaves of soap around 10 a.m. each day. The recipes are exacting, with measurements to the hundredth of an ounce. The soap is soon mixed, scented, colored, and stowed away to harden for 24 hours. Then it is unmolded and left to cure for six weeks.
The process relies on the chemical reaction between oils and lye water, but this is not your grandmother’s lye soap. Lard-based lye soap can carry a distinct bacon smell, but Ziemianin’s plant-based versions have cleaner scents.
Kelly Soap, named for her sister, looks and smells like a slice of her sister’s lemon icebox pie. Oatmeal Stout Beer Soap uses real beer and has a nutty scent. Their baby soap uses olive oil for tender skin, powdered oatmeal to help clear babies’ skin bumps and soothe itchy skin, and lavender and chamomile essential oils for scent.
Chunky purple bars up front are Ethan’s handiwork. He wanted his soap to have a place on the sales table too. His dad said, “And anytime somebody buys that, it goes in his piggybank.”
Ziemianin said their little boy gets excited and hands different soaps to customers for them to sniff and admire. “He’s our salesman. He probably sells more soap than I do.”