Chickens Are the Backbone to Cleveland-based Business Free Range Skin Care
Written By Rachel Hunt
Photographed By Breanna Kulkin
Sandra Bontempo spent two decades as project manager for a large company based out of Georgia before deciding to start Free Range Skincare from her backyard in Willowick three years ago. It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Monday and all of her employees are ready for another day’s work, except for an ornery two.
“They’ve been wanting to hatch an egg for over a month,” she says, exasperatedly shaking her head at a couple of broody hens.
These days, Bontempo’s flock consists of Theo, Winston, Lady, Cleveland, Q-tip, Maleficent, Frodo, Poe, Tuesday, Wednesday, Pip, Lucky and Gimpy. More often than not, they diligently work for non-GMO feed made of whole grains and raisins, mealworms, and the occasional piece of white bread. The majority are Seramas, the smallest breed of Malaysian Bantam chicken in the world, known to be extremely smart and clean, but she also has Cochins, one Dominique, Silkies, and a Rhode Island Red.
“The little black guy over there is Icelandic,” she points to Poe, who was named for his green-black feathers, just like the raven. “He’s a Viking chicken, the oldest breed.” However, the real star of Free Range Skincare isn’t a hen at all, its Winston; a one year old certified therapy rooster.
“He’s not a service animal, he’s a therapy bird,” Bontempo explains. “We go to battered women’s shelters and The Cleveland Clinic. We’re also working with the VA Hospitals, because he does really well with anxiety and PTSD. A lot of people have allergies to pets so they can’t enjoy therapy animals, which is kind of how we got started.”
We meet not only Winston but also Bontempo’s seven-year-old son Joey, who was born with food, latex and animal allergies. Joey cradles Winston and the rest of the hens just like pets, something he would not be able to do with a cat or dog. Her 21 year-old son was only four months old when he was diagnosed with eczema and psoriasis, which inspired Bontempo to do more research into all-natural, therapeutic lotions and creams to relieve her children’s symptoms without any chemicals.
After 9 years of making balms for her household, utilizing the knowledge of several generations of soap makers in her family, Bontempo decided to establish Free Range Skincare as an official LCC and enroll in Bad Girl Ventures classes to grow her business’ branding and mission. “It evolved. I had a whole lot more than what I needed at the time and I had to scale down,” she says about the products now offered in their online store, at farmer’s and maker’s markets, as well as regional retailers like Heinen’s.
You get out of it what you put into it.
The key ingredient for most of Free Range Skincare’s products is, you guessed it—egg. Egg white is used in their Thrive Boosting Toner Spray and the Aloe & Cucumber Eye Serum, while the yolk is an ingredient in their preventative line including the “age-defying” collection of anti-wrinkle scrubs and lotions that use their natural collagen to lift and firm. Bontempo points to studies that confirm free-range eggs have higher amounts of Vitamin A, D, K2, B-12, Folate, Riboflavin, Zinc, Calcium and Beta Carotene among other nutrients that protect skin cells and increase their rate of regeneration.
“You get out of it what you put into it,” Bontempo elaborates. “That’s another reason for inviting people to come and see the birds, because when you’re putting things on your skin you’re absorbing sixty percent of what you’re exposing it to and I think our customers want to know what kind of environment the chickens are being raised in.”
The roughly half-acre, fenced-in lot is plenty of space for the petite chickens, with two hand-built, cottage-like coops for them to rest their heads at night. There’s a fountain to play and drink from, a small pile of dry mulch to give themselves baths, and plenty of foliage to hideout in. The suburban oasis is a relaxing environment dedicated to keeping the hens happy, healthy and as safe as possible.
“An egg from a farm, a true micro-farm where they get fresh air like this, the yolks are going to be orange and the whites are going to be thicker. The shell is going to be harder to crack. The shell is made of calcium and these chickens are getting all of their calcium and nutrients, so you’re really going to be using your muscles to break this egg.”
Free Range Skincare’s eggs are on average smaller and more colorful than what you’ll find in a grocery store, but perfect for making skincare products. “You’ll see some albumin, which is just something that connects the white to the yolk that you wouldn’t necessarily see with a pasteurized egg because it’s removed.”
Some products in the Free Range Skincare line do not require hens to make, like their six-pack of bath bombs, but they’re delightfully tied back, being shaped like eggs. Bontempo takes Winston to her events, including Night Market Cleveland, to introduce him to customers. “Wintson especially coincides with our mission to show people that roosters aren’t mean, chickens can be neat and fun, and to advocate urban homesteading.”
“A lot of areas are known as food deserts. A family could have a backyard flock of a couple hens and have not only the material benefits, the eggs, but they have the therapeutic benefits too,” she says. In the future, Free Range Skincare is looking to expand their production to the St. Clair area, where they could have schools visit the urban flock of rescued ex-battery hens, or birds born on factory farms and formerly raised in cages.
“There’s more to these birds than meets the eye. There’s a reason you can’t go into factory farms and the public is starting to pick up on that. That’s one of the reasons why I have more people coming to visit my birds than coming to see me!” she laughs, feeding our new feathery friends by hand.
2017 is the year of the Rooster according to the Chinese Zodiac and it’s bound to be a great one for Bontempo and her birds, who are unveiling some big changes, including new products by August. They’ll be working with local farms certified by the American Humane Society in the next three months as the business continues to grow.
“At the end of the day, our main goal would be to have our own big farm but that’s not going to happen for the next couple of years,” she says, thoughtfully surveying what she and her husband have built behind their home. The chickens on the other hand, are content to stay cooped exactly where they are.