Delhi woman goes back to nature for skincare business

ContributedLauren Raba, owner of Catskill Botanicals, harvests tree bark for use in her skincare products in this undated photo.

When Delhi native Lauren Raba began studying herbalism, something took root.

Raba, 42, launched Catskill Botanicals in 2014, after an ailment spurred her to seek healing from the ground up.

“I had just finished grad school and had my master’s … and couldn’t find a job,” Raba said. “I was working in the local health food store, Good Cheap Food, and, at the time, my son had a crazy rash. A local herbalist, Marguerite Uhlmann-Bower, was shopping in the store and I got talking about the rash and she gave me yarrow and Saint John’s wort cream … and, by the end of week, the rash was gone. I was amazed, so I caught her in the store again and asked about herbalism. She taught classes and I started apprenticing with her, working in the garden, and I learned really strong plant identification skills. I had probably 1,000 hours with her, I was teaching her classes for her, wild harvesting all these plants in the Catskills and making tinctures and oils and I remember looking in my cabinet, saying, ‘I need an outlet for this.’”

Raba's husband, Jonah Shaw, owns the Quarter Moon Cafe in Delhi, where she used the commercial kitchen to refine her skill.

“I started making things with all the oil infusions I had made, and he had a walk-in cooler for all my oils, so I started selling my products on a small scale," she said. "The Green Earth and the Village Apothecary were my first accounts, and of course Good Cheap Food, so clients just sort of trickled out of those stores. I rebranded in 2017 … and just started getting more accounts and doing markets.”

The result, Raba said, has been a “line of 17 skincare products, all utilizing plants from the Catskill region,” with Raba either harvesting ingredients or buying from local farmers.

Customer favorites, Raba said, include her calendula cream, her carrot seed eye cream and her birch daytime face cream.

“My most labor-intensive cream and one of my most popular is my birch daytime face cream,” she said. “I literally scrape the birch off the bark and … infuse and cook it down and mix it with a seven-day chaga extract — a medicinal mushroom that grows on the birch — so that’s the water portion of the cream, and it has salicylic acid, so the combination is very toning for the skin. Birch also moves fluid, so it is also lovely for the face and throat.

“For my calendula cream, I get the organic and biodynamic flowers … and I cook the flowers down for the vitamin A and C,” Raba continued. “It’s really good for oily skin, with an essential oil blend my husband helped me develop, so that one is very near and dear to my heart.”

Raba said the full Catskill Botanicals line, plus any new products, is available for the lowest price at Good Cheap Food.

“I do a lot of experimenting still, so I sell my experiments there,” she said, naming recent additions of bug spray, hand sanitizer, facial toners, lotions and lip balms and lipstick salves.

Raba said support for Catskill Botanicals has been far-reaching.

“I have a lot of local support … because of the markets I’ve done — the Delhi Farmers’ Market, the Catskill Smokehouse Market and Taste of the Catskills,” she said. “I feel very supported by (locals); I’ll put posts up and let people know where I am and they just show up, saying, ‘We’re so happy, we’ve been waiting to see where you’d be.’ I think they’ve given me a wonderful response … but I think 90% of my website sales are from New York City, so I have a nice New York City base and a few retailers there that carry my stuff and that’s a growing business.

“It is mostly women,” Raba continued, “however, I do have some men who consistently buy from my website and when I’m at the markets, a lot of men buy my creams — usually the birch and echinacea, because they’ve got such a balanced scent; they’re very unisex.”

Raba said she hopes to grow her line while maintaining its from-scratch feel.

“I’ve always entertained getting larger and making larger batches, but it’s a balance between, ‘Is it still a handmade product?’ or, ‘Is it made by a machine?’” she said. “But that’s always something in my mind — trying to grow the business — and right now, I am planning on doing the Union Square Holiday Market in the Lower East Side from Nov. 18 to Dec. 24, so I will be there every day straight selling my creams and my goal there is to just build my website sales and get more people introduced to the product.”

Raba said, as the business grows, she, too, hopes to remain true to her roots.

“I started harvesting plants and it was very quiet and tranquil, with the birds in the trees and the wind and I just loved going out there and harvesting the plants,” she said. “I’d go home and make stuff out of them and teach my kids … so, I think it’s just nature that keeps me connected and moving forward. I love being outside. Now, I’m at this place, where I’m not outside as much, because I’m producing more and I’m missing being out there, but that’s definitely why I love and keep doing it.”

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