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An Alameda beekeeper collaborates with Oakland businesses to make sweet soaps

on May 15, 2013

When she started keeping bees as a hobby six years ago, tattoo artist Jean Chen never thought she’d be making a living from them in her kitchen.  But on April 28, Chen quit her job after ten years. Her new job—soap maker.

Using honey and wax produced from the five hives she owns with her husband, Chen’s Alameda-based company Bubble Farm Soap Co. makes scented soaps such as chocolate and oatmeal honey.

Wishing to keep her products as natural as possible, Chen uses actual ground coffee from Bittersweet Chocolate Café in Oakland in her coffee vanilla scrub. And from selling the bars in the café and shops such as Oaklandish and Piedmont Grocery, her products now retail in 18 locations around Northern California and New York.

“We sold a ton during the holidays last year, more than we expected and were prepared for, and even had to buy wax from other beekeepers to keep making soap. That was when I realized I was ready to leave my job,” said Chen. “Tattooing is hard and my hands were shot.”

To get their products on the market, Chen started walking into small business stores to ask if they would stock her products. While she declined to reveal how much they earn from selling soap, she said she sold about 300 bars of soap last month on top of bath salts, lip balms and hand salves, enough to pay her half of the bills and leave her day job as a tattoo artist.

Chen and her husband, Chris Bauer, bought their first beehive after meeting some beekeepers at a county fair in Marin in 2007 and learning that it was definitely possible to keep bees in city areas. They were living in San Francisco then and began attending meetings with the San Francisco Bee Club soon after.

In 2008, the couple moved to Alameda with their beehives.  They were initially focused on the honey produced and broke even after two years by selling jars of honey. However, they soon realized how much extra wax their bees made. Bauer began making lip balm with it in 2009 by melting it with olive oil and adding flavoring.

Bauer soon began experimenting with soap making and tried out different combinations of beeswax and oils for about a year before achieving the desired consistency and texture.

“It couldn’t be too soft or too hard, and has to lather up just the right amount. The unique thing about beeswax soap is that it doesn’t become mushy when the bar of soap has been used for some time,” said Chen.

But running the business wasn’t easy as both Chen and Bauer still had day jobs.

“Chris works as a full-time designer in Silicon Valley. Back then, when he came home from work at night, I’d tell him he needed to make more soap and he’d say, ‘But I just had a hard day at work,’” said Chen. “We realized then that I needed to learn to make soap and since then, I’ve taken over the soap making part of the business.”

She has since learned to mix the right proportions of ingredients and said it takes about two hours to make a batch of soap bars. But the bars need to be cured for a month before they can be sold.

Bauer now manages logistical purchases and cares for the bees while she works on growing the soap business.

In anticipation of continued high demand for their soap, Chen says they currently have about 750 bars of soap in storage.

Their newest product is the chocolate soap that contains actual cocoa powder.

“Some customers have made requests for flavors like Coca-Cola honey and bubblegum honey soap bars, but I want to keep everything natural and there are no essential oils for those,” said Chen, who says they have started experimenting with a shampoo bar.

Chan also collaborates with other business owners in Oakland to create new products; their vanilla coffee scrub is one of them. She said that the coffee bits act as an exfoliator.

One of the owners of Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe, Diana Meckfessel, said that Chen regularly buys batches of about five pounds of coffee, paying $6 per pound for beans she is no longer willing to serve to customers because they are no longer at their optimal taste.

“We roast our beans in small batches and if they don’t sell by a specific date, Jean buys it and we grind it down for her to put in her fantastic soaps. I love it that both our businesses are in Oakland and we have this food cycle and waste reduction system program. It’s like keeping it in the family,” said Meckfessel.

Meckfessel and Chen also discussed using the café’s chocolate in the soap bars, but decided it was too pricey.

Natalie Nadimi, community manager for Oaklandish, said that the response to Bubble Farm Soap Co’s products has been good.

“We love to showcase local artists and businesses and Bubble Farm’s soap is something anyone can afford. Many people add it on as a gift, and we’re really happy about our collaboration because many of our customers come in wanting to shop local and make an impact,” she said.

The future of their business also looks bright; Chen said they have been contacted by more stores in New York enquiring about putting their products on their shelves and she is currently working towards national distribution.

But as hard as she works, Chen admits that there are some things that will remain outside her control.

Just last year, zombie flies attacked two of their five hives. The parasitic flies paralyze the bees by laying eggs in the bees. As they grow, the larvae feed on the muscles and nervous systems of the bees and the attack on their brains cause the bees to become disoriented. Bauer had to drown the hives as Chan said the bees were seen walking in circles on the ground.

“I was told that beekeeping is easier than having a cat, and it’s true,” said Chen, who once had three cats. “But keeping bees is essentially trying to tame a wild animal and you can never predict what’s going to happen. It’s a business with no guarantees.”


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