Today we’d like to introduce you to Barbara and Steve Bloom.
Hi Barbara and Steve, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself
The economy in 2010 became quite an issue and both of us lost our career jobs to unemployment. Following our normal process of looking for work no doors were opening and we turned over every leaf we could think of. Our money was starting to run low and one may afternoon we took my mother-in-law to the Cleveland Botanical Garden as a gift for Mother’s Day.
While we were there and waiting on her we were standing next to a nice display rack with beautifully wrapped soap. My husband said to me “this could not be that hard to make and we should try.” He had no idea that for a few years I’ve contemplated making soap and had bought a few books on the subject. We went out and bought supplies and Steve made his first batch of soap.
It was an epic fail but we learned that we needed to have a stick blender to blend all of the ingredients quickly and with that stick blender our second batch was fabulous. We made several pounds of soap and realized we couldn’t use that all by ourself. We offered bars to the neighbors and a few weeks later they were all coming back asking where we got that soap because it was great. My neighbor who is a mechanic said his hands never looked better and they felt moisturized and the severe dryness from being in chemicals all day was gone. I remember him saying “hey have you thought about making the stuff and selling it?” That was the start of our soap business. We had a very simple line of four or five different scents and formulations. Little by little, we began to set up a booth at Art festivals and farmers markets and began to also consign to retailers in the area. 11 years later I can say we have product in 14 stores in northeastern Ohio and we participate in art shows in Ohio , Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The first year or two we made the basement our studio space for soap production but as the business grew everything took over our entire house with soap wrapping on the dining room table and our storage area being the spare bedroom. As we approached holidays it even got more brisk and we realized quickly we needed to find a workspace separate from our home. In December 2015 we signed a lease for a small 250 square-foot segment of A cooperative art studio in the ArtCraft building in downtown Cleveland. That served us well for a few years but as the business group we ran out of room and went back to the building management to search out a larger space. Since March 2019 We have rented an 1100 square-foot studio on the other side of the Artcraft building with windows that face the lake. The space has allowed us to maximize production, storage, and that needed separation between work and home.
To complement Steve’s handcrafted soap I returned to my artistic roots and began painting silk scarves. In addition to scarves, I also began creating jewelry from cocoons formed by silkworms. Currently, I remain the only person in the region doing such work and the designs are all intended to mirror the work of beating silver.
Looking back to 2010 and considering how difficult it was to live without biweekly paychecks from an employer, the soap business was the rescue. I was just standing in our studio the other day and considering how far we’ve come that we can afford the rent on a studio and are now contemplating hiring employees because the business volume has increased so much it’s a miracle.
For eight of those 11 years, my husband made the business his only income. Three years ago he was approached by someone he had known in his previous work and took a full-time day job. We both still work full-time for someone else during the day but maintain the studio and our business on a full-time basis as well. We plan to make this our retirement endeavor.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
When you start a business there’s always a learning curve. Our first learning curve was just the mechanics of getting the proper licenses and insurance, finding our customers which we like to refer to as our tribe. We determined before we even started to have a business plan which would be our changeable guideline on where our business should go, what we want to expect out of it and that would help us sort through those many options and alternatives that could sidetrack us.
One shortcoming is that well intentioned customers are always telling us what they think we should do or add to our line of products. In some cases they have no idea we tried what they suggested years before and did not find a market for those products. In other cases it’s out of the scope of what we do and again that business plan is the firm ruler to which we measure what we’re doing against. But there are ideas they bring us that explode. So we are always learning from and listening to our customers.
I would say the biggest struggle in business is finding your tribe. We’ve done art shows where we missed it and the people that came out were not looking for soap or my hand painted silk and they had really just no desire to spend money. We’ve learned to filter these things better and be more selective of where we pitch a tent for an art festival. Having an idea of who is buying your product and what they’re looking for makes all the difference. The majority of our customers are female and conscious that they don’t want to use products that are laden with chemicals. They like our products because they’re natural, plant-based, ethically sourced and we offer a wide variety.
