Behind the Bar: A Visit with MoonDance Soaps

Settled in a quaint country home out on the far stretches of Durham right before you reach Wake Forest lies the headquarters of one of the newest products featured in our Co-op wellness department, MoonDance Soaps. MoonDance, a line of soaps, shave bars, bath bombs, shampoo/bathing bars, and soaks made locally in small batches, is women-owned with a focus on natural and quality ingredients, not unlike our own Co-op. Wanting to know more about the business, the two owners, and the array of their amazing Co-op products, we spent some time with their team to bring you another local story on our shelf.

The MoonDance aesthetic is strong: local, women-owned, quaint, and country. The headquarters reflect these values expertly, in fact so well that if you were driving by you could pass this Carolina homestead host to this ever-growing local soap business and may not realize the magic it contains.

When owners Sam and Jess found us outside their porch, we were already falling in love with the MoonDance vibes. We had paused for a moment after unloading to pay the parking toll to the unofficial MoonDance mascot, John Brown, their security donkey. Our Wellness Manager and resident herbalist, Tracie, joined Elizabeth our Graphics & Media Coordinator, and myself on this trip, and MoonDance had already won us over before even stepping foot inside to see and smell the actual soap and learn how it came to be. 

The moment Sam walked through the front doors to greet us, the scent of their hard labor was already beckoning us in. After exchanging our pleasantries and paying the parking toll, some good long scratches, Sam invited us into the living room, which doubled as the packaging and shipping station.

Standing in what would have resembled the front room of any Carolina mama or auntie’s home, Jess and Sam shared how they became the two new tango partners of the MoonDance. Both women desired to be their own bosses and had already been working together for other small self-made businesses. Jess, with a background in health and fitness, walked away from a job at IBM while Sam had just opened up their own dog grooming and boarding business less than a mile down the road. Jess, who still teaches physical education to adults, and Sam, who moonlights as an acrobatic entertainer, recognized that their goals aligned and a partnership began to form. When the opportunity arose to take over MoonDance, these two entrepreneurs got lathered up and ready to work making….well, lather.

The former owner Rachel, who established the company 25 years ago, was looking to retire. Having established a successful company, she was ready to transition to more of a part-time hands-on creative role in the day-to-day making of the product. Sam and Jess were ready to run a business, and like many other entrepreneurial endeavors, the pandemic became an opportune time for everyone to get into a new groove. 

As Sam and Jess led us around the house you couldn’t be anything but impressed by the established systems and retrofitting of this two-bedroom farmhouse into a soap-making and shipping company. Sam and Jess laughed, musing to us how the various scents were clearly hypnotizing us, as our humble soap makers made it very clear that it is a continuous learning process with each new trial.

Stepping into the role of operations, they were confident in the success of the business due to the quality product Rachel was producing. “It’s one of those companies you don’t want to see it go under,” Sam said, hands punctuating each sentiment. So with the pandemic in full swing, Sam and Jess would embark on their 6-month mandatory training. They both emphasized the mandatory, as neither was going to underestimate the knowledge needed to run this business as well as Rachel had. But with Rachel teaching them the basic steps on how to formulate, pour, bake, cure, and collaborate with suppliers, Sam and Jess were ready to tango.

Our two dance instructors, so to speak, began our lesson at the end of the soap-making process with the last step, curing. This step can take a few days as the bars need to set up before being handled. This process takes place off of the main room where shipping and packaging occur. In what I imagine could have been a child’s room in a past life, sit hundreds of bars made from countless recipes and all featuring a myriad of ingredients resting and waiting on shelves in a space now operated as something in between a wine cellar, humidor, or baker’s shelf.

If you love artisanal small-batch soaps, quality ingredients, or just the simple feeling of being clean, you probably could have stayed in the curing room all day. This last step is where the soap becomes a useable, workable, shippable product. Flavors from the many recipes they make, sit waiting to firm up enough to be beveled and smoothed down into presentable sellable bars.

The soap-making operation involves some key pieces of equipment, with one of the many items customized for Jess and Sam being the beveling box, made by a friend of the business. These wooden boxes are outfitted with a guitar string guillotine of sorts stretched under a frame for Sam and Jess to smooth down the edges of the bars cut from the large cakes of soap. Much like veggies on a mandolin, this process makes the bars look more presentable.  It is also of the few moments of the process where our soap makers can just “relax and space out”, shaving the edges, “but not too much or you’ll end up with samples” rather than a final product.

All the soap is smoothed to look more presentable for the shelf but also to ensure quality control. Each bar weighs as close to 4oz as possible (though between us, most weigh more, one of the ways MoonDance customers get a little more for the average bar purchase). The shavings from this process are also repurposed and incorporated into the Confetti Rebatch Bars.

Unbeknownst to us, a special custom batch was awaiting Ms. Tracie’s arrival, a custom Co-op edition and sneak peek for all reading this article. This bar is not yet out so you’ll just have to come in and speak to our resident herbalist herself to get the lowdown on this special batch.

