By Carrie Beth Wallace
In the bustling little town of Pine Mountain, just twenty minutes from Columbus, there's a small business that's booming on Broad Street. Just four years ago, Blue Ridge Apothecary caught our eye at the Market on Broadway when we met a veteran and his wife who'd begun to sell handmade artisan soaps and bath salts made from all-natural ingredients.
At the time, I was on assignment from the Ledger-Enquirer working on a series of interviews for Small Business Saturday. The series featured vendors from the newly developed Market to familiarize locals with the small businesses Columbus was working hard to support. I remember wondering what kind of story I could muster out of a small soap business, but it's a story that I'm proud to still be telling today.
In four years, Blue Ridge Apothecary has gone from a small pop-up shop to one of the fastest growing small businesses in our area. A once simple line of products has developed into offering over 80 different handmade and private label products including soaps, beard oils, shampoos, bath salts, scrubs, salves, essential oils, and more. They are in over 100 retail stores, and have fostered business relationships with some of the most important companies in the natural product industry. Companies that now produce high-quality natural goods exclusively for them.
I sat down with William Bargeron, Blue Ridge Apothecary's owner, to learn more about the small business I've had the privilege of following for the past few years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It's been a privilege to follow your business as you've grown over the past few years. Let's start at the beginning though. Please tell us the history of how you got started. It's so important for people to understand the heart of where your business came from to begin with.
A: When we started this, the vision that we had was just to find a marriage hobby. We wanted to find something to do to bring us together. We like to go to the mountains a lot, and we'd always talked about trying something like this. So we started making these soaps and doing classes and everyone loved it.
When Michelle's mom was diagnosed with cancer, we had probably been doing this not quite a year yet. We had already started selling in the Junque Yard and doing the market. Just you know, selling on a smaller scale. I remember coming home one day and staying to Michelle, “We've got to help everyone get off these chemicals.” We were in cancer mode with her mom and really frightened to death about the effects of chemicals on our bodies.
My mother-in-law I loved as if she were my own mother. We were very close and I respected her so much. Her diagnosis hit us really hard. There was a lot of sacrifice as Michelle took a backseat in our business to take care of her mother. There was a lot of emotional hardship as we watched her go through it. The torture of it was that she went through it for over 17 months. She had the biggest liver tumor they have ever seen at John B. Amos Cancer Center. It was horrible and it was stage 3 or 4 when they found it.
It was just a really hard journey going through it and grieving afterward. I don't know that I ever grieved because I was just trying to be there for my wife and daughter. so that was a really hard time for everybody. It affected each of us in very different ways and continues to be a healing process.
Q: I am so sorry for your loss. You said that losing a loved one to cancer shaped your business. How did it impact you as a company? Are you still seeing it effect the way you do business?
A: As we were going through the journey of dealing with a cancer diagnosis in our family and starting Blue Ridge Apothecary, we made a resolve to do everything we could to help people to get off of the harmful chemicals they were putting on their body everyday without realizing it. The soaps were a n- brainer, the bath bombs were next, and then the scrubs. But the turning point was when we found a way to provide high-quality essential oils at an affordable cost.
Q: How did you find a way to do that?
A: I went through a due diligence process searching for the best way to get a private label for essential oils. I have a background doing some consulting work in the past. I had written two or three compensation plans that we had sold to network marketing companies. I knew that network marketing companies had really good products. So when Young Living and doTERRA started coming onto the scene, I knew that there was something to their products. Typically, network marketing companies will have very high quality products but there's a markup due to the fact they have so many levels of compensation for their employees. Not everyone can truly afford these products.
The whole idea for us was that if there was a high-end product out there that Young Living and doTERRA have, then there must be some way to find away behind the veil. You know, pull back the curtain to see Oz, if you will, and find the little guy pulling the strings. It's a much bigger picture outside, but when you get down to the guts of these networking companies, you find that it's just people making it happen. I knew I needed to find those people.
It was a year-long process, scouring hundreds of resources on these products and making trips back and forth to Utah to find out who these LLC's were behind the veil. It was just digging and researching, but we finally found the guys who were the original formulators and managers for Young Living. They left and started their own company doing these products with various grades of oils and things. They're in some of the bigger chains in America, and we found out that they had also been contracted for doTERRA. They set up their formulation and filling of the bottles. These are the guys that formulated and develop the plan for doTERRA to fill a million bottles a day.
