Made in Tulsa
Tulsa is full of companies manufacturing widely used and specialty products. Here, meet four companies providing everything from school buses to uniquely scented soaps.
Amy Hallock and Jess Armstrong founded Snake Oil Shop, which produces a line of all-natural products, including a hot flash relief gel and a balm that can be used for hair or as a perfume.
From shiny school buses to fresh homemade soaps, Tulsa manufactures.
From small-batch essential-oil cures to manufactured stone, Tulsa creates products that benefit the region and the nation.
Here, four Tulsa-based manufacturers describe the passion behind their products and their unique manufacturing recipes for success in a complex global marketplace.
The voodoo that you do:
Snake Oil Shop
In a Tulsa workshop, Amy Hallock and Jess Armstrong, who jokingly call themselves “snake oil salesmen,” cook up a little magic a hundred bottles at a time.
The idea started in 2005. Hallock’s mother had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia years earlier and began searching for pain relief because she couldn’t find relief from mainstream pharmaceuticals. Hallock researched holistic and natural alternatives and started mixing up a rub that helped relieve her mom’s inflammation and joint pain.
They called it “snake oil” as another little joke because it had so many uses, and the name stuck. Hallock’s friends and other family members began asking for the essential-oil blend.
But time and life passed until two years ago, when Hallock and Armstrong, longtime friends, decided to focus on building a product line based on all-natural remedies and essential oils.
They’ve made a little business magic happen with the Snake Oil Shop. Now, their products are sold wholesale in 10 states, and their online sales have skyrocketed as well. Buyers are snapping up the pretty tins filled with bright mood-altering or physically beneficial essential-oil rubs with simple names such as Calm, Energy or Stuffy.
Hallock uses Calm as an everyday perfume and hair balm; Armstrong swears that their Flash in the Pan Hot Flash Relief Gel (with an all-natural aloe vera gel that Snake Oil Shop creates) soothes sunburn pain, too. Manufacturing their products at a consistently high-quality level proved difficult at first. They tried to use local companies to help produce the product, but the results didn’t meet their expectations of quality.
They do smaller runs of 100 bottles at a time in their Tulsa workshop and use a larger bottling company for bigger orders.
“We want the quality control,” Hallock says. “We want the product to be all the same level.”
So they use their own bottling equipment to heat batches of melted beeswax and other carrier oils with complex blends of essential oils at exacting temperatures.
“We make our proprietary mixes and add it to our own bases,” Armstrong says. “We do everything.”
Armstrong designed the labels, and both women design and build their Snake Oil Shop wholesale displays.
“We print the signage and do the woodwork and silkscreen our logo and (then) sand them down,” Armstrong says.
From the company website to product delivery, Armstrong says, “We tried to have very consistent quality, which is one of the reasons we hold onto (production) so dearly.”
Hallock says many prospective customers ask them whether there are actual snakes in the rubs and gels (answer: No).
“This is old-school medicine,” Armstrong says. “And we’re coming back to that. It’s all natural, holistic and it works … and people are tired of popping pills for things, I think.”
Ziegler Art and Frame and Claire Fey Wellness stock the entire line of Snake Oil products.
And now they’ve developed a popular product line and thriving wholesale, consignment and Internet business on the company website. (Snake Oil Shop can also be found on Amazon and Etsy.)
Business has been brisk, and the Snake Oil ladies are getting the hang of filling big orders.
“We used to have a big order come in and panic,” Armstrong says. “Now, we’ve got this. We know what our capabilities are and are kind of ready to take on the world.”
They are developing a line of baby- and child-related products (with fun names such as Cootie Spray and Boo Boo), plus skincare, and they are expanding the essential-oil scents into bath products, lotions and candles.
“We are always saying, ‘Smell this, try this, do this,’” Armstrong says.
Manufacturing on Tulsa time:
IC Bus Plant
During World War II, a large bomber factory on North Mingo Road churned out assembled B-24 Liberator bombers for the Army Air Corps. In three years at war, more than 18,000 Liberators dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and downed 4,189 enemy planes.
In 1950, the plant went back into the bomber business and began manufacturing B-47 Stratojets. Through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Rockwell International leased the plant to create aerospace products and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Co. components.
