Purring Buddha | Buzz Blog

Monday, January 25, 2016

Purring Buddha

Natural body works made for every kind of conscious consumer.

Posted By on January 25, 2016, 12:01 AM

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With all the body works materials out there, it can become a mind-boggling challenge to decide what works best for you and what the best possible choices are for your own personal health and hygiene. Not to mention what said products are made of and what effect they have on the environment after you've finished using them. A local business working to help you make conscious decisions while giving you organic options is Purring Buddha. As the company itself says, they use "organic, natural, fair trade, sustainable, palm oil free, cruelty-free, non-GMO, vegan, vegan-friendly, eco-friendly and locally sourced ingredients," which in a nutshell means it's healthy for you and you can rest easy knowing what it was made of and what it will do after being used. Today we chat with the founder, Mieke Okamura, about founding her business and the work that goes into her products as she expands both online and in retail. (All pictures courtesy of Purring Buddha.)

Mieke Okamura

Gavin: Hey Mieke, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I live in Sugar House with my two sons and our cats. I was born in Rome, NY, grew up in Maryland and moved to Utah in 87. I have family here in Salt Lake as well as overseas in the Netherlands. I used to play roller derby under the name Monica Bruisinky - #1600, worked for years as a massage therapist and love animals.

Gavin: You're originally from Maryland, what brought you out to Utah and made you want to stay?

My parents moved my family to Utah in '87 to be closer to my father's family. I'll always visit friends from time to time in Maryland but I call Utah home now and have no plans to move back East again. I miss the ocean but I love the mountains here. I also love how people bond together to help each other out in times of need.

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Gavin: I read you originally started out as a massage therapist. What made you take an interest in that area, and how was that time for you?

I enrolled in massage school because I needed a career that provided flexibility with my schedule. My oldest son was diagnosed with Aspergers and he became a full-time job for a number of years. When I graduated from massage school I started interviewing with spas in the area but found that they were all looking for therapists that could work evenings and weekends. That wasn't something I could do as a single mother so I started my own practice doing out calls for several years. It was good and it was bad at the same time. I loved being able to help people work their way out of pain and I became very good at it. I understood pain as I was in lots of pain myself. After several years of practicing massage, I found myself getting burned out. Not because of the actual practice of doing massage but because of all the creeps I would run into doing out calls. One too many times I came home shaking with fear that my life could have come to an end because I took a chance when I needed money to pay bills and feed my kids. I realized massage wasn't something I could do forever, not only because of the complications I ran into but because I wasn't going to provide a retirement plan for me. I also joined a roller derby league in during that time and found myself telling clients "No, I'm sorry, I can't schedule you that night, I have roller derby practice." I retired from derby before figuring out what my plan was to retire from massage. After my father passed away in 2008, I started thinking really hard about what my next step would be.

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Gavin: When did you start taking an interest in body products beyond just personal use?

I think I was probably fascinated with cosmetics and body products since I was a little girl. When my mother would put me in the shopping cart and take me to the grocery store, I was deeply intrigued about what would make her spend so much time in the cosmetics aisle. I wanted to figure out what made her put one box into the shopping cart and not the other. I wound up in trouble a few times for getting into my mother's lipstick and making messes mixing products together. In my tween years, Hasbro had a line of products called Fresh and Fancy. They made kits to make your own makeup and I was hooked. I think I started wondering how everything was made after that and fantasized about making my own products one day. After my father passed away, I was doing some deep thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I thought about my love for body products and cosmetics and wondered why I thought it was so out of reach for me to start my own cosmetics or bath and body business. I started brainstorming ideas and realized with my background in massage that it made sense to start with products I could sell to spas. Sometimes I would fill in at spas for extra work and in between clients I would pick up a jug of massage oil and start studying all the ingredients listed. There were tabloid magazines available to read in between clients, but the massage oil ingredients were more interesting to me.

