Margaret Saavedra's life took a sharp turn a few years ago while she was working 14-hour days in an insurance office.
It was there that Saavedra would give her colleagues holiday gifts of handmade bars of soap that she had created from organically grown herbs, flower petals and other natural ingredients grown on her husband's farm.
"I would wrap up the soap in pretty ribbon and paper," recalls the 35-year-old Saavedra. "Later, people wanted to know where they could buy the soap. I told them I made it. That's when they said, 'We want more.'"
The demand eventually became so great that her husband Hugo encouraged her to leave her day job and pursue her craft full time. Tired of sitting behind a desk all day, Margaret Saavedra finally decided to leave the insurance business for a life where she could be creative, come and go as she pleased, and most of all, spend more time with her young son, Hugo Jr.
In 1995, Saavedra launched Beautiful Soap & Co. Her first-year revenues were roughly $4,300. But that amount has since grown dramatically, with revenue hitting $84,000 in 1999. She expects revenue to reach $400,000 this year.
"(The soap) started selling little by little, then it just exploded," Hugo Saavedra said.
Monetary success aside, Saavedra takes satisfaction in knowing consumers enjoy the wide variety of soap she produces.
"I want people to buy it to affect their spirit," she said. "I want the soap to make them feel special, and to help their skin feel better."
Susan Varney, 55, has trekked to the Burbank Farmers Market every Saturday for the past six months to buy at least four bars of Saavedra's soap. Varney uses it for aromatherapy and says she even rid her dog of fleas by washing the pet with a bar specially blended with rosemary and chamomile.
"I even use it to wash my hair," said Varney, who prefers bars blended with sea salt, freesia and plumeria.
Andrea Gabriel also buys her soap at the farmers market. "I love the stuff," Gabriel said. "It doesn't leave scum in your bathtub."
All natural, all the time
Margaret Saavedra is among a growing number of herbal soap makers in the country now taking advantage of consumers' demands for soap and other products that are chemical- and pesticide-free.
Although the craft is enjoying a resurgence, there's nothing like Saavedra's soaps on supermarket shelves. Her main competition comes from other soap sellers at farmers markets. So she tries to keep the products fresh by coming up with new scents and new products on a regular basis. "I have to keep it interesting," she said.
Customers are willing to pay a premium for Saavedra's products: She charges $5 for an eight-ounce bar.
Saavedra makes her soap inside a workshop on the family's 12-acre, Ventura County farm. With help from only her husband and son, she produces up to 4,000 bars a week.
All soaps are handmade in small batches to ensure quality and originality. Saavedra uses top-quality glycerin and oils from sources throughout the United States and Europe. Organic herbs, flower petals and seeds are picked straight from her husband's fields.
Whenever possible, Saavedra uses herb blossoms as well as foliage in whole, crushed or powdered form. That's because over time, the herbs and petals release their own oils and essences, enhancing the natural cleansing and healing power of the soap.
Every ingredient serves a purpose. For instance, the high-glycerin content attracts moisture to the skin. Chamomile is calming and stress-relieving. Honey is an antiseptic. Green tea is an antioxidant, and oatmeal is an exfoliant.
Among the most popular of the 50 or so varieties she makes are white magnolia, lilac, honey chamomile and patchouli rose. Other offerings include pear, vanilla, cinnamon and spice, chocolate and appleberry.
The soaps are also environmentally sound. Unlike some commercial soaps, which use animal fats, alcohol bases and lye, Saavedra's soaps are free of such ingredients.
"They have tremendous healing power," she said. "That's because of these natural astringents and natural antioxidants."
Saavedra's soap-making skills stem from her childhood in Ireland, where she and her mother would make bars of soap using resources from their family farm.
She continued the practice as an adult and now distributes soap to beauty shops in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Pasadena. She also sells soaps at farmers markets in Northridge, Monrovia, Burbank, Woodland Hills, Hollywood and other areas.
It's not unusual for a soap connoisseur to buy as many as 30 bars at a time, according to Hugo Saavedra. "They spend 20 minutes easy at my table (at the farmers market) just smelling the soaps," he said.
Margaret Saavedra also sells over the Internet (www.beautifulsoap.net) and receives orders from as far away as Australia, Sweden, England, Paris and Egypt.
"People buy them for all kinds of reasons; some people for the color alone because they want it to match their bathroom," she said. "But I don't want to make ornamental soap. I want people to enjoy it for what it is."
Her efforts complement those of her husband, who sells herbicide- and pesticide-free herbs, flowers and gourmet lettuces at farmers markets and to restaurants throughout Los Angeles.
Though her husband wants to expand soap sales to other parts of the nation, Saavedra wants to keep distribution manageable for now so she can pay special attention to each batch.
"Right now, I don't think I want to mass produce," she said. "I don't want someone in a warehouse somewhere making the soap without my presence. I want to be there."
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