MANCHESTER – For 20 years, Joy Benzing worked in the hospitality industry, but when her career was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she pivoted, taking her soap-making hobby and making it a thriving small business.
“I started making soap in 2018,” said the Vernon native, who moved to Manchester around 10 years ago.
“I became a manager and my last 10 years I was the general manager (of) Dakota Steakhouse in Rocky Hill (before) the pandemic shut us down,” Benzing said.
In 2018, she says, her husband, Tim — who was, at the time, Dakota’s executive chef — motivated her to take up a new hobby.
“He told me one day that I needed a hobby that wasn’t working, something to occupy my time,” she said. “I always bought handmade soaps. I had sensitive skin. He said we should try to do that. We bought all the supplies, did a bunch of research, watched a bunch of videos, and made some soap.
Benzing said she fell in love with the process.
“I thought it was really interesting to take raw materials and put them together and create something useful,” she said. “What really piqued my interest was the artistic aspect. I started making little usable artwork and we would bring it to the restaurant and hand it out. Then everyone wanted to start buying them.
With almost immediate success, she started her own business, Center Street Soap Company, moving to Hilliard Mills at 642 Hilliard St.
When given the opportunity to return to the Dakota Steakhouse and reopen the restaurant, Benzing decided to stick with his soap business.
“I’ve been cooking for over 35 years,” said Tim Benzing, who now works as executive chef for The Society Room on Pratt Street in Hartford. “From a chef’s perspective, it was just a matter of weighing and mixing the ingredients. It was just different ingredients and really not that much of a difference.
“The first batch was easy,” Joy said. “It was very simple. I don’t think I added color. I think I added a small amount of fragrance and it was a recipe I got online. I had not yet formulated my own recipes. It’s much easier than I thought. Once you get over the fear of working with lye, it really isn’t that hard to make a simple bar soap.
Joy said her soap, like most handmade soaps, is real soaps versus branded body washes.
“A lot of the big store brands that people used to grow up with like Dove and Dial, Lever, if you were to look at a box they won’t, they don’t say soap, you’ll never see the word soap on these boxes, because it’s not soap,” she said. “It says body wash or beauty bar. It’s not soap because they add chemicals and stuff.The only thing that could be labeled as soap is when you combine a natural vegetable oil or animal fat and you combine that with lye.
She said her experience running the restaurant was beneficial in starting their business.
“The cooking ingredients are the same, we know how to take inventory,” she said. “We knew how to estimate the cost of products. We knew how to take labor into account. All my experience that I gained as a restaurant manager has totally translated into the business side of soap making.
The creative process of soap making takes about a month, from the initial mixing of oils, lye and fragrances to the curing process. It is at the beginning of the design that Joy discovers the art of making her own soap.
“A lot of times I draw a soap or choose colors and a design that might go well with the perfume,” she said. “Not all flavors are the same. Some you can’t make complex designs. They could speed up the trace in our dough (when oils and lyes are no longer likely to separate).
“There are a lot of different factors that come into play when choosing a scent-based design. After these many years of soap making, I have quite a few favorites that I come back to, and then seasonally I can play again and come up with new things every year.
Currently, she is preparing her vacation soap operas.
“In June and July I start planning, ordering and making our fall soaps, then in August I start doing Christmas,” Joy said. “I’m going to do something like pumpkin, I like to make honey soap, things that remind me of fall. Maybe a campfire, apple-sage smell. I will change it. I don’t do the same thing every fall. Sometimes I bring back a few favorites, but I love that creativity of not doing the same thing all the time. I will do about six to eight soap operas per season.
“For Christmas, I usually make a pine scented soap,” she said. “I get pretty creative. I will make little Christmas lights and then put them on the soap. I could make light Christmas soap or a holly berry, hot cocoa soap with what look like little mini marshmallows.
Its Center Street Soap products can be found on the centerstreetsoapco.com website and can be found at local businesses including Woodland Gardens, the Firestone Art Studio and Café and five Whole Foods, including one in New York City on Madison Avenue.
She also sells her products at farmers’ and makers’ markets.
“I would love to continue doing more wholesale accounts,” she said. “I get less for the soap, but it’s sold out and I don’t need to be there. I wish the business was probably 60% wholesale and 40% retail, which I would say is probably exactly where we are right now. »