Without Tracie, we wouldn’t have MoonDance at the Co-op. In fact, it was after Tracie was approached by another local entrepreneur and DCM shelf story celebrity, John Seltman of our “Do you know the Challah Man?” story who came in with samples that sparked our partnership and shelves with MoonDance products.

Tracie had been on the lookout for bulk soap distributors with a focus on natural essential oils and an ability to fill large orders of bulk, package-less soaps. Tracie had had some trouble finding a local company to keep up with the large demand and could provide a product that met our desired quality of ingredients. When Seltman approached Tracie, her keen senses and background as a certified herbalist with the National Guild of Herbalists, prompted her to reach out to the company and pursue the long sought-after local bulk soap provider she’d been looking for, for years, and the rest is history.

Or maybe her story is more appropriate as Tracie, our resident herbalist and folk witch, would inform me that the moon is historically associated with the divine female, a perfect icon for the energy behind this ever-growing women-owned company. Some of our music fans may have guessed by now that MoonDance was named after the Van Morrison song of the same name. Though I was not familiar with the song, after learning more about the company, and the work that Jess and Sam do to ensure their quality of product and customer, the name only became more fitting. Because this process for making soap, from the humble perspective of this community outreach coordinator, definitely felt like its own quick step.

 “You can’t make soap today to sell tomorrow” Sam exclaimed, and Jess nodded with a big toothy grin, because though it might seem obvious, it really isn’t apparent how much work soap takes. In fact, that was a big part of this interview, the scheduling of the demo. We wanted to ensure that we recorded the process of making soap, knowing that everyone loves a “Mr. Rogers” style behind the scene, and that meant Jess and Sam had to set up the ingredients 24 hours ahead of time.

This 24-hour process, better known as saponification, is the chemical reaction when sodium hydroxide (the chemical name for lye) breaks down the bonds in the fats and oils used to create soap. In fact, this is how one makes soap; any cleansing product that doesn’t result from this process is technically classified as a detergent. From this process, we also get the oh so necessary glycerin, and together with soap, the two bi-products of this chemical reaction provide that dirt-attracting, moisture-retaining cleansing attributes we soap users expect.

This is an exothermic process if my college chemistry serves me, which amongst many things simply means heat is created as a response to the combining of the fats and oils with lye. This heat can be felt through the mixing bucket used in the process and as the mixtures cool, Sam and Jess can use that as an indicator of how long until the soap can be poured into their molds.

The same way they can tell from the heat, they can tell from the sound made as the mixture is churned because a cooling liquid gets thicker. Some ingredients are added at this time so that the scents and benefits of the oils will not just be superficial, but this timing ensures that all ingredients are well incorporated and viable in the final form of the bar after cutting and curing.

Sam and Jess have found that spicy ingredients like cinnamon and clove will incorporate quickly, almost like their warm qualities are more energetic and help the mixtures setup faster, while ingredients with more cooling qualities like lavender and peppermint tend to increase setup time.

All of this happens in a converted barn shed on the backside of the property, outside in what I’d call the bubble barn, or maybe soap supply shed is more practical. The barn was outfitted by Sam and Jess with aid from many of their friends who helped create the various boxes, like the beveling box, they use to make the large cakes of soap. What may seem like simple wooden boxes, or just extra-large silicone cake molds, are custom pieces made to achieve the right shape and allow for these expensive cakes of fats and essential oils to set up without bubbles and separation, all of which would ruin the final product and make for an unsellable mess. Something as simple as the gallon-sized buckets as well as supplies shipped in what have become necessary additions to the process, along with a professional standing drill that is used to stir the mixtures.

Though MoonDance might think outside of the box to make the perfect boxes to cure their mixtures into cakes of soap, their ingredients remain familiar, tried and true, as most of their ingredients are edible or food safe. Though this doesn’t mean you can enjoy your favorite scent as a snack, it does show the care and concern they put into the creation of their products. This quality is one of the many reasons we appreciate products like MoonDance soap, especially as ingredients added to conventional soaps have been up for discussion in recent years.

It was in 2016 that the FDA tested an additive commonly used as an antiseptic to enhance shelf life in many conventional personal care products due to its anti-bacterial properties. This ingredient Triclosan, was banned in 2017 by the FDA and found to be harmful to animal subjects, disturbing hormone regulation and causing possible harm to their immune system. Though many products like body washes, soaps, and toothpaste still contain this additive to provide an antibacterial environment within the bottle, the threat of creating antibiotic resistant bacteria was also a concern with the use of this ingredient, which is now considered generally not safe by the FDA.

All of the customization, additions, and methods to the process are proof of Sam and Jess’s commitment to not only their consumers but to Rachel who passed on the torch. Both current owners would probably agree that more errors led to a lot of the recipes and decisions that were made in creating their process. Learning things like how long certain recipes take to combine or when and how to pour batches to maintain integrity are learned quite literally, hands-on. So, though this article may be informative, the only way to learn the dance is to step onto the floor, and the only way to experience the quality of MoonDance is to get your hands on a bar….and probably getting them dirty and or wet would help as well. Next time you’re at the Co-op, make sure your grocery list includes a visit to Tracie and a MoonDance bar. The love and intention poured into each piece guarantee you won’t be disappointed.