We’ve also learned through the shut down from Covid that there are other ways To maintain the business. We enhanced our online presence Before the Covid lockdown and that was fortuitous. We saw our sales rise as people sat at home realizing they need to wash their hands a lot and they were running out of soap. That taught us a lesson that the online presence has a great value.
Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Steve makes handcrafted cold processed natural soap, shaving soap, lotion bars and solidperfume/cologne. All of our products are made from plant-based materials and locally sourced botanicals using essential oils as much as possible and If they are not available we use natural Fragrant oil’s. We grow some of our botanical items our self in our backyard. Cold process soap begins with measuring out the oils for the soap in one bowl and warming it, in another bowl blending the water or liquid with lye and allowing it’s to cool. When both bowls are at the same temperature they are mixed together and blended using a blender stick. This process creates a chemical bonding of the oils with the water using the lye. The fragrance or essential oil is added and the mixture appears to look like pudding. each batch is 4 pounds, and is poured into a wooden mold and covered to cool and cure. Within a day it is hard enough to cut into bars, and stack on a drying rack. The bars cure for 2-3 weeks and a ph tested until they are neutral ph. At that point we wrap our bars in a light waxed paper, and apply our label. The bars are now ready to sell.
We buy the best ingredients, and feel this shows in our products. We also superfatted our soap, meaning to each recipe we add an additional 5% of oil to create a bar of soap that does not feel oily but indeed adds oil back to your skin as you wash.
A third distinction is the full wrapping of the bar of soap in light wax paper. This allows customers to smell it yet keep it sanitary.
Barb paints silk- the process begins with a white piece of silk placed over a drawing, and the design is traced on the silk using a tube of something called gutta resist. When the design is fully traced on the silk i move the fabric to a frame where it is stretched for painting. Paint is applied, and when dry the silk is steamed to set color, and fuse the resist. The design is permanent and colorfast.
It is the subjects of the scarves that set my silk painting apart. I have a love for the Art Noveau and Art Deco era. Rich color, great detail, lots of graphic influence from artists like Gustov Klimt and Alfonso Mucha.
Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
Always be open to learning more, and share what you know with others. We were blessed to have some great advice given by artists that have been farther down the path. And we love to offer what we learned to others.
Know your market, and your niche in that market. Listen to your customers and the shopkeepers that carry your products. Often they bring suggestions to improve your work, or they bring an idea that is incredible.
Someone told us early on that the most important thing is to tell your story. Tell people how you started, what you do, or what inspired your work. That mentor told us often the customer values you before they value your product… so don’t be shy- share your story.
And we have found that having a story for our products themselves is a differentiator. An example is our newest soap “‘cuz you stink”. A friend of ours approached us because she had obtained a few bars of soap in Japan when she was there traveling. They were made from persimmon extract. She couldn’t purchase them and have them shipped from Japan to the United States so she was looking for someone here that can reproduce the soap. The reason she bought that soap was when she was visiting Japan someone mentioned they use persimmon extract in a lot of products that are sold to older people because the extract itself has a chemical benefit of removing something known as nosomial Smell. It’s that body odor we develop as we age. My friend gave bars to her parents and she said her elderly parents never smelled better. When we share that story people laugh at the title but then they smell it and start thinking this might be good and they remembered someone that they would want to share it with. It’s a it’s a story that’s true, with science that backs the claim of the persimmon extract and we’re just fortunate to have found a funny name that matches it.
Your story is important because having the boldness or courage to talk about some thing whether difficult or funny opena the door to what really should still exist and that’s the sense of community. This was the relationship that our parents or grandparents knew when they went to the local butcher, baker, grocery, etc.
- Bar soap $7.00
- Shave soap $6.00
- Silk scarves $20-$200
- Silk cocoon earrings $20-49
- Lotion $7, perfumes $7
- Instagram: @imagesinbloom