GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you’re sniffing the air in a certain section of Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood, it won’t take long to find Maggie Ann Soap Co.
“People say… that they can smell my house from the street or something, and I can’t. But I guess it’s ‘cause I live here,” said company founder Maggie McGuinness.
Dozens of fragrances rise from the basement where McGuinness crafts her clean art. Many of those artisan soaps will be sold at West Michigan’s first Whole Foods Market, which opens Wednesday in Kentwood. McGuinness says the store already ordered 600 pounds of custom soap, as well as beard product and candles.
“I was really excited at Whole Foods to do soap towers. I’ve always wanted to do unpackaged soap in just bulk… but I knew I needed to be at a location with a lot of movement,” she said.
McGuinness says a Whole Foods “forager” contacted her about two years ago to see if she would be interested in selling at a Whole Foods Market, if the company built one in West Michigan. McGuiness applied for a spot in the store and found out she was a chosen vendor several months ago.
McGuinness says she’s excited to be featured in Kentwood’s Whole Foods Market, but she’s not getting ahead of herself.
“I guess they don’t have another bulk supplier of soap in the Midwest, so I’d love the opportunity to grow with them more, especially locally…. But I’m just going to take what I got for today,” she said.
Before Maggie Ann Soap Co., McGuinness and her late mother kept it simple with melt-and-pour soaps you can typically find in an arts and crafts store. McGuinness says she and her mother would cut, color and add fragrance to the soaps, which they would give as Christmas gifts.
McGuinness’ mother died in 2014. McGuinness says she was going through her late mother’s things when she came across a book about cold process soap making.
“I was on our way to Thanksgiving in Chicago with my husband and I kind of just had an epiphany. I said, ‘Dan, I’m starting a soap making business.’ I had never made soap, I hadn’t ever done anything but I just engulfed myself with tutorials and online videos, a lot of YouTube, books and blogs,” she said.
McGuinness also saw it as a way to help pay down student loans while caring for her three children.
“I can’t afford daycare, so I wanted to be able to stay home,” she said.
CREATING CLEAN ART
Photos of her children hang from shelves stocked with about 60 colors of micas McGuinness uses to color her soap.
“Part of the fun part of my process is being able to make and design new things,” McGuinness said. “If I have a staple line that I’m just making the same things for all the time, you can get sick of that. So I really like to be able to incorporate new things.”
McGuinness says all of her products are all-natural, and most are vegan. She says she tries to source locally when possible. McGuinness uses olive oil, coconut oil, sustainable organic RSPO palm oil, sweet almond oil, castor oil, fair trade shea butter and hemp seed oil in her bars. Using an immersion blender, she combines the oils with lye water to create the soap base.
McGuinness then adds colors and fragrances before pouring the batter into molds.
It takes three weeks for all the water to evaporate from a new batch of soap, “so that’s a struggle with my business in general,” McGuinness says. But she must cut the blocks into bars after two days of curing or the soap will be too hard to divide.
McGuinness says she tries to ensure her ingredients and packaging are sustainable. Any imperfect product is donated to local shelters.
McGuinness says keeping her original designs while increasing batch sizes is another ongoing challenge, but she’s undeterred from her art.
“I kind of just really love everything about though a homemade handmade product like this,” she said. “This whole process of just doing it by hand and enjoying all of the little steps along the way is really what makes something special.”
MAKING IT INTO THE MARKET
McGuinness started selling her artisan soaps at festivals before moving into Bridge Street Market. She says the store manager saw her business pitch at Start Garden’s 5×5 Night about five years ago.
“I didn’t actually win the $5,000 for that 5×5 Night… but really that’s kind of what helped me out,” she said. “Having a product on a shelf like that really got me moving on my package design… that kind of gave me the push.”
In addition to Whole Foods in Kentwood and Bridge Street Market in Grand Rapids, Maggie Ann Soap Co. is also available at the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids, Pursuit in Ada, Paper Doll Shop in Rockford, through Pack Elephant’s website and Meijer’s Capital City Market in Lansing and Woodward Market in Detroit. McGuinness also sells her products at two Horrocks locations, including the Kentwood store where she once worked.
GROWING FROM GRAND RAPIDS
Maggie Ann Soap Co.’s product line has also grown. McGuinness now sells beard oil, tub teas, bath bombs, lip balms and lotions, including a lavender bergamot lotion bar that earned top honors in Yoga Journal magazine.
“So that one’s national. I was really excited I got number one lotion bar on that,” McGuinness said, pointing to the framed article that hangs in her workshop.
When asked if she thought Maggie Ann Soap Co. would grow into what it is now, McGuinness says “absolutely not.”
“But I think just having a lot of passion about doing something that you like, goes a long way. You definitely have to have the drive and motivation to keep going even when it’s hard though,” she said.
McGuinness says she’s starting the planning phase of moving her business into a new space where she can house the palettes of materials she needs for her growing operation. She’s also tapped another person to help her once a week in churning out product, including bath bombs and sugar scrubs.
McGuinness says she wishes her mother was still here to help and see her business bloom.
“I think she would be really proud. I know she would,” she said.