AN URBAN SOAP STAR
Byline: Julie Naughton
HOBOKEN, N.J. — When Michelle Weintraub-Ferriss took up soap making as a hobby about three years ago, the last thing she expected to end up with was a bustling retail store in an upscale suburb.
Teaching herself from books on the subject, Weintraub-Ferriss — who has worked in training and sales positions for both Aveda and Clinique — began cooking up batches of soap in the kitchen of her Jersey City home, using vegetable and essential oils and herbs. When the slabs of soap began to outnumber the drying surfaces in her home, she started selling the finished product at local street fairs.
The hand-wrapped soap quickly gained a strong local following, and as business grew, Weintraub-Ferriss drafted her husband — a broker for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter — as an apprentice soap maker.
In September 1998, Weintraub-Ferriss brought the business inside with a 450-square-foot retail space on Hoboken’s bustling Washington Street.
She dubbed the fledgling business Forevergreen. “My concept was to put together a mix of all-natural, aromatherapy-based products,” she said. “The name seemed to capture exactly what I was after.”
The space was another story.
“That first store was so compact that if more than two people were in it at a time, it felt crowded,” remembered Weintraub-Ferriss. On opening day, that wasn’t a problem; she was the only one on the payroll. But by late 1999, the shop — its antique-looking hardwood display units crammed full of soaps and other beauty products — was bursting at the seams.
“By that point, we had four employees, and it was hard to move in there, especially around the holidays,” she said.
However, given Hoboken’s recent population boom — due to rapid gentrification — suitable retail space wasn’t easy to find. “I could have had a huge space on a back street, but in Hoboken, being on Washington Street near the PATH train [a commuter line to Manhattan] gives you the best chance of success,” she said.
By December of 1999, an early 20th-century storefront a block and a half north on Washington Street opened up — and on a snowy day in mid-January, Forevergreen made its move.
“We were carrying our display units up Washington on the coldest day of all time,” Weintraub-Ferriss said, laughing. “If I ever move again, it won’t be in the winter.”
But that trek up Washington Street nearly doubled the store’s retail space, to 750 square feet. While the rent nearly doubled, too — from $1,600 per month in the old space to $3,000 per month in the new — she believes it’s worth it.
“The store is still cozy, but now there’s room to move,” she said. “And that’s key — I want people to stay and browse, to feel free to hang out here — even if they’re not buying anything.”
A generously sized bay window right inside the front door serves as both window display and retail space, currently holding a grouping of Dr. Hauschka skin care products. The antique-looking solid wood shelving units rest against exposed brick walls, and near the back of the store, a gauzy curtain covers the alcove that leads to a massage area.
The display shelves are loaded not only with 40 varieties of Weintraub-Ferriss’s soaps — including the original six soaps and five just-added new ones — but also three varieties apiece of Forevergreen bath salts and massage oils. The mix also includes 25 store-branded essential oils and 15 perfume oils, and Weintraub-Ferriss will custom-blend any jar of bath salts or any massage oil upon request. Soaps are priced at $4.50 a bar, bath salts are $13.50 and massage oils sell for $10. Essential oils range from $7 to $15 for a 0.5-oz. bottle.
Wide selections of upscale fragrance, skin care and candle stockkeeping units from Demeter, Dr. Hauschka, Burning Butterfly Candles and Baby Cat Candles are also included.
“I’m not interested in carrying lines that you can find in every store in the United States,” she said of her assortment. “My goal is to scout out the smaller lines that other stores don’t carry and offer things with a natural focus.”
One of the best-selling recent additions is Burt’s Bees. “Ever since I added the line a month ago, I haven’t been able to keep it in stock,” Weintraub-Ferriss said. “This store should never have been without it.”
She’s also added a few sku’s recently that she may soon be using herself. Now 8 1/2 months pregnant, Weintraub-Ferriss realized early in her pregnancy that infant products were underrepresented in her mix. She’s just added baby lines from Weleda and Burt’s Bees, and others may follow — including some of her own mixing, she hinted. Weintraub-Ferriss wouldn’t comment on retail sales, simply saying that she’s more than comfortable paying the rent each month. “Let’s put it this way — we work seven days a week because we want to serve our customers, not because we have to,” she said. “Last year, we actually hoped business would slow down a bit in the summer, so we could catch up on soap making. Instead, it got busier.”
Much of Weintraub-Ferriss’s business is with the upscale 20-, 30- and 40-somethings that live in Hoboken, although she’s also welcomed a few famous faces — like Rosie O’Donnell and soap star Walt Willey — recently. But she said that she’s especially proud that more than 70 percent of her business comes from repeat customers.
“That’s been one of the best parts about owning this business,” she said. “So many of the customers have become friends.” One is even helping Weintraub-Ferriss to design a Web site, a longtime goal. It will include e-commerce and is expected to go live later this summer.
While she no longer makes soap in her kitchen — these days, she and a fellow employee concoct the store’s products in a Jersey City lab — Weintraub-Ferriss vows that the day she has to completely farm out soap production will never come. “To me, staying hands-on is what it’s all about,” she said. She’s also started dabbling in wholesaling her soap and has about 20 retail store accounts on the East Coast, the Midwest and in the Southwest. Although wholesale makes up just 10 percent of her business right now, that will likely grow in the future.
But she has no intention of growing to the point where she loses touch with what she loves about the industry. During a 95-degree day earlier this month, Weintraub-Ferriss could be seen at a Hoboken street fair, selling her wares and listening intently to customers offering suggestions for new soap fragrances.
“It’s a great way to keep in touch with what I love about the business,” she said, adding that she even plans to bring her baby to the store when he or she is born. “I feel very lucky to be a part of this.”