Inside a nondescript warehouse off Palmer Street stand two steel vats, one filled with a blend of palm, coconut and Montana-grown safflower oils and the other with lye. Next to them, in a smaller steel pot, oil and lye are blended by a loudly humming drill with a long bit and spindle, like an ice cream shop's milkshake mixer. It catalyzes the chemical reaction, called saponification, which results in soap.
This is the beginning of a process that goes on every day here at Botanie Soap, a fast-growing Missoula business and online retailer. The warehouse smells of all the essential oils and herbs that are added to its organic soaps following saponification. Shelves hold jugs and buckets containing ingredients such as juniper berries and walnut husk, rosemary leaf, grapefruit peel and vanilla bean powders.
Over the last five years, Botanie Soap has evolved from a hobby that produced a few hundred bars of soap a month to an international retailer with six full-time employees and a couple of more part-timers, who make between 40,000 and 60,000 bars of soap a month and ship them to every state in the country and beyond.
"That's a lot of soap," says Tim Iudicello.
Iudicello is the bearded, 37-year-old entrepreneur behind Botanie. He's tapped a niche. "If you can make someone between 500 to 5,000 units, that's a real nice little sweet spot," he says.
About 90 percent of his customers are small, home-based businesses that want to sell soap without having to make it themselves, he says. The other 10 percent—accounting for the vast majority of bars sold—are bigger clients for whom Botanie makes, packages and brands soaps.
After herbs and essential oils are added to the soap, it hardens in large, rectangular plastic molds. Pneumatic presses then cut the molds into loaves, and again into bars. Botanie stocks 14 kinds, some of which are sold locally at the Good Food Store and Meadowsweet Herbs. The most popular, Iudicello says, are lavender and oatmeal.
"It's a really interesting time for us, because we're finally getting to have legs," he says.
Botanie could take more steps forward when it introduces a line of liquid soaps next year.
"It'll give us a chance to try all these products that are floating in my head," Iudicello says.