Sweet Smell of Success
When Emily Manger bought her house in New Orleans’ Riverbend neighborhood, her father advised her to begin the renovation by first fixing the rickety porch or painting the house’s dingy interior. But the first thing Manger did was plant a small sweet olive tree in her front yard.
She’s always loved the delicate fragrance of the sweet olive and it was the name of her new small business, Sweet Olive Soap Works. Manger’s double shotgun now houses her home on one side and her business on the other.
Sweet Olive Soap Works was created out of her desire to promote the healthier aspects of the region and the culture she loves.
“After the storm (Hurricane Katrina) I wanted to help celebrate and capture the spirit of a happier New Orleans,” she said. “I wanted to use ingredients sourced locally that were really good for the skin.”
Manger’s family has been making soap for generations. Her grandma, Anna Mae, was a soap maker who owned her own business. She dedicated many summer afternoons to sharing her skills with Manger, who began helping her make soap at the tender age of 8.
Manger says she always knew soap making was her true calling. So, in the fall of 2007, Soap Works was born.
Manger spent two decades experimenting with family recipes and inventing a few of her own. She’s a petite chemist in overalls and a joyous, energetic, one-woman show.
Soap making is a chemical process which requires mixing oils or fats with lye, a very caustic chemical capable of burning skin, causing blindness and even death if ingested.
“True soap can’t be made without the use of lye,” she says, “but as long as you are careful there is nothing to fear.”
Modern technology allows Manger to make her soap with precise mathematical calculations as she handcrafts each batch of cold process soap from scratch. She says she likes to make her soap in small batches.
“I don’t want to use big equipment because I like using my hands and making the small batches helps me regulate the process and create perfection.”
It all begins at her stove in a kitchen that she says reminds her of her grandmother’s 9th Ward plaster-walled kitchen. The whole process takes four to six weeks from start to finish.
“The batches are cured for one month because quality takes time,” she says.
Manger’s base is olive oil, to which she adds locally sourced liquids such as goat milk, beer, fruit juices, coffee, aloe vera juice and Sazerac rye whiskey. Additional ingredients can include Creole tomatoes, herbs, flowers, sugar, rice, honey and beeswax.
She sells her soap online and has many wholesale accounts with retailers like Fleurty Girl and the Hermann-Grima House. She also sells across the country, from boutique shops in New York City to upscale markets in Oregon.
What Manger doesn’t do, surprisingly, is participates in any festivals or craft fairs or even use social media. She actually does no advertising at all, noting that all of her sales come from word of mouth and she sometimes struggles to keep up with the ever-growing demand.
Manger’s packaging is quaint and clean. She spent months searching through archives and old magazines and newspaper rotogravures to capture that old-fashioned flavor for her graphics.
She says she makes a healthy living with her soap and is proud to own her house free and clear.
“I see my products as luxurious treats for people who love Louisiana and our culture,” she says. “And there are people around the county who want their little bit of New Orleans and my soap offers them that.”