Interview with apothecary Branda Tiffany.
Who is Molly Muriel? What inspired you to choose that name?
The name Molly Muriel was inspired by my dog. That was her name, and she was my biggest inspiration when I started this company. She was just a pup back in 2002, and sadly left this Earth last year, at almost 16 years of age. So she had a very long and happy life. Her legacy lives on with this business, and she is still a great inspiration.
I read your story on the website. Can you tell us more about the journey from a candle making class to your own line of vegan soaps, balms, and cosmetics?
After spending a good year trying every kind of candle I could find info on, I wanted to branch out. I’m not sure why soap was my goal, but I quickly dove in and tried my first batch. Back then there wasn’t so much information online like we can find now, so I was reading books on fixed oils, fragrances, colorants, and pretty much tried them all. I truly feel that not being able to access so many recipes and info gave me a huge advantage of completely understanding the process of formulation and saponification from the ground up. Through many mistakes and troubleshooting came the beginnings of the product line that exists today.
What does being vegan mean to you? Do you personally practice a vegan lifestyle?
I’m not one to love labels, i.e. vegan, vegetarian, etc. I live my life more from a conscientious standpoint. I’m a clean eater, avoiding processed and chemical derived foods. As for environment, I try to avoid plastic when possible, and use as many recycled goods as possible. Veganism is such an individual thing and can mean different things to many people. Being a lover of animals, I do what I can to respect them in all of my life choices, including the food I eat, the clothes I choose to wear, and the goods I purchase.
What goes into your testing and product development process?
My process begins with research and development. I do a lot of investigation on ingredients I want to implement. I read about their nourishing attributes, as well as potential allergens or irritants. I also dive deep into sourcing to make sure that the ingredient that reaches me is the best quality. As for testing, my friends and family are usually my best test subjects. They give me honest feedback about scent, function, reactions, or anything else that may pertain. I’m so thankful to be surrounded by great people who will take the time to try some of my creations.
What are some of the challenges of marketing, manufacturing, and distributing an independent, plant-based brand in a crowded global marketplace?
Marketing is a huge part of business, it has the largest impact on getting my brand out there. It also happens to be my least favorite part of running a small business. But I’ve found that it’s very necessary to have a great marketing strategy or you won’t get the information about your products to the people that are looking for it. I’ve done everything from trade shows and cold calling to emailing and visiting potential stores in person to try to connect. It’s a lot of work, but can also be very rewarding. Manufacturing can be challenging as well, as I’ve gotten to points where I’ve had to purchase ingredients in larger quantities and make bigger batches, there’s always a learning curve with each step forward. I still go through that now, 16 years in! As for distribution, I’ve realized that my industry, natural beauty/body care, has been on the rise and will just keep going, so I don’t try to compete with large companies. I have a vey different product that will appeal to those folks that seek natural and healthy lifestyles. I do what I can and figure that beyond that the products will speak for themselves, and so far they have.
What are some gifts you would recommend for vegans? (These can be from your store, but they don’t have to be.)
Of course I would suggest anything from my product line. However, one of our lines stands out for vegans. It can be very difficult to find vegan lip balm, most is made with bees wax. We use candelilla wax and floral wax instead, which is so very nourishing to chronically chapped lips. My favorite is the lavender mint. Outside of my product line, I really love Queen Bee products using vinyl instead of leather. They also have a 25% discount buy-back program that rocks! Also, a gift certificate to Blossoming Lotus or Sweetpea Baking Company would be excellent, two of my favorites! Yum!!
What is the most popular item / product among your customers?
Our bar soaps have always been great sellers, specifically the Volcanic Bliss bar. I can’t seem to keep that one in stock. During the winter months we sell a lot of candles, the Spice It Up being a big hit, it has cinnamon and clove essential oils and is warm and spicy during those winter months.
This isn’t a question but I have to say that as someone with perennially chapped lips, your lip balm is truly the best thing I have ever tried. Better than all the national brands. Thank you.
Founder Branda Tiffany
Well, thank you! I find the same thing to be true. I had chronically chapped lips for years and did research to formulate this product for myself. The mimosa floral wax I use helps not only to heal tissue, but is a great protectant against the elements. I’m sure that’s why it has been so great for me 🙂 I’m so glad that you’re experiencing the same thing!!
You’ve been in business since 2002. Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I would say, put your focus on feeding your soul before your bank account, and this can be a very sustainable venture for you in the long run. Of course we have to be practical, but true happiness comes from choosing to do something that we love and the money will follow. Don’t give up, just keep your eyes and ears open, and listen to others’ advice, whether you take it or not. One of the worst things we can do is to be stubborn and let our ego get in our way. If we move that aside we can be very successful in all the ways that matter.
