In The Press

A natural

Nick DiTomasso makes squeaky-clean foray into handcrafting soaps

by Kurt Dusterberg

Nick DiTomasso has dabbled in several business ventures through the years. Now he’s coming clean.

With soap, that is.

Four years ago, DiTomasso wanted to break free from his investments in Florida, where the real estate market had gone soft. When his longtime business partner, Elis Crismanis, returned home to Brazil for a visit, DiTomasso asked her to bring back some family recipes. Instead of culinary delights, Crismanis returned with her grandmother’s old soap recipes.

“Elis tried to make some soaps, and I decided to do some research,” DiTomasso says. “I was enjoying it, actually. It was like cooking and baking.”

DiTomasso tinkered with his new idea and set out to relocate, eventually settling in North Raleigh.

“I started doing my homework on North Carolina,” he says. “I’ve dabbled in everything, mostly in the entertainment business — restaurants and clubs. But you get tired of that. It wears you out. The club business will kill you. I had to get out of that. Bad hours, bad life habits.”

His most prominent investment was a nightclub called Club Vinyl, a trendy Manhattan hangout that attracted some of New York’s most ardent party people.

“It was kind of an underground club,” DiTomasso says. “We had everybody there. We had the everyone come in during their prime. It didn’t open until midnight, and it stayed open until eight in the morning.”

The business of soap

After what DiTomasso calls “political battles” with officials in the Tribeca neighborhood, he closed the club in 2000 and moved to Florida. Now his days are spent in pursuit of the perfect bar of soap.

“I learned on my own, just like I learned to cook on my own,” says DiTomasso, who takes pride in his culinary skills.

Whether making soap or spaghetti sauce, the process is similar. He makes batches of soap almost every day, setting out pots on the stove and working in the ingredients like a chef. One pot is for combining oils, while lye and water are brewed in the other.

“Then you have to mix the soap by hand for about an hour,” he says. “And it depends on the weather. If it’s humid, it takes longer.

“You have to get it exactly right, from the lye to the oils,” DiTomasso adds. “If you use too much lye, your soap will come out like a brick. If you don’t have enough lye, your soap is going to have no lather and be soft.”

DiTomasso, who uses no perfumes or chemicals, begins with the three most common soap-making oils: olive, palm and coconut. Next are the essential oils, which give soaps their unique scents. These highly concentrated extracts come from all over the world.

“We get some of our essential oils from Brazil,” he says. “We use something called copaiba, which is from the Amazon rain forest. It comes from the trees there. It’s just remarkable for your skin.”

Once the soap is properly mixed, it is ready to set in a mold. DiTomasso prefers to work in small batches, cutting each bar by hand.

Soaps must cure for six to 10 weeks in order to set properly. To that end, DiTomasso devotes an entire closet to the task, where shelves are lined with every color, shape and size.

“That’s when the glycerin forms inside the soap, which is made from the lye and the water,” he says. “Glycerin makes that nice lather that you get. It only forms over time. You have to let it sit.”

The results are unique. No two bars are exactly the same shape or size, and each one has the name of the scent etched lightly into the surface of the bar.

With 55 varieties, there’s a scent for even the most discriminating sniffers. For the fancy coffee lover, Espresso Coffee with Pearberry provides a nice wake-up call. For those who prefer a citrus-tinged aroma, there is Grapefruit with Moroccan Clay, while those who like garden scents can choose from exotic mixtures such as French Jasmine Lilac.

Finding a market

DiTomasso is still taking his first steps in finding a market for his soaps. He handles orders directly through his Web site, www.naturalhandcraftedsoap.com, and has placed the product in several boutiques throughout the Triangle.

But similar to other businesses, the world of high-end soaps is fraught with challenges. Originally, he had hoped that retail shops would appreciate the intrinsic appeal of a hand-cut bar, with its natural color and characteristics. But shop owners wanted fancy packaging, so DiTomasso has experimented, using fancy paper with hand-tied ribbon. He’s even created a wrapper with a little handle.

And while the fragrances of each Natural Handcrafted Soap are subtle, some potential retail clients have been surprised that the scents aren’t more potent.

“If it doesn’t knock the socks off of you, they don’t want that,” he says of many retailers.

“You just want to be able to get a burst while you’re using it,” DiTomasso notes. “You don’t want to feel like you’re showering with perfume.”

While the marketing hurdles have provided a few challenges, DiTomasso has received positive feedback from customers. And his own daily test marketing fuels his enthusiasm; DiTomasso no longer relies on the traditional get-in, get-out shower.

“The first time I used it, I couldn’t believe it … I actually stayed in the shower,” he says with a laugh. “It doesn’t make you oily, and it doesn’t make you greasy.”

Now DiTomasso has a clean slate when he begins his day, hoping to raise the bar — of soap — to a new level.

Kurt Dusterberg is a freelance writer based in Apex.