By 1994, the plant was mostly vacant when the city of Tulsa became its primary tenant, subleasing a portion of the plant to Rockwell. In 2001, IC Bus of Oklahoma, a Navistar company, opened its doors in the space where slender WWII bombers were once lined up, end on end. IC Bus brought in 400 new jobs and began assembling hundreds of shiny new buses — school buses, commercial buses, fleet vehicles — all new, all high-tech.
Since IC Bus began rolling out its products more than 10 years ago, the company has increased its market share from third to first place, making it the nation’s No. 1 bus manufacturer. The company has captured more than 60 percent of the North American school bus market. On June 5, IC Bus celebrated its 100,000th bus rolling off the assembly line.
“I think a lot of (IC Bus’ success) is the value for our product from a quality standpoint,” says Greg Hutchison, the plant manager. “We’ve been able to deliver a consistent, fully integrated product.”
The plant has also found a way to bring a ’50s-era manufacturing model into the 21st century through its marriage to Navistar, a global company that manufactures medium- and heavy-duty trucks, defense vehicles, RVs, school buses and engines. The partnership also provides access to a broad range of technology, along with international-level customer service and sales. Each bus has a Navistar- and IC- designed chassis, a Navistar engine and an IC-built body.
“Depending on our schedule, we currently produce anywhere from 50 to 70 buses a day,” Hutchison says.
For this fiscal year, IC Bus produced more than 11,000 products, a 15 percent increase over the year before.
The three large components of a bus are put together at the plant — the engine married to the chassis and body — along with all the detail work that goes into creating a finished bus or other vehicle. The plant uses every bit of its million square feet of production area. It houses a factory to build the steel body; a full painting system; a chassis operation; and what the workers call “the finish line,” where the lettering, lights and seats are added.
“When we drive ’em out of the plant, they’re a finished product,” Hutchison says, and ready to be shipped off to dealers all over North America.
Tulsa Public Schools uses the buses for many of its routes, contributing to the emotional connection Hutchison says he and his employees have to the product they manufacture. As Anne-Marie Cronin, IC Bus’ marketing communications manager, puts it: Buses “are the gateway to education, in getting (kids) to and from school safely.”
On her soapbox:
Kelli Brown-Groblewski and her husband, Gary, are passionate and involved Tulsans. Gary is a home brewer who takes his special homemade beers to national and regional competitions. Last May, Kelli, a creative soul who also loves beer, recycling and combining unusual scents, founded Okie Crowe (hint: She’s a huge Black Crowes fan). Her business focuses on handmade products that are fun, unique, eco-conscious and emphasize local artistry.
Kelli began playing with the idea of making beer-scented soaps after seeing Gary’s leftover hops, grains and beer ingredients lying around.
“I started mixing oats and grains and hops into soaps and stuff,” Kelli says.
Before long, people were clamoring for her homemade beer-scented soaps in custom-created scents such as Honey Basil Pale Ale and Tallboy. Her first creation was based on one of her husband’s homebrew recipes for oatmeal stout.
“I went to the homebrew store (High Gravity) to see what goes in oatmeal stout beer,” she says.
She then adapted beer-brewing recipes to create soap recipes.
In the last year, Kelli’s and Gary’s hobbies have taken Green Country by storm. Their soaps and products are available at 11 shops, including Ida Red Boutique, Made: The Indie Emporium Shop and Grogg’s Green Barn, as well as online and at events (think Blue Dome Arts Festival, McNellie’s Harvest Beer Festival and Sand Springs Herbal Affair & Festival, among many others).
And her soap fragrances have moved beyond beer, too. Kelli turns funny ideas — such as, say, a dill pickle- or tomato basil-scented soap — into products. She even used real Oklahoma red dirt to create an amber-scented soap with a little Okie exfoliant.
In their home, Kelli and Gary make a variety of products throughout the week. When soap is on the production schedule, they create a batch of about three dozen soaps per day. For now, Okie Crowe’s operation is a snug fit inside the Groblewskis’ shaded three-bedroom home near Riverside Drive and Interstate 44. But they still have their priorities straight.
“Our beer fridge is bigger than our regular fridge,” Kelli says, laughing.