They had opened up this new division maybe six or eight months before we contacted them where they were starting to do work for private label brands. It wasn't cheap to start a private label, but we made the investment and it's worked. As a small business you are always looking to open new streams of revenue. I am not a gambler. It is not part of my personality, but I am a calculated risk-taker. I trust my research, and I trust relationships when built with good people. I also believe it if the product is right people will receive it.
Once we began working with this company for our private label oils, it took a year of traveling back and forth to decide on labeling and formulation of our oils and blends for Blue Ridge Apothecary. We had to decide what we were going to call them, what they would do, and how our inventory would work.
We basically started a mini doTERRA without the markup. So you're finding products like their frankincense directly from Somalia, but retailed at 40 - 50% cheaper because it is a private label and not a part of a network marketing company.
We just, by the grace of God, found the people that had been a part of setting up and formulating the two biggest corporations in the essential oil market in North America. They had the lab certifications and the purity that we were looking for, so we started rolling it out.
Q: That is an incredibly interesting process you went through. Do you have any other partnerships with private labels?
A: When we built the company, we knew that building business-to-business relationships was the way to go. You have to build relationships with small business people, wholesaling the products at a fair price, so that they could be able to make a profit to drive their business.
We ended up working with a small division of Bed Bath & Beyond called And That. It was actually on accident. Well, not an accident. My faith tells me that there are no coincidences, so it was no accident. We found them on social media and I was looking for a shop in the Metro Atlanta area to build out our locations. I messaged them and they messaged me back to say that they were looking for products exactly like ours. They were a new division of Bed Bath & Beyond. It was their only store at the time but we have grown with them as they have grown. We've landed our bath bombs in all of the stores as they've opened. It's in five or six of their stores along the East Coast in places like Florida, New Jersey, Delaware, and more are opening soon.
Q: Wow. Where else are you located?
We continue to grow. I have gotten into outfitters and lots of different types of businesses around the southeast. We are in a lot of wonderful shops in Columbus. In the Columbus Market we work with some fantastic people like Bloomers Garden Center, North Columbus Pharmacy, the Blushing Brunette Boutique, and we’ve maintained the Junque Yard and the Market on Broadway which is where we got our start.
It's important to us to stay humble to our roots, and maintaining those stores allows us to interact with our customers. To see people come every month to buy our products is a validation that we're doing it right. When we're not there, they come the next time with a relief and say, “We're so glad you're here this week. We missed you last time!” It makes us feel great and keeps validating that we're doing what we need to be doing for our customers.
Q: How do you plan to continue serving your customers? What other products will you offer?
A: We’ve continued to grow, and have continued doing research to be able to develop new products. We have new shampoo bars that we launched this Fall. There are seven different scents, and we have the matching conditioner bars. One is a specific scent for the guys - we call it The Boyfriend. We also have a non-scented one called The Vegan. The rest we just came up with fun names for: We did The Hawaiian which is coconut and lime. There is one called French Kiss which is a really peculiar scent with raspberry caramel and vanilla. It's one of our top sellers. We had to have one called Mountain Mint which matches one of our most popular soap bars. The Energizer contains all of our citrus oils that we carry in the store. And then the Moroccan one is a little different because we added Moroccan Argan Oil to it instead of the carrier oils we use for our soap bars. It’s been a great lineup. These products are now online and are also available in our store in Pine Mountain.
Q: Why did you decide to go with shampoo bars?
There's an interesting story about our shampoo bars. We were in the developmental stage and saw this video by this girl that went viral. It was about Lush and their shampoo bars and it caught our attention. We had already started manufacturing them when the video went viral. It changed our plan because the idea of the video was that we use so much plastic in our world today. The plastic and packaging contaminates everything. It contaminate groundwater, it ends up in the ocean, and you can go to countries around the world where they have gigantic dumps where people live in inhumane conditions surrounded by trash.
It really got our attention. As business owners and stewards of our planet, we decided to undergo a massive revamp of our packaging. It's why our shampoo bars are bare, and our soap bars only have a recyclable label. We are reformulating all of our scrubs currently in tins to be in little recyclable paper coffee bags. Those will be out for the holidays. We do reusable and recyclable cans for the salves and rubs. We are committed to doing the most minimal amount of packaging as possible.
Q: You've got a lot of things happening. I see so much in the store that is new. What other news do you have?
