Making bath bombs in an abandoned music school complete with an active rooftop beehive, the co-founders of Urban Fresh Cosmetics are blurring the line between work and play.
Keith and André West-Harrison, along with their pet pig, Priscilla, Pig of the Desert, have grown their passion for urban farming into a flourishing international business. Urban Fresh, which makes small-batch organic beauty products, ranks 342nd on this year's Inc. 5000 list, after its sales reached $3.1 million in 2014, up by more than 1,300 percent since 2001.
But the couple didn't have to look far to come up with the idea to create a line of handmade, eco-friendly bath products. They were simply going back to their roots.
André grew up in Indiana and Kentucky, Keith in Ohio, and both were raised with what Keith calls "growing traditions." André grew up eating fresh strawberries and tomatoes from the garden, and Keith's grandmother grew and made products from aloe on the family farm.
This farming background provides the company's foundation, the first F in what Keith calls the "three F's" of Urban Fresh's business model. The next two are feature and focus, where Keith emphasizes the need for organic, eco-friendly products and focusing on a great customer experience.
Cornbread and chemistry.
For a few hours every day, Keith, who also goes by "Mad Scientist," can be found combining raw plants, oils, and fresh beeswax with his green KitchenAid mixer. Every product, from bath bombs to shampoo bars, is made in the Urban Fresh factory-meets-retail-store, and every item is sold the same week it's made to ensure its freshness.
Urban Fresh gained attention earlier this year for its line of bath products called Bathing Bad, after the hit AMC show Breaking Bad filmed in Albuquerque. But other favorites include a full-body shampoo bar for men made with seaweed, and the almost-edible rooftop honey and cornbread soap, which always prompts people to ask if Keith is a chemist.
He isn't, but he is a self-admitted "extreme creative."
"This allows me to gather so much information about things and make things and touch and feel things," Keith explains. "They don't always work out, but I learn something from every step of the process."
Once, André took an order from a client requesting a custom soap made with red algae, an ingredient the two had never used. But by 4:30 that same afternoon, Keith had whipped up a batch of red algae soap, which soon became one of Urban Fresh's top sellers.
The two co-founders might not be chemists, but this is the kind of personal service Keith thinks makes them unique in the world of beauty retail.
Building the foundation.
Forty-four-year-old Keith grew up in Cincinnati, where, inspired by his lifelong struggle with acne, he decided to earn his license in esthetics. André, 48, earned a degree in psychology from the University of Southern Indiana, but switched gears when he met Keith, also becoming a licensed esthetician; he wanted to join Keith in the skin care business, and wanted the credentials to match.
The two began working in New Orleans, opening a spa called Great Face and Body, where they produced and sold their own beauty products, while also providing cosmetic services--and an in-house coffee shop. But the couple realized they much preferred the retail side of skin care, the hands-on work of growing and harvesting raw plants and transforming them into useful beauty products.
Positive that no bank would invest in their dream, Keith and André approached their regular spa clients, offering free facials for clients who invested $5,000 or more. Keith said that their version of crowdfunding worked "beyond amazing."
"We raised almost $400,000 doing that, which allowed us to buy a building, get renovations, and pay everybody back, with interest," Keith explained.
So in 2012, the pair purchased their new workspace: an abandoned, 9,000-square-foot music school in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The flat roof came with an enormous beehive and thousands of bees, who soon proved instrumental in their success.
There are also two private courtyard gardens on the property, along with extensive landscaping around its perimeter. But perhaps most important to Keith and André is the building's location.
"Across the street is the state's largest food bank, and they serve 30,000 families a year," Keith says, explaining that New Mexico has some of the highest rates for adult and child hunger. The couple donate vegetables and herbs regularly to the food bank and welcome community members to munch on what they call their "edible landscape."
Focusing on the future.
Inspired by a Ted Talk about Todmorden, an English village where food is grown locally on unused land throughout the community, Keith and André decided to transform the building into a wonderland of vegetation. They currently have a koi pond outside, where they grow mare's tail, a plant commonly used in acne treatments. And on the roof, they are working to grow various plants, as well as developing aquaponics, a water-based growing system in which plants are fertilized by fish and other aquatic life.
Keith wants the 4,000-square-foot roof to be overflowing with vegetation; he even envisions pumpkins hanging down the walls to help insulate the building.
For the past nine months, Keith and André have also been offering regular classes in skin care for community members. The "wine and facials" class is popular among local women, who bring their own wine and spend an hour learning tips for skin care in a desert climate.
"But we're also working on the sustainable aspect as well," Keith explains, as they have recently announced their plan to start the nonprofit Urban Fresh Academy.
"The nonprofit is the community outreach part," Keith adds. "If you've ever wondered how aquaponics works, come here. Come learn how to make bath bombs, and we'll also show you how to save water."
Currently, Urban Fresh is focused on scalability. They want to be as successful as U.K.-based organic cosmetic retailer Lush, but Keith recognizes that while having more stores means making more money, it also means less personal attention for clients.
And sacrificing that personal customer experience for larger profits is not something they want to do.
"I'm creating things to go on to make people happier," Keith says. "I feel like I'm making a difference in people's lives."