Meet the Locals // Ryan - Benson Soap Mill
Soap. Did you know that the Omaha area has a CRAZY amount of people that make soap? Well apparently this is a fact, we really do. Now I am more of a liquid soap type of girl, it just seems easier to me. I will on occasion buy a bar of soap because it is pretty or smells really good or whatever other reason I think of at the time and the honest truth is it ends up in a little box collecting dust. So maybe this is a terrible introduction to a company that is all about bars of soap, you are probably right. Here is the deal though... the guys at Benson Soap Mill sent me home with a bar of peppermint soap roughly 2.5 weeks ago and guess what... I USED IT and I LOVE IT, equal to my love of liquid soap if not more. I may be converted over now, but only if it is Benson Soap Mill bar soap.
We all meet up at Jake's Cigar Bar in Benson before heading over to the 'soap lab' as the guys call it. It was a super chill way to meet and just talk about all sorts important city matters like how moving to Bellevue is not as un-cool as I am currently feeling it is and how dumb certain local criminals are, but I digress. Back to the subject matter at hand, soap.
How did Benson Soap Mill (BSM) come to be? At the time Ryan was working at Amsterdam in Dundee and he had thought about soap being an interesting thing, it became kind of a daydream during the time frame that he was working there. He then decided to take it a step further and looked into the notion of soap and realized that it was a simple process using water, lye and fat... any kind of fat. He thought about how all he needed to do was pick some lye up at the hardware store and use some of the fat drippings from the kabob cone at work and see if it turned into soap, it worked, he made soap! It was nasty soap but still soap. At that point he just started experimenting and researching. He ended up working out a deal with the owner of The French Bulldog to get leftover fat from the hogs that he butchers for the restaurant, this provided (and continues to provide) a much better fat base free of all the stuff that ends up in a grease trap. Then eventually it became good enough to spend money on some extracts to add in. It just kept evolving into further stages where being able to gift it would be acceptable and then finally it reached the point where it was a product they could sell to someone. The first time they set up shop at a market open to the public was Benson Days about 2.5 years ago. They ended up selling a lot of bars and people just got really excited about it.
Is this your full time job? No, not at all. This is a common answer I am discovering! Ryan works around 30 hours a week at La Buvette as a cook, attends UNO full time for East Asian Studies and then somehow manages to put in about 20 hours for BSM.
Why East Asian Studies? Ryan lived in China for a few years after he turned eighteen, he originally went over as part of a volunteer group and ended up fascinated by the culture. He showed us how he communicates through text with his friends in China that speak Mandarin. It was really pretty cool, he uses the Chinese phonetic alphabet also known as pin-yin which is a system of romanization for the Chinese written language, it is primarily based off of the Beijing dialect of Mandarin Chinese. Can you tell that I may have been a little intrigued by this so I spent maybe a little too much time reading about it when I got home?
So BSM is currently made using a cold process, right? Yes, currently all of the bars are made through a cold process but they have been talking about expanding into hot processing as well to make shampoo and liquid soap as well, maybe in 2016. Also a new thing they have been working on...? Bath bombs.
I know that with cold processing you need to let the bars cure for a good amount of time, how long does it take for BSM's bars to be ready for use? About 28 days is the magic number for their bars. Which leads into the one of the biggest issues they have... space. Because of how long it takes the soap to cure the bars must stay in their silicon molds for about two weeks then once they can be popped out (you know they are ready when you pull at the sides of the mold and there is no soap residue left on the edges of the mold) then they need to sit in open air until the saponification process has been completed which takes another two weeks.
How many shows are you guys doing this year? Five, they added four more to the list that they did not attend the past holiday season. Last year they attended Handmade Omaha and completely sold out of the 600 bars they had in inventory so they had to close up the Etsy shop and concentrate on stocking back up! Not a bad problem to have I would think! This year they have prepped a few more bars... 2,400 more to be exact, this was of course as of almost three weeks ago they may have a lot more now! They now have 800 molds so its much easier to keep up with demand. Something that I found interesting is that a lot of their time right now consists of washing molds! Ryan made sure to express that all of this is happening inch by inch. For example a constant issue is space (as mentioned before) for the soaps to chill in molds and then once out of the molds to be able to sit in open air. Currently they are using plastic bakery bin things for this process the goal is to purchase bakery speed racks to help with the space issue right now they have one 10 tray speed rack and it is awesome, each tray on it holds 70 bars.
What was your end goal when it came to soap, have you reached that point as of now? There was a moment where something clicked and both Ryan and Tim (Oh, yes I should have mentioned there are three of them on the team... Tim, Ryan and Josh.) decided they wanted to have BSM be their full time job. They have both worked in kitchens since the age of 18 and at this point they are about half way to working full time for themselves. It has all stemmed from experimenting though. When they first started they did not have fancy silicon molds, the tacked some wood pieces together creating a mold and sliced the soap up by using a huge display sword and at the time that was HUGE accomplishment to have figured out.
Do you think that it will take another two and a half years to reach your end goal of doing this fill time? In the whole of the first year they sold 100 bars. It has become so much of a snowball at this point where it should really not take that long. When they were first starting out the mere notion of anyone buying anything he made was outstanding, never has he been the type of person that conceived making and selling items as his source of income.
Wholesaling, tell me more? Outside of these markets and events that is really how they maintain the business. They got started with wholesaling when a Catholic bishop came up to their stand at the Benson Farmers Market and asked them if they made a lemon verbena bar, they let him know they had not but could, after he placed an order for fifty of them with a custom label to hand out to his congregation they were in! They will now make a custom item for anyone if they buy a minimum of 30 bars, 50 bars if it is a custom scent.
Do you source all of your recipe items locally? As many as possible are local the sunflower oil is from Alan at Simply Sunflower which is in Ord, NE, the tallow / fat is sourced from Bryce at The French Bulldog the hogs are originally from TD Niche in Elk Creek, NE. We heard a great story about a 400 pound barrel of sunflower oil being loaded into the back seat of a Civic by three adult men in the middle of no-where Nebraska, ha!
What is your favorite thing about soap? The fact that it can be made in a very high quality using things that people usually don't think about or just waste. This is really what started his fascination with soap.
What do you fear the most about all of this? Well it turns out that Ryan is very anxious so the idea of sitting at a table and selling things is a nightmare of a concept. He started imagining 'what if' situations, what if he doesn't really know anything about soap and just thinks he does, what if he comes off as a fraud to customers. He had a man in his late 50s once start an argument with him about why they didn't use hemp oil he told the man that they did not use it because he was unable to find a good source locally when really it was more of a cost thing at that time, that of course was not something that he wanted to discuss and really the guy talking to him probably didn't either he just wanted to make a point through an argument. Those experiences and the fear of them is what drive him to figure out all of the details. They all know that there are things that they don't know but it is something they are constantly trying to learn about now.
*** All photography provided by James Wells of Stark Media Design. ***