“I make 400 bars a week”: This former event designer turned his soap-making side hustle into a full-time job
Sandro Petrillo’s work in experiential design came to a halt when Covid hit. So he picked up his longtime soap-making hobby and got serious about nailing down the perfect bar—which also happens to be as pretty as a piece of art. Last fall, he launched Sssoaps, his all-natural, locally sourced soap company, and sold out of his stock immediately. Now the business is Petrillo’s full-time gig. Here’s how it all happened.
“I started collecting bars of soap about nine years ago. One bar can cost anywhere from $2 to $20, so it was manageable from a collector’s standpoint. I would walk into a store without even thinking about soap, and then end up grabbing a bar to add to my collection. After a few years, I had amassed about 300 bars of soap. For a while, I would buy two bars of each so I could use one and keep one for my collection. I would buy a soap if I liked the way it looked—I was especially drawn to interesting typography and packaging design. At a certain point, the question was just, ‘Do I already have this one or not?’ If I didn’t, I would usually scoop it up.
“Six years ago, my partner gave me a soap-making kit that included all of the ingredients I needed to get started, plus a mould. I made my first batch using a cold-process method, which involves combining oils with sodium hydroxide lye. The recipe was just cocoa butter, olive oil, castor oil and a cedar-scented essential oil. A couple of days later, I had 30 bars of homemade soap. It was exciting to see a chemical reaction turn raw ingredients into something totally new. The bars turned out beautifully, and I was totally hooked. Over the years, I made personal batches and gave bars away to friends.
“Soap-making remained a big passion, but I was usually too busy working to pursue it more seriously. Before the pandemic, I built interactive installations for brands, the stage, and performing acts, mainly in the underground dance and music world. I used construction materials and lighting to create moods and emotion in temporary event spaces. Toward the end of 2019, I burnt out. I was working 12- to 14-hour days, and I just hit a wall. I decided to take a couple of months off at the beginning of 2020 to focus on soap. I called it my ‘Soap Sabbatical.’ I had been doing a lot of research and watching YouTube tutorials, and put together a giant spreadsheet of the characteristics of different formulas—hardness, how much the soap lathers. I tried them all. It was like recipe testing; I wanted to understand how different quantities and ingredients affected the soap. I had a few notable failures: one batch that contained clay turned out as hard as a slab of concrete. Another contained too much lye, which made it dry and crumbly.
“When the pandemic hit, the installations that I had booked were put on hold. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I thought, I have lots of material and lots of time. Let’s just see what happens. A month or two later, I launched Sssoaps. My only goals were to keep my ingredients 100 per cent natural and as local as possible. I also wanted to offer a limited-run style of production, which would set my soap apart from what you’d typically find in stores.
“I started looking for distributors for my materials. My core ingredients are cocoa butter, olive oil, coconut oil and essential oils. I add in other ingredients like clays, charcoal and shea butter sometimes, too. Essential oils are the priciest ingredients I use. There’s a wide price range, depending on the scent: lavender is about $100 per litre; geranium is about $350 per litre and vetiver is $500 per litre.
“I start by measuring and weighing all of my ingredients. I melt down coconut and shea butters in a pot on a stovetop. While they’re melting down, I make my lye solution, which is sodium hydroxide mixed with water. This causes a chemical reaction, and the mixture starts to heat up like crazy. I mix the oils and the lye together, and try to get the mixture to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Then something called saponification happens, which causes the batter to thicken up quickly. I use an immersion blender to make sure that the batter is thoroughly mixed. Once I’m satisfied with the consistency, I add the essential oils for scent —anything from blood orange to frankincense—and then it’s time to pour the mixture into moulds. I cover the moulds and set them aside for about 18 to 24 hours while the soap cures. When it’s finished curing, I take the blocks of soap out and cut them into bars. Each batch yields about 120 bars. Initially, I charged $12 for a large bar and $6 for a small bar. I’ve since raised the prices a little bit, after friends told me I should be charging more. It’s now it’s $16 for a large bar and $8 for a small bar.
“I’ve been able to develop my own pouring techniques that give my soaps a distinct look. It’s a bit like painting. To achieve a marbled effect, I pour one colour across the top of the mould, and another across the bottom. Then I might sprinkle in a few dots of a third colour. It’s experimental, but it’s not random. I’m making intentional aesthetic choices, thinking about how the colours are going to interact with one other. When I’m pouring, I envision waves crashing into each other very, very slowly.
“I built a website with a Shopify plugin, created an Instagram account, and launched Sssoaps in October of 2020. I had a stock of about 40 bars of each of my large and small sizes, and they sold out almost immediately. At first it was mostly friends buying my soap, but then the business just grew and grew. My timing couldn’t have been better. My friends were razzing me, saying, ‘Well, a pandemic is a great time to be a soap-maker!’ My soap is a luxury item, but it’s also essential—especially right now. Everyone is buying more soap during the pandemic, and people are paying more attention to where their products come from.
“The soaps feel luxurious because of my high-quality natural ingredients, which are easier on the skin than the synthetic, mass-produced soaps you might find at the drugstore. I’ve heard people say, ‘Wow, I haven’t tried anything like this before.’ I had a lot of repeat customers who didn’t want to go back to store-bought soap. There was a moment when the demand was almost overwhelming—people wanted soaps faster than I could cure them.
“In July of 2020, I realized that there was enough demand for Sssoaps to be a full-time job for me. I took a good look at the numbers and calculated how much soap I’d have to make, and at what frequency, to make it work. What I found didn’t freak me out at all—it was well within my means. And compared to my previous job, making soap is a walk in the park. It made sense from a lifestyle standpoint, because I was really enjoying the work, as well as from a financial one. To scale up, all that I had to do was to get more organized. I didn’t dramatically ramp up production. I just made a schedule, stuck to it, and fine-tuned my process. Now I make about 400 bars a week.
“I’ve rented a 250-square-foot studio in Little Italy for five years, where I’d create my sets at my old job. Now it functions as both an office space and a cool little soap-making workshop. As part of Sssoaps’ next phase, I’m planning to convert the studio into a showroom and retail space for customers. I have another studio in the same building, which I’ll use as a dedicated production space.
“I’ve been getting into merchandise, too. Over the summer, I designed a canvas bag in collaboration with a small company in Calgary. I also have a long-sleeved shirt coming out—all under the Sssoaps brand. Recently, I collaborated with the cannabis dispensary Superette on three scent profiles based on cannabis terpenes for new soaps. And now that I’m able to scale my production, I’m getting into wholesale. I’m working with a few retailers in Toronto, on the west coast and even in Australia.”