She’s expanding the product line to include scented and felted soaps, hand scrubs and even bath fizzes in the shape of beer mugs and the state of Oklahoma. She created “Bark ‘n Beerscuits” dog treats as an alternative to composting unfermented beer grains.
Okie Crowe production focuses on recycling, “upcycling” (creating another use for an item) and keeping its carbon footprint as small as possible.
The Groblewskis make use of leftover hops for soap ingredients; local beer labels for keychains and other items; and old Tulsa World newspapers for soap packaging to create fun, innovative and totally new products.
“It all goes back to something we love or doing something good for the earth or trying to use ingredients in a different way,” Kelli says.
Their felted soaps came along as a way to reduce their own waste. When soaps melt or get a little dinged up while on display in a shop, most businesses throw them out.
“But they’re still perfectly fine,” Kelli says.
Enter Jane Deason and her company, Angora Jane. Deason is a west Tulsa resident who raises her own sheep, shears them herself and then dyes and spins her own wool. Take local wool, and after a few processing tricks, you’ve got a pretty felted soap.
“You can use it as a soap and washcloth in one,” Kelli says. “Plus, it’s also an exfoliant and loofah.”
Okie Crowe used leftover grains from Marshall Brewing Co.’s spring brewing of Revival Red Ale to create Bark ’n Beerscuits. Other Okie Crowe products are made from Gary’s home-brewing leftovers or from bulk bins at High Gravity. The Groblewskis are also working on an upcoming line of dog collars and keychains that feature local beer labels.
“We’re conquering Tulsa and now branching out from there,” she says.
Solid as a Rock:
Impressions in Stone
Dagan Heaps, owner of Impressions in Stone, likes to joke that his career moved from “software to hardware.” After working as a software engineer for many years, Heaps was laid off in 2003.
“So I decided to create my own job,” he says.
Heaps learned the business of creating manufactured stone — a much less expensive, decorative and nearly identical alternative to natural stone — from the owners of Eaves Stone Products in Atoka. The manufactured-stone business was booming, and the owners wanted to expand. In April 2004, Heaps opened Impressions in Stone.
One production manager, two shop foremen and four production laborers create 700 to 1,000 square feet of stone each day, depending on their orders. The heavy-duty stone workshop features dozens of steel carousels, lined with rubber molds created from several shapes and styles of natural stone (from soft, round “River Rock” to rugged, irregular “Fieldstone”). Employees mix cement with color, then pour it by hand into the molds. The cement sets overnight, and it is ready to go the next day.
Customers can choose from six stone styles and dozens of color schemes or a thin brick product. The company can also color-match and create custom colors according to its customers’ tastes and needs.
Impressions has many big-name customers in northern Oklahoma. Natural stone is heavy and costly to ship, and the manufactured-stone business benefits from a “proximity to demand” principle. When big-name clients such as McDonald’s or Walmart build new stores, they look local for manufactured stone.
“We’ve done about three dozen of those,” Impressions Sales Manager Mike Howell says of McDonald’s restaurants all over Green Country.
McDonald’s prefers the sleek, modern “Quick Fit” stone with a simple color palette. Walmart also uses Impressions’ manufactured stone.
Impressions has also worked with Reasor’s; a Grand River Dam Authority building; Mohawk Park; Charleston’s restaurants; and churches, banks and car dealerships all over the Tulsa metropolitan area.
Downstream Casino in Quapaw has the most Impressions stone. The bright new casino decked out its exterior with tens of thousands of feet of slate-gray “Quick Fit.” Commercial clients like these are sold on the benefits of manufactured stone: It’s half the price of natural stone ($3.50 per square foot with few variations) and is much easier to install. The stone is color-customizable, nearly identical to the real thing and will last for decades. And it’s local.
While national companies and bigger Tulsa businesses are on board, Heaps says encouraging residential builders to try something new takes longer. He says he’ll work to convince the conservative homebuilders who aren’t sure about using new vendors.
“We do what we say we’re gonna do 100 percent of the time,” Heaps says. “We don’t set false expectations, and we deliver exactly what we say we will.”
Interested in checking into manufactured stone for your new home? Heaps recommends suggesting it to your builder.
“Ask them and see what they think,” he says.
Manufacturing businesses must be diligent with their follow-through and follow-up if they want to survive, Heaps says, especially in a small town, “where reputation is paramount.”