Thistle Farms partners, grows with Whole Foods

Friday, December 23, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 52
By Vicky Travis

Soy candles, essential oils, shea butter – simple and pure. Thistle Farms started making products that can nourish the body and soften the home in 2001 in a church basement.

Thinking about the competition in that $50 billion dollar industry would make anyone doubt what their little start-up could do.

But that wasn’t the thinking. Making and selling the products was a way for the survivors who came to heal after a life on the streets and to create employment, learn and help sustain the home.

Through home parties, word of mouth, placement in local stores and two local Whole Foods stores (Green Hills and Franklin), Thistle Farms’ sales and message grew.

“They fell in love with us,” says Katrina Robertson, national sales director, of Whole Foods’ relationship with Thistle Farms. About 250 Nashville-area independent shops and cafes sell Thistle Farms’ products. In total, across the country, about 400 independent stores also sell its products.

As the sales grew, so did the company, and survivors became leaders.

“Like we say, old dreams reawaken and new possibilities arise,” explains Latisha Burns, shipping manager. “I’ve never been at a job for five years. New possibilities arise.”

About two years ago, founder Becca Stevens realized she needed a CEO. So, after leading a service one Sunday at St. Augustine’s at Vanderbilt, she approached parishioner Hal Cato.

“I met Hal Cato years ago and just admired him,” she says.

“She’d heard I was on the verge of selling my company (tech start-up Zeumo), and she finds me after church. ‘Have I got a great idea for you,’ she said.”

At first, Cato, who founded Hands on Nashville and has long been involved in non-profits, was reluctant that he would be right for the role. But Stevens, as with most of her hopes and dreams, hears a ‘yes.’

“I basically had to court him for six months,” Stevens says with a laugh.

Cato became the first CEO in 2015. He’s all in.

This year, sales have topped $2 million and in November when 450 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada started selling particular products – four candles and their matching four room sprays. Reorders have already come in.

“People bought because of the mission, and what the product was doing and caught the spirit,” Cato says. But, growth like this has to come from amazing products.

Next year, Thistle Farms will open its first brick-and-mortar store on Charlotte Pike, not far from home base – the Thistle Farms offices and Thistle Stop Café. It will roll out new products and rebrand on a new label to streamline the message.

“We cannot be afraid to go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is,” Cato says. “That’s what I’m continuing, to stretch and reach. That is Becca.”

Thistle Farms currently employs 72 women, all survivors of prostitution, addiction or trafficking. And volunteer help has been especially important during the holiday rush.

Turnover is low

“Some have been there 8 or 9 years and become leaders and role models,” Cato explains. “Survivor-leaders head every single department. They are there as mentors, and they run the department.”

Robertson loves this life. She was addicted to crack cocaine for 27 years and still tears up thinking about her daughter’s face when she’d leave her with her mom, taking off for months at a time.

By 2005, she was ready to leave the vicious cycle of selling her body to feed her habit. As she recovered and found grace, she started at the beginning – making products.

Now, 11 years clean and married to the “love of her life,” she directs the national sales at a desk just feet from her daughter, Ebony Davidson, 26, who graduated from TSU and is working on her MBA at Trevecca. Davidson is in charge of the Whole Foods account.

For the first time, Thistle Farms may start employing women from other recovery programs. A 12,000-square foot warehouse around the corner is being renovated to accommodate growth.

Cato and Stevens hope to grow Thistle Farms into a national foundation.

“What Newman’s Own did for pasta and children’s camps, Thistle Farms would do for body care and women’s freedom,” Cato says.