“I started off by selling just tens of soaps per month, now it's hundreds”, says Helen Atherton, 41, owner of thriving Edinburgh-based business, dook.
Even if you’re not yet familiar with the brand name, you may have lingered over these distinctive products in the hippest outlets. In Scotland, you’ll find their “artisanal soap bricks” at The National Galleries of Scotland, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh Mercantile, Glasgow’s Apercu and many others, as well as on their own website.
They’ve been hugely popular since Atherton set up the business back in the winter of 2018, using just £1500 of her own savings.
Now, she’s opening her own space at 22 Joppa Road, Portobello, on September 1.
“It's a beautiful wee Victorian shop that used to be a dressmaker called Sadie’s decades ago”, says Atherton, who worked as a primary school teacher for a decade before taking an entrepreneurial leap. “It’s moments around the corner from my house and it happened to come up for lease just as I felt it would be useful to have more space. It was too good an opportunity to pass up! For the last couple of decades it was an accountant’s office, so it’s been a rewarding process working with the landlord to bring the premises back to its former glory”.
Getting this venue ready for opening has also been a major family operation over the summer holidays.
Even Atherton’s kids, aged nine and six, have helped out with packing boxes and cleaning the shop windows in anticipation of the big launch.
Although dook offers a small range of shampoo and conditioning bars, soap dishes, and the obligatory hand sanitizers, among other things, their main product is the Salt Soaps. These are conspicuous thanks to the dramatic tsunami-esque twists of colour and, apart from the plain Naked bar, all have aromatherapy scents.
As far as varieties go, there’s an edited collection of seven, including their original, Rosemary & Frankincense.
“That’s the first and is still my favourite to make,” says Atherton.
They’re all created using natural colours, and this one is peach, with a black and white swirl that makes it look like a slice of agate.
Other versions include Cedar & Bitter Orange, as well as Mint, Rosemary & Juniper, and Patchouli, Frankincense, Mandarin & Cedar.
However, as Atherton says, “The Mandarin, Rosemary, Bergamot & Cedar is our top-selling soap, along with Bergamot, Juniper & Rose Geranium, which comes in at a very close second”.
None of these were created in a factory, and all are made in small batches.
“Each and every soap is handmade by me”, says Atherton. “To create the patterns I mix clay and activated charcoal into the soap batter and carefully pour the coloured mixture in tandem into the mould, sometimes using a tool to create particular patterns”.
All of the dook soaps contain 50 per cent pink Himalayan salt.
As their website says, “this incredible ingredient is packed full of skin loving trace minerals that are known for their detoxifying, exfoliating and rejuvenating skin support”. Most of them also feature organic coconut oil and raw organic shea butter, with none of the sodium lauryl sulfate foaming agent that’s pumped into cheaper soaps. That makes them rather more fancy than the average bar of Imperial Leather, and they’re priced at just under a tenner each, which reflects the expensive ingredients and work-intensive process.
These products also use minimal packaging - just boxes made from recycled coffee cups.
Thus, demand has been fueled among green consumers who want to dodge the plastic bottles that come with liquid hand wash. To keep them happy, it was definitely time to upsize and increase production.
They also needed space for their soap-making workshops, which they’re hoping to start up again this autumn/winter, if Covid restrictions allow.
“By the end of 2020 it was clear that my half garage workshop space just wasn't going to cut it”, says Atherton. “I started to think about looking for somewhere else, expecting to settle on an industrial space on the outskirts of town. This shop-cum-workshop has both the extra space I need plus we've designed it to have a retail space at the front, which is a huge bonus. From an entrepreneurial point of view it's also been a fascinating challenge to consider what the dook brand looks and feels like in bricks and mortar”.
As far as new products go, they haven’t been concocting any new recipes. Instead, they’ve been consolidating their collection while renovating the shop.
However, there will be some other brands popping up in the space, just in time for Christmas.
“I hope that dook will be the go-to destination for sustainably produced skincare and a curated collection of ceramics and design-led homeware too”, says Atherton.
She’ll be part of the wave of new shops and businesses opening in the neighbourhood, which has recently welcomed pizza venue Civerinos Slice and coffee bar Tanifiki.
“It’s been wonderful to see the regeneration of Porty High St following lockdown”, she says. “There are several incredible shops that are thriving in the area. I love The Portobello Bookshop for their calm and serene interior and knowledgeable staff; Root Down offers amazing veg and plays great tunes, but also has the most brilliant selection of sauces from all over the world. Twelve Triangles' bread is delicious and now there's a new handmade fresh pasta shop - Aemilia - delicious pasta that sells out everyday. I love that all of these businesses seem to be thriving through support from wonderful Edinburgh folk”.