December 7, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ryan Cook was working at Dundee’s Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob when a crowded kabob machine fat trap got him thinking ruefully about the sheer magnitude of the goop that went to waste. So, naturally, he decided to make it into soap.

Perhaps a slight leap of reason, but Cook and Benson Soap Mill co-owner, Tim Maides, quickly realized they were onto something special—creating eco-friendly, handcrafted soap from local, recycled ingredients.

Cook says their foremost commitment is to a global-friendly, sustainable business.

“That’s our ethos,” he says. “It’s about how we can access local, unused resources to create something valuable.”

“We both have culinary backgrounds,” says Maides, “so that’s a prevalent theme. You always want to use everything you have and can get your hands on. Even our labels are recycled paper bags that we stamp and repurpose.”

Cook pushed beyond his original fat-spiration, studying the chemistry of soap-making and exploring superior fat sources from which to render tallow for soap.

“We started collecting from restaurants doing in-house butchering,” says Cook. “Talking to chefs, we realized how much fresh, high-quality, unprocessed, excess fat is just literally being thrown in the trash. It’s dozens of pounds per hog per restaurant, everywhere.”

“Bryce (Coulton) from French Bulldog really got us started,” says Maides. Cook concurs, calling Coulton a “very encouraging mentor.”

The duo practiced rendering high-quality, fresh tallow, while also exploring regional nut and seed oils. By summer 2013, Benson Soap Mill sold its first bars, fittingly, at Benson Days.

Early on, batches were made in one huge block then cut into bars with wire or a samurai sword. While a decidedly hilarious tool for the job, the sword produced inconsistent bars, so Maides suggested moving to 4-ounce silicone molds, guaranteeing a uniform size and shape.

“Our soap is a unique, Midwestern soap,” says Maides, “because we’re using our own formula and not importing the same oils everyone else uses.”

Cook believes the positive feedback on their soap is due to quality materials, plus the absence of chemicals, detergents, and unnatural ingredients. Reading the ingredients of commercial soaps is enough to make one stop gleefully singing in the shower and start pursuing an advanced chemistry degree to decipher the contents. Counter to that, Benson Soap Mill’s Coffee Soap, for example, includes Blue Line Coffee grounds, sweet almond oil, and purified tallow. Period.

Other varieties include a red clay-colored Benson Bar and a black-flecked, navy blue Charcoal Soap, made with Nebraskan hardwood charcoal. There’s also Peppermint, Citrus-Ginger, Tea Tree, and more. Each variety has no more than five (totally comprehensible) ingredients and is made in small, patiently cured batches.

“[In the future] we want to forage and distill naturally growing wild plants in Western Nebraska and create own our own scent patterns, unique to the region,” says Maides.

Cook envisions expanding that template nationwide, using each area’s local fats, nut and seed oils, herbs, spices, mosses, and flowers.

“We’re always learning, getting better and more efficient,” says Cook, “which will ultimately allow us to broaden our comprehensive, sustainable concept.”

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