It’s rare to experience a moment in life when everything lines up perfectly. To have the stars align, so to speak. Well, Tammy Bessant knows this feeling. The second that she and her husband went to visit a property with a soap shop for sale in Yahk, British Columbia, she knew her life would never be the same.
“It felt like our lives were always supposed to be like this. Like everything led up to being here.”
Small bars of soap and big dreams
Tammy’s road to becoming a soap maker extraordinaire at Yahk Soap & Candle Company goes back to when she dispatched ambulances for a decade in Saskatoon. It was an incredible job, and she loved it. Like in the perfect romantic comedy, she met her husband then, an Emergency Medical Services worker.
After a few years, Tammy’s husband moved into a job that required them to move around, so Tammy quit dispatching. She dabbled in many different positions.
“Nothing was as interesting as dispatching ambulances.”
In 2006, Tammy started making all-natural skincare products from scratch. She called the product line Earthware Face and Body.
“I didn’t know I was starting my own business at the time because I was still working full time.”
In 2015, Tammy’s husband had a job offer in Cranbrook, B.C., and the couple jumped at the chance. Earthware Face and Body suddenly became Tammy’s full-time job. By that time, she had wholesalers throughout Saskatchewan and British Columbia and was busy shipping throughout Canada online, selling at farmers’ markets, and showcasing at wellness shows.
Tammy was still searching for a way of life that was a perfect fit when the couple went to visit a property for sale in Yahk.
“We had been keeping our eye open for a business we could both jump into. Secretly I’m thinking, Yeah, a soap shop? Of course!”
It was just one of those moments.
“We came out to see it. We got shivers. This was it. For both of us, it filled all of our passions. Me making skincare, body care. A little gift shop that I sell all local stuff from the Kootenays. And lots of them I met selling Earthware all through the Kootenays.”
The property had been a soap shop with goats on the roof since 2004.
“It had a super adorable little shop, and I thought instantly of what I could do with it.”
When they moved to the property in 2017, they got baby goats right away.
“We got them as babies, so now they’re just spoiled rotten as pets.”
Goats Walter, Toot, and Buttin are the stars of the show at the shop. Other things make the property special as well. There is plenty of room for her husband to garden, for example.
“We live on a river. We have a forest in our backyard. It filled everything we loved. We knew this was it.”
The couple has worked all day, every day ever since.
One of the first major tasks was to create a product line with branding. They now make over 60 kinds of soap, candles, bath bombs, body butter, and the Earthware line. Earthware products (face lotions and cleansers, masks and cuticle care and hair oils), will be rebranded to the Yahk label this year.
“It’s been absolutely amazing.”
It has been a massive undertaking. The couple has made tremendous progress in improving the property.
“There is constantly stuff to do because we’re always improving it. We added a little cafe. This summer we’re adding a market garden. My husband has been working on the soil for two years, getting irrigation in. That’s ready to go. Plus, we’re doing a little BBQ stand and fry shack. Things are going to be epic this year.”
Their business’ reputation is strong in the region, even with Covid-19.
“Word of mouth, since we got here, has been amazing. People are so excited we bought it.”
Wash your hands and make soap to get through Covid-19
Like almost everybody, the Yahk Soap & Candle Company made some changes with Covid-19.
“With Covid, we’re still excited about the year and everything that we want to do with the property. We’ll do what we have to do to work with Covid. Hopefully, it subsides, but if it doesn’t, we’ll just do what we have to to get to the other side of it.”
You might have noticed that Tammy is an optimist. She identifies as an “eternal optimist.” She does admit, though, that Covid-19 threw a curveball their way. A mainstay of their business changed: travellers stopping at the shop.
“When we closed for two months, we focussed more on our online presence, which we’d always had, and did delivery days in Cranbrook and Creston. We had porch pick up with a little basket of free soap at the door because we didn’t let people in the shop. We had no idea how much to prepare.”
