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Cover Story
Gifted entrepreneur
Bremerton woman has a holiday hit with her handmade F.R.O.G. Soap using a unique ingredient

Cover Story: Gifted entrepreneurLaura Kneib found a forgotten family keepsake last year, something that had been packed away with her late mother’s belongings for a long time. It wasn’t heirloom jewelry or vintage clothing or an old photo album.

It was two bars of soap, wrapped in wax paper.

It has sentimental value because it’s soap that Kneib and her mother made themselves, maybe 40 years ago or more, when their family lived in rural West Virginia and owned a general store that she describes as “an old-fashioned mercantile.”

Today, Kneib is a fledgling entrepreneur whose handmade soaps are fragrant, artistic creations, but they have something in common with the plain white squares of homemade soap from her youth. She learned from her mother how to use bacon grease to make soap; the fancy bars she sells now are made from waste vegetable oil.

“Anybody can make soap,” Kneib notes, since it’s a fairly simple process (though a labor-intensive one) of mixing lye, water and various oils. The website of the Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild list 20 soapmakers in Washington state, and many of them market their products as exquisite holiday gifts.

Laura Kneib displays her gift-wrapped soaps at the first of two holiday markets the Bremerton Farmers Market set up. The second one will be Dec. 8.Kneib does too, but what’s unique about her F.R.O.G. Soap enterprise — which takes up a lot of space in her modest two-story home perched above Ostrich Bay in Bremerton — is the use of reclaimed vegetable oil in the soapmaking process. The F.R.O.G. acronym stands for From Reclaimed Oil & Glycerin, and the choice of name for her business also provides a cute, colorful motif for packaging and marketing her products.

“I’m the only one doing it from recycled waste oil in the U.S.,” she says. “Frankly, I’m surprised more people are not doing something like this.”

Her “eureka moment” came a couple years ago while sitting in Chet’s Place in Bremerton, and realizing there could be a practical use for waste oil from kitchen fryers other than using it in biofuel production. The restaurant agreed to be her source, and Kneib began experimenting; her challenge was figuring out the proper ratio for mixing lye and water with the reclaimed cooking oil, as well as palm oil and other types. The oil that had been used to cook french fries is filtered multiple times before the mixing process begins.

Laura Kneib pours reclaimed cooking oil through a filter as she weighs the needed amount for a batch of her handmade soap.“It took lot of trial and error,” she says of the science project she undertook after working for eight years as a graphics designer for the Navy command staff at Keyport.

“I finally found the right balance to get a stable consistency,” she explains. “Then you could do anything you want with it.” Such as adding essential oils for scents, herbs like madder root for color, and activated charcoal for neutralizing odors.

One of her unscented varieties is called Guy Soap, with charcoal swirled through it.

She keeps a bar by the kitchen sink to neutralize food odors, and notes it was particularly effective for handwashing to get rid of the fish smell after she and a neighbor “cut up a nice mess of salmon.”

Laura Kneib spoons the finished mixture into molds to cool and harden.She makes a soap for getting rid of unpleasant dog smells, too. One of her more popular products is Katie’s Swamp Dog Shampoo, named for her 10-year-old Cocker Spaniel and made with a combination of charcoal, tea tree oil and lavender. Also, Kneib donates a percentage of the product’s sales to an organization that provides service dogs to veterans.

Besides doing a brisk business at farmers markets and holiday fairs as well as online orders, Kneib’s local networking has led to some big orders from people such as Lynne Byrne, an audiologist with a clinic in Bremerton.

“Laura was client of mine, and she thanked us with some soap. And I basically fell in love with her dog soap,” Byrne said. “As a business owner, I do thank my referral sources with Christmas gifts, and I commissioned her to do a whole herd of her little reindeer.”

Those are soap bars wrapped in a washcloth decorated to look like a reindeer, and Kneib used a whole batch of peppermint soap to make 55 of them for Byrne.

“I think it’s neat to partner with somebody locally who’s got such a unique product; it’s beautiful and makes a really wonderful gift,” Byrne said.

Kneib loves to talk up the “green” aspect of her burgeoning enterprise, which gets oil from restaurants and from Wilson Recycling in Mason County.

“In a year and a half I’ve reclaimed almost two tons of waste material,” she says. “Each bar of soap has an average of about 4 ounces of waste material that’s been reclaimed.”

Pumpkin pie soap is a special holiday item. (Photo courtesy Laura Kneib)But she found that had less appeal for many customers, who weren’t all that interested in hearing about the unglamorous main ingredient in the sweet-smelling boutique soaps they bought.

More than old fryer oil gets recycled in the F.R.O.G. operation. Kneib cuts up boxes and pulls off the cardboard’s top layer so she can trim the corrugated pieces into wraps for soap bars.

She also uses wood from shipping pallets to make her molds, into which she pours the thick mixture of ingredients to let it cool and harden overnight into blocks of soap that are cut into 4.75-ounce bars. The industrious soapmaker can do four batches in a day, which yields 248 bars.

Kneib, who also makes wooden soap holders included in gift packs, converted an unused bedroom into a wood shop, where she utilizes skills she learned from her father growing up in Pocahontas County. An old license plate from “Wild Wonderful West Virginia” hangs on the wall.

Her parents kept their three daughters busy working in the family store, which Kneib ran in the summer when she was home from college. She made pottery in a studio her father built for her at the store, and taught pottery classes there and at Davis & Elkins College.

Those experiences have helped her as an entrepreneur who handles every required task in her business, even making deliveries of some local orders.

“I’ve done all of it myself,” says Kneib, an unassuming Baby Boomer who doesn’t have a cell phone but is tech-savvy enough to use her Kindle for processing debit card transactions. “It’s long hours, and I’m having a ball with it.”

She recently hired a part-time helper to keep up with holiday orders. She’d like to eventually move into a larger production space and has some interested investors, but Kneib wants to keep F.R.O.G. Soap a handmade operation, so she can continue to do special things like making a batch of pumpkin pie soap for the holidays.

For anyone who wants to know how she makes her earth-friendly soap, Kneib made a YouTube video that’s viewable on her website: www.frogsoap.com.

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