Botanicus co-founder Dana Hradecká: planting the seeds of success

Dana Hradecká

The Botanicus chain of stores offering herbal soaps, extracts and delicacies is a Czech, and growing international, success story. Most tourists will have probably bought something from one of their outlets in the country. The small business was founded in the early 1990’s after the restitution of a family farm around 40 kilometres north-east of Prague. That has become the centre for the business and a tourist attraction with more than 50,000 visitors a year. One of the firm’s co-founders Dana Hradecká explained the roots of the original inspiration for the business.

“After university I was working for a year in a company which was dealing with seeds and plants. I was speaking German at the time. We were working with a Dutch company. I always wanted to go away after the revolution and improve my languages. And basically, out of complete pure luck and coincidence, I met someone from England. He was an engineer who was doing the machinery for our company. At a meeting, which was translated, he said: “My colleague in Cambridge is looking for someone at the botanical or physic garden to work with plants and extracts and teas etc. I said “Wow, that is wonderful, that is a dream, but there is one problem, I do not speak any English.” He said: “Oh, he speaks German, so you can work there. There is only one condition: You have to leave within a week.” Funnily enough, I think that about two weeks ago, I found a little yellowing typewritten paper. On it there were important English words to learn on the bus going to England. And when I read it, the most important one was The White Cliffs of Dover. When I got off the bus to meet with Dr. (Malcolm) Stuart in London, I opened the door, and in my complete happiness at being in England and with my head all full of these English words, I mixed it all up and said “Goodbye, I am Dana.” So I always laugh when I think about that. That was my first introduction to England.”

When you were in England how much did you learn about processing plants and working with them and extracts? Was that all new to you?

Dana Hradecká
“I did learn about that stuff there, but England gave me much more. England gave me a feeling of looking after myself, learning to do things in a different way, thinking differently, and respecting people. But it also offered a different form of education. And that was very important because in the Czech Republic at that time it was like: go to university, be whatever you are and start a job. For me, this was like opening a door and changed my life from that narrow way.”

So you spent a year in England and then came back. How did you start the business then?

“Basically, while I was in England my husband was restoring the farm in slow steps here. I think it was after I finished in the UK that Dr Stuart came over. We had talked about it a lot, what I wanted to do and what I would do with the farm. We started a small business between me, my husband, Jan, and Malcolm, with herbs and pot pourries and candles made from bees wax. We were delivering stuff. I remember Jan going with a rucksack and selling plants and herbs to the shops in Prague. Slowly we were selling in about a thousand outlets in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. But we always wanted to open a shop. And a couple of years later we started a farm shop in this place. Then everyone thought it was not the right way and that it would not work. But it slowly developed and people came to know the products and we expanded from growing the herbs and doing the teas. We started making oils and vinegars and soaps. And in this place in 1999 we started having events for children.”

At first, was most of the demand for your products from tourists or was it a mix of tourists and Czechs?

“It was, is, a mixture of people. We produced, I would say, at first mostly for tourists. But Czech people came to know our products and there is a certain group of people who like our products. There is a specific design and there is a certain natural feeling. And it is a certain type of man and woman who like that sort of thing.”

You have expanded now to China and have outlets in Russia. Is the Czech Republic now as important as this business abroad?

“Basically, the business in China and abroad is an important piece of the business. But we are trying to balance the Czech side of the business and the exports in the sense of not expanding too fast or too far. We will probably not be a big international business because this business has been developed and has got its base here. One of the most important things that I have learnt from my husband, Jan, is to say “no.” Even if it sounds arrogant, and I do not think I am an arrogant person, but it is part of the survival instinct.”

You have now developed a concept which is basically more ecological. You have developed strains of plants and trees that are threatened. Can you talk a bit about this?

“The idea of the garden is that we now grow on about 32 hectares in an organic or ecological way. The gardens are not sprayed or chemically treated. The gardens are a complex of leisure, educational and growing gardens. We are located in what is called “the golden path of the River Elbe” which is traditionally an agricultural area with alluvial soil. The idea is that on what used to be a big field under the former socialist farming we go back to the old former, in Czech katastrálni or cadastre map, when everyone owned a field. On the border of the field there was a natural barrier or hedge. Each garden has a certain theme, and one of these is the orchard. The orchard is physically a mixture of pears, apples, plums and cherries. These are old varieties which have been put together with the research institute in Holovousy where they have a genobank with the old varieties of these trees.”