On a far wall watching over the fresh appointments of the Bittersweet Soap and Apothecary at 111 North Water St. in Liberty, Missouri, is a well-preserved black and white photo. Store owner, Jill McDowell Lincoln points out the family portraits to a visitor, proudly framing her lineage as a fourth generation soap maker.
Her grandmother made soap for the pure functionality of it; her aunt for the passion of it; and McDowell Lincoln for the health of it. She started her soap company more than two decades ago, largely as a means to address some of her own skin conditions she was convinced could be cured with appropriate skin-care. “I’m not a dermatologist, but I thought if I could create something free of chemicals, I might find relief from some of my skin issues,” she says.
A former bank manager and code enforcement officer, a leap of faith started a journey that has survived economic downturns, the business’ expansion and contraction, and at least four locations. All along the 23-year venture, one thing has remained constant: She’s been a one-woman shop. “I’m grateful; I’m very blessed that I’ve gotten to do what I love.”
The business launched in the same location it’s situated now, an old Victorian house along a historic side street to the Liberty Square. She moved briefly onto the Square, then back to her home and then again to the shop’s current address eight years ago. She shares the building with several other businesses, many she’s seen come and go.
“There was a time when I was working out of my house that I was calling on shops in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. I had quite a few accounts” she says. “I realized I didn’t want my product mass produced and what sold the product was the experience, the customer experience. Wholesale is not my thing.”
The customer experience includes knowing her customers by name, their likes, their children and even their own maladies. “One of my customers came in and we got to talking about her one year old who was scratching his skin until it bled. I wondered if he wasn’t allergic to the soap he was using. I recommended our Oats and Goats, which is fragrance free. She came back in two weeks claiming he had improved.”
While she contends she will remain a one-woman show, she is certainly not alone when it comes to the growth of women-based businesses. There are now 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., employing nearly nine million people and generating over $1.6 trillion in revenues. Womenable reports that women-owned businesses now comprise 38% of the business population. Between 2007 and 2016, while the total number of firms in the U.S. increased by 9%, the number of women-owned firms increased by 45% – meaning that over this period the number of women-owned firms grew at a rate five times the national average.
Times have changed. When she began her entrepreneurial journey there was little access to information. “One book in 1997 on how to make soap. You really had to be dialed in if you wanted to make this a business.” She says she’s never stopped researching and learning, particularly as her product mix expanded to include bath salts, essential oils, complexion bars, shampoo and lip balms. She is quick to cite clinical studies and medical journals on the value of such ingredients as rose hip oil.
The store’s offerings have grown beyond McDowell Lincoln’s own handmade offerings, which emanate from her workshop studio in the basement of her Liberty home. There she produces more than 22,000 bars of soap annually. “I try to stay ahead with about two months inventory. Last Christmas I ran about 1,000 bars short.”
Cross the threshold into the store and the hardwood floors creak with a warm welcome and the aroma fills one’s senses. Apparel that is as much Santé Fe as it is Liberty Square is merchandised in the rear of the store beyond her core skin-care offerings. “I have a simple rule for what products I’ll carry - are they appealing to me?”
Business has been good for the Apothecary, McDowell Lincoln claiming sales continue to grow every quarter. With that growth, she gets to set her own hours, choosing to operate the store four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and reinvests in the community, using for example, fresh goat’s milk for some of her soaps from the Laughing Fox Farms. It’s not unusual for the morning milk run to include farm-fresh eggs left at the store’s door.
“I’m planning on implementing a much larger line of goat-milk products in the weeks to come. It’s all part of what I call farm to skin. Natural products with natural ingredients.”
Back under the watchful gaze of her family photo, she never forgets her roots. “My aunt Vivian shared her passion of soap making with me. Needless to say, she has soap for life.”