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I put myself in that headspace and close my eyes and take a deep breath… what do I smell?



Trisha Hanudel-Lopez

San Pedro Soapworks


I guess I’ll start with how all this came to be. It started in 2016, even before that… let’s put it at 2013 or so. My husband and I were living in New York. I’ve always gone to libraries as long as I’ve lived, every single weekend, just getting all the books. I really like reading books of how to do things. No matter if I actually do the thing or not, I like reading “how to.” I got this book on how to make your own bath and body products. It was all using castile soap and that kind of thing, but I was like, “That sounds cool to do, more fun than making cheese or bread or something, let me try it.” So I did, and it was a lot of fun. I loved all the experimentation that was involved, I loved researching all the ingredients, and the R&D phase that had my hair and my skin going through all kinds of wild things, because I didn’t know what I was doing at that point, I was just experimenting. But I loved the process. I got started in dabbling in making my own bath and body products, figuring out what works for me, what could work for my husband or other people.


Fast forward, we move here to San Pedro in I think 2015, and then I ended up getting fired from a job. It took a while to get rehired again; I’ve had jobs since I was 16 and bouncing from one to the other, and this was three months, I was like, “What am I doing?” That soul reflection of “who am I, what do I love, what do I like to do?” I came back to making bath and body care. I had time in between applying for different jobs, so let me just dabble in this and it’ll take my mind off the job search. I was like, “Wait, I’m better at this now because of the three, four years of experimentation that I did, I’m a lot better at it. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.” I started doing all the research, looking into cosmetic chemistry, looking up the ingredients that you see on labels and you have no idea what they are. What do they actually do and how do they interact with other ingredients? Really getting into the chemistry of it. I have no background in chemistry; my background is studio art and business. I had the time and I had some extra funds lying around, so let me order decyl glucoside and see what happens. Let me mix it with sodium cocoyl isethionate and see what we got going on here. I did, and I started to develop a real product.


At about the same time, my mom, who lives in North Carolina, she’s got really thin, dry, cracked skin and she’s got all kinds of prescription creams and they give her side effects that she didn’t like. She was like, “Can you make me a cream that actually works for my hands?” Challenge accepted! I figured out a formulation and I sent it to her and she’s like, “Can you call this magic cream? I would buy this for $100.” That got me thinking that this actually works. It worked for my mom, who has the worst hands imaginable. If that works for my mom, maybe it can work for other people. I really got the business brain going and I was like, “I can turn this into a whole product line.” I was learning about different products, what makes shampoo different from body wash from hand soap, all of that. I developed a whole line of products. I made shampoo, body wash, a night serum, a cream — all the products that I use — let’s start with that and develop those products to see what happens. I was thinking of business names, I was really going down this road. San Pedro Soapworks just had a ring to it. We’re now 2017-ish; I did get hired somewhere and I was very happy in a day job.

 

Then I became pregnant with my second kid and of course that comes with a lot of maternity leave. I was a second-time mom, I already had my son, so I kind of knew the ropes and I had a little bit more headspace during maternity leave. We were taking a lot of stroller walks in the neighborhood and parks, outside all the time. San Pedro is gorgeous, it is a beautiful place. There’s flowers everywhere, you could see the port when you walk up 19th Street, you can see the ocean, it smells great. This is a really cool place and I love it. I’ve always had a spiritual, psychic, otherworldly connection to places, it’s always been my thing. So I was like, “Let me see if I can work San Pedro into these soaps.” How do I work that into a soap brand?


I started using essential oils and plants that are native to California. I got that going and drew my logo. I hand-drew the logo, designed the labels myself, worked out the packaging, and I got really bold one day and I was like, “Let me go see if I can get into Crafted.” I have all my products and I have my sheet and I was like, “Ooo, I’m doing business!” They were like, “Yeah, we’d love to have you here!” Just like that? Where’s the negotiation that they told me about in business school? Ok! I was in Crafted, set up an Etsy page, a terrible website that I then revamped, and things were going. I was working the day job, doing the soaps, selling at Crafted. Only it wasn’t really going anywhere, only a couple hundred dollars in sales a year. But I also wasn’t putting much effort into it.


