The Old White House

Cover Stories

Teamwork, love of Earth grow The Old White House into green cleaning success

Theresa Hein may be the face of her growing brand of Earth-friendly lavender cleaning provisions, but running the business is truly a seven-person show. Duane, her husband of 29 years, has been on board from the beginning, sweet-talking their products into booked shows and making soap by the gallon. And her five children, ranging in age from 12 to 28, do everything from sewing to selling to spreading the word.

“Everybody’s involved, and that’s the best feeling in the whole world,” says Hein. “Every family member got behind it.”

The Old White House, which the Heins operate from their Portland home, boasts a variety of natural, vegan products that are true to the family’s collective love of the environment. “Every ingredient we use comes from the earth so that it can go back into the earth,” says Hein. “You can flush it down the toilet, and it doesn’t matter. Everything is safe for our environment, which is absolutely important.”

The business came to fruition about four years ago when Hein, a stay-at-home mom, started making laundry soap for friends and family. “I found a couple of recipes online, and thought, I really just need to tweak these. So, I tweaked them to make my own, and I found everybody loved it,” she recalls, adding that the timing was perfect, since her family was looking to add an income to the household. “So it was, you know, we’ve got soap. That’s what we’ve got.”

Hein soon signed up for a spot at the local farmers’ market and found success selling soap by the scoop. Shortly after that, she and her husband discovered the Fulton Street Farmers’ Market in Grand Rapids where The Old White House became a regular vendor, exhibiting three or four times a week.

Then, thanks to Duane, their products started popping up at craft shows all over the state. “He got us into all these shows that said they didn’t have any more room. He’d say, let me tell you about what we have, and they’d say, OK, we’ll make a spot for you,” she says. “Because nobody else had it. He’d send them pictures, and tell them we have a natural product that’s not a body wash or body soap or lotion, which is what they mostly get.”

Working the show circuit quickly led to the business’s big break. At the Farmers’ Market at the Capitol, which takes place once a month each summer, a manager from Detroit’s Eastern Market discovered The Old White House and encouraged Hein to bring her products there. Once their application was approved, she and Duane packed up the car and went. “We were blown away. Just the amount of people down there, the diversity of the people down there, it was fabulous,” she says. “We love it.”

The weekly gig in Detroit has proved lucrative and keeps the Heins busy. Every Saturday, Hein and one of her family members hit the road at 6 a.m. to commute to the market with their expanding lavender product line that includes dryer sachets, carpet freshener, and linen and room spray. Hein also brings along her repurposed jewelry, which meshes with her Earth-friendly mantra and fulfills her creative side.

When it’s Duane who comes with her, the outing serves a dual purpose. “We consider it our date because we don’t get out on dates very often” she says. “We just have a blast.” Hein says the couple, who met 29 years ago at a restaurant where Duane was a manager and she was a waitress and bartender, “kind of knew we were made for each other.” Duane kept asking her out, despite her repeated assertions that she doesn’t date co-workers. “He is the most persistent person ever,” she says. “So we went out on a date, and 18 days later he asked me to marry him.”

Hein says Duane is the top salesperson at shows, with the exception of her 12-year-old son, Max, who helps make the products and loves to promote them. “He’s like putting a puppy in front of people,” she says. “I had a customer who had come to the booth when I wasn’t there, and she told me she met my son, and he was so proud of what we do, and was going on and on about the products.”

Hannah, Hein’s 16-year-old daughter, shares that same enthusiasm. She makes product, too, and sews all the dryer sachets, which are one of The Old White House’s most popular items. “We had to wake up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning, so she was exhausted,” Hein says of a recent drive home from the market. “And she just says, that place makes me so happy. And it’s so true. That’s how we feel about going down there.”

Hein’s other children, who don’t live at home, help from afar or when they’re in town. Danielle, 28, lives in Charleston, S.C., and sells The Old White House line at shows where she exhibits her own selection of natural, vegan men’s shaving products. Cameron, 23, a fisheries and wildlife major at Michigan State University, helps with production and sometimes works a booth. And John, 26, who graduated from University of Michigan with a degree in environmental science and now lives in New York, helps with marketing. He’s also the one who convinced Hein to adopt a vegetarian diet three years ago.

John gave up meat in high school because of a school project and later introduced Hein to movies like ”Forks Over Knives,” “Food, Inc.” and “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.”

“It was just an awakening of, we need to take better care of ourselves,” she says. “We already took good care of ourselves, I thought, until you start doing that, and then you say, OK, there’s more we can do. And then it’s always one more step, what can we do, what can we do.”

Even though the rest of her family still eats animal products, Hein sticks to her now-vegan diet because she believes it’s the best thing for her health. “This is more medicine for me than taking medicine I don’t want to take,” she says. “I just know I can be a better mom to my kids and a better human being by taking care of myself.”

Hein, 54, says she’s noticed customers her age are seeking natural approaches to wellness, too. “Many tell of people they know who have become ill and no longer want chemicals in their home cleaners,” she says. “I feel fortunate to have found a healthier lifestyle before illness forced me to do that. Being a vegan can be a challenge sometimes, but it is a challenge I embrace.”

This April, Hein will exhibit her products at VegFest to a crowd that shares her sentiments about plant-based eating. She was invited by a festival representative who found The Old White House at the Detroit market. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” she says of Michigan’s largest veg-friendly celebration. “Everybody who’s coming already understands why you need to use (our products). When you do a show like VegFest, everybody walking in the door is looking for something healthy.”

In addition to VegFest and Saturdays at Eastern Market, Hein will be at Fulton Street Artisans’ Market on Sundays starting in June and the Farmers’ Market at the Capitol one Thursday each month in July, August and September. She’ll also travel up north to do a trunk show with her jewelry at Little Luxuries of Mackinac Island, and to Grand Ledge for the Island Art Fair.

Hein’s hope is to one day hire people to help with production and sell products at other markets around the state. “We can’t be everywhere, and we’re missing the west side of the state by going to Detroit all the time,” she says. She also would like to get The Old White House into more retail stores; right now, the products are in Foods for Living in East Lansing, Old Town General Store in Lansing and a few places out of state.

When it comes to future employees, Hein says her goal is to hire single and stay-at-home moms so they feel empowered by bringing an income into their home. That’s what The Old White House did for her.

“It’s really more than I’ve ever contributed, besides raising amazing people, which is my number one goal. I love being a mom,” she says. “But I’ve always just done part-time work here and there, and this has already helped me to bring more into the house than I’ve ever brought in. It’s a very rewarding feeling to know I’m also contributing in that way.”

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