Herbs, gifts, floppy disks. Entrepreneur combines culinary art and computer skills

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The heart of the business is herbs, ``but the back room with the computer is what makes it work,'' says Louise Downey-Butler, talking about her three-year-old herb company, Rath-Downey. ``A computer wasn't in the original vision,'' she says. But without it, the vision would never have been realized.

Mrs. Downey-Butler's computer has contributed to the success of two herb and gift shops in Bethel, Vt.; a gourmet food caf'e now filling a previously unmet need in the area; and a caf'e scheduled to open in another location in the fall. Her rapidly growing retail and wholesale mail-order business, which distributes dried herbs nationwide, has more than doubled its volume each year.

As of last October, the Downey-Butler family of five has been able to live entirely from the earnings of the herb business. Mrs. Downey-Butler now employs four full-time people to help her, as well as several others who do subcontracting -- picking flowers, herbs, and so on. Her husband, Brendan, is in charge of the gift shop and caf'e in the Bridgewater Mill shopping mall.

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There's certainly nothing new about the art of using herbs, Mrs. Downey-Butler explains. In ancient times, information about them was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Later the printed word made this information more accessible. And now with a computer that stores, processes, retrieves, and duplicates the information, she is introducing the art of cooking with herbs to thousands across the country.

A woman with a commanding but friendly presence, Mrs. Downey-Butler appears untroubled and sure of herself. Sitting in the backyard of the old Vermont farmhouse she and her family live in, she explains how she switched from being an efficient but frustrated water-pollution engineer working for Allied Industries in Ohio to being a busy ``herb lady'' working in New England.

``It was like going from `A' to `Z.' Vermont was a fantasy area to me -- not that economically feasible, but desirable,'' she says, adding that she has a deep-seated conviction that desirable changes come from creative thinking.

In making the move to Vermont, Mrs. Downey-Butler thought about things in the past that were important to her. These helped her decide which direction she might like to go in the future. In this case, her goals focused around ``living simply, living with the earth, and raising herbs -- preferably in Vermont.''

Mrs. Downey-Butler and her husband decided they preferred working together to working for someone else, so their plan included finding a place where he could establish a foreign-car repair business and she could raise and sell herbs. She knew that the Appalachian area would be good for growing herbs, but whether there were enough foreign cars there in need of repair was something they could find out only by trying.

To earn a living during their first year in Vermont, both of them took teaching jobs in a private school. But their goal remained clear -- to buy property as soon as possible where they could continue with their vision. At the end of the year they went looking and found it. They recognized the place immediately. It was an old farmhouse with five bedrooms, a summer kitchen with a barn attached, and three tillable acres running parallel to a branch of the White River.

Their first efforts were modest. These included developing the summer kitchen into an herb shop and adapting the barn into a garage. Mrs. Downey-Butler also tended a booth at craft fairs, where she sold herbal vinegars, sachets, potpourri, and wreaths of dried herbs and flowers, along with some recipe cards she was developing. Each card came with a packet of dried herbs used in the recipe. Along with various potpourri, these cards have become her most popular items and the staples of the mail-order busi ness.

The Downey-Butlers soon realized they could not exist on Bethel business alone, for car repairs or herb sales. They decided to increase their visibility by opening another herb and gift shop in a popular shopping mall 30 miles away.

During this time, Mrs. Downey-Butler had been developing a loyal mailing list. And her correspondence with customers about herb-related questions grew, too.

``The mail-order business was beginning to take off. I did my first bulk mailing of recipe cards to a couple of thousand accounts,'' she says, ``and I found out there's nothing wonderful about addressing that many envelopes by hand.'' At that point, her computer came to the rescue.

``I love my computer,'' she says, ``and I get no negative connotations from it. It makes secretarial work more humane, and correspondence with my customers can actually be more personal because a lot of repetitious labor is eliminated.

``Every piece of paper that comes in, I see. I'm my own secretary and bookkeeper, and the computer makes it possible,'' she continues. The memory system of the computer -- its disks -- contains all her correspondence, invoices, and a glossary of form letters, along with other information. ``My correspondence looks pretty sophisticated,'' she says. ``Like IBM mail. But actually it's just me hammering it out at 10 p.m. in the dining room.''

Mrs. Downey-Butler does her retail catalog and her wholesale brochure on the computer, too. When it's time to redo them, an artist friend comes in and they work together on design and illustration.

``Another thing about the computer,'' she says: ``I used to be blocked by the mechanics of writing. Grammar, spelling correctly -- things like that scared me, even though I always felt I wanted to do a book. The computer removed that block and made me feel free. Right now I'm doing a monthly column on herbs for a local newspaper, and I'm sure of starting a book soon.''

The Downey-Butlers have now turned over the entire downstairs of their house to the business. The shop stretches onto a glassed-in porch that runs across the back of the house. What was the family kitchen is now used for preparing special foods for the caf'e. Mrs. Downey-Butler's office and computer setup are in what used to be the dining room.

Across the hall in a former bedroom is the shipping room, with metal shelves around the walls filled with jars of various herbs. The living room is itself a potpourri; heaps of aromatic herbs waiting to be used are scattered around the room. Family life these days focuses on an upstairs kitchen.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Downey-Butler is on the lookout for new ways to use herbs. One of her latest products in the mail-order line is a recipe card for making salsa.

``It's expensive to buy in a little jar,'' she says, ``and where would you find a good recipe? I've taken all the ingredients except tomatoes -- green peppers, garlic, wonderful herbs -- and put them together, so that all the customer has to do is to add tomatoes, either canned or fresh.''

A small accomplishment to some, perhaps, but for Mrs. Downey-Butler it represents a career that both increases her own skills and impels her to share what she learns with others.

``Luck is something that you make,'' she says of her success. ``It's a ripple effect. You throw a stone into the water and it keeps rippling out. People say, `You're so lucky,' but I tell them, `Luck had nothing to do with it.''

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