Oprah Winfrey spotlights two Vermont start-ups

WINOOSKI — Winooski's Mount Mansfield Maple Products had high hopes of making Oprah Winfrey's annual "Favorite Things" list after its candy won a confectionery award at the largest specialty food show in North America.

Woodstock's Farmhouse Pottery, for its part, figured its ceramic trees would catch the media maven's eye after she highlighted its small bell pitcher and "rustic-chic" flyswatters in summer issues of her magazine. Winfrey, however, had other plans. The bad news: Neither the candy nor ceramic trees made the cut. And the good: She instead chose Mount Mansfield's "Swing-Top Bottle" and Farmhouse's "Beehive Fatwood Crock" to feature not only in all her print and online publications but also on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."

"This beautifully packaged organic pure Vermont maple syrup," Winfrey writes of the Winooski product, "looks like a classy bottle of wine — but tastes much better with pancakes." Her boyfriend has even warmer feelings for the Woodstock gift: "Stedman thinks I'm a genius at building fires," she continues. "My secret? These brilliant fire starters that sit on our hearth in their gorgeous rustic stoneware crock, which was hand-thrown in Vermont."

Colbert, interviewing Winfrey's best friend Gayle King on his show last week, was more confused than complimentary.

"She likes syrup," King said of the bottle, "but the packaging is so pretty — I wish you had the packaging."

"Do we have the wooden box?" Colbert then asked his crew. "We threw away the wooden box?"

The comic was no better with the crock.

"It's $120 for a bag of sticks?" he smirked.

"You are not pointing out the beauty of this pottery vase," King replied.

"It is gorgeous," Colbert relented, "and I've been told you can also strike a match on the bottom."

Such swipes have ignited sales.

"The response has been immediate," says Farmhouse co-founder James Zilian.

"We've seen a huge uptick in traffic," confirms Mount Mansfield owner Chris White. The two Vermont businesses share other similarities. Zilian and his wife, Zoe, launched their pottery website five years ago and moved from their basement to Woodstock's old Lewis Bible Bindery in 2014.

"I wanted to get back to using my hands and making things," Zilian says of what's now a 20-person employer. White and wife, Lindsay, for their part, started botting syrup in a garage in 2009.

"It started out as a hobby," White says of an outfit that has grown from $60 in first-month sales to boasting its own building and up to 15 workers during sugaring season.

Both businesses met Winfrey's representatives this summer and, after mailing samples to New York City, learned of their selection this fall. They've since worked to produce enough product to satisfy customers who, with the holidays approaching, could number

in the thousands.

"We have seen a humongous spike in orders," says Jackson Dowd, head of Mount Mansfield marketing and sales. "It's staggering."

"The first word that popped into my head when I learned we were chosen was panic," White adds. "This is totally unchartered territory. How do you know what to do?"

In response, the two businesses reached out to past Vermont honorees including Cambridge's Runamok Maple and Plymouth Artisan Cheese.

"The message I heard," White says, "is it's better to be overprepared than under."

As a result, Farmhouse employees worked their pottery wheels for three straight weeks, while Mount Mansfield maple producers ordered a second shipment of wooden boxes. Through it all, they've kept smiling — even at Colbert's show.

"It's a funny twist and a nice way to have a joke on our expense," White says. "Some people could worry we're reaching a different level and might disconnect. But we don't want our core customers to think we're big shots, because we're not."

"Making the list is huge — the TV thing is icing on the cake," Zilian adds. "And two Vermont makers in one night? It's good for our brand and the state."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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