And then the pandemic happens; I got laid off again. Whenever you get laid off, it’s always a great opportunity — a little pattern going on here! It was the pandemic so we had nothing but time. Once again, I started thinking, “How can I move this forward?” I had a lot less bandwidth then; I was trying to keep the family not getting COVID and trying to keep everybody safe. One night, my husband and I were watching tv, and he found this video of a lady making bar soap. It was Becky on the Homestead or something and there’s chickens running around, she was doing everything outside. Meanwhile, I had only known a world where I work inside in a closed environment so that nothing gets into the product, everything’s super clean, super sanitized, gloves, goggles, the whole thing. This lady’s making soap with chickens… what the hell is this? She’s barely measuring anything, just dumping things in and I’m horrified. My husband’s like, “You should make this!” I was like, “This is ridiculous, no… Oh, but wait, I could, because you can do actual designs in bars of soap.” I was an artist first, so I always have put some kind of artist’s perspective into everything I do. I realized that’s how I incorporate art into the product line and make it bold and visual and look cool. What’s more, I can do designs that are reflective of San Pedro. I had the space, I had the time. I did end up getting a job, so I had some money. If it fails or if I don’t like the process — because it’s important to me to enjoy the process — then no harm, no foul… my family just has 100 bars of soap that we’ll use and then go on with our lives. I did it and loved the process, absolutely loved it, because it was so different than the very scientific process of making shampoo and working with surfactants. That’s very scientific, everything has to be perfect. This is much more artistic. I love that balance.  


I was still only in Crafted at that point, and I was like, “Hey, I have bar soap, is that cool if I put them out?” Then I was contacted by Marissa and Rachel from Cahoots Events, which is this event production company that was doing a holiday market in November of 2021, asking if I wanted to be a vendor. Yes! I’ll tend to say yes to things and then figure it out later. I had no idea of how much stock to make; I expected to sell out, of course, of every single thing! But I actually did really well. To date, it was one of the better markets. After the market, I got in my car and I just squealed because I’ve worked so hard on this. I could actually see people’s reaction to my product, see them open something and be like, “This smells amazing! Smell this!” That really kicked it off. If I can do this, let me do another holiday market. I was talking to my husband and I was like, “I think this could go somewhere, I think I can sell these things.” He comes from a product management background, so he was like, “Here’s what you do. Set some goals, and how about you try to do maybe two markets a month or one market a month.” I was thinking two markets a year!


I started doing some markets, and I started doing markets with the San Pedro Makers Market, which was really important to the growth of San Pedro Soapworks, and the growth of a lot of local sellers and vendors and makers. They were doing markets down at the corner store over here in San Pedro and it was awesome, they had it once a month or so and people were buying things and I was selling things. At this point, again, I have a business education… I had no business plan. I had nothing. I was keeping track of everything after the fact, but no real vision of where this could end up, I was just having fun in the moment, going wherever it takes me, and saying yes to everything. That’s how I grew. The makers market was growing, thus there were more customers and repeat customers, which was awesome. Anybody will buy something once, but to buy it again… that’s the real test. I was getting more bold; if I’m doing good at the San Pedro Makers Market, maybe I’ll try Los Feliz Flea or the Melrose Trading Post, some of these bigger markets. I tried those in April 2023… didn’t do well at all. I had such high hopes, everything was just getting bigger, and then I don’t do well at all at those markets. The rollercoaster of a small business. But I just kept going, because what else are you going to do?


