It is always interesting to ask folks who move to Alleghany County – “What path brought you here?” For Laura Murden, owner of The Vintage Cottage on Main Street in Sparta, the short answer is that her family came each December to buy a Christmas tree and one year decided to stay. The long answer involves a bit more travel, tasty pastries, scented candles and organic soap.
The daughter of a cowboy, Laura was born on a working ranch in Montana. Her family lived there until she was three years old when they moved crossed country to Virginia. She spent her teenage years in Suffolk, Virginia before drifting south to North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX).
On the Outer Banks, Laura went to work in one of the area’s oldest restaurants, Owens’ Restaurant, as a pastry chef. The demand for her desserts grew and she was soon furnishing pastries to another OBX culinary landmark, Big Al’s Soda Fountain and Grill. It was through Big Al’s that Laura was invited to spend the day off-shore tuna fishing on Big Al’s yacht with the Food Network’s star chef, Guy Fieri. She was the chef for the day for Guy and the Food Network crew. Yet even with that level of success, life isn’t simply filled with pastries, yachts and ocean winds.
It is an unfortunate fact that in areas such as coastal North Carolina, the core businesses – restaurants, retail, and real estate – are somewhat seasonal in nature. That leads residents to explore sources for supplemental income. For Laura, that took the form of homemade soaps and laundry detergents.
Using paraben and sulfate free ingredients, her soaps proved attractive to those concerned about the impact of chemicals on their health. She utilizes goat’s milk and also produces a vegan variety. Owens’ carried Laura’s soaps in their gift shop. As word of the quality of her products spread, she was soon wholesaling to 17 retail outlets.
The soap business led to candle making. Following her focus on producing a healthy alternative to commercial soaps, she uses nongmo vegetable oil wax and scents her candles with essential oils. She doesn’t use petroleum based paraffin wax which has been linked to health risks.
Once her family decided to trade the smell of suntan lotion for evergreen, she explored options for her soap and candle business. Moving into a shop on Main Street in July 2014, she added ice cream and smoothies (Laura managed two high traffic Dairy Queens for a while at OBX, giving her a good grasp of the ice cream business). She tagged the shop The Vintage Cottage.
The Vintage Cottage is moving toward only selling North Carolina produced products. As with her previous experience at the Outer Banks, retail business in Sparta has slow periods. So, Laura continues to sell her products wholesale and online at The Vintage Cottage Soap and Candle Co. She can be found throughout the summer at the recently renovated Alleghany County Farmers Market. As many small businesses have discovered, being adaptable and taking a multifaceted retail approach are key elements to success.
Laura and her family are committed to service and community. She and her husband have four children and are active in Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Sparta. Laura employs high school students in whom she seeks to instill business skills that they can use later in life. She believes in helping the students along the path to entrepreneurship. It is one of many ways she seeks to invest in her adopted home.