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Business born over a fence Featured

6:45am EDT November 2, 2005
It was just another hectic day in 1984 when Vickie Hutchins chatted with her friend and neighbor, Jo Ann Martin, over the backyard fence.

As a flight attendant and legal secretary, Hutchins had young children to raise, a household to manage and not enough hours in the day. She lamented the fact that there was no time for the simple pleasures she loved, such as gardening, country decorating, and trying new recipes.

Martin shared those feelings, so they decided to take the plunge together. With no experience, they cleaned off the kitchen table and embarked on a mail-order business.

Twenty-one years later, Gooseberry Patch is a booming mail order and Internet business with $20 million in annual sales, 80 employees — and 100 seasonal employees to fill holiday orders — and a host of loyal customers.

Since 1992, Gooseberry Patch has sold more than 6.6 million copies of its homestyle cookbooks, along with its exclusive nightlights, cake-stands, organizers and country-style quilts.

Smart Business spoke with Hutchins about how the company has overcome challenges to succeed and why Gooseberry Patch is a great place to work.

What makes Gooseberry Patch a place employees want to be?
Being such a small company, there’s really a sense of community here ... we all work together to help each other succeed. We get so many cards and photos from customers that we really feel they are part of our extended family, and we try to keep that feeling alive in the office, as well.

About once a month, we have potlucks, not only to try out all our customers’ tasty recipes but also to get together and see what’s going on in each other’s lives. We look forward to coming to work ... we make it fun.

What are your most popular items?
Our books, calendars, and holiday items are top-sellers right now. Our first full-color photographed cookbook, Get-Togethers with Gooseberry Patch, is No. 1 in sales, and our latest spiral bounds, One-Pot Meals, Patchwork Potluck and Christmas Cookies are also very popular. With customers gearing up for the holidays, our calendars are flying off the shelves. Seasonal items like our Black Hobnail Cake Stands and Pumpkin Night Light are also in our top 10 list.

How are you planning to expand your product line?
We are always adding new items. Our talented buyers watch the trends and buy those which we know our customers will love. We also have a terrific bunch of creative folks to design our cookbooks, event books, calendars, organizers, bowls and night lights.

We read customer e-mails and listen to their requests, and we try to accommodate as many of their great ideas as possible to keep them happy.

What’s been your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
Over the years, the company has grown significantly and there have been growing pains. One year, the response to our holiday catalog was so much greater than we had expected.

We all put in some very long hours and pitched in doing jobs we wouldn’t ordinarily be doing to make sure the customers received their orders on time, as promised.

It worked, and through this experience, I learned an important lesson. It certainly taught me to expect the unexpected and be prepared for a variety of responses.

How have your children benefited from your experience?
My children have spent all or most of their lives around the business and although they’re proud of what I’ve accomplished and have always been very supportive, I think they’ll want to blaze their own paths in the world.

I’ve set a strong example, though, of how to balance work and family, and maybe they’ve learned a little about running their own business.

How are you expanding marketing channels?
It’s a combination of mail order, Internet and selling to storefronts wholesale. Our mail-order customers are definitely the majority, but it’s exciting to see our Internet presence growing so quickly, too.

We’ve also very recently entered the exciting world of licensing, so the sky is the limit. We’ve found that trying to reach our customers through as many channels as we can makes shopping with Gooseberry Patch easy.

Our customers love to have options. The freedom to peruse the catalog, surf the Web site or pop into their local shops and pick up a little bit of Gooseberry is appealing to them.

How to reach: Gooseberry Patch, www.gooseberrypatch.com