One of my favorite events during the year is Pride. I do a lot of the pride flags in soap form. The first Pride festival I did, that was another moment where I I knew I was on the right track. Because I remember one person — they were shy, they were by themselves, and it looked like they were kind of transitioning, in some stage of transition. Very shy, their body language was that they were trying to hide. They went to the flag that resonated with them and they were like, “Can I buy this?” I was like, “Yeah, of course!” They said something like, “It’s cool to see me in such a cool product.” Yes! You don’t expect to see such an important thing as an identity in such a mundane product. The second story is another Pride festival that I did. Somebody was going through and smelling all the things and he picked up one and he started smelling it and he fixated on this one scent. He was like, “Oh my god, this smells like my grandma’s house. My grandma’s house was always my safe place.” She was the first person he came out to, and she made him feel ok. In the moment I was of course crying, and he was, too. He was like, “I’ll buy all of them!” Those are some of the highlights of making some mundane product that you go to the store and you buy and you don’t even think about, but it’s a part of your daily life. To have it mean that much — wow. I didn’t know something like soap could be so important to people.

 

Some of the local stores around here started contacting me to make custom bars of soap. Kaya Boutique, Distrito Coffee, and the LA Maritime Museum, they all wanted custom bars of soap. I just kept saying yes to everything. Somewhere in 2023, Bank of America called. Quick background on that, one of my friends is the executive director for a nonprofit, first-time executive director, and she found this women’s business course at UCornell, and she was like, “Can you do this course with me?” I was like, “I already got a degree in business but yeah, you can always learn more things.” I end up doing the course and doors opened from that course. They asked some of the product-based businesses to be part of this website that they had to show the products. I got a few sales off that, but most importantly, I think that was where they go and pick sellers and makers to be a part of Bank of America events. I got asked to do one of those events, a top-sellers event, and of course when Bank of America calls, you say yes! That was a big growth moment because you don’t know how far you’ve come until you look at who’s around you. It was me with my little burlap and fishnet and cigar bands to wrap around the soap, right next to this other skin care product — different demographic, different product, but still skin care — who’s like, “Yeah, we work with laboratory scientists and they make all our things and we have marketers.” What? You’re who? So, how’s your garage set up? These are people who were working multi-nationally; I’m like, “Where am I all of a sudden?” I did feel a little better, less out of place, because my vendor neighbor was a candle company from Louisiana and I got to talking to her and she was like, “I make stuff out of my home, too, and I’m here as well!” It was all women-owned businesses: the chocolate lady who has a storefront in SoHo in Manhattan, and the ladies doing all the deep science with the skincare line… it was so cool to talk about business as equals. They weren’t looking down on us and we weren’t totally starstruck by them, either. We’re all here, we’re all women in business, let’s talk about sales and marketing. I’m doing another Bank of America event in April in Houston, which is awesome.


But now, I have a plan. Finally. Where am I going with all this? Because eventually, if you say yes to everything, which has been my growth model, you look around and you’re like, “Wait, where am I again, where am I going, what am I trying to do…?” When I first, I was doing it more to explore options. But now, let me do some wholesale, let me up my packaging. I’m getting boxes made, they’re being shipped today. Let me expand and contact some stores.

 

I’ll tell you about my creative process. I did do about six new soaps that are doing pretty well right now. Royal Palms is one of them. Everything is inspired by San Pedro in some way shape or form, however abstract that ends up being. Sometimes it’s very literal, “Let me recreate Royal Palms in soap form.” Sometimes it’s a little more abstract. There’s a lot of lavender here, so this purple one with the swirly white, that’s called Wild Lavender and it’s one of my best sellers. It’s really hard to create a flower [image] inside the soap because of the process of making the soap, you can’t see the design as you’re making it. You’re totally going in blind. What would a pleasant scent wafting in air look like if it’s a flower scent? That’s the creative part. And then, what does it smell like?


For example, I’ve got one that’s doing really well, called Damn Peacocks. There’s a lot of peacocks here — it’s nuts, they’re all in coastal San Pedro. I don’t know how this idea came about, I think I was driving my daughter to see the peacocks and they’re just beautiful. But they’re loud and they’re annoying and, apparently, they stink. We just parked on a road and saw a random flock of peacocks in a neighborhood down here and they were jumping on the houses, jumping on people’s cars, walking on people’s porches… it’s got to be so annoying for the people who live there. But they’re beautiful and iconic. Costal San Pedro is the neighborhood closer to the ocean and it’s very lush and green and very magical looking. I was like, “That would be a fun soap to make, let me try to do the colors that I would associate with a peacock, a jewel-toned kind of thing.” My inspiration for how I came about the scent was very exotic, florals, that heady scent where the air is heavy with florals and it’s that magic hour when the sun’s going down. That scent works with the very jewel-toned, rich colors. This ended up being a blend of — everything’s my own blend — gardenia, jasmine, orange blossom, all the exotic florals. I figure out what it smells like and, again with the art background because I was a painter, I base it on the visual and I put myself in that painting. I close my eyes and I’m like, “What do I smell?”