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Mieke: I started researching everything used in the commercial massage oils and realized I could make a better product with pure ingredients. I started blending my own massage oils and sold the oils to other therapists on occasion. I thought about starting a massage oil business but felt like I needed a simpler product that everyone could use.  A friend suggested soap making to me one day. I had no idea how it was made but was always curious so I started buying books on soap making and gathering tools and supplies. For a year and a half, I fell asleep every night reading books on soap making before I signed up for a class. I had already started buying soaps at farmers markets and at Whole Foods and instantly noticed a difference in the way my skin felt afterwards and knew I couldn't go back to using the cheap crappy commercial stuff I was raised on. At this point I had become obsessed with reading the ingredients on everything and also realized that some of these products I had become so accustomed to using were full of unethical ingredients. I often wondered why it was so hard to find a company that made quality products that had higher ethical standards. I would look for things like "vegan," "cruelty free," "fairtrade," "organic," "natural," "eco-friendly," etc but found that usually companies had one but not the others. I made my first batch of soap on my own in 2010. It awakened the creative side in me since then I haven't been able to stop. My creative ideas go onto a list faster than I have time or resources to execute them. I suppose it's my creativity that's behind the steering wheel most of the time.

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Gavin: How did you end up learning how to make them, and what pushed you to more natural ingredients?

Aside from the one class I took, I'm mostly self-taught. I've read lots of books, watched plenty of Youtube videos and had my share of trial and error. Soap making is a life long learning process and every year I get a little better. When I first began, I used recipes I found in books or online. I would buy whatever ingredients were listed in the recipe without realizing what the ingredients actually were. Then ingredient by ingredient I started digging deeper and deeper and realizing that things were not always what they seem. I was already concerned about using palm oil but was led to believe that by using "organic sustainable" palm oil, that it was "ok". After more research on palm oil , I concluded that I would stop using it. Then I realized palm oil has hundreds of derivatives. Derivatives that are commonly used in the cosmetics industry and marketed as "natural" just because their origin was from something natural. I experimented with lotions briefly in 2011 and once I started researching all the ingredients I had been using , I stopped making the lotions. Stearic acid for example is a commonly used ingredient in lotions as a stabilizer. I found out that stearic acid is commonly derived from animal fats. Animal fats that can either be a byproduct from slaughterhouses or from animals that were euthanized in shelters. The alternative to stearic acid is "vegetable derived". Most people are satisfied with the term " vegetable" but I wasn't. "What kind of vegetable" I would ask to myself. So I started digging deeper and found out that "vegetable" usually means it was derived from palm oil, corn or soy. Sometimes it can mean coconut oil but I was never successful in finding it derived from coconut. Corn and soy derived meant they were most likely gmo grown so I knew I couldn't go there either.

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Mieke: Things have kind of evolved over the past few years with my techniques and ingredients I use. I'm still learning and I suppose I'll keep adapting with information I continue to learn. I also decided to go cruelty-free with my products a couple years ago. I used to make a few goats milk soaps and one day I looked at the can of goats milk and thought to myself "I'll bet this milk isn't from happy goats," put the can down and couldn't come up with any reasonable solutions so I decided to switch to organic coconut milk in place of goats milk. When people ask why I don't have goats milk soaps I say " Because I don't have goats and I don't have time to drive across town and do inspections on goat farms to make sure the milk is coming from happy goats. If I had goats they would have cute names and we would make sure they're happy, but I don't have goats. So no goats milk soap. Sorry". The only thing I use sometimes that isn't considered vegan is organic beeswax in my lip balms and lotion bars. So far I have figured that if it's certified organic that means it's being sourced from responsible beekeepers that aren't causing harm to their bees. I'd love to learn more about it, though.

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Gavin: What made you decide to open your own business, and where did the name come from?

