Havana’s New Handmade Soap Store

By Yusimi Rodríguez

Jabones de manzanilla, de los más comprados por la clientela.
Sandra Aldama Suarez making handmade soap. After grating the Marsella Soap base she weighs it and places it in a glass container and adds the liquid. In some cases water, for the chamomile and tilo soaps the teas. For the coffee with mint soap the liquid is coffee.

HAVANA TIMES — Leading to Havana’s renowned cathedral, Empedrado Street is one of the busiest thoroughfares in the old town. On the block beset by Cuba and San Ignacio streets, one comes across such interesting places as the Alejo Carpentier Center and the world-famous bar and restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio.

Since the 8th of September, Empedrado has also been home to a private business that attests to the inventiveness of Cubans. D’Brujas (“Witchcraft”) – so called because its products are made out of herbal concoctions – is a shop that sells handmade soaps, produced with natural materials and without chemicals. The owner, Sandra Aldama Suarez, one of the makers of the soap, has a degree in special education.

HT: Tell us about the transition from special education to handmade soaps.

Sandra: I graduated in 1998, but I quit education after completing my social service. I had a number of different jobs after that. In 2009, I had my son and decided it was time to open my own business, something I could express my creativity with. I opened up a hairdresser’s. I had it for a year, until I decided to do something different.

My paternal grandmother, Ofelia Zambrano Santiesteban, has been making creams, soaps and shampoos with natural products her whole life. She is a member of the Cuban Artisans and Artists Association (ACAA). She makes craft post-cards out of herbal plants, what we call “still life art”. She had a perfumery before the triumph of the revolution. She studied at a French cosmetics academy and has studied botany a lot.

In 1994 she participated in a science and technology forum and won a prize for her natural product recipes. But at that time there was no possibility to obtain a license for making beauty products with natural ingredients.

Jabones de zeolita recién terminados.
Soaps with zeolite just finished.

I plunged into it, using things I had learned from her and from my own studies about how handmade soaps are made and sold around the world. In many countries, there are stores that sell you the materials you need to make your own soap. We don’t have those here. Two years ago, I started doing tests to determine what materials I could use. I had to adjust some techniques to Cuban reality.

I use the “recasting” technique, which is quite ancient. I did different tests until I was able to produce a Marseilles soap, which is a vegetable soap which makes it possible for the ingredient used to enrich soaps to become effective. I buy that ingredient at Habana 1791, in the old town.

HT: Though Sandra had the idea for the shop two years ago, making it a reality was no easy task. She needed a fairly busy place, frequented, not only by tourists, but by Cubans as well.

Sandra: These products are aimed at Cubans. I want Cubans to get to know them. Tourists have plenty of them where they come from.

HT: When you finally found the locale for your shop and you were ready to open the store, you had something of a set-back that endangered the business as such.

Sandra: They broke into my house, in broad daylight. They stole everything: my husband’s computer, the uniforms for the clerks I had just bought.

El ingrediente sólido se agrega casi al final: zeolita (en la foto). No se cocina. La fragancia en aceite se agrega casi antes de amoldar.
The solid ingrediente is added almost at the end of the process. In this case zeoite. It is not cooked. The fragrance in oil is added just before shaping the soap.

HT: But kind, helpful people came along.

Sandra: The person who makes the paper bags for me let me pay them later. A designer friend of mine helped me recreate all of the work I had lost and to restructure the business. A friend built the store counter for practically nothing. The owner of the locale we rented also helped us. The clerks went out and bought the garments needed for the uniforms again. They only had three blouses left, but we bought them and fixed them up.

HT: You say your product is aimed at Cubans.

Sandra: I was selling the soaps, on a trial basis, before I opened the store, to see people’s reactions to it. The people who bought them were always Cuban.

HT: In State hard-currency stores, you can find soaps that are both bigger and cheaper than yours. Even the anti-bacterial soap, which is fairly expensive, is cheaper than the one you offer, which is small and costs 2 CUC. Why would someone buy yours and not the generic ones at the store?

Sandra: At those stores you can get a cheaper soap, true, but you lose in quality. My product is a healthier option. I don’t use dyes or chemicals. Recast soaps retain nearly 100 % of the properties of the ingredient you use, in contrast to industrial soap, which is made with sodium or potassium hydroxide. I use fine cosmetic oils to make my soap. They are hard and durable soaps. Soap with zeolite you use on your face three times a day can last you a month and more. The soap doesn’t become slimy; it makes a different kind of foam, because of the coconut oil I use. Since it’s a handmade product, I can also make custom soaps for different customers. A customer could, for instance, ask me for a zeolite-based soap with a mint aroma.

Jabón de miel en forma de caracol, uno de los jabones más suaves de la línea, de los más vendidos.
Honey soap in the shape of a snail. It’s one of the softest soaps and among the most sold.

HT: How long does the aroma linger for in one’s skin?

Sandra: I have highly aromatic soaps (though they say natural soaps should not have very strong aromas). Tourists tend to buy soaps with less powerful aromas. Cubans tend to buy the zeolite soap for greasy skins, acne and pimples. They also buy the honey soap (which has a very sweet fragrance) and the lime one as well.