Another one that’s interesting is Kickflip. There’s a big skate culture down in San Pedro and I used to ride BMX myself, so it’s kind of near and dear. There used to be a black and white mural over at the Channel Street skate park underneath the 110. It was black and white and swirly; that’s what it’s going to look like, but then what would a soap that’s inspired by skate culture smell like? I had to really think about that one. I remembered back to my days of youth when I was out riding BMX until all hours. There’s that feeling where you had a long day on the street or in the skate park hanging out with your friends, pushing each other to do crazy things, having fun, getting hurt of course, and you’re just exhausted but you have to go home. And most times you go home by yourself, you high-five everybody and you ride off somewhere. In that specific moment, when you’re by yourself, the fun of the day is kind of behind you, you’re sweaty… you put in a good hard day at work but it was doing something that you absolutely love. The wind is in your face and it’s that moment of freedom. I don’t know what that scent is made up of, I would have to look at my notes, but that’s what it smells like.


Sunken City is another good one. That’s another one I really had to get into it and think about. What does Sunken City smell like? I set the stage: you’re with your friends, you’re in your early 20s, late teens or whatever, you’re not supposed to go to Sunken City — it’s completely dangerous and highly illegal. I’ve actually never been there, this is all total conjecture. When you get there, it’s you, your friends, the cliff, and the ocean. The world is at your back and you’re staring out into the Pacific, you’re with your friends and you’ve got spray paint, of course, because that’s what you do at Sunken City. You’re there fully intending to spray paint on the ruins of whatever fell off the cliff. But then the artist in me is thinking there’s no audience in that; who’s going to see Sunken City? Most people don’t go there — again, highly dangerous and very illegal. So what is the purpose of doing art when there’s no audience? Then the purpose becomes internal, you do it just for the sheer love of it and because you can. It’s thrilling, it’s dangerous. There’s no other point to it. You’re not doing it like the graffiti artists downtown, “Everyone’s going to see this from the 110!” No, the people in the ships can’t even see it. The point is the experience itself. That’s kind of what has always driven my own artwork, and I love the fact of people doing things just for the sheer love of it, because it’s fun, because they can, there’s no point to it, no reason. I put myself in that headspace and close my eyes and take a deep breath… what do I smell? I smell spray paint, concrete, salt air. Then I was thinking you’re with your friends, so what do your friends smell like, what do their clothes smell like? Flannel and leather, because I was a kid in the 90s and that’s what people wore. I mixed up a variety of scents and somehow ended up with that. Somebody came by [at a market] and he’s like, “Sunken City! Oh my god, I used to go there all the time. Let me see if you got this right.” I was like, “Oh god, I’ve never been there, I have no idea…” He took it and [sniffs] and he was like, “You nailed it!” Awesome! So that’s the creative process, I just put myself in the headspace.

 

