Homemade goods

Aug 14
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Arkansas is a hotbed of locally owned enterprises.

Pat Robinette has bars of Purple Sage's fragrant herbal soap all over her house, and they're not just at the bathroom and kitchen sinks.

"I keep a bar in the my linen closet, one in my lingerie drawer, everywhere," Robinette said. "My husband will smell a bar and want to know where it is, and I'll tell him to go look where I keep the sheets."

Robinette's been using herbal beauty products from The Purple Sage for six years because she said it's the only product that cures her perpetually dry skin. But she said there's another, not-as-obvious reason, too.

"It is made in Arkansas," Robinette said. "I'm an Arkansan, and I always want to support the patrons the businesses that are here."

Robinette is one of many Arkansans who are realizing that big corporations don't hold a candle to the products - everything from barbecue sauce to pontoon boats - made right here in the Natural State.

And some of those Arkansas businesses have gained international success. In 1982, Arkansan Patti Upton pioneered the idea of decorative fragrance, a new twist on potpourri, by starting up Aromatique, which is based in Heber Springs. Today, her products are sold in 40 countries and online at www.aromatique.com, but director of publicity Peggy Harris said that Upton and everyone else at Aromatique recognizes that they wouldn't be where they are today without the creative people in Arkansas.

"I don't think [big cities] are the only places you can have artistic qualities," Harris said. "When Patti founded the company here in Heber Springs, it brought in many creative people, and there were many other creative people here already. Here, you have wonderful people to work with, and you can count on the people that are employed here."

But internationally renowned companies like Aromatique aren't the only ones turning out rave reviews. Bobbi Guerra, owner of The Purple Sage in Little Rock (www.thepurplesage.com), started her company in 1998 after completing an herbal apprenticeship in Vermont. Guerra said she has always had adverse reactions to prescription medication, and once she started entering menopause, she became interested in how herbs could be used to help women of all ages.

"Mother Nature has given us so much that if we would open our minds, we could do things that are simpler and probably better for us," Guerra said.

During her apprenticeship, Guerra attended an introductory soapmaking demonstration. She'd always wanted to make her own soaps, and after getting down the basics, she brought her newly acquired knowledge back to Arkansas and started The Purple Sage.

Although Guerra said she enjoys the actual process of mixing ingredients, pouring soap into molds and even designing the labels, she said her favorite part is when people call or write to say how much they enjoy her products.

"When people tell you how much they like [the products] and how much they've improved their life, that gives me a high," Guerra said.

Michael Brown, owner of Lone Pine Sauce Company (www.lonepinesauce.com), said that he also gets a sense of satisfaction from selling his product to Arkansans.

"It's something I've actually put together and made, and people like it," Brown said.

He began concocting his own salsa recipe in the family kitchen as a teenager, and after years of tweaking the recipe and getting rave reviews when he took his signature salsa to parties, Brown decided to share it with the rest of Arkansas and the country. Brown said that he had to make some changes to the recipe when he started producing it in mass quantities, but every batch is taste-tested and made with fresh ingredients, just like the kind he used to make in his own kitchen.

Like Guerra, Brown said he sells his salsa both in Arkansas and across the country. But regardless of where their labors of love are going, Guerra and Brown agree on what makes their products as good as they are: Having greater control than a large corporation might have over the final product.

"I know with the bigger brands you get mass production and this bland taste, and [our salsa has] a little more of a personal touch to it," Brown said. "If there's a reason something doesn't taste right, I can correct it or stop the process."

Similarly, Guerra said that she intentionally limits the amount of soap she makes so that she can use the highest quality and greatest assortment of ingredients to achieve the best possible product.

"We can make something that's heartfelt and handmade," Guerra said.

She said she chose not to sell internationally because keeping her operation on a smaller scale allows her to add or take away ingredients and introduce new lines on a whim without having to worry about how it will affect mass production.

"To me, it's like you're making a lot of money, but your product is not the best that you can make it because of the limitations of the marketplace," Guerra said.

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