When Brian Cole began working at Third Street Market in Whitefish about three years ago, bars of the Whitefish-made product Sope were almost an afterthought in the store’s promotional scheme, wrapped in a simple paper jacket on an out-of-the-way shelf.
Now, Sope and the Amalgamated Sope Company’s other products, Salve and Arnica Oil, are getting the star treatment. An eye-catching display fills an area near the store’s two main registers. A shelf-length backcard, with information highlighting the organic and local nature of the products, plus a picture of Sope maker Jen Elden, complements and draws attention to the arrangement.
“She (Elden) started asking questions about how to promote her products, what changes she could make,” Cole said. “She was inquisitive and wanted to improve. She has really sought counsel from a number of people that she’s been able to bounce ideas off, and consequently, she’s doing a terrific job.”
The store is not playing favorites with a local company — the products have earned their prime spot, Cole said.
“It definitely pays for its space, no doubt about that,” Cole said. “We get lots of compliments and comments about it. Some people say it’s the only soap they use.”
Since Elden first sold her homemade soaps from a basket at the Whitefish Farmers Market, she and her husband, Dave, had made great strides toward achieving the dream that Sope becomes a staple product in households across Montana. After the Eldens spent the last year aggressively pursuing retail outlets, Sope products are now displayed in 40 stores, with locations throughout Montana, as well as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona and British Columbia.
The Amalgamated Sope Company, which operates out of a workshop at the Elden family home in Whitefish, is focused on some basic principles. The core philosophies are listed succintly on the label of each bar of Sope:
“Keep it simple. Use local and organic ingredients whenever possible. Small batches. Minimal packaging. Nothing artificial, no ‘unpronounceables.’”
The company’s anchor product is Sope, a line of seven “flavors” of organic natural bar soap made with safflower oil, coconut and palm oils and pure essential oils, and either herbs harvested from the Eldens’ home garden or organic exfoliants.
Salve, made for protection and healing of skin ailments, comes in two styles, “All Purpose” and “Super Healing.” It is made with the herbs calendula and comfrey, shea butter, beeswax and vitamin E.
Arnica Oil is made from arnica flowers infused in jojoba oil and vitamin E. It is sold with a roller ball applicator and is applied to muscles and joints to help reduce swelling, bruising and inflammation.
When Elden, 38, began making soap, a craft she learned after taking a class from a friend, she was using organic olive oil. She was happy to learn that safflower oil was a quality substitute. She found a Montana supplier of organic safflower oil through a family farm on the east side of the state.
“It’s a big deal that the majority of the oil is Montana grown,” she said. “The fact that it’s certified organic means it’s good for your skin, and good for the land.”
Elden spent 10 years working for Montana Coffee Traders, which gave her the retail experience and pragmatism to develop a solid business plan for her current venture.
“I was exposed to a lot with Coffee Traders,” she said. “Production, sales, customer service. Good customer service is a huge part of what we offer.”
Elden has been the principle salesperson since the company began about seven years ago, though the Eldens recently made their first hire, a salesperson on commission. Dave Elden has been the marketer, building a website and shooting high-quality photos for promotional material. The Eldens realize the importance of creating the right image through design, having a professional graphic designer create the packaging for the products.
“We wanted the product to be a stand-alone sales piece,” Jen Elden said.
Because they turn Montana-grown safflower oil into a value-added agricultural product, the Amalgamated Sope Company has received state grant money through the Growth Through Agriculture program, part of the Department of Agriculture. One mini-grant was to assist with the purchase of new boxes for Sope, which are printed in Bozeman from 100 percent recycled materials. Another was to create a point-of-purchase box for Salve, which comes in containers too compact for display in single units.
The Eldens also have received a substantial boost through the state’s Trade Show Assistance Program, giving them financial help in attending the National Products Expo Northwest in Seattle in October 2011 and the much bigger National Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a delegation of nine Montana companies, in March 2012.
“That was amazing exposure,” Jen Elden said. “Sixty-thousand people went through the convention center in three days. Some marketing experts gave us the thumbs up — they stopped by and said we had a great product.”
As a result of the show, the Amalgamated Sope Company has a launch date planned with a significant out-of-state company on Oct. 1. Elden said that after focusing on the Montana market for a year, the company’s ambition is to grow regionally and nationally — but not lose sight of its values.
“We want to proceed with intention so it’s sustainable,” she said. “We don’t want to be out of control, but want it to be significant enough to support our family and hopefully create more jobs.”
For more information or to order Amalgamated Sope Company products online, visit www.sopeshop.com.
Business reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at email@example.com.
Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Jen Elden, owner of Amalgamated Sope Company, poses for a portrait Tuesday afternoon at her booth at the Whitefish Farmers' Market. Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 in Whitefish, Montana.
Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Eric Reed of Whitefish smells a bar of Amalgamated Sope Tuesday afternoon during the Whitefish Farmers' Market. Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 in Whitefish, Montana.