Friday, October 31, 2008

Gooseberry Patch Founders Jo Ann Martin and Vickie Hutchins are Cooking

Hot off the presses is the November issue of Costco Connection featuring (on pages 33-35) a profile of Jo Ann Martin and Vickie Hutchins, owners of Gooseberry Patch, a multimillion-dollar company with a country flair that publishes catalogs, comfort food-friendly cookbooks, calendars, and organizers.

Last year, the company published its 100th cookbook and shipped out more than 350,000 packages from its catalog of more than 500 items under $20—which includes a selection of wall and pocket-size calendars, night lights, mason jars, bowls, kitchen accessories, food items and kits, Christmas ornaments and soap pumps.

The company’s 100 employees are like family, say Hutchins and Martin—two entrepreneurs who didn’t expect to build an empire back in 1984. They were both stay-at-home moms looking for something to do after the kids went off to school. One morning the neighbors were chatting over their shared backyard fence in picturesque Delaware, Ohio and decided to start a catalog company.

Their concept was simple: They wanted to put the things they loved about the country into “a store that arrived in your mailbox.” They invested $5,000 each, and promised not to take a salary until they turned a profit. Within months, orders came pouring in. Into that first 96-page catalog went a few of their favorite country cooking recipes, “because everyone loves to try a good new recipe,” Hutchins says. She was right. By 1992, Hutchins and Martin received so much positive feedback from readers about those recipes that Gooseberry Patch began publishing its own line of cookbooks.

“Most of our good ideas come from our customers,” Martin says, proudly noting that today the company has more than 8 million cookbooks in print. A perennial hit, “Christmas All Through The House,” features dozens of holiday recipes and simple craft ideas and is for sale now at most Coscto stores. Other popular titles include, “Church Suppers,” “Harvest Country Cookbook,” and “Super Fast Slow Cooking.” Additional titles are in the works.

The co-founders share that there have been tough times. In 1998 their business grew dramatically, and they hadn’t quite mastered how to handle the demand.

“We were still working out of our homes and our products were here, there, and everywhere, so that was a logistical nightmare,” Martin shares. “Finally, we moved into a 53,000-square-foot building and put everything under one roof.” Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Anthrax scare made people afraid to use the post office, and their mail order business took a hit. It rebounded, but now in 2008 the nature of their business has changed once again due to the increased efficiency of the Internet. “We are feeling like we need to cut back on our space,” Hutchins tells The Costco Connection. “But it’s all part of the juggling act of running a business. We try to stay flexible.”

Through it all, Hutchins and Martin have managed to keep their friendship strong. “Our offices are still right next to each other,” Martin explains. “I’m in charge of the back end of operations, and Vickie works more on the creative side of things, so we don’t step on each other’s toes. We also escape now and then and do the one thing we both adore: going to antique flea markets. It’s a girlfriend type of thing.”

The ladies say the most important lesson they have learned is to stay true to who you are. “After you’ve had some success, it’s easy to go off your path and get into things you shouldn’t,” concludes Hutchins. “But it’s important to remember what brought you to the dance. We try to give our customers a little more than they expect, and if we can continue to build a company that provides nice surprises and gives people a little comfort when they need it, I think we’ll have succeeded.”

For more information visit:

Costco article by Hope Katz Gibbs, a freelance writer in Northern Virginia who received rave reviews from her family when she whipped up Hot Chicken Salad—a recipe by Lynne Davisson of Cable, OH, on page 343 of “Christmas All Through The House.”

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