The actual process is pretty fun. I have one or two basic recipes for everything. I have a vegan version and a non-vegan version. You put the solid oils in and mix up your lye. I always put aloe in because it makes it a super nice-feeling bar of soap. Mix up the lye, super super hot, 200 degrees so you’re dealing with a very hot, very dangerous, almost boiling liquid. Then you strain it over the container of oils. This is a process called heat transfer, so you’re transferring the heat from the lye solution to the oils to melt the oils because you need it to be liquid. Mix it up to make sure all the solid oils are melted and then you take the liquid oils — olive, castor, avocado oil — again with the southern California inspiration, you have to use avocado oil! It makes for a great bar of soap. You mix in the liquid oils and you mix in any additives that you want. I don’t go crazy there because the point really is the art and the scent, but you can use activated charcoal, which makes it a little exfoliating or you can use coffee grounds which makes it a lot more exfoliating. I put salt in some of the bars and that makes an amazing bar because what happens is salt is a humectant so it draws water from the air to either the soap itself or as you lather up it’ll draw moisture to your skin. It makes for a really moisturizing bar of soap. Also, if you make it with salt water it’ll be humectant, if you just pour salt in there, it’ll have exfoliating properties. You can add a bunch of additives, mix it up, and you have a mixture that looks a lot like cake batter, same kind of consistency. Maybe you can play with the consistency to inform your design.


The colors are mica, it’s a powdered color. You mix each of the colors separately and then you start the design. These are the soap molds, so you can see that as you start pouring something in there, and you don’t know what’s going on in there. You just have to hope for the best and trust in the process. It’s a lot like making cake. And then you put towels over it and keep it warm so the colors get a lot brighter and add your fragrance of course. I let it set over night and unmold it so I have a big loaf of soap and then after a day or two, cut it up and put it on the rack and let it sit there for four to six weeks. During that cure time, that’s when all the chemical bonds happen. You’re mixing oil and water, and sodium hydroxide is what binds it chemically together to make soap — that whole process is called saponification. In that process, it’s forming crystals, soap bonds; there’s a lot happening inside to make it soap.


I think of a design and then figure out the technique for it. I just described the cold process method, but there’s also the melt-and-pour method. You buy a base of soap, a big block of soap that’s not scented. You chop it up into small pieces and melt it in the microwave and mix in your fragrance and colors and make your design. But there is some thought in the soap community that that is not artistic or from scratch or natural or whatever. Again, I’m approaching this from an art perspective — I’m going to choose the technique that gets the right result. If I’m doing pride flags, think about those solid color blocks. That’s pretty hard to do with the cold process method, so I use the melt-and-pour for that. This year I’m going to do a few cold process versions that are going to have the rainbow colors but a more free-form design. You choose the technique to fit the end result.

 

In five years, I would love to be in stores. I’ll look at other soap makers and they’re like, “We’re in this whole list of stores.” That’s what I want. What do I have to do to get there? Somebody asked me, “What is your overall ultimate goal for this?” and I thought about it for half a second and I want to be in Whole Foods or Mother’s Market or Sprouts. Target, even, if they’re listening. I want to be on the shelf in a grocery store. The boutiques are cool and I want that, too, but I want the mass market because thinking back to the Bank of America event, you know how far you’ve come by who’s around you. If I’m on the shelf next to the Sprouts house brand, that’s cool. That’s what I’m aiming towards, so right now I’m really thinking about packaging, things like that. Of course, that takes a lot of work and capital, and I’m just one lady in a garage. But this is a very long road and I’m only in the beginning. Just one step in front of the other and we’ll get there eventually.


I think looking ahead also is looking at different products. Some other products that I’m working on right now is a shampoo bar, which I have recently fallen in love with. I’m going through the testing and my kids’ hair is great one day and not so great the other, and I test on myself as well. Eventually I would love to get away from plastic but that presents either a total reformation of the product itself, going from shampoo in bottles to shampoo in a bar, or going to glass and that’s dangerous in the bathroom so we’re not going to go there. So minimal packaging as much as I possibly can, while still protecting the product. Shampoo bars are on deck. A hair oil, which is something else I’m working on. A lightweight lotion, because the cream that I originally made for my mom is super heavy, so I need a lightweight kind of thing. Basically, expanding the product offerings to hit that broad swath of people. Make it accessible, make it fun. There’s a line in my marketing content somewhere that San Pedro Soapworks is both hyper-local and universal. It is directly inspired by very specific things in San Pedro; you go out to Santa Monica and they’re like, “What’s Sunken City?” But everyone has had that experience where they’re in the moment with their friends doing something for the pure fun of it. That’s the universal part.


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