The health of her children is what pushed Cedar Hill’s Ayla Whitehead to spend countless late nights learning, practicing and perfecting her products.
After all was said and done, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that became the driving force to opening a store-front business called Rustique Essentials.
It’s one that specializes in all-natural cleaning and personal-care items — products Whitehead initially learned to make for the sake of her twin boys, who suffered allergic reactions from store-bought products.
“I would have laughed in your face if you’d thought I’d grow up to be a full-time soap maker,” said Whitehead, who spent her youth years barrel racing and has a background in orthodontic technician work.
Rustique Essentials is nestled on her family’s 18-acre Cedar Hill farm, a place for all-natural enthusiasts to find a host of products — all hand-made with tender, loving, care by Whitehead, herself.
Her website, which features online ordering, lists an array of choices like cast-iron scrubs, laundry products, all-purpose cleaners and room sprays in addition to facial washes and moisturizers.
Nelly the LaMancha and Nora the Nubian, the Whitehead family goats, are happy to contribute to the cause, according to the business website, as goat’s milk soaps are a signature stock Whitehead produces.
Additionally, many of her soaps are laced with goodies like lavender, eucalyptus and rosemary to entice the senses.
There’s also essential oils and lip balms — not to mention fresh eggs, seasonal fruits, and herbs, which are all produced or grown on the farm.
Whitehead even offers all-natural products useful to others living the farming life — like natural fly spray, coop cleaner and bucket wash.
Whitehead said she had been making many of her all-natural products for a number of years because of her kids, but it was a nudge from a neighbor that convinced her to test the market for what others thought of her handy work. Whitehead said she quickly learned after displaying them at an event, that people were willing to buy.
In 2018, it had become a $5,000 per year “hobby business,” and with that, Whitehead soon made a decision.
“I hit a point where it was gonna fly or sink,” she said about the business and began getting serious on whether to grow it further.
Whitehead went to work developing a unique tent for showcasing her products at events, instituted a bigger social media push and got some business direction from her mom.
And people began to take notice, asking her to set up product booths within their stores. She eventually landed five locations.
Whitehead said her earnings skyrocketed to $23,000 in 2019, with even higher hopes of good things to come in 2020.
But the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
This forced the temporary closure of “non-essential” businesses, where her products were set up for sale. Markets got canceled. Her online orders began suffering due to layoffs from the shutdowns.
Whitehead said she questioned how she could sustain a business when she couldn’t be open.
“We went back to the drawing board and decided to do something epic,” Whitehead explained. “We would create a business that couldn’t shut down.
We would offer essential farm-fresh food options such as eggs and produce, essential cleaning supplies, including hand sanitizer and natural disinfecting spray and wipes; and essential body-care items such as soaps and salves.”
And with that in mind, she developed a plan to renovate a corn crib on her property for just such a place, one where she could make and sell her products as an “essential” business.
In August, the Rustique Essentials storefront opened its doors.
Today, it’s open Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., in addition to five booth locations she has established at businesses in the Adams & Clarksville areas that have since reopened.
“There’s a saying. You get what you put in,” she said. “And we did. And if it failed, we can say we tried.”
THE BEHIND-THE-SCENES STORY
According to Whitehead, who has three children, the stepping stones leading to her entrepreneurship began early on when her twin sons, Layne and Mason — born prematurely with health issues — began showing signs of allergies.
It was personal hygiene products like soaps and washes that Whitehead said she began noticing were a problem. Even household cleansers used to mop the floor caused their knees to break out after crawling across a room.
But to add to the issue, all this came at a time the Whiteheads were struggling financially.
The triggering point was when she was forced into bedrest while carrying the twins. Whitehead said the long work days at her orthodontic technician job, then coming home to farm and housework, to boot, repeatedly put her into early labor and endangered her unborn twins.
“It was either work and pay the mortgage or loose the boys. Those were my options,” she said.
She chose her unborn sons.
But the small orthodontic office she worked for couldn’t hold her position for the length of time she was out, leaving her unemployed, and later unable to find a job that could pay the mortgage, plus daycare for three.
Later, Whitehead and her husband, Chris, faced more than $18,000 in medical bills and were on the brink of house foreclosure, because one income just wasn’t enough.
She tried transitioning her orthodontic lab technician work out of her house, but only garnering one client, she couldn’t earn enough money to make ends meet. So she took a second job selling produce for a neighboring farm at a farmer’s market on the weekends.
But it still wasn’t enough, she said.
There were days so bad, Whitehead said, she’d lay in bed thanking God for one more day with a roof over their heads as the struggle got increasingly real.
Whitehead said she began canning and preserving her own food with what was left over from the famers’ market and “everything I couldn’t make myself, I got at Dollar Tree.”
“I could only squeeze $40 per week to feed everyone, and that had to include all cleaning and shower supplies too,” she added.
To make matters worse, what she could afford to buy in the way or personal hygiene and cleaning products caused her twins to break out.
“We were poor and pitiful — on the brink of losing everything, I just felt like the world was ending,” she added. “You just wake up and don’t know how we got there.” Since buying organic products was in no way feasible, she began researching and learning how to make the needed items.
“It was a crazy time,” she said.
Her daily routine: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., housewife and mom; 8 p.m. to midnight, orthodontic tech work; and then practice making soaps and cleansers until 1 a.m.
Then she worked in four hours of sleep, only to start the drill over again, Whitehead said.
Saturdays she spent working at the farmers market. Over time, her lab business eventually grew, and money was no longer a serious problem so she began buying products at the store.
“Although it did feel awesome not to have to stay up making household items anymore, it did not feel awesome to fight side effects like rashes, eczema, sleeplessness, irritability,” she said. “The only thing we had changed was we quit using my items and started buying them from the store.”
She said it all came to head for her when one of boys handed her his sippy cup to be washed, only to see bubbles form after placing it under water.
Whitehead said she concluded that the dishwasher had somehow stopped mid-cycle, and she unknowingly gave her child a soap-covered cup to drink from.
The dishwasher soap label didn’t specify any ingredients, so Whitehead didn’t know what her son had ingested.
This wasn’t the only incident she encountered, triggering Whitehead to resume making items herself to ensure her family was safe.
But with her workload, she didn’t know where the time to make soaps and washes would come from and sought God’s help.
The time needed did come about, but not in the way she expected. She began losing lab clients due to relocations and in-house layoffs; plus, circumstances arose that revealed her skills represented a dying industry.
The financial concerns resurfaced, and she picked up work a few days week at the farmer’s market, but it just got the family by.
Later, when her neighbor convinced her to sell her products, and seeing the demand, she knew she wanted to open a storefront.
Opening a place in Adams was her initial desire, but when that didn’t pan out, she focused on markets and setting up displays within area businesses.
However, when the pandemic closed businesses — which affected her sales — an old corn crib on the family farm, she determined, might be the solution to staying open.
The structure was brought to new life using some frugal means to renovate it — making a way for Rustique Essentials, Whitehead’s “essential” business in the midst of a global pandemic.
What began as an effort to provide a safe alternative for her family, also became part of the household income.
At multiple turns throughout the journey — and the trying times — Whitehead said she sought God’s help and guidance.
Rustique Essentials was born out of need, concern for her kids and because she found her purpose, according to Whitehead.
“To top it off (Rustique Essentials) finally came to life, open to the public, against all odds in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said.
For more information about Rustique Essentials, go to https://www.rustiqueessentials.com. You can visit their storefront at 3386 Anderson Rd, Cedar Hill, Tenn.