A Labor of Relaxation

There's nothing like coming home after a hard day's work to soak in a soapy, hot bubble bath.

Or, if you're Kathy Gambrell, you may find it more relaxing to come home after a long, hectic day and relax by pulling out a mess of pots and pans and cooking up the soap and bath salts for someone else to soak in.

Gambrell was looking for a hobby, "something else to do, something creative," she said, in addition to her day job: managing a team of reporters covering congressional votes on Capitol Hill.

But handcrafting soaps then turned into something of a "hobby that has gotten out of control," she laughs, as it has turned into a profitable business that she works on at night.

Chesapeake Bay Bath and Body founder Kathy Gambrell cuts her handmade soap into bars. (Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Bath and Body)

"Usually I get home about 8 p.m., put on my pajamas and get on a roll," she said. "I love to cook and with this hobby it helped that I have a medical background." She was a lab technician in a now defunct Capitol Hill hospital.

"The weights and measures of putting a recipe together is a lot like lab medicine," she said.

She learned how to craft soap and bath products by taking a day-long class on herbal soap making offered by Maryland's Howard County. She was hooked and kept experimenting at home, starting her fledgling business last summer.

"It's like cooking and coming up with different recipes but you're making body butters, lip balms and a whole plate of products that you can shape," she said.

Her son's nanny, along with her friends and family, learned of her late-night concoctions and began asking her to make customized soap bars. Like any good journalist, she did extensive research and found that the highest quality ingredients and best prices were based out of Washington state. With most of the soap suppliers online, it made it efficient to order various ingredients from across the country.

Gambrell spent about $500 up front to get things moving and currently spends up to $200 a month on ingredients. She's able to lower that cost partly because she buys in bulk. Sales from Gambrell's efforts now bring in roughly $600 to $700 a month.

"I'd go home at the end of my 14-hour day and I'd go to the kitchen and start making soap and bath salts," she recalls, adding that about three months ago, a couple of friends asked if she could put together gift baskets. Eventually as the holiday season approached, she ended up making 50 baskets for friends and then "it became easier to manage it all by having a Web site instead of having people calling me all day."

As her hobby started burgeoning, she purchased a "big old stainless steel Dutch oven, stock pots and utensils for soap making."

She is also working on filing a formal business license in Maryland, something she needs before she can make any contracts with salons or boutiques and exploring the marketing and public relations aspect of sustaining a business, along with making sure she meets the FDA regulations regarding ingredients in cosmetics.

"The process of making soaps feeds my creative side, while the business of running a company - even a small one like mine - satisfies my intellectual curiousity," Gambrell said. "I have had to learn about exploring what the competition is doing and how to do it better."

The business continues to grow by word of mouth, said Gambrell, who says she'll need to rethink how she manages the business if it comes to the point where she can't keep up with the orders, or spends more than three or four days a week filling orders.

Right now, many of her orders come in through her Web site, that she set up by using a template by the firm Homestead.

The soap is created through a mixture of oils and butters, hardened in a birchwood mold and then cured for up to 72 hours. She also uses fresh and dried herbs, grains, coffee, which she keeps stashed in an old armoire in her Maryland house.

She named her business Chesapeake Bay Bath and Body, partly inspired by trips with her son to the bay. "The name was almost natural. It was sentimental. My dad had a summer house on the bay many years ago and we had great summers there. I associate the bay with feeling good and relaxation."

Gambrell does not aspire to grow her company into a global handmade soap and cosmetics firm like Lush, which offers its products in 42 countries.

"I'd like to be more personal than that," she said. "They just have so many venues all over. I'd rather stay a small business, and I have no aspirations to become a multimillion dollar firm."

She said she's learned a lot about being an entrepreneur from her father, who owned four dry cleaners in D.C. "Like my dad did, I want to know the people who come in every day... My dad taught me that you learn from your mistakes. You look to give personal service. You want to connect with the people who patronize you. I enjoy talking personally to people."

Gambrell plans on continuing her late-night endeavors "for the foreseeable future."

"My son gets a huge kick out of it," said Gambrell, who said she has gained instant street cred with her five year old who proudly tells her "None of the other mommies at school make soap."

By Sharon McLoone |  January 14, 2008; 11:28 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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It's so encouraging to see how people can take a hobby and grow it into a business venture. I thank Ms. Gambrell for sharing her story!

Posted by: Gail | February 1, 2008 3:31 PM

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