Matthew and Debra Starner, proprietors of the Lafayette square’s newest storefront—Tennessee Soapworks—are not from around here.
She grew up in Louisiana, and he grew up in Amish country, Pennsylvania. They met in Los Angeles, both working for the same hospital. When they got married in 2004, they moved directly to Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Now here they are in Lafayette. Selling soap and body products on the square.
Perhaps we should back up.
The soap making started in Los Angeles, almost by accident. The two had met in September, 2003 (“in the coffee line,” he says) and married in Vegas in May of 2004.
One day, they were hosting a party for the hospital, and wanted to have a party gift to give out.
“It eludes me right now—the specifics of what that gathering was,” says Matthew. “But we only lived five blocks from the hospital, so it was very easy for people to just come over. So I bought a bunch of glycerin, big blocks of glycerin. And I melted it all down and made little glycerin soaps in all kinds of flavors.
“And it was a hit! I put twine on it, and a little label. I packaged it and put them in a little basket and handed them all out. And they loved it—but we ended up with a lot of leftover soap. So what are we going to do with the soap?
“I took it to a farmers market, and set up a stand. And by noon, all of the extra soap and gift packs that I made up were gone. And I called my wife and said ‘you’re not gonna believe the response I’ve gotten!’ So we said ‘hmm… maybe we should take another look at this.’
“At that point, it graduated from just the glycerin soap—which is just melt and pour—to the cold-processed soap, which we know as grandma’s lye soap. But instead of animal fats and pig fats, we put in the good stuff… and they’re all scented with pure organic essential and fragrant oils.”
They’ve now been making soap for ten years, amidst a move to Tennessee. In 2007, they opened a storefront in Franklin at a place called the Factory. They elected to shut down that store in 2011, when the venue “moved in a different direction,” and have been selling product wholesale and on their website (www.tennesseesoapworks.com) ever since.
“See, I bought a piece of land out here in Macon County and I was gonna be a farmer,” said Matthew. “Chickens, and goats… hay fields and tobacco fields… we lived in a subdivision in Spring Hill at the time. But while living there, we bought the property up here and slowly began to develop it. So I was commuting back and forth very regularly.
“During this time, I began to meet people, take bids from contractors, and that led me to the square in Lafayette. And I discovered this spot for rent, so I shook hands on it right away. I told my wife when I got back to Spring Hill, ‘we’re back in the soap business again!’”
While Matthew is the soap man, Debra is responsible for many of the other products in the store. She makes the bath fizzies, for instance—using ingredients like coconut oil, essential oils, baking soda, corn starch, and citric acid—and is also in charge of the bath salts and the shea butter products. They also offer all-natural laundry detergent and soy woodwick candles.
“I enjoy the creation of the different products,” said Debra, “the all-natural ingredients that we use. It’s good for you. Good for the body and soul, the whole process. Especially if you’re like me, and like to pamper yourself. “
“My wife,” effused Matthew, “has been nothing but inspirational; she’s very creative and intelligent, and she has a knack for knowing what will sell, what people will want. And she’s good with the Facebook and the website.”
The duo have hit the ground running at the new location. They’ll be scheduling open houses in the next few months, providing refreshments, and hosting soap making and bath fizzy demonstrations.
“In the square in Lafayette here, there’s always lots of traffic,” said Matthew. “Just constant—constant traffic. But you’ve got to be noticed; then you’ve got to get them to stop. And I’ll do everything short of stopping them. Wave to them, put out balloons… we had a bubble machine out yesterday. My nine-year-old son was out there waving. Anything for people to see.”
Once anyone makes it inside the store, it’s clear that the place is something special. Full of soothing sights and smells, the store also displays quite a few antique items: a pie safe, clawfoot tub, cowboy tub, 1897 washing machine, 1961 pink Maytag washing machine, 1800s French table, and assorted washtubs, washboards, and moonshine jugs.
These two never stop moving, and their nine-year-old son John is often in on the action. This month, they’re rolling out a new reed diffuser product, as well as a beautiful shaving kit, just in time for Father’s Day. It includes a brush, shaving mug, soap puck, and Merkur double-edged razor.
“I’m going to make a castor oil soap to go with it,” explained Matthew. “What we need for a shaving soap is a thick lather. Now the lather isn’t what cleans the skin; the lather allows the blade to progress smoothly and comfortably along the skin.”
They each have family coming up to visit this summer during the Hillbilly Days festival, to check out the Starner family’s new and permanent hometown. They’ll be selling product at Hillbilly Days and the Folk Medicine Festival. “I need to be on my game,” concluded Matthew.
Well, the game seems to be on. These artisans—already Tennessee residents for so long now—seem to have found a final resting place. And we’re all going to smell a whole lot better because of it.