Made in York, Pa.

April 7, 2011

Believe it or not, making soap isn’t all that different from making ice cream.

As I listened to Chris Clarke and Brent Lebouitz talk about their respective crafts, I couldn’t help noticing that they had a lot in common. Ask them how they come up with their fragrances and flavors, and they both shrug. “You just have to find your own way,” Clarke said.

Even the names of their creations sound alike. His ice cream flavors: Strawberry, Peppermint Stick, Chai Tea Latte, Black Raspberry. Her soap scents: Strawberries and Cream, Peppermint and Oatmeal, Chai Tea and Black Spice, Chocolate Raspberry. Don’t wash a naughty child’s mouth out with these soaps if you really want to make a point.

I met the two while touring Clarke’s Sunrise Soap Co. and Lebouitz’s Sweet Willows Creamery in York, Pa. If you think that everything’s made in China these days, think again. York is the self-proclaimed factory-tour capital of the world. Spend a weekend in this south central Pennsylvania town, and you can see how Martin’s makes potato chips, how Bluett Brothers builds violins and how Harley-Davidson constructs motorcycles.

This year, five factories and businesses are opening their doors to visitors for the first time. Schedule a tour by appointment at Sunrise, Sweet Willows, the Modern Landfill and Recycling Center, and the York County Resource Recovery, where garbage is turned into “green” power (I tried to get an appointment there, but it was too busy). The Turkey Hill Experience, an ice cream shop, will open later this spring.


Brent Lebouitz makes a point of using real vanilla extract at Sweet Willows Creamery. (Nancy Trejos/The Washington Post)

At Sunrise in downtown York, Clarke makes her soaps, shampoos, lotions and other bath products with vegetable, coconut, castor and olive oils and shea and cocoa butters. Animal fat and preservatives are forbidden in her kitchen.

I watched her mix a batch of bath fizzies with Epsom salt, citric acid, and vanilla and grapefruit fragrances. It looked like Alka-Seltzer dissolving in a cup. “It’s definitely a scientific process,” she said, looking like a hippie Martha Stewart in her kitchen at the back of the store.

Once the ingredients congealed in a bowl, she scooped out tiny balls and placed them in a box. As she reached the bottom, the mixture started to dry out. There were three possible solutions: either keep scooping and hope the balls wouldn’t crumble, add cocoa butter, or microwave the mixture for about a minute. Clarke chose to nuke it. “I only do it when I get desperate,” she said.

Clarke admits that her experiments sometimes go awry. When that happens, she can either try adding other ingredients or throw the batch away. “I’ve only done that once,” she admitted.

Later that day, I asked Lebouitz whether he, too, has had any duds.

“Tutti frutti, that was a tough one,” he said, cringing.

I was standing in his kitchen, stocked with cocoa and gallons of vanilla extract (real vanilla, he pointed out, not that artificial stuff that other ice cream makers use) and boxes of graham crackers and vanilla wafers.

This wasn’t so much a tour as an apprenticeship. I was helping Lebouitz create a version of coffee ice cream using finely ground Indonesia Sumatra coffee and Indonesian vanilla extract.

He poured two 21 / 2-gallon plastic bags filled with cream and sugar into his Emery Thompson ice cream machine, which looked like a laundromat dryer. Then he dumped in six ounces of coffee and one ounce of vanilla extract. For 15 minutes, the machine whirred and roared. Then there was silence. Lebouitz pulled a lever, and the ice cream oozed out. “You’re going to die,” he said after trying a spoonful. “Ice cream always makes you happy.”

Oh, yes, I was happy.

My tour of the Modern Landfill and Recycling Center, a solid-waste management facility owned by Republic Services, didn’t exactly make me happy, but I learned a lot from Art Sullivan, who’s in charge of the water management plant.

We started outside, staring at the hill where up to 5,000 tons of municipal, residential, construction and demolition waste from York, Philadelphia, Washington and even New York are dumped each day. The landfill, in operation since the 1940s, is projected to reach capacity in 10 years, when it will be capped and covered with dirt and grass, Art said.

Next, Sullivan drove us over the 165 acres of landfill, much of it covered in dirt, to the summit in his Jeep. Along the way, we spotted hawks and other birds (there was once a bald eagle sighting). The ride was bumpy, but from the top, we could see all of York and miles into the distance.

For about an hour, Sullivan led me from one plant to another. I couldn’t keep track of what all the machines did. In the water treatment facility, which handles 7 million gallons a month, I got a little dizzy crossing a catwalk over enormous water-filled vats.

But it was another body of water that most fascinated me: a stream that the company had diverted from the landfill to a grassy area across the road, meticulously preserving the environment and moving all the creatures that lived in the water, including turtles, tadpoles and a snake.

Back at the landfill, I decided that I’d pretty much had my, um, fill of garbage. It made me happy to head back to my hotel room, where an Apples n’ Cinnamon bar of soap awaited me.

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