ENVIRONMENT: Moon Works – A clean break with tradition

SUTTONS BAY – Combining their eclectic interests, passion for the environment and entrepreneurial spirits, Gail Robinson and Jay Gierkey forged in a new direction this summer: diving into the mundane realm of dirty clothes.

Launching Moon Works in July, the pair has created a laundry soap whose natural ingredients and low-tech packaging have it jumping off area retail shelves. The detergent-free formula they mix up in Robinson’s garage has no artificial anything; boasting instead a simple ingredient list of borax, baking soda, Castile soap and pure essential oils for scent.

In a region where caring for the environment is next to a religion, Moon Works has quickly carved out a niche.

In just six months, Robinson and Gierkey have gone from mixing batches in five-gallon buckets to investing in a small cement mixer to make 4,000 ounces at a time. From one retail outlet in July moving fewer than 100 pounds of product, they are up to a dozen retail sites around the region moving 800-1,000 pounds monthly.

Both are delighted at their products’ success. They point out that while the company is not a huge moneymaker, during their six-month venture they have always been in the black. Better yet, both are having a lot of fun doing something they believe in.

“This is really something we’ve stumbled on and it is working,” said Robinson, a Lake Leelanau resident whose previous business venture was starting the Suttons Bay Montessori School in 1989.

“It is taking off because people are happy with the product. The appeal is the ecological benefits; that is certainly what people are looking for when they shop at a store like Oryana or live in this county.”

Looking for a mutual business venture to share, the pair hatched the idea for Moon Works last spring. Gierkey, who had been making all-natural bar soaps as a hobby, thought a natural laundry soap might be the ticket.

They dug into books on soap making and body care, surfed on line and hunted up old-fashioned recipes. They discovered in their research that the suds and strong smells usually associated with getting things clean did not hold water.

“Suds don’t have anything to do with cleaning; soap is just a releasing agent that makes the water wetter,” noted Gierkey. “We do not use any optical brighteners or artificial bleaches to get clothes clean.”

Gierkey also read up on aromatherapy and sifted through natural food catalogues for ingredients. They were determined to use pure essential oils, not petrochemical derivatives, for scent. They now offer lavender, balsam fir and unscented options.

Once they established ingredients and made a recipe, production began. Both are grounded in a low-tech, hands-on philosophy. One step of production involves hand-grinding the Castile soap, saving the leftover slivers for Gierkey’s bar soaps.

As production increased throughout the summer, they had to find more cost-effective ways to purchase ingredients. Hansen’s in Suttons Bay helps them purchase their Castile soap and borax in bulk. When they quickly outgrew small boxes of baking soda, Gierkey hunted up a chemical company in New Jersey selling it in bulk. However, a little more research found them a better deal at Sam’s Club.

“We just go in like anybody else and buy 30 large boxes,” he said.

With the product’s rapid growth, their first capital investment was containers. They purchased bags and tubs for their 160-, 80-, 48- and 32-ounce sizes. Next came rolls of self-stick labels, a pleasant upgrade from their hand-lettered efforts they copied and pasted as needed.

As business continued to grow, they trucked to Farm and Fleet in Traverse City a few months ago and picked up a personal cement mixer. This investment quickly paid off in time saved and increased output.

Shortly after they released their product, a friend discovered that an empty film can made the perfect one-ounce scoop. Gierkey pounced on the idea, intrigued by the opportunity to recycle something in their product.

“I talked to the lady at the camera shop across the street from my apartment and she gave me a whole bunch, thinking I wouldn’t be back for a long time,” Gierkey said. “Two weeks later I was back again.”

Now Gierkey, Robinson and their friends make rounds of photo developing labs in the area to pick up the hundreds of film cans they need.

From the beginning they have kept Moon Works a community-based idea, turning to area businesses for resources and support. They deliver the product themselves throughout northwest Michigan and just added shipping capacity, mainly used to supply seasonal residents who purchased the product this summer but ran out.

Looking ahead, they may create a Web site, but both see Moon Works moving in a different direction. Neither wants to get into advertising, huge production facilities or extensive shipping. Instead, they believe that soap making is like a craft, a low-tech, low capital investment business that anyone could create in their garage

“We’re not going to cover the country ourselves,” Gierkey said, who has worked in various home-based businesses since 1968. “We may create a business template for someone to do this on their own; it would be a great business for a disabled person or single moms. My goal is to have a whole line of businesses to share.” BN