Couple cleaning up with soap business in Munhall
With product names like “Stink Stick,” “Real Men Wear Pink” and “Get the Crud Out,” it is clear that Pip and Lola’s Everything Homemade is a nontraditional soap shop.
“You can tell I was tired that day if something has a boring name,” co-owner Samantha Story-Camp said. The ingredients usually inspire the names (hence “Lemon Poppyseed” and “Gypsy Rose Lemon”), but if she is really stuck, she will outsource naming to the company’s Facebook followers.
Borne from a need to create skin-care products their son, Perrin, could use without experiencing a severe allergic reaction, the Munhall-based shop is the brainchild of Samantha and her husband, Bruce Story-Camp. All soaps the store sells are homemade and vegan or vegetarian.
When he was younger, Perrin — “Pip” of the store’s name; “Lola” is the nickname of his sister, Lorelai — had such sensitive skin that the couple couldn’t use conventional soaps and detergents.
“He would get these bleeding rashes,” Story-Camp said of her youngest child, who is now 8. “We had to be super careful what we used on him.”
Story-Camp, a former nightlife columnist and features reporter for the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News, started researching saponification — the chemical reaction that occurs in soapmaking — reading a friend’s book on the subject and conducting her own experiments.
After she perfected the recipes, the couple started making soaps at home and began giving them as gifts, bartering them for services like acting lessons, child care and mechanic work.
“But everyone kept telling me what you always tell someone who makes something you like: that we should open a store and sell them,” she said.
The couple started small, at farmers’ markets, and eventually opened a storefront in Tacoma, Wash., where the family lived at the time. But Story-Camp said running the retail end became overwhelming because of the number of non-soap products they were selling.
“Soaps were just a part of it; we had 80 different handmade vendors,” she said. “We found it really challenging.”
So they shifted to online-only sales in 2014. It proved to be smart: Pip and Lola’s started in 2011 with about a dozen soaps; Story-Camp said they now have about 130 varieties.
Story-Camp, a graduate of the theater program at Point Park University (when it was Point Park College), said she always felt a pull back toward Pittsburgh, even though she lived in Seattle and Texas and Tacoma in the years since.
“For a kid who moved as much as I did, no place really had connected for me as home like Pittsburgh,” she said. “Then you hit 40 and you want to find a place to settle down, so we started looking here.”
Munhall had what the Story-Camps wanted: a small business district and affordable housing. The Mon Valley community, which has benefited from the success of the Waterfront shopping center, has focused on attracting businesses by working with its neighbors West Homestead and Homestead.
“We knew we all had to try to capitalize on the success of the Waterfront,” Munhall Manager Joseph Varhola said. That complex was made possible by the three municipalities working together to adapt zoning regulations, among other things, Varhola said. “We have a great thing here, and we all have to help each other.”
Attracting small businesses is still a challenge, Varhola acknowledged, but Munhall will work with businesses to figure out how to remove obstacles to success.
Pip and Lola’s has a small coffee bar — another business Story-Camp said the main drag could use — so patrons can come in, drink coffee and absorb the aromas.
Even though the couple weren’t planning to open a brick-and-mortar location, Story-Camp said finding the right location changed their minds.
Since their July 1 soft opening, she said business at the shop and online has been brisk, and their products are now on the shelves at the new Whole Foods in Upper St. Clair.
As for Perrin, his mother said he’s aware of how much his skin condition inspired the business.
“He jokes how he is the assistant manager,” she said. His allergies are less of an issue now, Story-Camp said, thanks in part to the organic soaps.
Story-Camp said there have been a few puzzled glances and raised eyebrows from longtime Munhall residents when they encounter the offbeat shop, but for the most part, their neighbors have welcomed them.
“Especially the younger people who live here — they’re excited to have something that’s not another dentist’s office or pizza place,” she said. Their “suspended soap” program, in which customers can buy a bar of soap that Pip and Lola’s will donate to a charitable organization, has been popular.
And, she added, they’re not just business owners who are taking advantage of low rents. The Story-Camps live in Munhall and are preparing to close on the purchase of a house near the shop.
“There may be people who come here because it’s a cheap place to start a business,” she said. “But we believe in this neighborhood.”
Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.