Possum Hollow Farm Soap

Earlier this spring, the Sanford Micro-Enterprise Assistance Program committee awarded the program's final grant to Possum Hollow Farm Soap, a small soap and skincare products manufacturing company based in Sanford. We recently had a chance to catch up with Jen and Derek Bedford, the owners, to discuss their company and the impact of the MEA grant on their operation. Below is an illuminating Q&A with Jen and Derek.

GC: Possum Hollow Farm Soap has an interesting history. Can you share with us the story of how the business was started?

Our founders, Robin & Jim Bedford started Possum Hollow Farm Soap in Lehigh Valley, PA in 1999. They were dairy farmers at the time and their youngest son, Adam, needed to complete a science project, he chose to make soap. After the science project was complete Robin and Jim loved it so much and decided to continue making soap to give as gifts to family and friends. This love blossomed into the desire to build a business and go to craft shows. On the beautiful countryside behind there home was a possum hollow where a family of possums lived year after year. With the cow’s milk readily available it created the perfect recipe and this is where the story of Possum Hollow Farm Soap begins.

GC: Tell us a bit about yourselves. How did you come to be part of the family soap-making business and what made you decide to move it here to Sanford, Maine?

We grew up in a small, rural town in Bucks County, PA. We have known each other since 4 years old and were friends in high school. Derek graduated from Maine College of Art with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Design. He owned his own interior design company for 5 years and worked as a lead cabinet finisher for a world-renowned cabinet company. 

Jen has a Bachelors of Science in Pastry Arts from Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island campus. She has 15 years of management experience and her science knowledge helps in the development of new products.

We married in 2008 and Robin & Jim taught us the careful process of cold-process soap making. We gave the first 2 batches out to our wedding guests. We loved the art of soap making and the final product and joined the family business in 2009. In 2011, we decided to move everything to Bucks County, Perkasie PA; our original hometown, where we made the soaps and other products in the back of our retail store for 5 years. When Robin and Jim retired and moved to Texas to care for their grandson in 2014, we decided to close the store and move back to New England where we went to college. We found a beautiful home and supportive community in Sanford, Maine where we live and run the family company together.

GC: Can you tell us about your products?  

Our mission at Possum Hollow Farm Soap is to provide our customers with affordable, luxurious and natural bath and skin care products while considering the sustainability of the ingredients we use and our carbon footprint on the earth.

At Possum Hollow Farm Soap, LLC we are passionate about our products. Our focus is making amazing natural skincare products that are good for you. We hand craft our soaps using the cold process method of soap making. This insures the consumer that they are getting true soap and not a soap product containing mostly by-products of true soap making such as, glycerin. Glycerin is a natural by-product of the soap making process but by itself lacks the long term moisturizing quality that a cold process soap can provide.

We hand craft each batch of soap with only high quality food grade vegetable oils, amazing blends of essential oils, organic herbs, flowers and colorful natural clays. From the selection of moisturizing oils to the packaging we do each step ourselves in our Sanford, ME soap kitchen. With two generations of experience focused on detail and quality, countless hours have been spent on research and product development. Our experience affords you a natural luxurious product for everyday use.

With eighteen years of soap-making experience, we use our knowledge to create skin-calming, moisturizing and aromatic soaps. Each soap is created using natural ingredients to attend to specific skin-care needs and conditions. Each scent is densely packed with aromatherapy properties offering a broad range of benefits. We have developed two soap lines for the ingredient conscious consumer. The original line utilizes cow's milk and our second line is vegan, utilizing coconut milk. Both bases provide excellent natural moisturizing qualities.

Our products are made without the use of artificial colors and additives, are chemical free, paraben free, phosphate free, SLS free, Non-GMO and contain no artificial preservatives. No Artificial Anything. We do not test on animals, but we do offer a soap that is safe and wonderful to use on your pets.

One bonus to using our soaps is that it's good for the environment. Many commercial soaps, antibacterial soaps and liquid soaps use earth and skin-damaging chemicals which are polluting the world we live in. Buying and using our soaps allows everyone to win; you get an awesome product that makes you feel good and you help protect our environment. All of our product packaging can be recycled; therefore, you can continue as we have in reducing your carbon footprint.

We are dedicated to making the best natural and organic skincare products at an affordable price while not compromising our integrity or the earth. With our soaps and skincare you will find your skin beautiful, soft and conditioned. For 18 years we have been proud to say that we offer "Quite possibly the best soap you will ever try!”

Our products do not intend to cure any skincare issues. If you have a skin condition it is best to seek the advice of a doctor before trying new products. If you have sensitive skin, try a small amount on a small area of your cheek or inside wrist, first.  Do not use our soaps that contain clay or apply our skincare products to broken skin. If you have a reaction after using our product, discontinue use and consult a physician. 

GC: Are there any products that are more challenging to make than others?  

Our skincare products are the most challenging. We spend a lot of time on research and development to make sure that the product works how we intend them to.

GC: Do you have a favorite product?

It is really hard to choose a favorite but if we have to choose;  

Derek: My favorite product is our Rose Toning Elixir. I use it throughout the day, every day, to help tone and balance my complexion but I also use it as a refreshing spray. My favorite soap is Rosemary Lavender Peppermint, the aromatherapy relaxes and rejuvenates at the same time and makes your bathroom smell like a spa.

