Though a town of only 65,000 people, Flagstaff features a wealth of local entrepreneurs and artisans. Downtown shows a concentration of shops that bring together the work of local artists, and the investment of residents wishing to run a business of their own.
In the last week, a new example of such effort opened on one of Flagstaff’s main streets–North San Francisco. I was able to interview the owners a mere three days after their debut in order to hear their story of the very early stages of starting a business.
A Brand New Business in Downtown Flagstaff: Flagstaff Soap
the entrance to Flagstaff Soap
Friday 1 June 2012 a new shop opened in downtown Flagstaff featuring all natural, preservative free, handmade soaps, and locally made soap accessories. Many of the products have been made by the owners themselves. Those they have been unable to produce on their own (such as pottery soap dispensers) they have instead sourced from local artisans.
Justin Poehnelt and Alisha Allen
Justin and Alisha helping a customer
Calling Flagstaff home for a little more than two years, Justin and Alisha decided to invest in the community by opening a shop for locally made, handmade soaps and associated accessories. During the recent First Friday Art Walk, June 1, 2012 they opened the shop doors to the public. The cozy downtown location offers not only their handmade soaps and accessories, but also art and goods by local artists. The soap dishes and wash cloths were made by Justin and Alisha; the pottery soap dispensers by local earth artists; and the photography on the walls by local art student Jenelle Cordova (who was able to sell her first print at the recent First Friday Art Walk, thanks to Justin and Alisha showcasing her work on their shop walls).
Originally from Alabama, Alisha took an interest years ago in natural products for the sake of both her own health, and that of the environment. However, after researching ingredients and labeling she discovered two things. First of all, many ingredients named “natural” are not actually that healthy for the body, or for how they impact the environment due to associated production practices. Secondly, legislation allows a great deal of latitude in labeling such that it can be difficult to determine the actual source of many ingredients. As an example, natural products often list ingredients “derived from Coconut” or as a “Coconut Based Surfactant.” The reality of this marker is that an incredibly broad range of chemicals are derived from coconut, including some that are actually irritating for the human body such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS).
Troubled by how unreliable “all natural” commercial goods would seem to be, Alisha began researching what personal and home products she could make herself.
Raised in Wisconsin, Justin chose to pursue a career in the National Forest Service, and began working sites throughout the United States. Eventually invited to work on the Salmon Challis National Forest, a 4.3 million acre management area in East-Central Idaho, Justin found himself in the Western United States, and the massive undeveloped outdoor regions of the West. Included within the Salmon Challis is also the largest wilderness area in the Continental United States, the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area, a 1.3 million acre protected zone including massive mountains and rugged rivers.
It was there in the Salmon Challis that Justin and Alisha met, as Alisha worked during that time for the Forest Service as well. Eventually the two of them were relocated to the Coconino National Forest outside of Sedona, one of the most diverse forest regions in the United States, a job that introduced them to the unique qualities of the Southwest, and helped them discover Flagstaff.
Hand and Locally Made Products
Flagstaff Soap’s Laundry Soap, Pumice Stones, and Handmade Washcloths
After several years of making personal and home cleaning products for herself, Alisha eventually decided to see if she could work towards weaning herself off of all commercially made renditions. As a result, together she and Justin have been developing recipes for more effective and healthy soaps for several years. As they describe it, Justin focuses on the technical aspects of formulating the right balance of oils and the best source for necessary ingredients, while Alisha takes on the expressive elements of scent (establishing the right proportions of essential oils) and appearance for their soaps, as well as much of the overall decor for the shop itself. Together they’ve been able to produce not only a range of bar soaps, but also a liquid all purpose soap, and a powdered laundry detergent they say is both more effective and better priced than commercially made ‘all-natural’ laundry soaps. They are currently also testing several other products that they hope to feature in the next couple of months.
