By Ben Schooley
Photography by Paula VM Photography
Audrey Zuber: Owner of Punkin Butt and Sheepish Distribution
From the small barn on the back of her property, Audrey Zuber works long hours producing hand-made products that are primarily for young children. Cremes, balms, ointments and other must-have items for new parents have made Audrey and her companies, Punkin Butt and Sheepish Distribution a sought after brand. While her location in Bergheim doesn’t mirror a global brand with distributors in 12 countries, that’s exactly the type of reach she has established. From very humble beginnings to exponential growth, Zuber works tirelessly at her passion, and it shows in her products.
Born in San Jose, CA, Zuber was a great student growing up in a less than ideal situation. She begins, “I was always in the gifted program at school but I didn’t do so great because my mom was bipolar and a drug addict. I liked school and used it as an escape but I didn’t keep up with my studies as well I should have.” Dreaming of eventually working with NASA, Zuber enjoyed her astronomy classes and took one of the teachers on as a bit of a mother figure. “She was a world renowned astronomer and worked with the SETI Institute and she taught me so much. She helped me keep me focused. At the time, I didn’t really even consider college, as I was simply in survival mode growing up and waiting until I was 18.”
While her situation wasn’t perfect, Zuber has perspective on it now. “When I was younger I just felt like life sucked. Every day was a challenge and was miserable, but as I look back on it I realized it was strengthening me. I can overcome and I learned resilience as a kid. My mom got clean eventually, diagnosed with bipolar, got symptoms of obsessive disorders as they were adjusting her meds and she passed away on Mother’s Day – she was 40. She loved all animals, would help anyone with anything and had a huge loving heart. I grew up knowing that unconditionally she loved me. I never doubted that and for that I’m grateful.”
Her father moved her to Oregon, where he worked at a microchip company and was quite popular throughout town. Zuber enjoyed going from complete anonymity to being known throughout town because of her father. “The rule was that I had to go to school and go to work. I was excited to go to school so I enrolled at the Community College. The math teacher at the college really took me under her wing and I clicked with it all and I progressed quickly. I got a math scholarship for Oregon State University and I was still thinking that this would lead me back to aeronautics. Or so I hoped.”
However, Zuber hit a wall emotionally due to the tumultuous past few years, and she took a long break from college. Working at a local small business, Zuber quickly went from entry level to climbing the company ladder quickly. “I learned the business world there and really enjoyed it. So I went back to school, this time for a Business degree, which I got in 2006.”
At this point, she met John at a local dancehall, they quickly were in a relationship, were engaged within 2 months, and married within 7. John owned a concrete construction company, the pair were quickly wed and their oldest, Sophia came along quickly for the newlyweds. Realizing that she might not be able to re-enter the workforce for a while, Zuber’s friend was selling her online cloth diaper business, which Zuber ultimately purchased.
Punkin Butt was born in 2006.
“I just wanted to not break it – have the business just keep doing what it was doing. I began thinking “it would be good to have a balm to go with these diapers…” and “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could also offer….” So I checked out a book at the library and began playing around with recipes. I learned about salves and herbal remedies. I was just selling those in my shop as well as online. They did OK – what changed things was Sophia was teething and there was a recall at the time for the teething products I used and I was stressed about what to use. I talked to our MD and I bought some clove and I burned her. I was mortified. I thought “how many parents have done this?” and I knew that there had to be a way to have a natural solution that would work. I talked to all these people that could give me advice, we came up with a great recipe, and the parents just loved it. All of a sudden, my competition started asking to sell my teething oil in their store and that’s when things started really changing.”
Just as things were taking off for Zuber, the Crash of ’08 occurred and it wiped out both John’s business as well as Audrey’s. Nearing bankruptcy, Zuber had another friend selling her custom soap business, and via an owner-financed deal, Zuber bought Sheepish Grins in 2009.
“It was lanolin soaps, sprays, balms. It increased my customer base, but I had never made soap a day in my life. She made it sound easy – it wasn’t. I screwed up a bunch of batches in the garage early on, questioning myself if I had gotten in over my head, troubleshooting, researching, just working hard at it. It’s honestly an art. It was such a stressful time. There was as good 6 months where we were weighing if we were going to sell the house or not but we would walk away with like $600. We decided to just push through and things slowly improved and we had put that behind us.”