A: The latest thing that has happened and our biggest news this season, is the journey we have been through launching our website. We have built our wholesale customer base into almost a hundred account, so we decided to launch a website to accommodate them. My son came on full time for us. His name is Harrison, and he grew up in Columbus. He has incredible experience from working at Total Systems and for Valley Hospitality with logistics, inventory, and technology.
Harrison is a different type of creative than I am. We've worked together and collaborated with several photographers to design our website. It launched a few weeks ago, and now we’re entering the promotion stage for it. It was definitely a big deal for us to have the site up before November so that going into the holiday season we could do partnerships with different internet companies and television stations. We want to do everything we can to promote a healthy lifestyle for our customers.
Q: What is your philosophy on a healthy lifestyle? What does that mean to you as a business owner?
A: Having a healthy lifestyle is not necessarily extreme. It's about having information and making choices. It's not just about the hardcore healthy vegans that do yoga everyday. Having a healthy lifestyle can be successful without those things. It just takes having the information you need to determine the right kind of healthy lifestyle for yourself.
I've read that the average American adult absorbs about five pounds of chemicals a year through their skin just from simple product use like shampoos lotions and perfumes. You can go to the mall and see all the pretty colors and all of the gorgeous labels and smells that just draw you in. It’s scary.
With our main demographic being the female customer, we want to help educate women about the impact of these chemicals. They can get into your body and really affect your health. So it’s important to us to do education events as well. Partnerships with holistic companies have become a very important part of our mission as we’ve built this company.
Q: Can you describe a partnership with a local holistic company? What does that look like?
A: Holistic Columbus has become an integral part of our company calendar every year. It's at the Trade Center every year and the folks behind it are the most gracious humble professional people you could ask to partner with. It's an event we look forward to every year and we plan for it. We try to do something different every year with our setup and we participate in their giveaways and everything we can. Those are our people. They are the people you want to help and who are interested in these products. That's definitely an event that we will be promoting through our website and social media every year. It's a great way to learn about healthy lifestyle in a way that's accessible for everyone. It's a big deal and we want to be a part of it.
We get a lot of recommendations that weekend as well. One of the biggest suggestions we got was the need for a safe deodorant. We started our due diligence this summer and have developed a completely raw bar of deodorant. We started making prototypes and have been giving them away in our shop. Everyone's been raving about it. It has some essential oils it's all natural vegan and it's very safe to use. There is no aluminum. The aluminum that is in deodorant is terrifying. It can cause breast cancer, Alzheimer's, and many other things. It's not debatable. We have many, many studies that prove it. So taking the lead from other companies and hearing from our customers, we decided to make a safe and healthy deodorant for our customers to use.
Q: Are you happy with the local impact you're having on providing people with natural products?
A: We've made an impact in our local market but there is a lot of progress still to be made. There is really no competition in Columbus, because not enough of us are penetrating the market in a way that means competition. We are sharing with our neighbors and we want to know that everyone has access to safe products whether they're ours or not. It's not about competition is about promoting a healthy lifestyle. There are six or seven vendors that sell soaps at the Market on Broadway. That means there's something for everyone, and enough business to go around. As a group, the natural product market reaches only about 1% of the population here. That means there are plenty of customers still to be reached, and plenty of business to go around. It's more important to us to get natural products into everyone's hands. If I don't have what someone is looking for, I try to connect them with another local business who does. It takes all of us working together to reach the community to make a difference.
Q: Tell me more about your website. What else will be offered there? Is it just wholesale or can all of your customers access it?
A: It's for everyone. We went with a website platform that allows us to offer subscriptions to our customers. Many people have heard of Birchbox or subscriptions like that, and ours is very similar. So instead of us pushing what we think you want to have, we have the technology through our website for you to build your own subscription. All products have the ability to be purchased based on need. We do flat rate shipping so that everyone can get what they need when they need it. We're also looking at selling with Amazon Marketplace, so that's in the works as well.
Q: Last question. What is next? What's the future look like for Blue Ridge Apothecary?
A: The future is bright. Our next 5-year goal is to open some retail stores. We are working in the interim on really cool retail displays, so that all of our retail shops can have a sampling of everything we offer. We definitely may open a prototype of a new store in Columbus. We like the idea of college markets as well - we’re in Athens and Auburn now. We're looking at Nashville, Atlanta and some locations in South Carolina. We’ll see what happens. Above all, we just want to assist in putting natural products into the homes of people who need them. ◼︎
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