St. Louis County Arts
Here’s a test: Go to your bathroom and look at the label of the soap you’re using.
It may well have stearic acid, sodium stearate, maltol and tetrasodium etidronate. Now, investigate a little further into the properties of these common ingredients of a popular soap brand. The summary reads “This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin.”
Many soaps are loaded with synthetic ingredients but they smell pretty good, they are readily available and are inexpensive. These soaps will clean dirt off of your hands and face, but that’s about it.
If you want soap that contains all-natural emollients and essential oils along with the standard base ingredient (glycerine), you will need to head over to sammysoap
at 123 W. Argonne Drive in Kirkwood. The staple at sammysoap—bar soap—are vegan and do not have any artificial dyes, fillers or synthetics.
Walk in to sammysoap (just across the street from the Kirkwood Amtrak station) and you’ll be enveloped in an intoxicating blend of aromas. They are coming at you from the wide array of soaps on display. You may also catch a waft of soap brewing in the sammysoap factory in the back of the building.
There’s one more thing about sammysoap that sets it apart. This is a business with a clear and noble mission. sammysoap is a job creation enterprise. sammysoap employees are adults with intellectual disabilities.
sammysoap was created by Karen Copeland and Beth Forsee. Copeland’s son Sam is the namesake of the brand. After Sam graduated from high school, his developmental disability made him ineligible for competitive employment. By the time he turned 21, he WAS eligible for adult day care, in an Alzheimer’s unit. It lacked much in the way of stimulation, and Sam was bored to tears. He wanted to work and had the ability to work. There just weren’t any jobs available other than low-paying “slop-and-mop” gigs where adults like Sam often find themselves.
Karen Copeland figured there must be a better way. It helped that she had retail experience and knowledge of the disability services industry. She’s also a natural problem-solver. One thing she had little knowledge of was soap.
“I had to come up with an idea,” she said. “That was all-natural soap. I thought if I don’t know anything about this great alternative to what’s in the big boxes, nobody else does either. So we started making cold-processed soap at the house, my kids called it ‘Breaking Bad soap.’”
Beth Forsee came on board, along with another partner Joe Fischer, and they were off and running. They opened the store in Kirkwood in November 2014, and have been a must-stop for shoppers from day one.
The soap-makers in the sammysoap factory share Sam’s attributes—a disability and a desire to be productive in a world where there are few available jobs. sammysoap is not a non-profit, it is not a sheltered workshop and it is not a readiness program. The company is not funded by any state or federal program. It does offer a fair wage for anyone willing to work. And it smells really good.
That’s not all. The products at sammysoap are good for you. The distinct aroma of the bars (ranging from eucalyptus to cinnamon spice to chocolate, to name a few) can actually calm you down or improve your mood. The smell of chocolate can perk you up if you’re down in the dumps. If you have a burn or rash, oatmeal provides a natural antihistamine. Each soap at sammysoap has a purpose to match its smell. The commercial soap you get at the grocery may smell good, but it’s probably filled with chemicals and additives with few health benefits.
The soap at sammysoap is different.
“It’s really good for you,” Copeland said. “The ingredients we use are the basis for all pharmacology. It’s medicine for your skin.”
If you have a group interested in the soapmaking process, sammysoap offers tours of the factory. There’s no real secret to the basic formula. Soapmaking hasn’t changed much for centuries.
“We use a cold process to create a chemical reaction,” Copeland said. “It starts with a double boiler, because some emollients will go solid at cool temperature so we have to heat them enough to mix them. We start with lye and oil and they start a reaction, a process that makes glycerine and that’s soap.
“It’s kind of like cooking, you start experimenting, you have the pantry, it’s all about having the pantry, but in our case it’s a very expensive pantry. [Copeland held up a quart bottle of natural oil.] A bottle like this can cost $5,000.”
A visit to the sammysoap store offers a unique and happy sensory experience. There’s the aroma, which hits you as soon as you walk in. It’s intense, but in a good way. Then there’s the positive vibe from the mission of the store—to provide good jobs for hardworking people who don’t have too many good options. The employees are having a good time and making a high-quality product. And the building itself is something of a curiosity. It once served as the Kirkwood fire station and there are remnants of its past all around.
The location itself is a perfect fit, in a shopping district where walk-ins are common. It’s also helpful for sammysoap employees, because the factory is easy to reach, with access to public transportation. The enterprise is a formula for success. Copeland boiled it down to a few simple reasons.
“Everybody loves the soap, it’s fun, it’s good for you, and it fulfills a social need.”
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