Fragrances bring sweet smell of success

December 05, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

Unless you have a terrible cold, you won't have any trouble picking out Ron Butler and Judy Wallace's Northeast Baltimore row house: It's the most aromatic one on the block.

The house is a bouquet of scents ranging from plain vanilla, fruity strawberry, apple and peach to such exotics as Christmas Woods, Sugar 'n' Spice, Pumpkin Pie, Black Coconut, Eternity and Rain.

Mr. Butler and Ms. Wallace are olfactory artists, who spend hours every day in their crowded basement creating new fragrances ** by mixing a bit of this and that and sniff-testing the result.

By following their noses, they've created a blossoming cottage industry -- Natural Image Botanicals -- that offers such items as potpourri, incense, perfumed oils for the body, bath salts and non-aerosol room fresheners.

"There are no recipes," said Ms. Wallace, 33. "Everything is done by eye and smell. We experiment until we get what we want."

"Judy's the creative genius behind this," said Mr. Butler, 40. "I'm the one who gets it out to the public."

Throughout history, people have used substances like incense and pomanders to ward off offensive odors. Modern technology to replicate chemically nearly any scent or taste has created a multibillion-dollar, international fragrance and flavor industry.

Ms. Wallace and Mr. Butler acknowledge that they are "just a drop in this bucket," but they have built a basement industry that in three years has grown from flea markets in Fullerton and Dundalk to 400 outlets in 27 states and now Germany.

"We use about 250 scents but we have access to more than 20,000, depending on what a customer wants," said Ms. Wallace. "I didn't know there were that many, but I can get 'fresh bread, or 'cinnamon cookies' or even 'breakfast rolls,' if someone wants them."

"We're able to compete because we offer top quality and custom service, and a no-hassle return policy," Mr. Butler said. "We stand by our quality, and some people have returned things just to test us."

Mr. Butler spent 20 years as a commercial carpenter, climbing about on tall buildings under construction, before Ms. Wallace persuaded him to come down to earth and work with his nose instead of his hands.

The basement of their row home is crammed with shelves filed with large bottles of various aromatic oils from manufacturers nationwide, which Mr. Butler blends and packages into ounce and quarter-ounce bottles for retail sale.

It also overflows with the makings for potpourri -- sacks of lavender buds from France, rosebuds from Pakistan, yellow pods from Germany's Black Forest that are known an as frutus spini cristi, tips of cedar branches, chips of cinnamon bark, bay leaves, nutmeg, ginger root, allspice and star anise.

The couple uses natural components wherever possible and never any aerosols. "The ozone is already too depleted," Mr. Butler said.

In an average month, Ms. Wallace said, they use up to 30 pounds of lavender, 100 pounds of rosebuds, 200 pounds of allspice and large quantities of cinnamon bark, nutmeg, ginger root and coriander.

And for their bath and simmer salts, they use a ton of Epsom and sea salts.

Although 90 percent of the fragrant oils are chemical compounds, they do use some natural oils, such as real sandalwood, patchouli and sweet orange from the peel.

But a pint of "rose absolute" -- rose oil -- costs more than $6,000, prohibitively expensive in a small business.

Mr. Butler said all their potpourri are blended to order by hand, a few pounds at a time.

"Big companies blend a ton at a time by machines and they use things like colored wood chips as fillers, but we won't do that because it's not real potpourri," he said. "We will custom-make anything a customer wants. Some people want a heavy, overpowering scent, while others want a very light fragrance."

Ms. Wallace said she learned the scent business working for two years at minimum wage for a woman in Bowie and then talked Mr. Butler into helping her make 12 kinds of potpourri to sell at a flea market.

"Judy saw this woman was doing between $20,000 and $40,000 business a month and she thought she could do it better," he said.

The accumulated profits went into expansion and marketing to keep the business steadily growing. Mr. Butler said the big companies, some of which do $150 million business a year, "don't notice us now because we're no real competition. But they will if we keep growing this way."

They plan to move in a few months to a house being built in Baltimore County, which has a much larger basement to accommodate their growing operation.

The partners work 80 to 90 hours a week each and are still in the Christmas rush that began in August, and friends and relatives also lend a hand.

"As fast as we can produce it, we can sell it," Mr. Butler added.

Three months ago, Ron's older brother, Richard, 51, a Cockeysville insurance executive, volunteered to sell the products on Sundays at area flea markets. Sales have been so brisk that Richard Butler is now exploring ways to spend more time on the business.

The business has also produced an unexpected bonus for the brothers.

"There's an 11-year difference between us and he was away in the Marines for four years," Ron Butler said. "We have talked more since he got into this three months ago than we did in all our lives before."

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