Tracy Perkins was sick — literally — of the beauty products she was used to. The longtime vegetarian-turned-vegan turned her frustration for animal testing and health issues caused by mainstream brands into creating her own soaps in 2003. After popular demand for her soaps from friends and family, she launched her business Strawberry Hedgehog in 2007, while balancing life as an adjunct geology professor.
The 32-year-old Phoenix resident has seen her business take off, now selling her products around the world and in Whole Foods across Arizona. She’s still an adjunct professor at Phoenix College but is looking to expand her business from a one-woman show to a bigger operation. Read about some of her products here, and meet her for a distilling workshop Thursday, July 17, from 6-9 p.m. at her Phoenix headquarters.
Learn how she crafts her handmade wares below, and keep scrolling to watch her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley, too.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was a Navy brat, and my dad got stationed in Yuma around ’90. I came up to Phoenix to go to ASU in ’99. I got my undergrad degree in women’s studies and religious studies, and my Master’s is in geological science.
I was born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, then lived in Key West, Florida before moving here.
How has Strawberry Hedgehog evolved?
After graduating college, my main focus was teaching on the community college level. I thought I was doing my soap full force, but I didn’t really understand what that was because I wasn’t very efficient. I was working out of a teeny, tiny kitchen out of my home, and everything I did was online sales. I didn’t have any big wholesale clients.
When you’re an adjunct professor, every semester, your job is sort of up in the air depending on enrollment. In 2008, when the economy crashed, no one enrolled in classes, and I didn’t have a job. I sort of panicked and thought, “Well, I better do something with my soap.” I got a bunch of samples and took them into Whole Foods in Chandler, close to where I lived, and they just kind of smiled and nodded and were like, “OK, lady, see you later.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I just awkwardly brought in a bag of soap, not knowing who to talk to, and just said, “Here, I made this soap. You let me know what you think of it. I’d love for you to carry it!”
I didn’t hear anything from there for a year, and at that time, I was displaying at one farmers’ market. It was at Ticoz (Mexican restaurant), which, at the time, was owned by my friend, Tom Jetland. He set up a little farmers’ market, with great veggies and oils, and it was all just his spread, and then me.
I had gotten a lot of customers and exposure from that, and that’s when Whole Foods contacted me, since at the time, I was blogging a lot with vegan recipes. They liked my blog and following and wanted to talk about carrying my soap. It was great they contacted me, because I don’t think it ever would have happened had they not.
Where are your products carried?
My bulk soap is carried at all the Whole Foods locations in Arizona, Here on the Corner in Tempe, Fuchsia Spa in Mesa, and I do Phoenix Public Market in the cooler months. There are a couple places in California that carry it, too.
What’s your typical week like?
I’m usually at the factory most of the day and often into the night. Depending on how many orders I get, I start making soap. I’ll spend a whole day making soap, and spend the next day wrapping up orders for online orders, making whipped body cream or deodorant. I’ve got all kinds of great products for your face and all kinds of stuff for your body, so it keeps me busy creating new things all the time. I alternate production, packaging, deliveries, post office runs, ordering supplies, customer correspondence, marketing, and trying to find new venues to offer my products.
If I’m doing one scent of soap, it takes about an hour to get it made and poured, and then I have to wait for it to solidify, which takes a minimum of five or six hours. Then, I have to wait another week or two for it to cure. There’s a lot of waiting involved in soap-making, but it is so worth it.
How did you learn how to create your products?
Reading books, reading recipes online, and, primarily, from experimentation, from reading labels from other stuff, and selecting the active ingredients and not including all the scary, non-pronounceable stuff.
During my first couple years of college, I used to work for a store that sold body products. They’d give us the training on the ingredients that made them such a great product, but they’d sell other ones that did not include those ingredients, which was really confusing and frustrating to me. There were always far more ingredients on the label than those that were obviously the active ingredients, and it seemed unnecessary and unhealthy. I started mixing up products that had all of the good stuff and none of the bad.
