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July 14, 2023
Catherine Hunziker walks into a room with deep metal shelves that climb to a ceiling 20 feet above the concrete floor in a Colorado industrial park building that WishGarden Herbs took over when it doubled its footprint in 2019. She can smell the raw calendula and holy basil in bulky sacks lining those shelves and see the tags and lot numbers scrawled above their bulging seams.
She remembers her kitchen in Boulder, Colorado, where she made tinctures of those same herbs, in far smaller quantities that she grew in her own backyard.
And she can trace a line between those two operations of vastly different scales.
“They’re in 50-pound bags, but it’s still fresh. It’s still great. We still handle it from an artisanal point of view,” Hunziker says, smiling.
It’s that line of connection that makes WishGarden so special in an industry many times larger than it was when Hunziker ran the company out of a hallway closet in the late 1980s. It’s the spirit of intention that keeps the company she built so close to the supply chain. It’s also what wins WishGarden NBJ’s 2023 Supply Chain Integrity Award.
“I was always shooting for the top, but I wanted to do it right. I wanted to keep the mission and the values in place,” she says.
Hunziker, who calls herself “an old hippie,” came to herbalism and eventually WishGarden in a way that very much reflects that description. It was a commune in the Ozarks where she learned the first principles of herbalism. It was a witch hazel bush in full bloom, surrounded by ice but buzzing with bees in the middle of January, that taught her how powerful herbs could be.
Hunziker followed the energy of those bees to different teachers and different traditions, much of the wisdom centered around midwifery, until she met Barbara Wishingrad, who’d started WishGarden and was ready to pass the brand to a new steward. Hunziker borrowed $5,000 from her mom and bought the company.
A divorce and resulting custody matters led her to Boulder, where she connected with a burgeoning community of naturopaths and herbalists. She remembers sitting at the first value-added table at the Boulder Farmers Market and becoming a source for herbs that were hard to find decades before echinacea and the like could be purchased in capsules at Walgreens.
There was the pertussis outbreak at a Boulder Waldorf school for which her herbs were essential. There was the naturopath who helped developed the formula for WishGarden’s eventual flagship product, Kick-Ass Immune. But mostly, there was an even wider community of small growers, midwives, practitioners and consumers who were building a market from coast to coast.
She didn’t need to advertise. That community was spreading across the country but remaining small enough to grow on word of mouth. The operation expanded from the kitchen into the garage. Orders came in on paper, paid for by check.
By the time she got into retail—Wild Oats let her grow on two store-owned acres—she’d had her first visit from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was ready to move out of her garage. By the time she made it onto shelves in multiple states, she was ready to teach herbalism a thing or two about marketing. She recognized that the immune product that would come to define the brand needed a punchier name than Herbal Immune Formula.
“I’m standing there in the aisle, and I’m thinking, this name is not going to cut it,” she says. “Because I knew what it could do.”
Kick-Ass Immune and several Kick-Ass line extensions were born.
Decades later, WishGarden products can be found in Sprouts Farmers Market, Whole Foods Market and destination herbalist outlets like the Scarlet Sage Herb Company in San Francisco’s Mission District. WishGarden sales are in the eight-figure range and seeing growth rates in the upper teens.
Demand has long outgrown Hunziker’s backyard and Wild Oats’ spare acres, but Hunziker is as intentional with the supply chain as she was when she picked the herbs herself. She and her son, Sam Hunziker, who runs the company, go deep on quality, testing and connecting the original intention to the demands of scale.
All of that is possible because WishGarden grew with its intentions in place. When the company needs an herb, it knows where to find the quality and integrity in line with those intentions.
“We’ve got the benefit of 40 years of experience and a Rolodex that reflects that,” says Sam Hunziker of the supplier network WishGarden relies on for ingredients. “You want them to think of you first rather than someone else, and you know that if there’s a lot of 30 tons of elderberry, you want this nice stuff out of the gate rather than the stuff at the bottom of the barrel.”
The companies WishGarden works with see that ethic every day. Pacific Botanicals sales manager Nate Brennan says every order from WishGarden is more like a conversation than a transaction. “They’re looking for organic materials, but they love to hear the stories about the farm, the practices that we’re using on the farm,” he explains, and that shows him how committed to the supply chain a company can be.
Allison White, who handles sales for Trout Lake Farm, sees the same thing. “This isn’t just a money-making business,” she says. “They’re truly passionate about what they do and why they do it.”
White has been in the herbal trade for 26 years and knows commitment and intention when she sees it. “For the people who are really, really passionate about it, like WishGarden, it’s not just a business, it’s their lifestyle.”
Hunziker has been living that lifestyle since the moment she saw that frosty witch hazel bush surrounded by bees in the Ozarks. That she can bring that same energy into bottles on shelves from coast to coast says something about how she turned a lifestyle into an intention to bring herbalism to the masses in a way that fits with the values that drew her to the traditions.
“Triple bottom line is not all about profit. It’s about sustainability,” she says. “But all of that is profitable. There are more and more studies that show the more you care about that, the more profitable you are.”
WishGarden’s connection to grown-in-America suppliers like Trout Lake Farms and Pacific Botanicals matches what Hunziker sees as her next mission. With her son running more of the company, she is looking to devote her energy to bringing more herbal cultivation back to the United States, creating an income stream for U.S. farmers while creating a more dependable and trustable source of herbs.
She’s been talking about this idea for years, and now she wants to give it shape and resources. She calls it “herbaculture,” and she sees supporting and then bringing together different suppliers, organizations and food hubs as crucial.
“I always thought, way back when, I wonder if medicinals can be part of the answer, can be part of more yield per square foot, higher price per pound, help farmers actually stay on the land and make good money, help regenerate the soil through carbon sequestering.”
Katie Commender, the agroforesty director at Appalachian Sustainable Development, says WishGarden is already helping make that happen by buying from a network of farmers and wildcrafters who follow sustainable practices.
“A lot of our farmers are what are called forest farmers. So, they’re sustainably growing and managing forest botanicals, plants like goldenseal and ginseng and black cohosh. And so, for that extra effort of sustainably cultivating those plants, we work with a network of buyers who are interested in creating a more sustainable and ethical supply chain and are willing to pay higher prices for that supply," she says.
Companies like WishGarden, which not only buy from the farmers but contract to buy into the next year, make the model work. Without those contracts, farmers are left to guess what demand might be. These companies make it possible for farmers to stay in the trade, Commender says.
“A lot of companies might talk about wanting to buy sustainable, but when it comes to actually paying for sustainability, that’s where it falls short. But WishGarden, they’re very, very supportive and are willing to invest in a more sustainable supply chain. That’s what really keeps this network going and helps support the forest farmers that we work with,” she says.
For Hunziker, supporting farmers is another opportunity to share the intention of herbalism that has led WishGarden to the success it has had. Doing it right was how it got there, she says.
Her son puts it simply: “We want to have the best ingredients going in so we have the best product coming out.”
That’s a lot of what American Botanical Council Executive Director Mark Blumenthal sees when he thinks about WishGarden and Hunziker’s place in the herbal movement. Hunziker's not there for the money; she’s there for the intention, he says. “There’s a cluster of companies that were kind of built around herbalists with a vision and a passion. She’s part of that group. This is not just a job for her. This is part of her true life path.”
That WishGarden has stayed true to that is a testament to Hunziker’s original intention and how she honored it, Blumenthal adds. It’s why consumers can feel confident in WishGarden products. It’s why NBJ is giving WishGarden the Supply Chain Integrity Award.
“You don’t see people with that kind of passion cutting corners on the quality of their ingredients,” Blumenthal says.
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Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal
As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.
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