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The usual suspects...

Plum Island Soap Celebrates 20 Years By Dirk Messelaar PITA 

“My business would never have succeeded without the help of so many on Plum Island when I first started 20 years ago and then through the years,” declares the petite and effervescent Michele Diodati, founder and owner of PI Soap at 205 Northern Boulevard. As she sits casually curled up on the sofa in PI Soap’s employee living room located in the back of the building, it’s easy to see why so many of her friends and employees sometimes call her “momma.” It takes just a few minutes of conversation to realize how much Michele cares about her work and, more importantly, her customers, employees, and family.

Her story seems typically American: hard work, creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, and persistence leads to business success. But at the same time, her company’s success also stems from Michele’s personal magnetism, people skills, and especially her ability to network with many people in Greater Newburyport, especially Plum Island.

Twenty-five years ago she was a secretary living in Somerville who enjoyed her arts and crafts hobby of making jewelry and creating found clay objects. She sharpened her craft by taking metal smithing courses at the MFA’s School of Fine Arts and listening to customers at fairs in Harvard Square and downtown Boston. 

Over 20 years ago while still living in Somerville, her husband William Ulchak found a wooden boat in Newburyport that would become a renovation obsession over the next two years. Michele and her husband left Somerville and rented a seasonal cottage on Plum Island’s 57th street while also living on the boat as it was in dry dock. (They had vacationed at Salisbury and Hampton Beaches as kids, but they had never even heard of Plum Island.) 

In 1997, Michele and her husband left the rented property and purchased a Plum Island cottage. But, they still spent their summers on a boat — their latest boat is moored in Kittery, Maine. The cottage on Northern Boulevard was expanded later to become what is now PI Soap’s store and production area.

After her first few years on Plum Island, she expanded her interests into quilting, and making candles and soap. In 1998, Michele manned her first table locally at a craft fair in Newburyport with half the table laden with jewelry and the other half with soap. The following year, home with her newborn Billy, she read an article in The Daily News about Beecher Grogan, organizer of the new Amesbury Farmers’ Market. They met and Plum Island Soap became a regular vendor in Amesbury as well as markets in downtown Boston. 

Michele started larger production with two main product lines. The first product line was batching soap using the same recipe still today. And early on she discovered — to her surprise — that men especially liked her soap. The second product line was body oil made from sunflower oil (then later pure olive oil).

When the company started in 1998, it relied most heavily on retail sales at its store. Michele had no idea what to expect with her first Open House at PI Soap on Northern Boulevard. She was overwhelmed with the number of visitors who walked through the door, many of them familiar with PI Soap from the Amesbury Farmers’ Market. Many of these customers purchased soap or body oil friends and relatives. For example, long-standing customers and PI residents Bob and Naomi Halpers gave her twelve names for whom they wanted gift baskets with PI Soap products. That started the successful introduction of customers submitting PI Soap gift lists for friends and family. 

Jane McNeil, owner of the former PJ’s — most recently Plum Crazy — on Northern Boulevard, sold PI Soap products on consignment. And Jane remains a loyal supporter making Man Cans at the store to this day. Diane and Ron Barrett and Liz at Surfland were especially helpful in spreading the word to PI residents in the early days.



As the company grew, it relied equally on third-party sales. Its first two wholesale customers were Tendercrop Farm in Newbury and Zeb’s Country Store in North Conway, New Hampshire. Locally, you can also buy PI Soap at Soak on State Street in Newburyport.  Remarkably, PI Soap is also sold at 300 stores all across the country. Online sales are delivered through Amazon, Gift Tree, and Whole Foods. 

Visiting the enchanting little store on Northern Boulevard is almost like visiting Santa’s workshop. You’ll meet the store manager Paige Graham and the production magician Alyssa Amato (probably with her cute two-year old daughter Angelina in tow). Owner Michele will be hard at work at her computer and on the phone while sitting in her Kittery boat office.

It’s easy to see why so many admire Michele as a successful on-island businesswoman, but also as a proud islander who spreads the name of Plum Island to so many people all over the country.

http://plumislandsoap.com

Plum Island Soap Company
205 Northern Boulevard
Newburyport, MA 01950