Just Soap

  | Food For Thought, Producer of the Month

Sometimes something simple can make the largest impact. Just Soap strives to make a big difference through low-impact practices, intentional efficiencies, and high-quality products. Frederick Breeden started Just Soap as a simple craft project, and it has since blossomed into a thriving household staple, locally and beyond.

Humans have harnessed the chemical alchemy called saponification for well over 4,000 years. Evidence shows that ancient Babylonians were making soap around 2,800 B.C. by boiling fats with ashes, and small soapmakers like Fred still use the same basic technique today. Soap even paved the way for modern medicine.

In the mid-1990s, Fred set out to make soap for friends and family in his kitchen in Florence, MA. He’d already woven baskets as gifts, but wanted to fill them with handmade goodness. He dove head first into study and experimentation; for over a year, he refined his process. Demand grew, and for a time he produced soap out of his converted garage. Now situated in Ashfield, in a shop built specifically for the purpose, he produces over 50,000 bars annually.

Just Soaps are recognizable instantly on our Wellness shelves by their simple beauty, no-plastic packaging, and enchanting natural scents. Our co-op sells the bars completely free of packaging, and even the way they’re delivered is as close to zero waste as possible. As BFC staffer Lisa says, “Having worked in Wellness, I’ve seen the amount of plastic that goes into our body care products. When Just Soap arrives, it’s wrapped in paper bags and packaged in cardboard. Very little waste.”

Just Soap has spread nationally: up through Maine, out to Martha’s Vineyard, down to Maryland, past Wyoming, and even as far afield as Alaska. All told, Fred has his soap in about 70-80 stores. But even with steady growth of around 5% each year, he’s been able to keep the business running by himself. He’s the only one in the shop, forty hours a week, and that’s kinda how he likes it. He finds joy in the variety of tasks in his work days. From lifting, biking, cutting and shipping, and cleaning the shop, it’s a one-person show. They’re all opportunities for his intentional efficiencies to shine, the most remarkable being the custom-built pedal-powered soap mixer.

Making soap is a transformative process. Saponification occurs when a small amount of a strongly alkaline liquid (nowadays we use lye) is mixed (and mixed and mixed) with a much larger quantity of fat, which is slightly acidic. The constant stirring makes all those molecules bump up against each other, and eventually changes the nature of the raw materials into something greater than the sum of its parts. What starts as a mixture with a viscosity akin to a vinaigrette is the consistency of pea soup by the time it’s ready.

By 1998, after many exhausting days of hand-mixing small batches of his products, it became clear that the main thing holding Just Soap back was how much went into producing every bar. The thorough mixing required to create the chemical reaction is extremely labor-intensive if done by hand, and energy-intensive if done by machine. A day of hand-mixing soap meant spending thirteen hours mixing batches small enough for him to handle, with the mixing getting progressively more difficult as each batch began to thicken. Realizing there could be a mechanical solution, Fred turned towards another lifelong passion of his: biking. At the time, he was biking a good distance to his day job, and had preferred that method of travel for years (in all seasons!). Fred knew the power in his legs far outweighed his arms. And so he worked with a custom bike builder to design a simple machine that used a bicycle to power the mixing, a union of Fred’s passions. That machine is still working perfectly today, a testimony to quality engineering.

After mixing the soap, it is poured into custom-made wooden frame molds, where the chemical process continues. The resulting 40 lb blocks of raw soap can easily produce heat over 120 degrees and are kept in special insulated housing to maintain the temperature and keep the product stable. Once this process is complete, the soap needs to be cut. Special frames precisely strung with wires take care of that (one for the horizontal cut and another for the vertical). A large ventilated chamber densely furnished with special racks allows the bars to release the rest of their moisture over a two-month curing process. This curing period is one of the hallmarks of Just Soap; it helps the bars last a long time and remain solid without the use of chemical hardeners. It also makes for a richer, gentler cleaner because it retains the natural glycerin usually removed from commercial bars.

When it comes to ingredients and the impact his work has on our environment, Fred follows his family’s tradition of valuing people and the planet. His parents were both seminarians, and his father was a civil rights leader in Boston, where the Breeden family lived. Fred would never have guessed he’d end up running a business–he’s more interested in politics, religion, and philosophy than in entrepreneurialism. But working with his hands is in his nature, and production is the way he thinks. Even back when he was making candles as gifts with his life partner, Margaret, he made racks and other equipment to increase efficiency and ease their tiny manufacturing operation.

Fred’s solid ethical core guides all of his business choices. He uses sustainable palm oils, his soap comes with little to no packaging, and whenever possible he uses recycled materials. Just Soap is now completely solar- and human-powered. The impact of the energy he uses to control the climate in the shop during the hot and humid summer months is significant, and neutralizing that carbon footprint was a top priority for him. Just Soap is built on the concept of social justice, a business practice that fits in line with our Co-op’s values.

Just Soaps are all made with natural vegetable oils, essential oils, and organic herbs and spices. They are certified organic, and reasonably priced, too. Choose from Lavender Rosemary, Cinnamon Clove, Oatmeal Honey, Sage Fir, Orange Lemon, Lemongrass Ginger, Peppermint, Unscented, and two types of Rosemary Shampoo. Just Soap is just the best soap!

By Jesse Massaro of Old Creamery Co-op, adapted by Ruth Garbus

Thursday, June 1st, 1-4pm. Come on out and meet Fred and take home a free mini-bar of his soap to try. You will love it!

Just Soap has been the #1 stocking stuffer for Lisa, the demo coordinator, for years. It smells amazing, and the high-quality ingredients shine through each bar.

So, we’re really excited that Fred, the owner of this bicycle- and solar-powered business, will be coming in to do a demo of his products. This is a real treat as things are so busy with his one-man business that he hasn’t done a demo for years. He is coming out of demo retirement just for us!

Oh, and one more thing to love about this product: the simple packaging. When Just Soap arrives at the Co-op, it is wrapped in paper bags and packaged in cardboard. Very little waste. If we seem a little excited about this demo… well, we are!