Jen: My favorite product is the Facial Serum for Mature and Aging Skin. It’s important to take care of your skin no matter what your age, but for me at 36, I saw certain aging characteristics beginning to showing up and our serum has helped to deter those aging signs. I also love our Lavender soap with Chamomile & Calendula, the scent is wonderful and it is so gentle on your skin. It is a great soap to use on babies.

GC: Can you share with us who your customers are? What type of people and places buy your products? Do you have a best-seller, one or two that make up a considerable share of revenues?

Our target market is virtually all consumers, but especially those concerned about the ingredients that are in the personal care products they use, not only for their own health reasons but for the sustainability of the ingredients and how it's use affects the environment.

The types of businesses that carry our products range from small retailers to large corporations. There is a great demand for all-natural and organic skincare products and we are being sought out by more small businesses every year that carry products such as ours, as well as spas and resorts. 

Our regular bar soaps are our biggest seller right now. We are hoping the skincare will take over once we introduce it to the market. It really is a wonderful line! No matter what your skin type, we have you covered. 

GC: Can you walk us through the soap-making process in a nutshell?

We make the soap in our soap kitchen. We have a 45 gallon melting pot and a 80 quart mixing pot. We melt the oil, add it to the prepared milk solution and mix them together, adding essential oils, flowers and/or herbs until it traces (looks like a cooked custard). This mixture is then poured into a big mold. After curing and cooling for 32 hours, the soap is cut with a manual hand cutter and placed on drying racks to dry for about 4 weeks. The bar edges are shaved and then we wrap each bar by hand and ship them to retail stores across the U.S.A.

GC: You were recently awarded a grant through the Sanford Micro-Enterprise Assistance Program that the growth council coordinates. What has winning an MEA grant meant for you and your business? Can you tell us what you hope to accomplish with the grant funds?

Winning the MEA Grant has been such a blessing to us. We have been able to purchase some much needed equipment to make our business more efficient and less back breaking, literally. The equipment we will be receiving soon will allow us to stream-line our manufacturing processes and make us more efficient, saving us money and time.  We hope to continue our growth of about 20% every year with the help of the equipment and reduce our time spent wrapping, so that we can invest more time on the sales and marketing end of our business. We also have boxes being made for our new skincare line, Bedford. Some of the products in the Bedford skincare line are 100% organic but there are none with lower than 50 % and all other ingredients are 100% all natural.

GC: One of the components of your grant project is a soap wrapping machine which is being designed and built for you by the University of Maine. Can you tell us more about the machine, why it is so important and the process you have been working through to have it made?

This project will help our company expand and strengthen our business. 

The soap wrapping machine as well as other soap equipment will help us to reduce labor expenses, allowing us to invest our time growing the business and therefore increasing revenue. We receive orders from 25 bars to 15,000 bars. Right now we hand wrap our soaps one by one, about 3 per minute and it’s a lot of wear and tear on our hands day after day, especially when we fulfill the larger orders. The machine will allow us to wrap 5 bars per minute with the ability to increase the functionality of the machine to grow from there. We will be manually loading and running the machine and finishing the labeling by hand, but it will be less wear and tear on our hands. The machine is currently being designed and we hope to have it by the end of October.

GC: You are obviously very passionate about what you do and the products you create.  What are your short and long-term goals for Possum Hollow Farm Soap?

Our short-term goal is to build our new facility and implement the new equipment. Following that, we would like attend buyer shows. With the anticipated growth, we know we will eventually need a big facility and will need to hire employees. Our long-term and biggest goal is to become the “Stonewall Kitchen” of the Skincare Industry. 

GC: Can you describe your company’s experience working with the City of Sanford and its process for obtaining permits?

Working with the City of Sanford to obtain our Occupancy Permit was an easy and smooth process. We set up an inspection appointment for them to come out and since we met with them prior, we knew what was needed and had it in place.  We will be pulling a building permit soon, to build our new facility and we expect that to be just as smooth. 

GC: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs who may want to start a business manufacturing goods from their homes?

Go for it! But, be ready to work more and harder than you ever have before! Be ready to invest a lot of time and money. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and/or guidance from local facilities such as Economic Growth Council, Small Business Advisor or other business owners. Don’t give up, learn from your mistakes, because you are going to make them, we all do.

GC: You already have a successful wholesale business as well as a beautiful website where customers can make on-line purchases. Do you have any plans for a retail operation in Sanford?

Thank you. We are really focusing on obtaining wholesale accounts in Maine and New England right now. We would like to have accounts in every state. We have a beautiful new skin care line that we would like to see in Spas and Resorts and other businesses that understand and focus on the importance of organic, all-natural skincare. There is a goal for the future that incorporates a retail operation, but that is down the road.

GC: When you spoke before a recent city council meeting you shared that your ultimate goal is “to dedicate ourselves to the community and become the Stonewall Kitchen of the Skincare Industry right here in Sanford.” Can you recap for us how you think your company is doing as it makes its way toward that pretty lofty goal?

We still have that goal in sight and our growth over the next few years will determine when we will be able to do that. We are currently working on moving the business out of our home and into a new building that we hope to have built by the end of this fall. That is the first step as well as implementing the new equipment. We feel we are on our way to achieving that goal.

For more information on the company or to view products, visit the Possum Hollow Farm Soap website.