Tammy is pretty creative. She made a couple of videos online to increase the business’ web presence, including one where she sported a red onesie while showing off the items in the gift shop. She admits she is still learning about having a robust online presence.
“I need to learn more about how to navigate an online presence. Like, make the most of it if I’m going to post something great. We adjusted and still had a good year. There were some bumps through the summer because it’s a busy time of year, but we made it through.”
This January, Tammy reached out to the Kootenay Association of Science and Technology (KAST) for support. She worked one-on-one with someone there.
“I was pumped for days because of the knowledge shared. He lined me up with an amazing bookkeeper, point of sales system, to a website guy because we’re redoing it all to have a more anchored and stable presence online. To hook our website up with our accounting program and with our point-of-sale system to the accounting program. I figure it’s going to save me like 10-15 hours a week.'”
Getting online to stay in the game
KAST provided massive support to the entire region to make this transition possible, according to Karen Kornelsen, KAST’s manager of marketing and communications.
“When Covid hit, we realized we had a major duty to help our non-tech community to adopt technology and for digital transformation. What Covid has taught us is that it can be fragile to own a brick-and-mortar business, especially with the constant restrictions.”
They delivered six Virtual Connection Days, supporting 115 Columbia Basin businesses with e-commerce, remote working, digital marketing, and cybersecurity. One thing is clear to Karen.
“The best way for businesses to future-proof their business is to get online.”
KAST runs an additional program: DER3 (or Digital Economy Rapid Response and Resiliency). 140 Kootenay businesses took part in this program that is being run in every region across the province. Small to medium size businesses work one-on-one with the team to develop an action plan and get connected to digital service providers.
“The Kootenay region has the highest participating businesses out of any area in the province. We’re really happy we’re able to help the numbers of people we’ve been helping.”
So why are the numbers of people accessing the program higher than in other regions? Karen explains.
“We face a lot of unique challenges having smaller towns and cities in a rural area. There’s a bigger digital barrier in small communities and rural areas as well as issues with broadband and high-speed internet.”
Karen explains that some Kootenay business owners are starting from scratch when it comes to having an online presence, while others need support with higher level activities.
“You have much larger companies who have everything in place but need specific help. Like furthering the reach of their business with digital marketing or developing an e-commerce site.”
Soap-maker Tammy falls somewhere in the middle. She is comfortable online in some ways but needed support to go almost entirely online.
“Getting support from KAST has been a lifesaver. Tech stuff is not my strength. I’m going to hunker down to get to the other side. But I am excited about it. Having this is like another support system.”
Tammy plans to get the company website redone in the fall. She won’t be doing this herself; she will be using the tech professionals KAST recommended.
Tammy and her husband are starting a new chapter. As Tammy describes it, her husband is retiring from “the real world” and will immerse all his energy into the business.
“It’s pretty exciting. Today is his first day, we joke “under new management.” I’m his new boss.”
Tammy will be happy to have her husband around to help with the challenges that come up. Power outages, for example, necessitate hauling over and hooking up generators.
“We’re making soap every day; you can lose a batch of soap. Certain ones are finicky. Or the bath bomb press. We work through the challenges. Things are slowly getting more seamless.”
Tammy is all about systems planning to get the business running as smoothly as possible.
“Every day, there are stresses that are a surprise, so if there are things that we can avoid, that’s what we’re working on right now is getting everything set up, so it’s a good foundation. So, we can deal with the other surprises as they come.”
Tammy and her husband connect to Creston and Cranbrook’s nearby towns and are on the board of the Creston Tourism Society and the Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce. It gives them a chance to contribute to the valley and also get to meet other business owners.
“Whether you learn something or it’s just a ‘therapy session,’ it helps you get through the day.”
Tammy knows she is on the right path, so whatever comes her way, she will have the dedication, skills, and connection to manage it.
“When we bought the place, our families were worried but not surprised. Now they look back and are super proud of what we’ve done. It is a dream come true.”