In 2011 after I had some soap making under my belt, my boyfriend at the time urged me to start selling it. I suppose he was confused as to why I was making so much soap and wondered what I was going to do with it all. Since we hadn't been dating for too long, I couldn't find it in myself to tell him I was planning on starting a business. It just sounded crazy at that point. Later that year I started selling at farmers markets under the name " GingerMade". People were confused as what the name was referring to. The first guess was that I was making " ginger soap". The second guess was that my name was Ginger. But the correct answer was because of my red hair. I probably spent more time explaining to people what the business name meant than talking about the actual product. In 2013 a number of life changing events happened. I ran into some legal problems with a family member and had to shut down GingerMade, which was devastating to me. Next, I went through a bad breakup from an abusive relationship. I was dealing with the stress pretty well knowing that those people had been toxic to me and having my Buddha cat snuggling on top of my head every night, purring loudly until I fell asleep. It was the only thing that soothed my nerves at the end of the day and the only way I could all asleep. The third and final blow to add to my stress was Buddha bolting out of the house one night on a mission for trouble. He didn't come home that night and I couldn't sleep. My gut instinct was that he was in trouble. In the morning, I was getting in my car to leave for an appointment when I heard Buddha meow. I turned around and saw him limping to the door and bleeding. I dropped everything, wrapped him in a towel and took him straight to Sugar House animal hospital. I cried my eyes out knowing that we had a big decision to make that day. When the doctor told me he would have to have his leg amputated to save him and it was going to be very costly, I stopped breathing for a moment. I had no money as my business was up in smoke. I didn't know what I was going to do. The doctor suggested euthanizing Buddha if I couldn't come up with the funds for the surgery. I couldn't accept that because life had dealt me some bad cards that this would be his fate. I knew I couldn't let him down as he had been there for me in my time of need. I pleaded with the doctor to do the surgery and promised that I would get every dime to them it cost. I didn't know how or where the money was going to come from, I just knew that somehow it was going to happen.

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Mieke: After a long pause, the doctor agreed to go ahead with the surgery. One miracle after another we were able to gather money to start paying the bill. My little sister that lives in Japan surprised me by putting the remaining balance on her credit card. For 3 weeks we had to bring Buddha back into the clinic so he could be tube fed throughout the day. He wouldn't eat or drink on his own and was losing weight. They also told me he was anemic and had a heart murmur. My youngest son made a special bed for Buddha and slept in a sleeping bad on the basement floor with him every night. We never left him alone. Things were so dark and depressing and I realized the ordeal had taken a toll on all of us. The sun came out one day signaling the end of winter and beginning of spring. I had a crazy idea that we all needed to get outside and soak up some of the sun, even Buddha. Buddha nestled into one of his favorite piles of dirt on the side of the house, the clouds parted and a ray of sun came down right in the spot he was snuggled in. He closed his eyes and raised his head towards the sun. Then the craziest thing happened. We swore we saw him smile while he was soaking up the sun. He stayed like that until the clouds moved again and the sun hid. Then he jumped up and tried to run off. So we brought him back in the house and he hopped right to his food and water bowl and started eating and drinking on his own. That was the first day of emotional recovery for all of us and the point of when I realized I was going to start a new business with new inspiration. Some customers of mine from the Downtown Farmers Market caught wind of what was going on and reached out to help me. It turned out that Alex is an amazingly talented graphic artist and Heather is a kick-ass therapist. They invited me over one evening to go over some ideas for a new business. I told them my ideas, only expecting for them to tell me if I was on the right track or not. A few weeks later they had me come back and unveiled the logo and concept they had put together for me. I was in tears again. This time, it was tears of joy. They nailed it. I couldn't have asked for a better logo. I had to pinch myself to check and make sure I wasn't dreaming. In December of 2013, I launched Purring Buddha.

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Gavin: What was the process like for you getting everything you needed for mass production?

I'm still learning how to mass produce. I used to make batches of soaps in 1 lb batches, then up to 2-3 lbs at a time. I started using 6 lb molds in 2011 and was still measuring out ingredients for one batch at a time. It was extremely time-consuming and exhausting. Then I discovered " master batching". It changed everything. So now I can measure out roughly 50 lbs of oils at a time to speed things up. The next step is to graduate from buckets to barrels and invest in some better equipment and molds.

