Babata: An immigrant’s soap story
NEW YORK — Percival Cunanan and his wife, Myrna, epitomize the industrious immigrant couple.
On top of their day jobs – Percy in IT and Myrna previously a manager in a bakeshop — they come home to Long Island to work some more. They make soap. As in bath soap. No rest for this earnest couple who have been stirring, molding and packing handmade soaps in their basement on nights and weekends for more than two years.
Percy swears their soap is “100 percent all natural,” meaning it uses no chemicals, no preservatives, no artificial fragrances and no dyes. Equally important, he added, they are artisanal, “handmade.” No machines were powered in the making of their products.
Babata (“to look younger” in Tagalog) Handmade Soaps are available in specialty stores, such Amy’s Bread, The Pantry at Hell’s Kitchen in NYC and Jana’s Favorite Finds in Everett, Washington, just to name a few outlets. The Cunanans are pop-up vendors at Pottery Barn Chelsea and at Brooklyn Bazaar. They sell on Etsy and have showcased their brand at health fairs and corporate events at NASDAQ and Morgan Stanley.
However, it is the website – Babata.NYC – where bulk purchases happen. Customers have placed orders for hundreds of bars for weddings favors or corporate giveaways. Percy dropped some pop culture celebrity names, but asked that these remain unpublished.
Recently, Babata caught the eye of the office of Kevin Harrington, one of the pioneer sharks in the “Shark Tank” reality TV Show that promotes start-up businesses.
“Kinabahan ako,” said Percy laughing, when interviewed by The FilAm. “Parang too much too soon.” The couple declined an invitation to appear on the popular show.
When she was six months old, their daughter, Samantha, suffered from eczema. It was her skin condition that prompted the couple to explore manufacturing all-natural soaps.
“Using regular soap irritates her sensitive skin,” he said. “I told Myrna, can you look into making our own all-natural soaps?”
Myrna, a graduate of hotel and restaurant management in the Philippines, decided to enroll in a soap-making course, an ideal complement to her CNA license and certificate in New York Food Safety.
She learned the rudiments and perfected the product through stubborn testing. Pleased with their “soap from nature,” which uses a meticulously measured combination of olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil and shea butter, they began to use it and launched it among family and friends in 2015.
Today, an average of a thousand bars of Babata are produced each month. It’s not a large volume yet for the couple to make a courageous appearance at “Shark Tank.” But it’s enough to embolden Myrna to quit her bakeshop job and take on the task of manufacturing full time. Percy helps out too, as he is in charge of online marketing and product design. Tabling at events keeps the couple very busy.
Despite their enthusiasm, the venture cannot go full steam ahead because they have no full-time manpower and they are enjoying child-rearing, which they believe is one of the most important stages in a parent’s life. They value family time more than expanding the business to the fullest. Percy shared that Myrna is currently pregnant with their second child, and expects a bit of a slowdown in the months ahead. But he remains optimistic and steadfast. After our 7 p.m. interview, he was off to two more business meetings.
“We’re not out to make money,” he said. Not copious amounts is probably what he meant because for his vision to grow, the business needs to be sustainable. His dream is for Babata to become a vehicle to provide jobs to families in the Philippines caring for special needs children. Percy was a special needs teacher before coming to the U.S. ten years ago. If he can make enough bars of soap, outsource some sales, some packaging to the families back home, he would be happy.
“Helping lovely children with special needs and providing employment to people with disabilities,” he said, “that’s the essence of Babata.” © 2017 The FilAm