I would also get frustrated with the animal testing done in products, and the legalese that was on the label. The final product wasn’t tested on animals, but the ingredients might have been. It might have been tested three years ago, but not this product.
When I worked in the conventional bath and body industry, I was really sick, and my health issues were exacerbated by all the chemicals that were there triggering migraines, breathing problems, rashes, etc.
How do your products stand out from other vegan beauty products?
They are made right here in the Valley with love, in small batches, and I really care about what goes in them. I don’t use any fragrance or parabens or petroleum by-products. Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s a natural product.
For example, a very popular brand my products are often likened to with a lot of vegan products is Lush. They still contain artificial fragrance, artificial dyes, sulfates and synthetic preservatives, or parabens, that, if nothing else, act as allergens and irritants for people. Worst-case scenario, they’re hormone disruptors or potential carcinogens. Mine are very clean – no pun intended.
My products are very effective, and they’re cute to look at. I’m a very granola person, and I like a lot of eco-friendly things, but if it doesn’t look cute, nobody’s going to want to use it.
That includes packaging, and packaging is really tricky, because I don’t want to use plastic. I don’t use plastic in any of my stuff unless I have to. It’s all glass or paper packaging, and that’s an extra challenge when you’re a small company, because the available packaging is usually plastic. I end up spending more money and time researching packaging trying to find the most ecologically responsible packaging option because I want my products to have the smallest environmental impact possible, with the greatest results for the customer.
What makes you so passionate about being vegan and eco-friendly?
I’ve always been that way. I’ve been vegetarian for almost 20 years, so it’s just always been with me. I just don’t like the idea of hurting anyone so I can eat or look good when there are so many wonderful plant-based options.
Our dad took us camping a lot, and we were really outdoorsy, so I had that aspect instilled in me from the get-go. I find peace and inspiration in my garden, in getting out in the open, in connecting with nature. Teaching about the environment, I am constantly researching so I’m up-to-date for my students. I am constantly reminded of how rapidly we are losing our most precious resources and feel personally responsible to do what I can to do no harm.
As far as my products, I react poorly to many widely used synthetic chemicals, and if something hurts me, I figure it can hurt other people. I certainly don’t want to do that. It’s fun for me to figure out how to do all this stuff, too.
What are some of your most popular products?
This month, the deodorant has surpassed the soap and whipped body cream as the best-selling product, which blew me away because it’s a really new product. I’ve only been making it for a year, and it’s taken off like crazy. It’s big in France. I just sent a big order to a website called Vegan Mania in France, and it’s so funny, because I can Google myself now and find French reviews.
Whipped body cream is a crazy great seller. It’s unscented, it’s all organic, and a lot of people like that. A lot of my customers have really sensitive skin, and it’s worked for them. It helps people with eczema and psoriasis and all sorts of unfortunate conditions that can be triggered by more chemical-laden products.
As far as soaps, they’re my favorite. The best-selling soap is Coconut Almond, made with organic coconut and almond extract. The second best-seller is Blueberry Lavender. There was this store years ago that asked me to do a custom blueberry soap, and I said, “Oh, it’s impossible, there’s no way you can get oil out of a blueberry.” I came across an organic blueberry extract made for cooking. I decided to try it, and it’s been a best-seller since then. Third place goes to Sweet Orange Clove, which is one I’ve been making since the beginning.
I have a top 10 I make consistently year-round and a couple shaving soaps I make consistently, as needed. Every single month, I come up with three new scents for my Soap Club. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of soap.
I also have face mist, which is so good for summertime. A lot of times, when people start to dry out in the summer, they put on layer after layer of lotion leaving them oily but not moisturized or generally miserable. They hydrating mist is great, because you can put it in your car or pop it in your drawer at work. The hydrosols I use are rose or orange blossom, which are great natural toners for your skin. I add vegetable glycerin, which helps impart moisture into your skin instead of just sitting on your skin. There are all sorts of great essential oils in there, as well. I also have anti-aging, tea-based hydrating mists. They’re light moisturizers and toners, and if you use mineral makeup, they’re great for setting that.
