When National Geographic published an article last month about the health and environmental benefits of shampoo bars and included a link to Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve, the company received so many orders in two days that it wiped out inventory it had thought would last six months.
This wasn’t as big of a surprise as you might think, though. The 15-year-old company has developed such a formidable reputation in the field of all-natural health and beauty products that any time an item gets media attention, even those made by other companies, they feel an uptick, said Sam Friedman, who directs operations for the company.
“At 750 pages, our website is the largest online source of information on natural body, skin and hair care that there is. We have become, both in terms of products and information, one of the idea leaders of the whole organic and body care industry,” he said.
The company was founded by his mother, Ida Friedman Kasdan, after she put her expertise as a nurse and middle school science teacher to work to make a soap and a salve to replace the steroid creams that weren’t giving her husband much relief from his eczema. She was successful, and kept up her work as a hobby for a few years, making products in her kitchen and selling them at a local farmer’s market. She first created a small website about her products to help her students learn about chemistry.
“Once that was online, anyone could see it, and she started getting questions and orders. That’s the organic way that the business began,” Friedman said.
In 2005, Friedman Kasdan stopped teaching to focus on the business full time, and asked her son to join her to help ramp up the business a year later. He hesitated at first because he’s not a business person either, but ultimately agreed in 2007.
Today, 16 people work for the company — a blend of family members, close friends and a few people from the outside.
Friedman Kasdan, age 65, has taken a smaller management role now but still comes in most days, creating recipes and generating internet content.
While most of the company’s early products were purely her ideas, a large number of the about 380 USDA-certified organic products it offers today, including soaps, deodorant, pet shampoo, lip balm and bug spray, have come about from customer inquiries.
“We constantly hear requests and work to meet them, which has helped put us sort of at the forefront of whatever the new hot thing was about to be,” Friedman said.
For example, the company started making shampoo bars — hair cleanser packaged as a bar instead of a bottled liquid — 14 years ago. These bars started attracting a bit of buzz about two years ago for their minimal packaging, cost effectiveness, natural ingredients and easy portability, and today they are a hot item. Friedman has seen the same thing happen with dry shampoos, apple cider vinegar rinses and more.
“Whatever it is that all of the sudden is the thing, we were doing it a couple years ago because the people who were really interested in it weren’t finding what they were looking for and contacted us,” he said. “That kind of organic growth has really kept us at the forefront of the market.”
The company doesn’t advertise, preferring to engage with customers on social media. The company posts videos and articles and promote its blog about healthy products.
“We don’t think that paying to have your name somewhere does any good for anybody. In the industry we are in, it takes education to get people to change and to make good choices in life,” he said.
The strategy seems to be working.
The company previously only hired about once a year, but has added a staff member every month in each of the past four months. It also is adding space. From its roots in a home kitchen in 2003, it moved to a small warehouse in Solon in 2011. In 2014, it moved again, to a 35,000-square-foot building, also in Solon, that had previously been owned by Nestle.
“Every time I pull in, I’m just a little in awe still of it, but (that large of a building) is what’s required for 380 products and the production that we do,” Friedman said. “We don’t use any machinery. Everything is done by hand in a kitchen-style production. That takes a lot of people and space.”
Although he said he expects gross revenue will be between $2.5 million and $3 million this year, he said the company does not have a specific growth plan. It never has really.
“We are in the very funky and awkward position of one, not being business people. Navigating those kinds of paradigms for us is very unique and we don’t always know what we are doing,” he said. “Secondly, we’ve been in the very lucky position of consistently, for 15 years, trying to keep up with our business. Business used to double in size every year for the first 10 years. Now, that has stopped, but we’re still growing 20% or 30% each year.”
“We don’t have to set lofty goals. Our only goal is to not drown,” he added with a laugh.
About 85% of sales today come via the company’s website, but Friedman said the wholesale sector is a growing area, as are Amazon sales. The company also opened a retail store in the Fifth Street Arcade in downtown Cleveland about a year and a half ago.
“We love being part of downtown,” he said.
He’s also very proud of a local initiative he has spearheaded, named Local Symbiosis, in which Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve works with other local companies to utilize each other’s products in a mutually beneficial way. For example, it partners with Great Lakes Brewing Co. to turn beer that has passed its expiration date into soap and shampoo the brewery can sell online or in its gift shop, rather than see it be thrown away.
“We do that with all kinds of local products from really cool companies,” not just ones that were destined for the trash otherwise, he said.