Sept. 21 started out like any other homecoming Friday for Shari Gray. Her family was gearing up for the game with the usual homecoming activities. But, just before leaving for the football matchup, for some reason, Gray checked her mail.
After that, things really started moving at almost warp speed, or at least Shari, friends Cyndi Harlin and Carla Walters, and her daughter and mom, Emily Gray and Nita Hux, they did.
Gray’s eco-friendly nature-themed business Nature Favors had caught the eye of the someone on a national level. The Sept. 21 email stated Nature Favors was one of only 30 selected by Off the Wall, the exclusive Emmy Award Show gifting partner, to provide product samples to go in the official gift bags distributed after the 2012 News & Documentary Emmy Awards, being held Oct. 1 in New York.
Gray went on to the game to think about the email. Just to verify the authenticity of it, she did a little research afterward, verified the person who contacted her was with the group and legitimately who she purported to be.
“I didn’t realize there were so many different types of Emmy awards. I understand one from Texas, [WFAA-TV] channel 8 in Dallas, has been nominated to receive an award. Congratulations to them on their nomination,” Gray said, admitting she felt quite honored to be included among such a select group asked to submit their products for participation. “I’m excited about it. Morgan Freeman is one of the nominees. He has a documentary nominated. I know he will get one. He has always been a favorite, and Diane Sawyer’s show. It’s quite an honor to think they will have my product. Only 30 were picked participate with their products. Ours was chosen as one of them. That makes you feel good –?there were just a few and they picked us. They contacted us. We’re not really anybody.”
Until four years ago, Gray was perhaps best known locally for Blessed Wings, her dove and butterfly business. Some might even remember that her husband and business partner, Greenville police officer Randy Gray, arranged in 2001 for one of their doves to be carried across nine states in 30 hours by law enforcement officers from their farm to New York to be released released over the World Trade Center Oct. 7 as a salute to police and law enforcement officers in New York City to “demonstrate for them the sense of unity felt by their brother law enforcement officers across the country,” and as a traditional symbol of hope and peace.
While a blessing, Shari (pronounced Sherry) Gray’s love of nature and creating things continued to grow. About four years ago, she transitioned her business from Blessed Wings to Nature Favors. The timing and strict requirements for birds and hatching the butterflies could be a bit tricky, especially the butterflies. There are lot of factors that have to come together at just the perfect time to make sure the butterflies make the change from legged to winged creatures and are ready for flight on a certain day and time. It left a lot more to chance than Gray liked, so she began looking in another direction.
But, gifted with her father’s work ethic, her mother’s creativity, and the love and eye for nature inherited from her a great-grandmother she remembers as always gardening, Gray knew she couldn’t sit still and had to work.
“My father worked all the time. He had to be doing something. I was brought up working all the time, with a drive to work and make a living for your family. ... I’ve always been a nature person. I’d rather be outside doing anything than inside working. I use lots of things in nature. I guess I get it from my great-grandmother; she gardened. ... I’ve always enjoyed nature, being outdoors,” Gray said.
She and her husband owned Blessed Wings Butterfly Farm and now Nature Favors; while she provides most of the creativity and work, Randy provides the encouragement and support which keep her grounded.
“It’s amazing how far we’ve come. We are very blessed. God really was with us during this adventure,” notes Gray, who even as kid worked hard to come up with unique gift items — usually inspired by and often including nature and using things she could afford — to give family members for special occasions such as Christmas to make the event special and the recipient smile. “We had Blessed Wings for 10 years, during that time, brides would contact us, event planners. There were items we incorporated — handmade favors with seed, growing a flower off seeded paper. We gradually added in all eco-friendly nature-themed items through the years. We have 20-25 items, mainly fit to the needs of the [customer], personalized orders. I talk one-on-one with them to create a nature-inspired and friendly item.”
As a business woman, that’s still the way she approaches each order and project, finding something natural to match each customer’s personality and need for use or distribution at whatever special occasion — and at an affordable rate.
“We want to make them smile, give something for their special event they can’t find anywhere else. We try to do that and stay along the lines of what they can afford. All our products are $2 or less per gift item,” she said.
“One hundred percent is very important to me. If I don’t meet it, I’ll make it right — ship something different — until I give them exactly what they want, to make it right,” Gray said. “A wedding is a once in a lifetime event. They choose us for this special event in their lives; that’s amazing to me. We want it to be right, special for them.”
Gray understands that one negative comment can have a far more reaching impact than 100 positive comments, and strives to make sure each customer gets that special something just right for their occasion.
And, it’s likely just that commitment to excellence for the “green” products Nature Favors offers which put this small local business on Off the Wall’s Emmy list.
Headquartered in Reilly Springs in a shop building not far from Gray’s home, the steady business Nature Favors does comes almost exclusively from Internet sales, not local orders.
“It’s mostly been Internet as long as we’ve been doing it,” Gray explained. “There aren’t many local [customers], all nation-wide, even worldwide. You’d be amazed how many locally don’t know we exist in Reilly Springs. ... We do about 2,000 pieces a week, that’s not the busy season. We do mostly weddings, showers, we’re beginning to be seasonal — Christmas. We’re coming together all year.”