What’s your Soap Club like?
It’s either a Silver Subscription for one bar a month, or a Platinum Subscription for three bars a month. It’s usually my splurge scents, things that are too expensive to sell for wholesale. It’s usually florals or seasonal items, and people can sign up for three, six or 12 months and get a surprise package each month of whatever I come up with.
It’s so much fun for me to do, and 90 percent of the time, people are thrilled with what they get. Memberships start at $30.
What have been the biggest challenges and most fun things about being a business owner?
I love making my own schedule. I love being able to use my creativity and play, and make whatever I want. Whatever I can think of, I can make it happen. It’s like I’m Willy Wonka, and I love that.
The finance part has been the biggest difficulty for me. At this moment, everything is going so well, but that has definitely not always been the case. I always really relied on teaching for my income, but once I hired an accountant, things got a lot easier.
What advice would you have for someone who aspires to own their own business?
Hire an accountant immediately. When I started, there was no way I could imagine hiring an accountant, but if you’re going to do it, you have to do it right.
I was in business for years without an accountant, and I was paying taxes improperly without knowing. When I got an accountant, she did all my back taxes, and I wish I had that accountant earlier on, because it puts my mind at ease.
Every month, I know exactly how much I need to pay in taxes. Every month I know how much my sales are up compared to last year and the previous year with all the reports she provides.
Being a one-woman show, it’s so hard to keep up with that kind of stuff. You don’t know how to set your goals if you don’t know what your numbers are. That’s where I was, just sort of floating for years.
What are your goals?
I want to hire several people. I would like to have my products in all Whole Foods across the nation. If I’m thinking smaller scale, the very next step for me is to get the whipped body cream in all Whole Foods across Arizona, because it’s only in three right now. After that, I want to get my deodorant in all the Whole Foods.
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in adopting a vegan lifestyle?
Don’t overthink it. I think a lot of people get scared off before they even start. Start learning how to read labels and weed things out of your refrigerator. If you don’t have it in your house, you’re not going to eat it. There are a lot of easy things to start changing – if you put milk in your cereal, get coconut milk, almond milk or hemp milk. The varieties now are amazing.
It’s a lot easier than people think and it is important not to give up if you are frustrated or “fall off the wagon.” It is about living your life in the most mindful, cruelty-free way possible. If that means you make a mistake now and then, that’s OK. You’re doing your best, keep at it.
If you want to do it right, and you’re concerned about your health, talk to a naturopath or nutritionist before you get started, and do some research on what the proper nutrition is. Twenty years ago, when I was 13, just a kid who decided to stop eating meat, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was eating ramen noodles with soy sauce, and it was clearly really bad for me.
If I had known then what I know now, and had the availability of today’s products existed then, I would have been a way healthier kid and young adult. I wish I would have learned more about nutrition first.
Why should people buy Strawberry Hedgehog products?
They are made with love, they work great, and you know the source. They won’t hurt you in any way at all. They’ll make your skin feel great. This sounds silly, but they make you happy when you use them, because they have pure plant extracts. When you use the mint soap, it really is like having a handful of mint and taking a big whiff of it. They’re very invigorating and naturally uplifting. They make you feel good.
There’s no guilt involved. If you’re a person who’s worried about the impact of the products you use, my products are low-impact compared to others.
What can people expect from your distilling workshop Thursday, July 17?
People can expect to learn how to distill their own essential oils and hydrosols from fresh and dried organic herbs and flowers. Rosewater is probably the most widely used hydrosol, but you can make them from any of your favorite plants.
We will make our own distiller from materials you probably have around your home, as well as demonstrate in class two other ways to steam distill. Participants in the Distillation 101 workshop will get to take home hydrosol we have all made together in class, as well as the essential oils we create. The workshop will also discuss other forms of extraction, preparing you to be able to make your own healing herbal tinctures, cooking extracts and tasty bitters.