UPDATE: Queen Bee Creations closed its Portland retail location in 2020. You can still shop for Rebecca Pearcy’s newest designs on her website, at rebeccapearcy.com.
Interview with Queen Bee Creations founder Rebecca Pearcy
Can you describe the first bag that you made? How old were you?
Rebecca Pearcy outside her store.
I’m not sure what the first bag was that I made, but I do have a few sweet hand-sewn or crafted items that my mom saved from when I was tiny. My favorite is a little fabric elephant that is just so beautiful in that handmade by a child way that is inimitable. I was probably 3 or 4 when I made it? I have loved making things with my hands for as long as I can remember and my mom really fostered that in me. She is a fine artist and did all kinds of crafts with me growing up. Things really took off when I learned how to sew on a machine and I started sewing my own clothing, both from store-bought patterns and improvising my own designs. While I like to make and sew all kinds of things, sewing clothing is my favorite, so I didn’t start making the bags that led to Queen Bee until I was in my early 20’s. I used funky materials like fake fur, shiny vinyl, upholstery velvets, and vintage / upcycled materials. One of my first bag designs was a mini backpack out of shiny vinyl with a Wonder Woman comic image laminated and sewn onto the front with clear vinyl.
Who is the typical Queen Bee customer? Is there one?
I think a lot of our customers are similar to me – they are in my age range (I’m 45) and are pretty practical, so they want something that is functional, that is good quality, that will last, and expresses their sense of style or individuality. And they are excited to support a woman-owned business that they can feel connected to and good about.
Have you ever gotten pushback for using faux materials like vinyl instead of leather? Or do you find that consumers embrace the trend?
No, not really. Occasionally someone will scoff at the non-leather material but leather & faux-leather are entirely different beasts (so to speak). People choose them for different reasons. We are known for working with vinyl, which we did for many years, but a number of years ago we stopped making our bags with vinyl and switched to using PVC free faux-leathers. We also work with a lot of waxed canvas and some leather for handles and straps (along with non-leather options). Leather is an amazing material, in terms of it’s qualities and durability. Faux-leather is waterproof, a lot more affordable, and comes in lots of colors. It suits the rainy PNW active and non-fussy lifestyle well.
What inspired you to expand into screen printing?
In 1997, after I finished college in Washington, I went out to Philadelphia to do an apprenticeship at The Fabric Workshop. It totally changed my life – I felt like I had found something I really really loved. At the heart of my love of making is my love of fabrics. And at my apprenticeship I learned how to design patterns in repeat, make silkscreens of my designs, and print them in repeat on a 25 yard long table. It was so fun and satisfying to create my own fabric. Because of the space and equipment set up needed to do this type of printing, it took me a few years to get to the point where I could print my own fabric. That’s when I launched the Rebecca Pearcy Textiles line. Currently we have a 23’ long print table in our studio where we print all of our fabric. It’s still my favorite part of what we do and I’m working on expanding it even more to include apparel and more housewares.
Screen Printing in the Studio
How many people do you employ in Portland?
I have eight wonderful employees! They are an awesome team that include 2 production sewists, 2 production workers (cutting, prepping, finishing), 2 retail folks, an operations manager, and a bookkeeper. This small but mighty team does it all. We do all the designing, sewing, printing, production, shipping, website management, retail store buying and selling, marketing, managing the workflow, and management of the business itself.
The Studio from Above
Describe the role that Portland has had on your business and brand. Do you believe the city is still a viable home for small and emerging businesses?
Portland has been a great place to run a handmade, creative, small business. People here “get it” — many choose to live here because there’s so much going on in the creative / making realm and are stoked to support the businesses that make Portland, Portland. From attending college at Evergreen, to living and starting Queen Bee in Olympia, WA, to relocating to Portland in 2002, I have always thrived on the hotbed of creativity in the Pacific Northwest. But the way the city is changing and developing rapidly could pose a threat to businesses like mine being able to continue thriving. So that is cause for concern. Part of what made Portland so relatively easy was affordability, for space, for homes. If I was just opening my business right now and looking for space to operate out of, I’d be hard pressed. I hope that the city can preserve and value it’s artisans that bring people from all over the world so we can keep trucking on and keep making Portland a truly special place that offers diversity, variety, and beauty that you can’t find just anywhere.
Do you have a favorite handbag?
My current fave products of ours that I use the most are:
The Ramona Tote
The Becca Backpack
The Hip Holster
What designers and artists have influenced your work?
I’m a huge fan of Marimekko, for their amazing and colorful print designs, as well as Vera Neumann. And I love lots of Japanese fashion, design, and textiles. I admire Frietag for their business model of making one-of-a-kind bags from up cycled truck tarps – they were an early leader in this. I adore Bonnie Cashin bag designs from the 60’s / 70’s.
Queen Bee Creations, 3961 N Williams Street