After moving to Flagstaff, Alisha chose to leave the Forest Service, and shifted her attention to working within the local downtown community. As a result, she gained perspective into the reality of retail in this mountain town–the best way to manage shop space, and the economic cycles that come with the seasons. After getting her sense for Flagstaff’s local business scene, and recognizing that together they had developed something valuable, Justin and Alisha decided to make the leap and open their own establishment. Today, Alisha’s focus is entirely in Flagstaff Soap. Justin remains working for the National Forest Service but is with them part-time this summer in order to concentrate on the successful start of their venture.
a selection of Flagstaff Soaps’ Handmade Soaps
To keep the overhead low, the two chose to rent a smaller space in the downtown area–a location big enough to invite foot traffic customers in, and small enough to keep rent lower. Additionally, they made all of the display tables and racks for the shop themselves, with Justin building the wooden furnishings and counter, and the two of them painting and creating their distressed styling.
Other products within the shop have also been produced by the two of them with Justin cutting the wooden soap dishes, and Alisha (and her sister) knitting wash clothes.
I asked Justin and Alisha what soaps are their personal favorites, and they both agreed that they enjoy the more earthy scents best–they both specifically named their Patchouli Jo-wood. However, they’ve also enjoyed discovering which scents are most popular in shop. So far, the peppermint (which is already almost sold out till the next batch firms up), and the lemon poppy seed have been the best sellers. They also are big fans of their laundry soap.
Custom Products and Developing the Business
shop owner, Luna
Alisha and Justin emphasize that their interest is in establishing a strong customer focus. For one, Flagstaff Soap has already begun taking custom orders. In the few days since opening, customers have already requested special scents, but also special treatments. As a result, the business has even now begun to fill special orders, including an all natural anti-fungal treatment soap, as well as other custom scented soaps.
They are also able to develop special gift packages for events like bridal parties or baby showers.
In addition to developing custom soaps and gift packages, Alisha and Justin hope to hear feedback from their customers both in regards to their current offerings, and for what other products are wanted. Justin has been developing a shaving bar, but also jokes that he needs someone to test it for him since Alisha won’t let him shave his beard (check-in with Justin if you’re interested). They have plans to work on an especially moisturizing line, but can also steer the other direction towards a more cleaning (oil-cutting) soap.
They’ve also been testing in shop a citrus oil designed to do household cleaning.
To serve the needs of their dear dog, Luna, Alisha and Justin have also been developing their “Luna Line”–products for pets specifically designed to both clean and shine animal fur–that they intend to make available in shop once they’ve perfected it.
Their goals for the business include being completely up front about product ingredients, and offering what the customers need and want. They’ve succeeded in their personal goals of developing soaps they feel good about, and that their friends and family enjoy. Now they want to further discover what works best for their new customers as well.
Take a visit to Flagstaff Soap’s shop front either in person or online.
Flagstaff Soap Company, 21 N San Francisco, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. 928-774-9178. http://www.flagstaffsoap.com/shop/
Their web front is still in development, currently offering a handful of items. They plan to see which products in their Flagstaff shop are the most popular to then offer those online as well. If you are interested in ordering something online by request that you don’t otherwise see featured on the web front, you can also email them: info (at) flagstaffsoap (dot) com .
If you’re interested in requesting a custom order either for scents or treatments, speak with Alisha and Justin directly. Keep in mind that it takes a month to make a fresh batch of soap–the time it takes for the bars to cure well enough to clean and lather properly.
They briefly described the process to me — once the initial formula is mixed the soap sits up to 48 hours in mold. It is then cut into bars but needs to sit for a month to cure. Though their soaps have no preservatives, Justin explains they get better with age. The firmer the soap, the drier the bar becomes, the more it is able to lather and last. Still, it is ready for use after a month of curing.
Congratulations and the Best of Luck to Justin and Alisha!
the happy adventurers
To follow Justin and Alisha’s progress with Flagstaff Soap visit them in person, or read their blog at http://www.flagstaffsoap.com/ . There you’ll find pictures of the shop space as it was when they took the lease, and photos of Justin’s progress with making the furniture and shop counter by hand, as well as facts about the products they make, and the reasons they recommend avoiding some otherwise common natural ingredients.
As if that wasn’t enough, the two of them are also just damned photogenic. I couldn’t take a bad photo of them during the morning I spent with them in shop.
Congratulations again to both of you. I look forward to being a witness to how your work continues to develop.
Thank you to Alisha and Justin for talking with me about your new venture! The very best of luck and joy to you. Lots of pets to friendly Luna too.
Next we get back to wine.
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