BY Liz Morrison

_rhp5663Looking at what is available in the marketplace today is a great way to gauge the average consumer’s interests. Going to supermarkets, of various sizes and locations (urban and rural), can give the industry and others an idea of what consumers want along with upcoming trends.

Jones’ products include:

  • soap flakes, which the consumer mixes with distilled water to make liquid soap, shampoo, or household cleaner;
  • soap bars
  • laundry powder, a concentrated mixture of ground soap flakes, aluminum-free baking soda, and washing soda, with or without borax.

Jones’ soap flakes are saponified using organic, food-grade soybean and coconut oils, with purified water, she says. Pure Soap Flake uses no phosphates, bleach, enzymes, perfumes, or foaming agents. They are also free of detergents that can irritate skin.

They’re “the mildest of cleaners,” Jones says. “Kind to babies, pets, and people with allergies, sensitive skin, or tattoos. They are also a gentle way to wash natural fibers, delicate fabrics, wood, dishes, glassware, even your car, she says.

“This is a concept borrowed from Europe,” where old-fashioned soap flakes remain popular, says Michael Sparby, AURI senior project strategist, who connected the northern Minnesota company to AURI’s research and technical services. The energetic and enthusiastic Jones “is very entrepreneurial,” he adds, in that she created a manufacturing process from scratch, and devised custom equipment on a shoestring budget.

Becoming the ‘Head Flake’

Jones, a first-generation American, grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of English and Welsh heritage. Her interest in natural cleaning products started with her British grandmother. When she came to visit, she always said, “don’t use synthetic products!”

Unable to find soap flakes on local store shelves, Jones, who has sensitive skin, bought them from England for her own use. When her friends started asking her to get them soap flakes, she became a commercial importer and distributor.

But the soap flakes Jones imported were made with palm oil from Asia, which troubled her. “It’s not very environmentally friendly,” she says. Global demand for cheap palm oil is one of the causes of tropical deforestation. In 2008, after nearly a decade in the soap flake distribution business, “My lawyer said to me: ‘Christine, you know more about soap flakes than anybody in the U.S. You should manufacture them yourself, instead of importing them. Be the Head Flake!’ ”

_rhp5566R&D help from AURI

In 2010, after a couple of years of planning, Jones launched her manufacturing company.

She worked with a Pequot Lakes soap and cosmetics maker to create a commercial-scale recipe that used soybean oil. Sparby then connected her to a Minnesota source of organic soybean oil, Midwest Protein, in Grove City.

Jones also devised her own manufacturing process. She worked with a retired logging engineer and tool-and-die-maker to design and fabricate the equipment she’d need. Their custom tools included molds, a soap flaker, a pulverizing device, and a machine they call Big Bertha, which can shave 200 pounds of tissue-thin soap sheets an hour. “The only off-the-shelf piece of equipment is a cement mixer we use for blending our laundry powder,” Jones says. The rest of the production line came together with “as little money as possible,”
she says.

Jones’ products definitely have a handcrafted feel. The soap begins as a 40-pound block, which goes through a curing process for several weeks. After that, the blocks are shaved into thin sheets that are dried on screen racks. The sheets are run through a tumbler, which turns them into flakes and then get dried again. This process yields small, crystal-like flakes of pure vegetable soap with no impurities.

Perfecting the manufacturing process, which takes several months from start to finish — took a lot of trial and error, Jones says. “Soap-making is persnickety.” One thing she learned right away was “Don’t make soap when it’s humid!” Fortunately, she says, “We made our mistakes on a small scale,” when mistakes were less costly.

AURI helped Jones evaluate how well her soaps kill germs. An analytical chemist at AURI’s Marshall lab tested the flakes, bar soap and laundry powder on bacteria-infused fabric swatches. The products proved effective in removing common household germs, and were much more effective than washing with water alone.

This work is an example of how AURI can help small agri-businesses that don’t have the resources or expertise for product testing or research and development, Sparby adds.

A growing market _rhp5633

Jones sells her products in both retail and wholesale quantities. Her first wholesale customer was Arizona-based Truce, which makes natural cleaning products that include essential oils. Truce buys Pure Soap Flakes to put in its dog shampoo, all-purpose household cleaner, scouring powder, and laundry powder.

On the retail side, online sales and repeat customers make up the majority of her business. She also markets through more than a dozen Minnesota natural foods stores, including The Wedge and Whole Foods Market in the Twin Cities.

Jones has built “quite a local following” for her soap flakes, which are unique in the marketplace, says Elizabeth Carver, who worked with Jones for seven years as the Whole Body Team Leader at Whole Foods in Minnetonka. Pure Soap Flakes and Pure Soap Bars qualify for Whole Foods’ Premium Body Care seal, the company’s top rating, which “sets the standard for pure, natural personal care products,” Carver says.

Looking forward

Jones, 58, spent most of her career in corporate communications and now she’s putting that experience to use in her current venture. She’s planning a social media campaign, she blogs about natural cleaning products and teaches natural cleaning classes, and she’s finishing up an e-book, “The Art of Living Naturally.”

Later this year, she will work with AURI to further refine her manufacturing process and explore automated packaging. A retail store and another soap product are also in the works.

As with most startups, the biggest challenges are “always about money and time,” Jones says. What’s been most rewarding has been “solving problems for people. When we get a thank you note from a new mom about how her baby’s skin rash is gone, or when people say, ‘please don’t stop making your products,’ that makes my heart happy.”

To order Pure Soap Flakes, go to http://puresoapflakes.com


AURI and Pure Soap Flake Company

Idea to reality:
Pure Soap Flake Company wanted to create a product that was good for babies, pets, and people with allergies, sensitive skin.

AURI’s role:
AURI helped Jones evaluate how well her soaps kill germs. An analytical chemist at AURI’s Marshall lab tested the flakes, bar soap and laundry powder on bacteria-infused fabric swatches.

Outcomes:
AURI helped a small agribusiness that didn’t have the resources or expertise for product testing or research. The result was the development of products that proved effective in removing common household germs, and were much more effective
than washing with water alone.