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NORTH TONAWANDA – Two Niagara County mothers began a friendship with their common interest in home-schooling their children, but the friendship literally blossomed with a shared belief in the healing power of herbs.

They have gone a step further by becoming business partners, sharing their interests with the community in their shop – Herbal Traditions, which opened in November.

“We used to put in a lot of orders just for ourselves. I figured with all the ordering we were doing, we might as well share with other people,” said Mary Kunkel, of Pendleton, who joined with her friend Polly Gillebaard, of North Tonawanda, in opening the new business.

“Everything we did was with a cup of tea in our hands,” Kunkel said.

“I think we had a cup of tea in our hands when we said we should open a tea shop or an herb store.”

They said they had about 100 products when they first started, but have lost count at this point, continuing to add products they have heard about and mixtures their customers request.

“The most important thing is that it’s organic,” Gillebaard said. She said they are not licensed to grow their own products, but instead order organic products from the West Coast, a process that can hold up stock for a couple of weeks when they run out.

Both the women said, without missing a beat, their most popular product, mint chocolate tea, is hard to keep in stock.

“We blend it ourselves,” Gillebaard said.

“I can’t believe how much people love tea around here,” Kunkel said.

The tea blends are unique and range from vanilla chai and mango Ceylon to a combination of ingredients that are designed to ward off colds and flu, promote memory or stave off sleep apnea, as well as a number of other specialized teas.

In addition, they have other products, such as varicose vein butter; rose petal bath salts; cold and flu bath salts; lavender dryer bags; organic basil, organic sugar and organic vanilla sugar; local honey; blends for taco seasoning; Italian herbs; Italian salad dressing mix; and books and gifts. Customers are invited to bring in and refill their own spice bottles.

If someone wants to grow their own spices, there are a few plants for sale, as well as hypertufa pots – handcrafted artificial stone plant holders made by one of Kunkel’s family members.

In fact, the store is a family affair, with all their family members behind them in their new endeavor, the co-owners said.

None has been more supportive than Kunkel’s father, Norbert G. Ertl, who owns and rents them the store on Old Shawnee Road behind Thiele’s.

Ertl retired and closed up the Shawnee Meat Market eight years ago, after three generations had run it for almost 70 years.

“I am blessed that my dad had the meat market and he was able to let us use the store,” Kunkel said. “He was just so happy to see life in the place again.”

Both women believe strongly in the healing power of the herbs that they sell.

Gillebaard said that when her son, now 20 years old, was a baby, Gillebaard was diagnosed with arthritis and started doing research to help her condition.

“Different things really do make it better,” she said. “I started making my own laundry detergent. I started to eat better – more nutritious. Ginger helped. It is an anti-inflammatory. And I was looking into things that could help.”

Kunkel said she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition and rather than undergoing radiation, she turned to a practitioner who helped her change her diet and gave her herbal tinctures. She said her body responded so well that her thyroid condition went away.

“Polly’s favorite customer is a person who is doing research themselves,” Kunkel said.

Gillebaard said she has a stack of books and uses the Internet as a reference to add to their knowledge of herbs.

“It’s been a really good learning experience, from the level of our product to running our own business,” Kunkel said.

She said years ago she worked in statistical analysis for American Express, but both women said they made raising their children a priority and neither had been working prior to opening Herbal Traditions.

Opening their own business has given them the luxury to have flexible hours to work around their children’s schedules, they said.

Kunkel has a son in college, another in public high school and a daughter in seventh grade who is home-schooled. Gillebaard has four children, a 31-year-old son, two sons in college and a 13-year-old daughter who is home-schooled.

The two said that business is fairly steady and growing at a pace that is just fine for them.

“We have a good time together. We do a lot of laughing,” Gillebaard said.

The shop is located at 7500 Shawnee Road. Hours vary, but are posted on the website at www.herbaltraditionsLLC.com. For information, call 693-7837.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com