Dollars and Scents

Baltimore sisters have made a splash in the natural soap business

October 10, 2006|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore sisters Kelly and Kasey Evick smell like an intoxicating mix of eucalyptus and peppermint, and a bit of lavender.

The earthy aroma they exude comes naturally after working 12-hour days in their Gambrills "Lather Lab," where they make natural soaps, bath soaks, lip balms and moisturizers.

"What we make is true, real soap," says Kelly Evick, who with her sister started Biggs & Featherbelle three and a half years ago. "It's a lot gentler on the skin."

They're in the lab seven days a week, mixing, churning, shaping and curing. Macadamia nut oil and sea salts. Cedarwood and green tea leaves. Goat's milk and sweet almond oil. The end result: a line of all-natural, health-conscious body-care products.

"We were always interested in natural health, natural healing," says Kasey Evick, 30, of Evergreen.

Whole Foods markets in Annapolis and Pennsylvania began stocking their soaps. The store on Fleet Street in Harbor East will begin carrying items from their line next week.

That's in addition to 40 different grocery stores, salons, yoga centers and gift shops in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Arizona, California, Minnesota, Washington and Colorado.

Celebrity moms-to-be such as Heidi Klum and Maggie Gyllenhaal were given complimentary jars of the company's shea-and-cocoa-butter-infused "Belly Balm," and sent word through their publicists that they enjoyed the product.

Dayna Devon, the host of NBC's Extra, who was also sent a jar, even sent a handwritten thank-you note about it.

"She loved it," says Kasey, "That was great."

"It was so weird," adds Kelly, 31.

Getting notes from television personalities certainly wasn't what the two sisters had in mind when they decided in 2002 to try out a Martha Stewart Living recipe for handmade soaps.

They thought they'd just create a bunch of cool Christmas presents to give out. But the sisters' artsy backgrounds -- Kasey has a degree in graphics design from Maryland Institute College of Art and Kelly has hers in fashion design from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and the University of Delaware -- helped them a little too well.

"Everyone loved them," says Kelly, who lives in Hampden. "And they encouraged us to do more with it. So we spent like six months researching and developing. And we sold some soaps at one little crafts fair. And then it just blossomed from there."

Last week, Biggs & Featherbelle was one of 1,100 manufacturers at the Natural Products Expo, held at the Baltimore Convention Center. Potential buyers and suppliers strolled by their aromatic booth, sniffed and aahed, and asked a lot of questions.

The Evick sisters, dressed casually in jeans and cotton T-shirts bearing their company's logo, put on their best peddler's personalities, smiling, answering and promoting their product.

But the Old Mill High School graduates have found that this part of starting a business doesn't come as naturally as getting their hands slathered and slippery in patchouli and jojoba, avocado oils and raw honey.

"Making the product is such a small percentage of running the business," says Kelly.

"Finances and legal stuff," says Kasey. "That's all the stuff we had to learn on our own."

But they take the learning curve with a healthy sense of humor. The sisters enjoy telling stories about their earliest days in the business.

Like the time Kasey spent hours developing bar codes only to find, at a crucial sales event, that the codes didn't work.

"We had spent like $1,000 on labeling," says Kelly, sighing.

Or the time they insisted on picking up boxes they'd ordered for shipping purposes at a plant in York, Pa. When they arrived at the plant, they found themselves in their tiny little car sandwiched between 18-wheelers headed off to bigger, shinier, more-established companies.

"We're a microscopic company," says Kelly.

"We never want to be that big," says Kasey. "We will always hand-make our stuff. We want to always be in control of that."

Small companies such as Biggs & Featherbelle can offer more assurances to consumers that their products are, indeed, natural, or at least made by hand, says Donna Maria Coles Johnson, president of the Handmade Beauty Network, a database and directory of handmade beauty products. And many health-conscious buyers appreciate that.

"For a certain segment of the population, and depending on what a shopper is looking for at a particular time, natural is preferable to non-natural. Or perhaps the better way to say it is that `independent' or `handmade' is better than commercial," Coles Johnson says. "While there are exceptions, the former tend to have a higher concentration of natural ingredients in their products than commercial manufacturers do, simply because commercial companies need to be more concerned with making the products available on a mass scale."

The Evick sisters, for example, are careful to use cleansers in their soaps, not detergents -- as many commercial products do -- that strip the skin of natural oils.

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