From Chocolate to Chili Peppers
5 minute read

Butterfly Bakery of Vermont Finds Inspiration in the Working Landscape

What do goat’s milk caramel, ginger cashew granola, maple hot sauce, and raspberry almond cookies all have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all made at Butterfly Bakery of Vermont, there is a common thread.

“Everything we make is inspired by Vermont’s working landscape,” said Butterfly Bakery of Vermont owner, Claire Georges. “Whether that’s peppers and onions grown in a field, goats grazing down the road, or maple from the trees.”

On a mission to bring the flavors of Vermont to customers around the globe, Butterfly Bakery of Vermont makes shelf stable products using simple ingredients. “The first thing people ask about is our product line. Why do we bake granola and bottle hot sauce? The answer is because we can support the working landscape by paying farmers a good price for the ingredients, sell the product anywhere in the world, and bring that revenue right back into Vermont.”

Following her heart to Vermont.

Claire started her first business while she was still in college. Living in a dining co-op at Oberlin College in 2001, she began making baked goods using whole grains and alternatives to refined sugar to accommodate her own dietary restrictions. Eventually, she started selling her dark chocolate truffles and glycemic-friendly baked goods under her own label, Butterfly Chocolates. 

At that point, it was a hobby. So, with a newly minted degree in computer science after graduation, she considered moving home to the Bay Area in California where tech jobs were ample, but realized that her heart wasn’t in it. “I really loved baking,” she said, “and since I couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area as a baker, I decided to move to Vermont.”

For the next few years, she continued her education, but not at school. Taking jobs with Hunger Mountain Coop and Red Hen Bakery, she learned about commercial baking, food preparation, regulations, and running a business. Using a small, rented commercial kitchen in Montpelier at night, she would bake for her own clients until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, clean everything up by 5:00 a.m., head out to make deliveries, and then go home to sleep for a few hours before going to work. “I learned so much from so many people,” she said. “It was the vigor that comes with being in your twenties!”

From chocolate to chili peppers.

Eventually, she built her own kitchen, changed the name of her business to Butterfly Bakery of Vermont, and began working there full time. She baked scones, cookies, and granolas, selling them to small stores and at local farmers markets. Whatever didn’t sell at the end of the day at the farmers market, she would trade for products leftover from other vendors–which is how she ended up with 800 pounds of chili peppers.

“Chili peppers grow really well in Vermont, but there’s not a huge market for them,” she said. She took the peppers home and experimented with making hot sauce, which she then brought back to the market to sell alongside her baked goods. “It just kept selling out,” she said. “Over and over again, it would completely sell out.”

So when the partner of a former Butterfly Bakery of Vermont intern called to say he had 800 pounds of extra chili peppers in 2014, Claire took them all. At that point, she hadn’t figured out how to store or freeze the fresh peppers, so she made hot sauce–and a lot of it.

“There was so much we didn’t know at that point,” she said. But not knowing turned out to be the product’s secret sauce. Claire didn’t know how to buy produce in bulk, so she just called local farmers. She didn’t know that hot sauce manufacturers often supplement with canned red peppers, so she cut off the stem of her chilis and threw it whole into the pot. The result, a “pepper-forward” hot sauce that allows her fresh, simple ingredients to shine.

“When you buy Maple Rum Chipotle, you can taste the maple and the rum,” she said. “When you buy Cilantro Onion, you can taste the cilantro. Vermont grows really delicious peppers and that resonated with people.”

She started adding the name of the farm where the peppers were grown to the labels. “You can’t make the exact same sauce every time when you’re buying peppers from different farms,” she said. “One farm might have peppers that are hotter, or milder, or fruitier and so it was a way to explain that to customers. We kind of stumbled into it, but people love it.”

A growing business, a growing family.

By 2016, Claire was making commercial batches of hot sauce at the VT Food Venture Center, baking at her commercial kitchen in Montpelier, and whipping up small batches of hot sauce at home to sell at the farmer’s market. “It was insanity,” she said. “We were constantly shuffling ingredients back and forth.” Oh, and she had a toddler with a new baby on the way.

In 2017, she rented a 3,000 square foot space in Montpelier and brought all of her products under one roof. The next few years brought a period of steady growth for the company, about 30 percent a year. The hot sauces, which accounted for a majority of sales, were doubling every year. And then, COVID-19 hit. “Everyone was staying home cooking and buying things off the internet,” said Claire. “We grew by 300 percent in a couple of months.”

“It’s a very different kind of pandemic pain,” said Claire. “But there are companies out there that have shut down or weren’t able to sustain growth. That’s what we’re trying to prevent here.”

She reached out to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) business coaching program for support and was matched with Lawrence Miller, a VSJF coach, who coincidentally is a long-time friend of Claire’s. 

“I’ve owned a business since college and been self-employed my entire life,” she said. “I was hesitant to work with a coach, but I’m upper management now and I don’t know what upper management looks like.” 

Claire didn’t want a coach that would tell her, “You have to grow, grow, grow, then you sell, then you buy the swimming pool, then you start another company.” She wanted to build a company where she enjoyed going to work every day and could be present for her two young children. “We spend a third of our lives at work,” she told Lawrence. “Let’s have some fun.”

With funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Community Navigator Pilot Program (CNPP), Lawrence began working with Claire to determine if continued growth was even the goal. Through that process, Claire came to a clear understanding that with growth comes greater opportunity to support Vermont farmers and food producers. With that alignment, she leaned into planning the next phase of Butterfly Bakery of Vermont.

“In a business with complexity, core understanding of your mission and values will lead to a better understanding of true north for your business,” said Lawrence. “Once you get that in place, the strategic and practical decisions will fall into place.”

Among those decisions was developing an organizational structure. “I know the business better than anyone, so I was training everyone myself,” said Claire. “We grew from 6 to 35 employees in a matter of months, so that’s just not sustainable.” She is in the process of training managers and formalizing a hiring process that will create more space for her to work on the business–and her creative side. Claire also created “Genersaucity,” a program that donates money from hot sauce sales to specific charities. She recently made a Maple Sparkle Sriracha (with edible glitter) and donated 5 percent of sales to the Pride Center of Vermont. That’s on top of the 5 percent of total website sales that are donated to the Vermont Foodbank.

“Right now, my goal is to make Butterfly a more mature, established company with better infrastructure,” said Claire. “Because once we get there, I can look around this landscape and see what else inspires me, what else is out there to make. Our reason for being, is to turn Vermont’s working lands into shelf stable products that can be sold world wide, and to bring that money right back to the land and the people here in Vermont.”

About VSJF’s Business Coaching Program

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provides tailored, high-touch planning, coaching, and advising for business owners and their management teams to advance profitability, job creation, and sustainable job development. Funding support for our coaching program is provided by client fees, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board’s Farm & Forest Viability Program.www.vsjf.org

CNPP is funded (in part) through a grant with the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Learn more at www.vtsbdc.org/find-cnpp/.