Gavin: How do you go about creating a new product and what's the process like from idea to final creation?

The ideas usually start randomly. Anything can inspire me, anywhere I go. Sometimes I wake up from a dream with an idea in my head. I write the ideas down on a list then start planning details from there. Sometimes it can take over a year to actually put the idea in action and sometimes the idea never comes to fruition. I'd say the biggest problem is that I have too many ideas and I find it hard to discipline myself sometimes and stay focused on what needs to be prioritized.

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Gavin: What was it like going out into festivals and markets to get the word out?

I started at farmers markets and festivals in 2011 and it was kind of rough. Always hit and miss. I think most people get easily discouraged from a bad day but I realized I was learning from each bad experience. It gave me the opportunity to figure out what could be improved in to make the next time better. Sometimes I would hardly sell a thing but I never gave up. I decided I would chalk the first year up to experience and exposure and didn't expect to start turning a profit. I did start building up a customer base from it slowly and surely and made some of my best friends at the markets. No regrets.

Gavin: What made you decide to do an online shop rather than a physical location?

I wanted to build up a solid customer base before I put any serious thought into taking a chance on a brick and mortar. Right now I currently wholesale, sell online and special events. As of December of 2015, there are 18 locations statewide that sell Purring Buddha products. I had my big annual open house in December which was a game changer for me. It turned out to be such a great success that I can now see a brick and mortar in the future for Purring Buddha.

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Gavin: What's the response been like from people who have found you and tried your products?

It's been overwhelming and satisfying. It's why I keep doing what I do. Not only are customers happy with the quality of products from the feedback I get, but I've had many of them also reach out to me to thank me for doing what I do. Thanking me for making cruelty free, palm oil free products from organic and ethically sourced ingredients.

Gavin: How has it been working with local outlets to get your products out, and who do you currently work with?

I've been extremely fortunate with Purring Buddha that I haven't had to spend much time hunting down retail locations to carry my products. Most wholesale accounts I have established found out about Purring Buddha and reached out to me. Unhinged was the first retail location for Purring Buddha. I started with product in their Sugar House store and expanded to their Provo and 21st and 21st location. They carry most of the products I make out of any other location. Other retail locations include : Natural Joy Beauty in Gardner Village, Tracy Aviary, Body Rock Sculpting Med Spa in Sugar House, University Pharmacy Gifts, Basalt Day Spa, Real Foods (4 locations), Snowbird Cliff Lodge Spa and Salon, Blue Boutique (4 locations), and the spa and wellness center in the country club. I also have a big order I'm working on that will be announced in April.

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Gavin: Are you looking to create any new products yet or experiment in new areas?

Oh yes! I have plenty of new products I'm working on. Currently I make soaps, lip balms, bath bombs, body scrubs, body and massage butters, lotion bars, and beard oils. My best seller is the Black Soji Blemish Bar. I plan on adding bath soaks, new complexion and shampoo bars, massage oils, face masks, deodorants and so much more. I actually have some really big plans for the future but I think I'll work on one thing at a time before I start revealing too much now.

Gavin: What can we expect from you and Purring Buddha over the rest of 2016?

Expect to find Purring Buddha products in more retail locations in Utah, and out of state. I'm currently working with The Purrk. They are looking to open a cat cafe and boutique here in Salt Lake and carry Purring Buddha products. I'll also be expanding the product line a little bit at a time. My business mission is also to be able to give back to the community. My main focus is animal rescue. I helped Utah Animal Advocacy Foundation raise almost $1,500 in December of 2015 and plan to continue to help with rescue efforts whenever possible. I also plan on applying for a business loan this year and moving Purring Buddha out of my small little Sugar House home into a production facility and hiring some part time help. After that's done, you can expect to see some big things happen for Purring Buddha! 

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