Zuber quickly found herself exclusively selling her own brands out of her storefront and online, and as she puts it “I was having a ball. It was a creative side that I didn’t know I had. Some of it is like an outlet for me. When you do something and you feel fulfilled doing it, playing with the colors and textures, trying to improve each time…. discovering new ingredients and how to incorporate them…it’s also a challenge for me. How can I take something that we use everyday and improve on it while making it even more affordable and healthy?”
One afternoon, John is online and says “Look Audrey – there’s a 1 ac piece of property in Texas that’s a mile from your stepbrother’s place!” She explains, “My impression of Texas was cactus and tumbleweeds. I had never been to Texas. But I was feeling adventurous and said ‘Let’s go!’”
And sure enough, they came to Texas for a visit. Initially visiting Austin, Zuber explains “I said that if we moved to Austin, we might as well stay in Portland. No thanks.” However, they ventured to San Antonio which the couple liked, and then came out through Boerne, took a right onto River Road, and Zuber knew she had found her new home. “This is it. I knew it. I began a hard push with John to move here!”
The couple ultimately moved to Bergheim in 2017, but it became apparent that John wasn’t exactly thrilled with their decisions. She continues, “We got here and he really withdrew. He just sat in his office and he traveled constantly to go back to Oregon so that he could see his friends and family. When in Oregon he knew where all of his friends were, and everyone knew him, and he came here and lost all of that and we lived on acreage out on Bergheim in total anonymity. It was hard for him.”
Upon their relocation, Zuber’s business really took off. “We added Amazon and quickly grew. Our sales went up like 20 times over. We expanded all throughout British Columbia. Australia. England. The Netherlands went crazy. They just found us online or via word of mouth. My customers have always sold my product for me – I was in the grocery store in line and the woman in front of me recommended our teething oil to another woman and Sophia went crazy. It was wonderful being here.”
However, tragedy struck the Zuber family soon after.
She continues, “John joined a horse drill team that they do at the opening ceremony for rodeos. He found a women’s drill team and convinced them to let him ride with them. He was struggling to catch up with their routine, was bucked off, fell and his leg was slit open. He was there 45 minutes before someone showed up and they stapled his leg up, wrapped him up, and I picked him up. He got sicker in the coming days and weeks with weird rashes, light headedness, not feeling good, weakness…he was hospitalized twice and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him and his BP just plummeted. They wanted to ambulance him, he refused, and so we loaded him into my van and take him to the hospital.”
Ultimately, the doctors discovered that he had a blood clot, put him on blood thinners, and 5 days later he had another blood clot and passed away on July 7, 2019.
“I spent a month in bed after he died. I just couldn’t do anything. I had an amazing employee that kept my business running the whole time. He stayed on an extra 7 months just to help me through it. I was heartbroken, obviously. We never fought and we enjoyed life together and to have that suddenly taken from us was brutal. I was mourning on multiple levels – I lost the hope for our future, my kids to lose their father, there were a lot of pieces that were taken. I knew I’d lose him at some point as he was older than I was, but never ever that soon.”
Despite her anguish, Zuber knew that she had children to worry about and had to get serious about her business. She explains, “How do I grow this in a stable way, rather than just having fun which was what I was doing. I didn’t really care about where it went, I wanted it to grow, sure, but it wasn’t pressured previously. It was a secondary income for the family. Now I had to worry about the stability of our family. I made an investment in myself to refocus on the safety and the ingredients and the passion behind my business during that time. It began to drive me more and more. Helping parents have healthy children and see positive change was hugely vital to me and it drove me through that period.”
She gives an example, “This woman wrote and said I sent her a sample of lotion, she gave it to her mom who was going through chemo, and they wanted a huge bottle, so I sent them a free bottle – the stuff that I was making was having a healing impact on those lives and that was very healing for me. It gave me a new mental attitude for that business – every day I’m impacting someone and I’ve stayed focused on that the entire time. I love feeling like I’m making a difference.”