HT: Your zeolite soap actually combats acne and greasy skin problems?

Sandra: I test everything I make on myself, even though I don’t have those particular problems. It’s the most popular soap so far. I opened the store a month ago and I have customers who buy the zeolite soap every week. It contains almond oil, to keep it from drying the skin. It eliminates excess oils but doesn’t dry up the skin.

HT: I gather you don’t use industrial soaps sold at stores.

Sandra: I haven’t been using them for some time, no. My family and I use the handmade soaps.

HT: Any Future Plans?

Sandra: Many customers ask me whether I’ll start making laundry soaps, or soaps for pets. The first would be very expensive to produce and I would have to see how soaps work on animals. I’ve thought of preparing facial masks with natural products that the customer can apply following a set of instructions. But I have to consult with the Ministry of Labor for that.

HT: Though a license for making soaps, polishes, ink and other such products exists, it hasn’t been approved yet. To open her store, Sandra had to take out a crafts license.

Ingrid García Aldama, prima de Sandra, vendedora, también realiza postales con plantas herborizadas.
Ingrid Garcia Aldama, a cousin of Sandra, is a clerk at the store and also makes herbolized post cards.

Sandra: It would be good if a government institution analyzed and validated the product. It would give me and my customer’s added security.

HT: To date, there hasn’t been a single complaint about an allergic reaction to the soaps sold at D’Brujas. And you haven’t had a day without sales since you opened the shop.

Sandra:  One of our strengths is the way we treat customers. We give them all of the information they need, no matter whether they choose to buy something or not. We can’t have a customer come into the store and have the clerks sitting around doing nothing; you have to see to everyone who comes in. I have very good salespeople. They believe in the product they sell because they use it and they know how to convey this sense of confidence to the customer.

Some tourists have been very rude. Though I try to be nice to everyone, I’ve had to set a few of them straight. You have to draw the line somewhere for people to start to respect you. We are a Third World country, a poor country with many problems, but not everything is on sale. We sell soaps. The clerk isn’t for sale.

I also don’t let people trivialize my product. Tourists know the product well, because they have them in their own countries. They know there’s no magic there. No soap vanishes wrinkles, to claim such would be to lie. No natural product does that. These are merely a first step in taking care of one’s skin.

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10 thoughts on “Havana’s New Handmade Soap Store

  • Hello Sandra, my name Nolan… I saw you on the Profit last night… What a hard working,
    smart young lady you are…and I love the ladies you work with too… I would like to help…

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  • Zeolite is an amazing mineral that is the best in the world for ingesting to safely remove lead, mercury and other heavy metals from the body as well as radiation. For more information on zeolite see the website at http://www.zeolite.com

  • You don’t even have to leave the “Land of the ‘Free’ ” to receive such treatment. A few years back I had to take the Grey Dog to join my wife and children on vacation in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In the middle of the night, at a bus stop in Salisbury, Maryland, local and state cops made everyone get off the bus and, without any warrants, forced almost everyone (with the exception of some whites, including me) to open their bags. Even elderly black grandmothers were forced to have their bags rudely riffled. I was going to remonstrate with these authorities, then reconsidered; I didn’t want to be dragged away to the local dungeon for “interfering with an officer” or some other such trumped up charge. Besides, it was the first real vacation I had taken in three or four years, and I didn’t want to spend it in jail.

  • Tell the truth, shame the devil. You have returned to the UNITED STATES with banded Cuban cigars and labeled bottles of Cuban rum and “no pasa nada”? Hard to believe. But if you are white and elderly as your avatar implies, anything is possible. Trust me, I have returned to the US having traveled to Cuba on a FAMILY visa (I look as if I could be Afro-Cuban) and my luggage is searched as if my name were Pablo Escobar coming in from Colombia. I even get asked if I have cigars or rum to declare!

  • At this point, penalties are minimal…maybe if someone was importing thousands of cigars or bottles of Havana Club, but for trying to sneak in a couple of boxes of cigars or bottles of Methusela the worst penalty is usually having ’em siezed by the U.S. Customs authorities (so they can enjoy them, rather than you). Directly, I’ve brought back cigars, rum, art work, tourist tchotchkes, old Cuban license plates, etc. etc. Also, via mail (from a third country) I’ve received Cuban coffee, books, maps (Havana and entire island), etc. Illegal? Sure. But not worth the effort for OFAC to prosecute. Most of the publicity to the contrary is to keep the Florida Cuban-American dynosaurs happy. At least Obama has not adequately funded OFAC to pursue prosecutions in these areas.

  • Thankfully no. If it was made in Cuba, it is illegal to sell it in the US, regardless of what third country is purchased from. If it were that simple to circumvent, I would not be nearly out of Cuban cigars (Esplendidos!!). You don’t want to know what the penalties for importing Cuban crap is. It includes jail time. For a bunch of handmade soap? I don’t think so.

  • Can’t this be circumvented through by establishing an outlet in Canada or Mexico? If not, I’ll visit her shop my next trip down.

  • Nope. There is an embargo/blockade against Cuba.

  • Is there a web site for Americans to buy the soap via the internet?

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