Farm-fresh housewares? Local biz builds slow-decor movement

From Philly.com
By Samantha Melamed

Imagine the exact opposite of a slick urban home-design showroom, and you might land somewhere in the vicinity of WoodsEdge Farm in Stockton, N.J., a sleepy haven for llamas, alpacas, and honeybees 45 miles up the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

For Shannon Retseck, that's what makes it so perfect.

Retseck, 28, of West Philadelphia, was at WoodsEdge to collect alpaca rugs and talk pricing with Brent Walker, 35, a third-generation New Jersey farmer who has been working to reinvent his family business.

Retseck, who runs a housewares start-up called Cuttalossa, aims to be the missing link between producers like Walker and Philadelphia shoppers - serving as middleman, marketer, and collaborator for farmers and artisans in out-of-the-way corners of the region. Her slow-decor, farm-to-city business model is all about creating a local supply chain for handmade goods.

Since she began developing the concept in 2013, she has been crisscrossing Pennsylvania and New Jersey to connect with makers and help them develop products for the Cuttalossa brand.

She has helped an herbalist in Oley, Berks County, plant hundreds of herbs for medicinal teas; foraged for botanical dyes such as goldenrod and pokeberry for a line of table linens; and cultivated relationships with beekeepers to sell their candles and honey.

"These artisans are producing these really well-made goods that have integrity. They know how to make that product," she said, "but they don't necessarily have the time and energy to sell it."

So she has been doing it for them - at the Franklin Flea (which runs biweekly at Headhouse Square), online, and wholesale to boutiques in the area.

Retseck stumbled into the business when she began helping an acquaintance sell cotton textiles made by a collective of weavers in Turkey.

When she began looking to add more product lines, WoodsEdge sprang to mind because her parents had owned its rugs when she was growing up. She realized the artisans she was familiar with from that region weren't selling in Philadelphia and saw a missed opportunity.

She named the business after a scenic creek that cuts across the rural areas where many of the artisans are based.

"My brother and I came up with the name Cuttalossa because these handwoven goods reminded us of our childhood," she said, "the happy, nostalgic place where we grew up."

She makes biweekly pilgrimages to visit Walker, who was already trying to expand his business by selling socks, gloves, rugs, and other natural-fiber goods at farmers' markets.

"Shannon's getting more exposure for me," he said as he walked visitors into the shade of the barn, where dreadlocked llamas gathered around him to show their affection with sloppy kisses. "We're trying to get the general population to get away from Target and Walmart, and to buy locally made, locally sourced products. Shannon can tell that story."

Retseck is also able to share market intelligence - what's trending, what's selling fast - and help develop prototypes for new product lines.

And she's able to package the goods - sold under her Cuttalossa brand - as high-end wares worthy of the stylish photos on her website.

"My contribution is to elevate and market their goods," she said. "If you're selling socks for $24, you need to show that kind of value. The photos need to be equally as expensive as the socks. They deserve it - they're that good."

In return, she works out a deal with each farmer and producer - selling from some artisans on consignment, buying from others at a wholesale discount, and doing work trade in exchange for wholesale pricing. At WoodsEdge, she has several arrangements, including trading fiber she buys from a network of other small alpaca farmers in the region.

Retseck thinks what really sets her business apart from other retailers selling handmade goods is her close, collaborative relationship with the makers.

"I'm not just finding them on Etsy or Instagram," she said. "These are situations where it's a form of partnership."

The next stop on Retseck's route, just past a bend in the Delaware River in Frenchtown, N.J., was Bret Cavanaugh's wood shop, inside a shipping container, where he's working on a line of hand-carved platters for Cuttalossa. Cavanaugh used to run a store but found it stressful. He'd rather spend that time in his wood shop and let Retseck handle the sales, he said.

He often makes large hardwood furniture pieces, but the rough-hewn platters he's making are part of a lower-cost, more portable product line Retseck can lug to market and sell more easily to casual shoppers.

Cavanaugh shrugged as he stepped out of the cramped workshop. None of the platters was ready for Retseck to take, so she'd have to get them on a return trip.

Efficiency, though, is not a primary consideration in this business.

Consider Retseck's collaboration with Grace Galanti, an herbalist who's developing small-batch, medicinal teas for Cuttalossa.

They've been working for a few years just to establish their herb garden on an acre and a half at Eckerton Hill Farm in Oley, and to figure out how to grow tropical plants like hibiscus and ashwagandha that don't tolerate Pennsylvania weather well. Retseck has been visiting twice a month to help develop recipes - and assist with the work of transplanting, weeding, and harvesting.

Galanti hopes to have harvested and dried enough herbs by August to begin selling the teas.

The endeavor requires trial and error. Retseck found soaps made with local blueberry seeds, chamomile, and rosemary sold consistently. Moravian tiles, on the other hand, never seemed to take off. (She's thinking about marketing them as coasters or bookends.)

And foraging weeds to use as botanical dyes proved impractical because of the huge volume of plants and the time required. Retseck and Beth McTear, whose line of scarves and table linens is called Honest Alchemy, have gone back to buying natural dyes like madder and fustic for the napkins and table runners they're creating for Cuttalossa.

The business has been growing slowly. Next, Retseck hopes to open a permanent storefront in Philadelphia, a move she thinks would solidify her urban customer base.

Until then, she'll be making the long drives out to the farms to collect wares for biweekly markets.

"For now, we're definitely making artisans busier," she said, "but there's a lot of room to grow."

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