Cleaning up the craft scene with Chinatown’s newest business: Purple Urchin soap
This multimedia piece is the second in a series of small business profiles that Local Tourist will be doing over the next few months. If you are an entrepreneur who is just getting started and want to be featured, email us at email@example.com
Hilary Duff is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University and a contributing editor for Local Tourist Ottawa.
Sarah Stewart and Rebecca Pereira have come a long way from milk carton soap moulds.
The two are the owners of Chinatown’s newest business: Purple Urchin, a handmade soap company set to open this Saturday, November 12.
Cruising up to 882 Somerset St. W., your eye might be drawn in by the front door, which has been painted a bright shade of – you guessed it – purple. The grey brick building stands out amidst the road construction, and a fresh coat of paint keeps the location looking bright and tidy.
For Sarah and Rebecca, it has been long journey to get Purple Urchin to where it is today. How long? Well about 792 kilometers, give or take a little. That’s the distance between Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the place where Purple Urchin got its start.
The two women have wanted to start a business since they first met in high school.
While soap may not be the most common product choice, Sarah and Rebecca said that for them, the decision was a clean sweep.
“We wanted to create a business that was both environmentally friendly and also creative,” said Rebecca. “Sarah has a fine arts degree and I took art classes, so we like to do creative and artsy things.”
They made their first batch of soap in November 2005 in cardboard boxes lined with wax paper. In addition to mould issues, getting the actual soap ingredients presented an interesting challenge.
“We had no idea where to get anything, so we ended up buying our coconut oil at the Independent Grocer, which is pretty expensive. We got our lye (a special chemical used in soap-making) from a little hardware store. I think the guys thought we were going to start blowing up the city,” Rebecca said. “Like Fight Club,” Sarah added with a laugh.
The idea for Purple Urchin was concocted a few months after that initial batch, which, though completely usable, was still funny looking, Sarah claims. It was given away to family for Christmas that year.
The original idea was that Purple Urchin would be a primarily online business. To supplement their eBay account, Sarah and Rebecca sold at craft shows, but were frustrated by the response.
“We did a few craft shows in Sault St. Marie, but the craft community there is not at all like the Ottawa one,” Sarah said. “It’s a lot of old ladies who just do it as a part-time hobby and they didn’t appreciate how smelly our stuff was.”
At the time, neither Sarah nor Rebecca was able to fully commit to the business. Sarah’s boyfriend got a job in Ottawa, and Purple Urchin was split across the province.
In 2008, after nearly a year off from soap making, it was time for the two women to decide whether they wanted to continue with Purple Urchin or let their business dreams go down the drain.
A decision was made, and the two continued selling. Sales started to pick up in Ottawa, and Purple Urchin began to gain a following from the booth at the Main Street Farmer’s Market and various craft sale appearances.
Purple Urchin finally found its niche market.
Sales grew even more, and the two knew it was time to open their own shop.
“We knew we had to do something to let the business grow,” Rebecca said. “We were outgrowing our basements and couldn’t possibly do it at home anymore. It was really a now or never sort of thing.”
The two rented the Somerset property on a whim and have been moved in since September. Rebecca relocated to Ottawa and now lives in Sarah’s basement.
For now, Purple Urchin’s focus is to get their shop up and running and sell at the upcoming holiday craft shows. Eventually, Sarah and Rebecca plan on opening their Purple Urchin Etsy store, so people back in their hometown and all over the country can buy their soap.
Curious as to how soap is made from scratch? Check out the audio slideshow from when Sarah gave us a step-by-step walkthrough.
Today, the business is expanding quickly, and it’s not unusual for Purple Urchin to unveil a dozen new products at one craft sale. While soap remains the number one priority, Sarah and Rebecca also create handmade body butters, hand balms and more. Their newest product is an anti-aging face serum and a line of scented candles.
When reflecting on their future goals for Purple Urchin, Sarah and Rebecca say the ultimate goal isn’t a global soap empire, by any means.
“If we could sell enough stuff to make a comfortable living, then that would be great. We’d like to be able to get some stuff in bigger stores,” Rebecca said.
The new Purple Urchin location is a huge step towards that dream, and the two women admit that the store opening is one big adventure.
“This is all new to us. We just jumped into this from the craft show world,” Rebecca said. “It’s exciting.”
Thanks for sharing your story with us and giving us an exclusive look into your opening, Sarah and Rebecca. We’re excited for your launch and can’t to buy some of your soap for Christmas. Editor’s note: the 80’s revival and cedar soap smell AMAZING.