By Zoë Mason,
Bruce Peninsula Press
It’s a short, winding drive that leads you off East Road in Miller Lake to Georgian Bay Soapworks, marked by a spattering of birdhouses — a quarantine project — and a wooden sign that reads “powered by the sun;” more than just a catchy slogan.
Sue Jagt, the proprietor of Georgian Bay Soapworks, approached the porch of the tiny shop — inaccessible now to the public due to the pandemic, except by a sliding glass order window — in a floral dress and black flip flops.
The shop itself is a testament to Jagt’s creativity, which is surely at the foundation of her business, and apparently an important aspect of her personality. The chairs we sit in are painted, and Jagt painted a “carpet” on the floor of her shop. Jagt has been a creator, and a seller of her creations, for even longer than she’s been in the soap business — no small feat, seeing as Soapworks is in its third decade of operations.
“I did stained glass. I did all kinds of things before (the soap), and markets and things but the soap was just an easy sell. It just worked,” says Jagt.
“Probably 31, 32 years, maybe even longer than that ago, I took a soap course and just made a really terrible batch of soap. And I thought, ‘well, I could do better than that.’ So I just played with it, and started giving it to people, and then I started the business.”
Georgian Bay Soapworks is truly a one-man-show. Jagt is the owner, producer, and shopkeeper all in one. With no other employees, a typical summer day begins with an early morning and a batch of soap before the shop opens. Then, she tends to the shop and simultaneously cranks out fresh batches of some of her other products, such as deodorants and lotions. In the winter, when the shop is shuttered, it’s soap-making from dawn till dusk.
She describes the process step by step. “I use all natural oil,” she says. “So I use vegetable oils, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oils. So you’re heating that up and you’re heating up your sodium hydroxide at the same time. The temperatures have to be exactly the same when you mix them. And then when you’re mixed, you stir them up and you add essential oils and any herbs and things that you want to add. You insulate them for 24 hours, then I cut them up and then they sit for six weeks to cure. So I’ve got racks and racks, curing in my soap room. Then I package them up and I sell them.”
It may have sprung from humble beginnings, but over the course of the past thirty years, it has grown into an expansive collection of products — again, an evolution attributable to the ingenuity of its founder. At the start, Jagt made
her sales at farmer’s markets and out of a shop in her Meaford home, before eventually going online, having her products stocked by local retailers, and, about four years ago, opening her brick-and-mortar location at Miller Lake. Today, Jagt estimates sales ballpark around four hundred bars a week of soaps alone.
“It definitely gets better every year,” she says. “I was really worried about this year, but so far so good.”
Indeed, there are few businesses that could be better than soap in a pandemic. While Jagt may have lost the avenue of farmer’s markets, online sales have been booming.
Perhaps the most trailblazing aspect of Jagt’s enterprise is the philosophy that underpins it all — sustainability and simplicity, a combination that defines Jagt herself as well as Georgian Bay Soapworks with equal efficacy.
Jagt’s relationship to the Northern Bruce Peninsula spans almost fifty years, back to camping at Cyprus Lake with her family. When she’d had a family of her own, she continued the tradition, bringing her children up to the area regularly.
“We’ve just always loved it here,” she says. “We just decided to buy some land, and we did, and we never looked back.”
Her affair with the area culminated in a radical lifestyle change nine years ago, when she and her husband moved to their Miller Lake property full time and transitioned to a lifestyle that is 100 per cent off-grid. I asked Jagt what the off-grid living is like.
“It’s fine!” she smiled. “No hydro bills.”
She admits that the common perceptions of off-grid living is somewhat of an overstatement. She does not read by candlelight or freeze in the wintertime. In fact, she maintains most of the creature comforts the rest of us do.
“I mean, I’m running a business,” she says. “So I’ve got my computer, I’ve got my printer, I’ve got the TV, the washer dryer. Everything is the same as anybody else; it’s just no hydro bill.”
That said, a fair amount of that off-grid cliche scavenging is reflected in the production of her soaps.
The solar power that fuels the rest of her homestead is also responsible for her soap production. She’s recently switched all of her packaging to waste-free, cardboard containers, including for her deodorants and lip balms. As for the ingredients, she gathers or grows many of them herself, including lavender, calendula birch sap, Chaga mushrooms, and jewelweed.
The result is a business model that is very much in sync with natural cycles and very much interested in using every part of every ingredient. And this synchronisation is not taught, but learned on the job; knowledge acquired by “thirty years of trying,” as Jagt jokingly puts it. This, too, is a testament to Jagt’s unrelenting creativity.
“I’m always thinking, ‘What can I do next? What can I do next?’ Because people want something different every year.”
This year’s latest product is the Peninsula Breeze soap, a combination of oils from local trees like pine, cedarwood, and balsam. It’s just another way Jagt is able to tie her products to the land they spring from. In fact, between the scents, the materials, and the footprint — all of her products are made with the land in mind.
“All the soaps are natural,” she reiterates. “So they’re all fine for the water, and for the earth. It’s all going back into the earth. Everything that’s in them.”