A Jacksonville woman known by many as the “Soap Lady” has plans to bring back a coffee house to the city’s downtown area.
Willow Branch Soap Company, a business that opened up at the beginning of last month selling a wide variety of hand-crafted soaps, could begin selling hot and iced coffee drinks by January. Owner Nicole Riley announced her plans on Tuesday at a downtown business owners meeting.
Riley was making soap out of her Jacksonville home for nearly two years before moving into her current South Main location next to All Occasions Flowers and Gifts. Business has been booming since; she says the original intent wasn’t to make this a permanent thing.
“I moved back to town about a year and a half ago; I was gone for close to ten years. So when I moved back, I started doing little booths to supplement my income, and I built a really loyal customer base in town. For the holidays, I thought I would open a store, give them a place to come to me so that I’m not constantly setting up and breaking down,” she says.
“But yeah, business has been so good.”
Riley says she learned how to make soap after buying it at farmer’s markets in Missouri. There’s a wide variety, with everything from gunpowder to snicker doodle on the shelves. As proof that you can pretty much make soap with any scent, Riley once conjured up a product inspired by the Steak ‘N Shake chili mac.
Seriously, a chili-flavored soap.
“That was horrible-smelling. It was horrible,” she jokes. “But I only made, like, six bars of it. I did crushed spaghetti noodles and dehydrated beans on top of it.”
All of Riley’s soaps are made with coconut oil instead of palm oil, and she says she’s clearing 100 pounds of that substance every month. She says her favorites right now are honey and cucumber oak.
To raise money for the coffee side of business, Riley is selling a special “coffee bar”, a mocha-scented soap.
She wants to sell organic, fair-trade, fire-roasted coffee in a currently-unoccupied part of the building just off the square on South Main.
“When I first came to rent this building, the building owner had mentioned that he had wished a coffee shop would come into it. I think I can create a good balance of coffee house and retail. I’m going to expand the seating out there so that the seating doesn’t crowd the store,” Riley says.
“It’s just another dream I’ve always had, and soap-making kind of grew out of nowher,e and so I’m just going to incorporate the both of them into one.”
Riley says she wants the space to be a relaxed environment where people can hang out after purchasing a drink, and it would include occasional live entertainment.
She plans on beginning the setup after Christmas.
Downtown Jacksonville has not had a coffee shop since The Three-Legged Dog closed in the spring of 2012.