Nature Favors most recent notable jobs have included providing pine cone fire starters for Chick-Fil-A’s corporate Christmas party and a favor to give to guests at a promotion when Bath & Body Works revealed one of their new “fresh picked” fragrances. Since each item has a special customized tag, the Chick-Fil-A tags had a scripture on them while the B&BW tag included the Nature Favors logo and was one of their “seeded” items cut in the shape of an apple. Nature Favors also crafted 500 favors shipped to TV personality Katie Brown to use as favors for an event for friends, a birdhouse bird favor with a cardboard back.
After some communicating back and forth with Off the Wall reps, they were facing a daunting, perhaps impossible task. In order to participate, Nature Favors had just a week to get 800 items to New York so they could be sorted and put into the “official Emmy gift bag” which will be distributed to each person attending the 33rd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards Oct. 1.
That’s quite an opportunity for a small Reilly Springs company, to have the Nature Favors brand out there in the hands of 800 people, a group which includes “the most talented and influential” television and Internet news media personalities and guests.
“We were hit with this at the last minute. The research team looks for unique items they feel the attenants will want. I think they are looking for something different, geared more toward not so much glamour and glitz as down-to-earth, eco-friendly items,” said Gray.
She admitted at first she wasn’t sure if Nature Favors could finish that many samples ready on such short notice.
“I would not be able to do it without friends and family. There’s no way I could do it. I went to the game Friday, but we started Saturday and have been working nonstop,” Gray admitted earlier this week as they were finishing up the last of the items to be shipped. “We have to have 800 items in New York by Friday.”
Of course, once the decision to participate was made, the big question was what Nature Favors item could be prepared, replicated 800 times to best fit the need, and represents the simple nature theme that is the heart of the business.
Some of their advertised items included clay formed into the shape of Texas with bluebonnet seeds baked in; birdseed ornaments, earth blooms — flower “pots” with seeds; and colorful, shaped “blooming confetti” papers with wildflower seeds incorporated into them. Most contain wildflowers, bluebonnets or evergreen seeds, which require only water to grow — simple things.
Nature Favors has also composed more elaborate items such as plaques made into stone and wood, wooden invitations and a “wishing tree.”
They even offer “fall” candy in tubes with personalized cork tops and soon will offer “tree huggers,” cork snuggies with personalized messages which fit around drinking glasses.
“She sees things in nature the rest of us don’t, even in the photos of things she puts on the website, you can tell she has an eye for it. She sees things the rest of us just don’t — we don’t look at the elements,” Harlin noted of Gray.
“I’m constantly trying new things, the way I test them is online. If they don’t get the response in the time I set I take them off. I keep testing and adding new things all the time. I’m constantly thinking, even when I’m asleep. I cannot sit still. I have a hard time relaxing. I think of things at the oddest times. When I’m inspired, if I’m in the middle of something, I drop what I’m doing. It’s a lot more convenient to have this [work building] right here [near her house],” Gray said of her artist nature and creative process. “I wish sometimes I could slow down. My mother helps me creating things ... research and development.”
For this rush project, Gray knew she needed something simple, that wouldn’t require instructions for people to fully “get” it, like the clay pots with paper “flowers” which had seeds in the bottom that required watering, or the confetti pieces — which just didn’t seem right for a news and science program.
“A lot of projects require an explanation. We picked an item to go with that we could make the quickest to send to them. We picked pine cone fire starters, which will fill the room with fragrance of pine,” Gray said. “We could do anything with a limit of 24 inches.”
As has been the case more recently, Gray and friend Harlin collaborated for the final product, decided on because their simplicity. They selected two sizes of pine cone, added wax bases with natural pine oil in the base to give it a pleasant aroma. The special craftsmanship on this project includes wooden tags, designed by Harlin.
“She likes the more natural materials and I like the more elegant,” Harlin said. “It happened by chance. We were just talking and came up with it. We compliment each other. We’ve done all kinds of things, give each other ideas.”
Harlin designs the tags on her computer, then uses her equipment to engrave the tags. In this case, they engraved Natural Favors on the tags. But, with 800 to be made for shipping by Wednesday, the women worked round the clock to get the project finished. Needless to say, until right up to the deadline, neither Gray, Harlin or Gray’s family and friends slept much.
“You design it on the computer but you’ve gotta be there to watch as it burns the wood; you don’t want any problems,” Harlin said.
“Cyndi was engraving tags at 3 o’clock this morning,” Shari said Tuesday of her friend and project partner’s dedication.
“Shari brought the caffeine and company,” Handlin added with a laugh as both noted the entire project was a team effort with everyone pitching in to see it through.
Friends Gray and Harlin, along pal Walters, and Gray’s family were busy Tuesday packaging the pine cone fire starters, putting them in bags which protect them from damage, readyingthem for packaging in 200-pound cardboard boxes and to be sent second-day air delivery by UPS.
For more information about Natural Favors, including photos of products offered, visit the company website:http://www.naturefavors.com, or check them out on Facebook and Twitter.
More information about the 33rd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards, including a list of nominees, can be found online at http://www.emmyonline.tv/.
Information about Off the Wall can be found at http://offthewallgifts.com.