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Hilltowns Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 9, 2005
Wild Thymes from Medusa spread across the country
MEDUSAIn the southern Hilltowns, among the farms and forests, a small factory turns out some of the best condiments in the world.
Though its products have made a splash in the specialty-foods market, its hard to tell, from the outside, that Wild Thymes, outside of the hamlet of Medusa, is anything more than another Hilltown family farm. Thats just the way the companys founder likes it.
"I’m so happy that I left," said Enid Stettner, who left New York City for the farm in 1970. She was a fashion designer and her husband, Fred, was a film producer. Since the 1980’s, however, they have owned and operated Wild Thymes, a rapidly growing manufacturer of gourmet specialty foods, like sauces, chutneys, and dressings.
At 72, Stettner is still pursuing her second career with vigor. The company recently automated, moving from the stovetop to the assembly line, but continues to use the same fresh ingredients it always has. The products are beginning to spread from upper-level grocery stores like Whole Foods Market and Dean & Deluca, to larger chains, like Wegmans.
"I want to be making the very best product in Americain the world," Stettner said. "I don’t believe in the second-place ribbon."
"The dream of the city girl"
Growing up in Manhattan, Stettner often heard her father talk of moving the family to the country, she said. Although that never happened, the idea stayed in Stettners mind when she was older.
"When I grew up, I just carried that on," Stettner said, "the dream of the city girl."
In 1961, the Stettners found a listing in The New York Times for a run-down farm in the town of Westerlo, just east of Medusa on Route 403. They bought it, and for the next decade, they visited it on weekends and days off, fixing it up.
In 1970, the couple and their children moved there full-time, at which point, Stettner said, "We tried to figure out how to make a living."
At first, they tried real estate, and for a while, were successful, but, when the market crashed in the 80s, they had to turn somewhere else for money.
Since moving to Medusa, Stettner had kept a large garden on the farm and used the ingredients in meals, entertaining guests from downstate.
"Everyone wants you to cook when you have a farm," Stettner said.
It was natural, then, for Stettner to bottle and sell her creations, starting with fruit and herb vinegarsthe first herb vinegars sold in the country, she said.
The new business was a success, and it wasnt long before the vinegars found their way out of the farmers markets and into specialty grocery stores. By the 90s, Stettner said, Wild Thymes, as the Stettners called their company, was no longer alone in the vinegar business.
"Everyone started copying it," she said. "They even copied our name. It was wild this and wild that."
Not happy being one of many, Stettner decided to shift the companys focus.
"I said, ‘You know, anyone can put herbs in a bottle. I’m going to come out with a line of food,’" Stettner said.
And so the second incarnation of Wild Thymes was born. Following in her parents footsteps, the Stettners daughter, Ann, moved up from New York City with her husband, Neil, to join the family business.
Though the ingredients in the Stettners’ chutneys, dressings, marinades, mustards, spreads, and dips are no longer grown on the Wild Thymes farm, Stettner said, "We still make it the same way. We don’t use anything if it’s not completely fresh."
Now, she said, as healthy-eating fads come and go, major grocery-store chains are beginning to show interest in the Wild Thymes products. "We’ve always been low-carb," Stettner noted.
"In the end, what’s become fashionable is what we’ve always been," Stettner said. "People want to be healthy and they want good food. They’re willing to spend a little more to get quality."
The strong flavors in Wild Thymes products make up for their lack of sodium and sugar, she said.
"You really don’t need all the salt and the sugar. You don’t need it if you have the right ingredients," Stettner said.
As she always has been, Stettner is in charge of creating the recipes for her products. She does it herself, in her kitchen, over her stove. Though she has no formal culinary training, and admits her mother was no whiz in the kitchen, Stettner said she has discovered a knack for blending ingredients, often dozens in one recipe.
"I think that’s probably what I’m best at," she said. "I just have a natural ability to balance things."
Sometimes Stettners recipes spring up out of her head, other times she tries to replicateand perfecta flavor shes tasted before. For example, she concocted a Thai peanut sauce after searching for a kosher equivalent to a sauce her family enjoyed.
