By Johnny Griffith
Yes, Soap. If you’re like most people, it’s something you use multiple times a day yet never stop to think about where it came from, who made it, and what’s in it. In fact, if you ask the clerks at most “big box” stores, even they couldn’t answer those questions for you. Luckily, Stefanie, Stephen, and the rest of the crew over at Moon Rivers Naturals (MRN) can answer all three of those questions for you, and more. MRN is a local business here in East Texas that makes natural soaps, oils, scrubs, and moisturizers.
A regular at local farmer’s markets for several years, MRN has persevered through hard work, sacrifice, and commitment to a product made with more than just a little love. What started out as a hobby has turned into a national adventure with five current employees, and the story is still writing itself into everything they make.
We caught up with Stefanie to get the full scoop on the soap and everything else going on at MRN:
Johnny: Give us some history on your background and how you came to found Moon Rivers Naturals.
Stefanie: I grew up in Florida, near Tampa, and Stephen grew up in East Texas, not far from where we live now. We met when we were 15, dated long distance, and married when we were 19 and 20. Moving away from home was pretty hard on me, so I started to make soap while we were in college nine years ago as a hobby. It was a connection with a close family friend in Florida who made soaps and was a bit of a role model for me. I made soaps on and off for a few years for personal use but never thought of it as a business opportunity. We were both finishing school at UT Tyler at the time and were planning to be teachers: math for me and English/Lit for Stephen.
In 2012 we had our first baby, Rivers Emerson. When he was around a year old, I wanted to contribute financially and be able to stay at home and be a mom. Stephen really encouraged me to start back with soap making and expanding into other products after I made him a beard oil for his birthday. We started super small, dragging Rivers around to the farmer’s markets in Tyler and selling a bit here and there through our website. The first year of the company was riddled with personal trials, which made it difficult to focus completely on growing the company, but in the end, I believe made us stronger and more resilient.
Johnny: What is your guiding philosophy with the company and product you offer?
Stefanie: When starting MRN, we really wanted to stress the importance of family, community, and natural ingredients. Stephen works a lot behind the scenes with graphic design and copy, and I develop the recipes and vision, and Rivers keeps us laughing. As we grow and add employees we never want to lose touch with that family aspect: everyone working together to achieve our goals.
Small batching our products is one of the most important aspects of MRN. Since we work with ingredients like freshly roasted Porch Culture Coffee, herbs, and essential oils, we want to ensure that our customers and retailers get their apothecary at their peak. They don’t necessarily have a short shelf-life (soap can continue curing into eternity), but there is something intangible yet unmistakable in receiving products a day or two after it’s been produced and packaged.
Johnny: How has the response been so far to the business?
Stefanie: Amazing. Every day I look at Stephen and tell him how proud of this little company I am. We have accomplished so much in the 2-3 years of being in business all while going through various trials, growing a family, and being broke. We have had to take risks that don’t always go the way you’d like, and we have taken some that have really benefitted the business and allowed us to grow. We’ve grown our wholesales to more than 120 retailers and being in two nationwide stores, and expanding internationally. It’s been pretty exciting and terrifying.
Johnny: What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Stefanie: Juggling everything. I really struggle with juggling life, business, mom, and wife. It’s hard. I go through a lot of mom guilt now that the business has grown. Stephen is my rock and he is continually encouraging me that I’m not completely failing at everything I’m doing, and I’m sure he gets tired of it. Stephen works full time with the business now, and I don’t think I would be able to do it without him. Another big struggle would be growing pains. Keeping up with inventory has become an issue since we moved into the brick and mortar. It’s a good problem to have, though!
Johnny: What have been your most memorable successes?
Stefanie: Oh man. When we first started Moon Rivers and we were hand cutting our labels and gluing them onto our glass jars with glue sticks, I created this “bucket list” for us. One of them was to do a certain show in New York City and get the attention of some big time buyers. We worked our butts off last year and used every penny we made and then some into going to that show. It was emotionally exhausting to put so much pressure on something like that, but we made it there, and I couldn’t stop smiling. We received orders with Free People, Madewell, and a bunch of amazing small retail store owners. I left New York totally drained but full of hope. (It was actually nice to get back into the east Texas country, for once!) That show really helped us get to a new level, and I’m still so proud of us for working so hard to get there. We were actually able to do the follow-up show in September, which was another bucket list checked off for the company.
Johnny: Artisan products have become increasingly popular with the growth of farmer’s markets and a renewed interest in natural products. What sets Moon Rivers Naturals apart from other options in the market?
Stefanie: I love how people are becoming more aware of what they use and where it comes from. I have met so many people through farmers markets and social media that do what we do. They have a passion for it, and they work hard too. Thankfully there’s enough business to go around, and we love the growing “artisan” community. Small businesses are what gives our town culture, uniqueness, and puts food on our plate. What sets us apart from other apothecary companies? That’s always a tough question for me to answer. I know that we don’t do everything right, but I do believe that our products are unique. The scent profiles are different. The ingredients are fresh and sustainably sourced. Most importantly, each product has a little bit of us in it. Our culture. Our brand is pretty transparent. We are just putting ourselves out there with things that we like and we are hoping some other folks will see the benefits as well.
Johnny: What products do you currently offer?
Stefanie: Oye! I believe we have around 50 products, which include 11-12 different soap types, sugar scrubs, bath soaks, face masks, and more.
Johnny: Where can Moon Rivers Naturals products currently be found?
Stefanie: Locally, we have a storefront in downtown Tyler next to the Austin Bank Building, El Guapo Records, and near The Foundry Coffee House. You can also find our products at Moss in south Tyler. We are in about 120 retail stores nationwide and you can find us at any Madewell stores. Check out our website moonriversnaturals.com for a full list of locations or to do some shopping.
Johnny: What is next on the horizon for MRN?
Stefanie: We are extending our Moon Rivers family with a new addition in January. Little Baby Rhodes! We are beyond excited to have another team member, but other than that, we just want to keep moving forward, to keep developing our brand, and to keep growing our retailers. One big goal of our’s is to really connect with our community. We have an open studio downtown where we want people to come in and see us making our products, shipping our products, seeing Rivers throw temper tantrums, and also where you can purchase our products in our retail area. We are also starting to carry other brands in our studio that we have really connected with over the years. They are all an inspiration to us.
Johnny: What do you hope the legacy of MRN will be?
Stefanie: We want the legacy of MRN to be one that people see as a company that values family, simplicity, nature, and the importance of how we interact with the people around us day to day.
I also want my kids to grow up and see how hard their parents work toward those ends: not striving for financial success, but seeking fulfillment in life.
Moon Rivers Naturals is located at 265 S. Broadway, Tyler.