FAYETTEVILLE -- Walking into the new Buff City Soap location is a little like stepping onto Willy Wonka's chocolate factory after it has been taken over by a really hip florist and a gang of Keebler elves -- it's all bright colors, interesting shapes and packages, and filled with wonderful smells.
On a recent sunny afternoon, unmasked customers browsed and asked questions of the staff, while other employees worked nearby, producing bars of soap that will go alongside the store's other hand-made items -- including bath bombs, foaming hand soap and laundry soap -- that fill the store's shelves.
Gabrielle "Gabby" Dudderar has been with the company since December and has traveled to other stores learning the ropes. Now she's in charge of the Fayetteville location at 3557 N. Shiloh Drive as its "makery manager."
When asked about the amazing scents in the store, Dudderar smiled.
"That's love," she said. "Where there's love and a good product, there's success."
Founded in 2013, Dallas-based Buff City Soap offers various plant-based soap products made on-site through a process that allows for customization, including unique scents and all-natural ingredients. The company has been franchising since 2018 and is in more than 20 states with more than 100 store locations.
Ozark Soap LLC. owns the Fayetteville location, as well as the stores in Little Rock, Conway, Searcy and Cabot, Alexa Bacon, senior marketing manager of Buff City Soap, said in response to emailed questions. There are plans for further Northwest Arkansas expansion. She said Fayetteville was selected as the first Northwest Arkansas location because the city pulls customers from throughout the region.
During the covid-19 pandemic, Buff City Soap locations succeeded because consumers sought do-it-yourself self-care routines at home due to quarantines, and the general demand for soap products stayed high, Bacon said. The company released its own line of hand soap in June of 2020, started curbside pickup and implemented Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions in its stores.
"We are excited to continue serving our consumers our plant-based products and allowing our stores to go back to full capacity," Bacon said. "We are an ever-changing brand and will continue to adapt based on what our consumers need in the soap and skincare sector."
According to the International Franchise Association 2021 Economic Outlook for Franchising, a report by FRANdata released in March, if covid-19 continues to ebb, the franchising industry will have recovered to near 2019 levels in most key metrics, including business growth, employment, economic outlook and the sectors contribution to gross domestic product. FRANdata is an independent research and advisory company focusing on companies that use the franchise business model, according to its website.
The report predicted that more than 26,000 franchised businesses will open in 2021. By year's end the sector will employ 8.3 million workers, a gain of about 800,000 new jobs. Most of the new jobs will be in the retail, food and service industries where workers were hard-hit during the covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, Arkansas should have 7,240 retail establishments in 2021 that will employ just shy of 74,000 workers.
Mary Beth Brooks, director of the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said franchise businesses in Arkansas, like all businesses, struggled during the pandemic, some more than others, based on what sector they served and how hard it was hit.
She said during 2020, the center picked up more than 700 new clients seeking help and business advice, often about grants and loans, as businesses tried to deal with the unknown territory the pandemic presented.
According to reports issued by the U.S. Small Business Administration, loans through the Paycheck Protection Plan in Arkansas stood at about 61,700 and were valued at $1.7 billion thorough May. Nationally there were 6.68 million loans issued and were valued at $277.7 billion. The total for Economic Injury Disaster Loans approved in Arkansas through May 10 was 22,239, and they were valued at $1.12 billion. Nationally there were 3.8 million loans approved, valued at $210.7 billion.
Brooks said as consumers begin to make their way back into stores, interest in the franchise segment in the state is picking up. She said business owners are cautiously optimistic and have an eye toward the future.
She said as things begin to open up, franchise businesses are facing the same trouble all businesses face now, the lack of available workers. She said many of the center's clients across all types of businesses are struggling to find workers even with higher wages, hiring bonuses and retention bonuses.
Back at the Fayetteville store, Dudderar said finding the 14 workers needed to staff the store wasn't difficult. The employees perform various duties -- all work on the retail floor while others are trained to make specific products, since everything in the store is produced in-house.
Dudderar said it's been a little odd, opening the store after dealing with covid-restrictions in other locations, and adjusting to the new post-covid reality has been a challenge but a welcome one.
"This is the first [company] store I've been in that didn't have a mask requirement, and that's made a big difference," she said. "Seeing the kids smile has been so nice."