Words by Darcy Stein
Many years ago, I realized a conventional “nine-to-five” job was not for me. Kudos to those who can really sink their teeth into a big slice like that. But, for those of us who are resistant to taking such a plunge, wrapping soap three days per week during the tourist season at one of Anchorage’s only handmade soap shops sounded pretty ideal. A lucky find on the general labor section of Craigslist for sure. As soon as I walked into Denali Dreams to turn in my application, I knew it was a pretty rad place.
Ever walk, bike, or drive down the 2200 block of Spenard Road, right before you hit Hillcrest? Then you’ve probably smelled the tantalizing scent of bread baking at Franz, or a distinct and deliciously clean aroma that you can’t quite pinpoint because it smells like so many things at once. This is the “soap shop” smell, and it is often the first thing patrons notice as they enter the store.
Welcome to Denali Dreams Soap Company, a locally-owned handmade soap factory and small storefront in Spenard that is unknown to many Anchorageites, but shouldn’t be. Here, you can find all things nourishing, from soap with Matanuska glacial silt in it, to salve for your dog’s paws, a packaging-free line of “Bearnaked” soaps and all-natural bug repellent that you actually want to put on. In our culture of mass-production with access to endless products on Amazon, sustainable and locally owned operations often get overlooked or forgotten. Luckily for all of us (and our skin), this is not the case for Denali Dreams.
So who’s behind this operation you ask? Meet Caitlin Sombatratanakul (it rhymes with “wombat-mechanical”). Caitlin started working at Denali Dreams Soap Company in the summer of 2005; one of the two owners was her then-boyfriend’s mom. She got hired as a seasonal employee labeling lip balms to help out with the busy Christmas holiday. Caitlin loved working with her hands and enjoyed the relaxed and therapeutic work environment. She moved through several positions at the shop, eventually learning the age-old tradition of soap making.
Fast forward 10 years: Caitlin is still working for the original owners of Denali Dreams, and they approached her to purchase the business from them. Caitlin knew she would own her own business someday, she just didn’t know what it would be. This was her big opportunity and she accepted it graciously. After a somewhat long yet seamless transition and a last-minute miracle that gave Caitlin the funds for such a transaction, the business was hers.
If you know this block of Spenard, you’re aware it has undergone a drastic makeover within the last few years.
Caitlin explained that in years before, the road wasn’t as safe for pedestrians or cyclists, and motorists were not as mindful of them either. Now, the sidewalks are wide enough for more than one person at a time, creating a more inviting environment for people to walk or bike down this end of the block, with less fear they’ll meet their fiery end trying to cross the street after their sweaty indoor cycle class to get a cold-pressed juice, or during their morning bike commute to work.
“The desire to be here has changed,” she said.
Caitlin remembers when she first started working at the shop she only had three walk-in customers per week. Back then, the shop had more of a mysterious air (it was mostly a wholesale operation, so the large front windows were cloaked in lace curtains, and half of the current storefront was an employee lunch area), and way less foot traffic.
Now, customers come into the shop on a regular basis throughout the day, drawn in by the lovely aroma that’s being wafted over them, or having seen a beautifully wrapped bar of Denali Dreams soap at a tourist shop downtown, or just because they are curious what sort of business is going on inside the bright pink building on the north side of Spenard.