Chelsea native Emily Hess received her sociology degree from Michigan in May 2020. She’d hoped to get a job as a social worker, but no one was hiring, so she moved back home with her parents and took a position as a nanny while she planned her next move.
Hess decided to become more environmentally conscious, an interest she had developed in college. She began cutting up old T-shirts to substitute for paper towels, switched from liquid shampoo to a shampoo bar, and conducted a trash audit to see how much food the family was throwing away.
Searching the internet for more ideas, Hess noticed that businesses called “re-filleries” were starting to pop up around the country. They reduce packaging waste by allowing customers to bring their own jars, jugs, and plastic tubs and fill them with bulk cleaning supplies and personal care products.
A Google search didn’t turn up any such businesses within a sixty-mile radius of Ann Arbor, so Hess decided to start a pop-up version to test customer interest.
She connected with Sue Whitmarsh, owner of Breathe Yoga in Chelsea, on Facebook, and held her first pop-up at Whitmarsh’s studio.
After eight months of events, in May Hess opened BYOC Co. in Liberty Square (the name means “bring your own container”). “I had a bigger dream, and I wanted to do a storefront,” Hess says.
She is the sole investor, using savings she accumulated during her days as a professional child actress from 2011 to 2014. As “Emma-Lee Hess,” she had roles in three movies and spent her eighth-grade year in Los Angeles hoping to launch a career.
“I really wanted to pursue the TV aspect of it, but there was so much rejection out there, and I guess I wanted to do something where I would be rewarded,” Hess told Chip Mundy for the Michigan High School Athletic Association website Second Half in 2015. “I wanted people to know my name in acting, and because it wasn’t happening at the pace that I wanted, I decided to focus on something else, so volleyball became my motivation.” Back in Chelsea, she was a standout player for the Bulldogs.
At BYOC, her products include shampoo and shampoo bars, conditioner, shower gel, dishwashing powder, all-purpose cleaner, Castile soap (which can be turned into the liquid kind by adding water), and hand soap whose length can be cut to order.
Customers are encouraged to bring their own clean containers, but they don’t actually fill them. That’s done by a staff member to minimize spillage and contamination. “We don’t want to spend all day sanitizing pumps,” Hess says.
A sixteen-ounce bottle of shampoo costs between $14 and $16, depending on the style, while dishwashing soap costs about 45 cents an ounce, or roughly $7 for a size similar to what is sold in grocery stores.
Higher-priced items include reusable menstrual cups, which substitute for tampons, at $34.99, and countertop compost bins, at $40.
There’s been some concern about the risk of refilleries spreading bacteria between customers’ containers and the items for sale. Hess doesn’t think that will be a problem, since staff fill the containers, and the store won’t fill any items that look dirty.
“We’re taking every measure we can to avoid contamination,” she says.
In her first weeks, Hess saw more browsers than customers. “A lot of people who come into the store don’t buy anything,” she said in early May. “They’re trying to learn and assess what they have at home.
“They tell me, ‘I’ll use up what I have and be back in a couple of weeks.'”
Hess is still nannying while she figures out how brisk business will be. She’s continuing to hold pop-ups elsewhere, and hosting vendor pop-ups and other events in the store on weekends (the schedule is posted on her website).
She isn’t aiming for a chain of BYOCs but now envisions a career in a sustainability field. “I know there are many more people we can reach,” she says.
BYOC Co., 255 E. Liberty, ste. 215. (734) 709-4222. Mon., Wed., Fri., & Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thurs. 4-8 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tues. byocco.com
from Calls and Letters, July 2021
“Just a note on the sustainable products story,” Linda Wood wrote in response to our June Marketplace Changes story about BYOC Co., which lets customers reduce container waste by refilling them with bulk cleaning and personal care products. Owner Ella Hess said she began doing pop-ups last year after an internet search turned up no other “re-filleries” within sixty miles.
There is now, Wood wrote: “Bee Joyful in Dexter has been open since April 2021.”