"I made a Thai sauce that makes the other Thai sauce look like I don’t know what," Stettner said.
Curry is an ingredient in some of Wild Thymes products. At first, Stettner said, the company bought pre-made curry, but she was never happy with that. So, she made her own.
"I have no idea how I know how to make curry," she said.
Stettner must be doing something right. Her products have been acclaimed by food magazines, like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Vegetarian Times, and featured on the Food Network and CNBC.
Wild Thymes is growing. While Stettner still taste-tests every batch before it’s shipped, the food is no longer made over the stove in pots, but in large kettles powered by a huge steamer, labeled "the dragon’s lair" by Wild Thymes’s seven employees.
"I really like the kettles," Stettner said. Quicker cooking preserves flavor, color, and texture, she said.
Instead of advertising, the Stettners spend their money providing samples to possible sellers, a massive nationwide undertaking coordinated by Ann Stettner. The hope is that store-owners will recognize a quality product the public will want.
To increase the products visibility, Wild Thymes is preparing to unveil a new bottle, with a bolder label.
Still, Stettner said, "A lot of people don’t impulse buy at $6 a bottle."
Her belief is that, as people try the products, they cant help but want more.
"Once they taste it, they’ll buy it," she said.
Even though shes past the average retirement age, Stettner has no intention of giving up her business. What drives her, she said, is not money or recognition; she just wants her products to be to best in the world.
"I love it," she said. "I just have to live long enough to see it through."
Town repeats request to buy Westerlo school
BERNE The town of Westerlo has repeated its request to buy the Westerlo Elementary School building.
At the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board meeting Monday, Westerlo councilmen Edward Rash and R. Gregory Zeh Jr., speaking on behalf of the town, asked the board to grant Westerlo the first option to buy the building, which the district voted, in February, to close to students for the next school year.
"Even the building itself has become a part of the landscape of the town," Rash said. "It’s a very important part of the village as well as the township."
Rash and Zeh said it would be better to sell it to the town, which would use it for a town hall, than to someone else, who might alter the historic building.
Westerlo had sent a letter to the district about buying the school before it was closed and accompanied Mondays presentation with another letter.
Karen Storm, school board president, told the councilmen that the school board is not interested in selling the building. This has been the districts stance since the school was closed.
"I don’t believe this particular school board could vote that far in the future and bind a future school board to anything," Storm said.
Storm said the board would forward the towns letter to the school districts attorney to find out what the district can legally do.
"We know there’s no hurry; we just wanted to make sure," Rash said.
At a town board meeting Tuesday, Rash and Zeh reported on their presentation.
"I don’t think they understood what we were asking," Rash told the town board.
Town attorney Aline Galgay asked if any Westerlo residents were at the school board meeting to support the sale of the building to the town.
"There was no opinion, aye or nay," Rash said.
In other business at its June 6 meeting, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board held a public hearing on changes to the proposed budget, set for a June 14 vote. The proposal has been cut $50,000 from the original $17.6 million budget proposal that was defeated in May by 17 votes.
With the additional cuts, the average tax-rate increase will be around 4 percent, said business administrator Gregory Diefenbach. Four percent is a goal the budget committee set when it started planning, Diefenbach said.
Over the past few months, there has been some discussion about whether the budget committee was referring to the tax-rate increase, the budget increase (5.92 percent with the proposal), or the tax-levy increase (4.99 percent).
Also on the budget, Superintendent Steven Schrade addressed the concerns of some district residents who said the increase in the amount budgeted for the districts instructional programs, $3,000, was less than the increase in the amount budgeted for extracurricular activities and sports, $13,000.
The $13,000 sports increase would not be enough to hire any additional teaching staff, Schrade said. Besides, he said, with a participation rate of 40 to 50 percent, sports are an important part of a BKW education.
"I believe it’s a very good investment," Schrade said. "A successful high school is built on very high academic achievement, a good arts and music program, and a very fine sports program."
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