In 2004, Greg Colden and Marty Corrigan left their home in Oakland to live on what is now Kokoleka Lani Farm, on the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Among the cacao trees on their 5-acre farm, whose name means chocolate heaven, they planted coffee, lime and avocado trees, under which 100 or so chickens roam.
While retiring to a tropical paradise isn’t a rare vision, this couple’s version is a little different. Colden likes to think of it more as a summer camp, where days are structured around producing soap, in addition to extras like coffee and roasted cocoa beans from the farm.
The pair own (Colden as soap maker, Corrigan as chief financial officer) the 8-year-old Kona Natural Soap Co., which crafts handmade, natural soaps using Hawaiian ingredients.
The most popular “flavor,” Nani Lemi, was one of their first creations. In addition to Hawaiian rainwater and kukui nut oil, the soap contains fragrant citrus-scented litsea cubeba oil and ground lime seeds, which are grown and processed at the farm.
Another favorite is the Ehu Kai, which means “sea spray.” This includes the scents of lemongrass and palmarosa combined with seaweed.
Colden, 55, first became interested in alternative soaps in 2002 when, during a trip to Hawaii, he developed a painful sunburn and a subsequent bad reaction to hotel soap.
When he returned home to the Bay Area, he began to learn soap-making basics from Allysyn Kiplinger, the owner of Oakland’s Artha Hemp. A lifelong potter, Colden related to the “playfulness” of soap making – as well as the basic chemistry behind the process.
By hand-making soap with handpicked, natural ingredients, Colden found a solution to the itchiness and headaches that he believed came from the sodium lauryl sulfate and other ingredients found in most common soap brands. He also had another “aha” moment: Perhaps his new hobby was key to fulfilling the couple’s dreams of moving to the islands.
Colden left his insurance brokerage firm in El Cerrito, and the pair bought the small Hawaiian farm. Thankfully, he says, “Marty was all for it. He’s very analytical and very creative.” They planted orchards during the 11 months it took for the first soap factory to be built.
“When we started the company, people said, ‘Who cares? Soap is soap,’ but people are a lot more aware now,” Colden says.
Kona Natural Soap Co. produces soap that, like common bar soap, is a surfactant, meaning it removes dirt and bacteria from the body, but without potentially irritating chemicals or artificial ingredients.
Each bar of soap takes about three weeks to create, and they make about four batches, or 450 bars, at a time. Colden hand-cuts each one.
The soap, at $6.50 a bar, is sold at their property to visiting cruisers and vacationers, sold online and at a local marketplace, and shipped to international fans. The company also produces a private label soap for a lavender farm in Maui.
Longtime customer Stephanie Delmont, who moved to Hawaii from the East Bay in 2000, discovered Kona Natural Soap at the farmers’ market.
“I have been plagued with rashes throughout my life, but with their soap, I don’t have problems,” says Delmont, who buys 10 to 12 bars at a time and even takes them with her while traveling. “The quality is high and the ingredients are very interesting,” she says.
“I’m excited when someone buys six bars of soap, because it means what we’re doing is right,” says Colden, who is also working on building an additional facility on the farm – or what he calls “5 acres of paradise.”
Colden’s corporate past haunts him every once in a while. “I have a nightmare every six months that I’m in my cubicle, it’s 10 to 5, and I’m like, ‘How am I going to get home?’
“The BART doesn’t go to Hawaii.”
Kona Natural Soap Co.: Keauhou, Hawaii. (808) 322-9111. www.konanaturalsoapcompany.com.