By Danny Fenster
Steve St. James hands Micah Koller a tray of empty 1.6 oz metal tins. Very carefully, very slowly, Micah eases the tray into its place in the homemade contraption he and his brother, Jon Koller built.
He eyes the tray's levelness and prepares to fill the tins with a gold-hued oil that will become Beard Balm, a Detroit-bred beard salve the three are producing just west of Downtown. Once poured into the tins, the oil will cool into its paler and waxen final form, and St. James will fasten by hand a lid onto each tin that reads "Beard Balm" beside an animated profile of Jon. A tin sells for $16.
Beard Balm began its existence in Jon Koller’s kitchen, in North Corktown, before moving into this sliver of the Ponyride building, and it is the newest product in what seems like Detroit’s ever-growing list of small-batch, hand-crafted exports—bicycles, whiskey, eyeglasses, pickles.
Ponyride is the large, warehouse-like home to a changing group of "socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs,” its website proclaims. It is a project of Phil Cooley, of Slow's Bar B Q fame, and sits at the end of Vermont St., in Corktown. Upstairs, the Detroit Denim company stitches and sells hand-sown jeans, and women from the Empowerment Plan sew jackets.
As Micah adjusts the various plates of their canning contraption, Jon, the owner of the company, reflects on the process of building it.
“That’s been the most challenging part, designing all the industrial processing stuff,” Jon says, tugging on his beard, “but it’s been fun, making all of these funny tools to do what we need.”
The three turned out 400 cans the previous day and plan on completing another 800 the day I visit. They are filling orders placed across the country and as far as Australia.
Their small, closet-like space on the ground floor of the Ponyride building is barely large enough for the three men to inhabit, let alone to maneuver in. On the other side of one wall sits a desk, a refrigerator and a precise mix of beeswax and plant and fruit oils, cooking in a metal drum. Through a square-cut hole in the wall the product moves from the drum into the canning room one soup pot at a time.
This is the whole operation.
And for now, the Koller brothers and St. James—all in their twenties, all residents of the city, all impressively hirsute—are the whole of the production team
“I started growing beards in high school,” Jon Koller says. “If I had had beard balm then, my life would be different,” he says, half-joking, before reciting a Beard Balm tagline: the endearingly ineloquent “it makes growing beards not hard.”
Koller, a native of Okemos, moved to Detroit five years ago. After earning a bachelors and then a masters degree in structural engineering at the University of Michigan, he spent a year “driving around the country, looking at shit,” he says. But Detroit had always been a logical place to settle.
“I’ve always wanted to work with the urban environment,” and Detroit can offer young people ways to engage with that environment that other cities may not.
His own engagement in Detroit began with the Spaulding Court Apartments.
Spaulding Court consists of two narrow, faux Gothic stone buildings in North Corktown. Just a block from his own place, the two rows of buildings, over a century old, face inward toward a shared, paved courtyard. Drug dealers were operating out of one of the units at Spaulding Court when Koller moved into the neighborhood.
The buildings had no running water, no electricity and a landlord that wanted little to do with the property. Looking further into it, he and neighbors found that two other units housed a family that had been there for more than a decade.
Working with other members of the Corktown Residence Council, Koller founded the Friends of Spaulding Court, a non-profit that in 2010 bought Spaulding Court for $1,000 from Wayne County, after it had gone into nuisance abatement.
After successive rounds of fundraising and rehabbing and grants and loans and volunteers over the past four years, the water and electricity are on at Spaulding Court. There’s a new roof on the south building, and five units are completely renovated and occupied—two still by the original family that had stuck it out there through harder times.
"It's been an instructive process, in terms of dealing with large bureaucracies," Koller says. "Capital is still hard to come by. With an investment like this, it's not worth anything until it's finished."
While getting involved with Spaulding Court and its construction, his beard had gone unkempt. The idea of manufacturing balm, he says, came largely because of his partner at the time—she had implored him to wash it.
“She had some stuff, it was a cuticle salve or something,” he remembers. He could only find one beard-specific product on the market then, “and it sucked.”
So he and his partner started experimenting in their kitchen.
Jon picked his brother Micah up from the airport, who was returning from a teaching gig in Guyana, about a year ago and offered him a job. Soon after, they needed another hand, and found St. James through a Craigslist employment posting.
For the minimal amount of advertising they have done, the product seems to have a far reach. In addition to selling locally at boutique shops like Shinola, they are filling orders for shops across the country, as far as Austin, Tex.
“Our only advertising has really been on social media,” Koller says. “We basically just like pictures of beards on Instagram. For every ten beards we like, we’ll make a sale or so.”
A tattoo shop in Melbourne, Australia somehow found out about the product and began stocking it. When a competing Melbourne shop across the street saw the balm selling, it placed an order as well.
About 30 percent of their sales are done through Amazon, but they say they are trying to move away from the giant online retailer.
As Koller walks through the Ponyride building, a woman stitching jackets for the Empowerment Plan stops him.
“Thank you for the balm!” she yells. “I’m gonna need some more too, I love it!”
“Yea, no problem,” Koller tells her. “We’re canning it now, so we’ll have some more for you soon.”
I ask her what she uses it for, her not having a beard and all.
“Everything!” she says emphatically. “I put it in my hair, it’s good for getting rid of whatever my weave leaves behind when I take it out. I put it on my skin, my arms, my hands, and it smells good! And my husband puts it in his beard, he loves it too!”
With new interest in the area—more gardens, new homes, development picking up along nearby Michigan Ave.—Koller says he sees Beard Balm as a way of staying relevant in the processes shaping the neighborhood’s future.
“Now, with emergency management, with the new influence of money, the dynamics are changing.” Beard Balm, at least in large part, is a way for Koller to keep his voice in the neighborhood, he says, “to (be able to) make my money talk.”