When Sarah Spencer asks her wine-sipping customers at Vermont Chalky Paint to “show your jugs,” she’s not being saucy or inappropriate. She just wants to see how their latest DIY home improvement projects are coming along.
Spencer, who regularly hosts Show Your Jugs Paint ‘n’ Sip events in her Essex Junction storefront and studio, chose her signature slogan to honor the wry humor of her mother, Joan, who died of breast cancer in 1985. “Jugs” refers to the kind of plastic containers normally used for maple syrup, in which Spencer bottles and sells her interior paints.
Once the jugs are empty, customers can repurpose them into lamps, gnomes and holiday decorations — with help from Spencer’s classes, kits and free videos. She honors her mother again by donating a percentage of her sales to cancer charities, including Camp Ta-Kum-Ta in South Hero and the Cancer Patient Support Foundation in Williston.
Vermont Chalky Paint might have seemed unlikely to be a success story when it launched as a web-only business in 2017. Spencer, a single mother and Burlington radio DJ, had no previous experience in manufacturing, making paint or selling physical products. But the self-described serial entrepreneur and award-winning internet marketer knew exactly what she wanted to offer to consumers: eco-friendly, nontoxic products to restore furniture, cabinets and other home décor. And she found a Vermont manufacturer to help.
Now, with a brick-and-mortar store that complements her online business, Spencer has carved out a niche for do-it-yourselfers all over the country. All of her paints are manufactured in Vermont, mostly from locally sourced materials such as calcium carbonate (chalk) mined in Middlebury and whey protein, an organic by-product of cheesemaking.
Spencer’s customers are people who aim to remodel their kitchens or bathrooms or spruce up old furnishings for a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional. “People come in here to try things that they might have never been brave enough to do on their own,” she said. “It’s a super-easy paint to work with. It’s great for a beginner, great for an expert.”
Entering Spencer’s Railroad Avenue storefront, across the street from the Amtrak station, you might not realize at first that it’s a paint store. Though Spencer paints in the back room, the store doesn’t reek of chemical fumes. “You don’t smell anything when you walk in here, except my coffee,” Spencer said.
Unlike the mass-produced paints sold in big-box stores, Vermont Chalky Paints are low in volatile organic compounds, the toxic chemicals that make some people sick and can be carcinogenic.
That makes her products ideal for people with infants and small children, as well as those with respiratory or chemical sensitivities. Vermont Chalky Paint sells paints in 16 colors, as well as a clear-coat finish that’s a nontoxic alternative to polyurethane. It also offers natural brushes and kits to give cabinets and furniture a distressed, antique look.
Spencer particularly enjoys working with customers who come in with what she calls their “problem child” — an inherited antique dresser, vanity or desk that doesn’t match anything in their house. They don’t want to get rid of it, but it needs an overhaul. She offers free instructional YouTube videos, including one that teaches people how to use découpage to reface furniture.
Several découpage pieces stand in her store, including an old Davenport desk she bought at a garage sale for $10. She went online, purchased an Alice in Wonderland-themed image, printed it, cut it out, and used her clear coat and découpage technique to decorate the desk. She’s now selling it for $595.
“It’s super easy and a beautiful effect,” Spencer said.
Teresa Randall used Vermont Chalky Paint’s all-in-one ProPack kit ($99.95) when she remodeled her North Concord kitchen a few years ago. Because she planned to sell the house, Randall didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a professional renovation.
Spencer guided her through the process and provided her with videos, Randall said. Working at night and on weekends, Randall refinished the cabinets in about two weeks. She believes her modest investment of time and money made all the difference in selling the house.
“I definitely think it made it more appealing,” she said. “Sarah was great to work with, and everyone was really impressed with the final product. It was really nice to see the transformation.”
Charlotte electrician Steve Spadaccini had a similar experience when he wanted “a fresh look” for the natural oak kitchen cabinets he’d installed in the 1980s. Laid up with a leg injury, Spadaccini worked with Spencer, who came by his house to help him repaint the cabinets.
“It was like my own personal class,” he said. “We’ve been really happy with the end product … It changed the whole concept of the kitchen.”
Spencer’s storefront, which she opened during the pandemic, is a return to her roots. The 57-year-old Essex Junction native grew up not far from the spot her business now occupies. As a child, she often went there to buy candy when it was called the Tip Top News.
“I was probably their No. 1 consumer,” she said. When Spencer got home, her mother would make her empty her pockets to see how much candy she’d bought that day.
At 13, Spencer contracted Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare skin disorder that covered her from head to toe in painful blisters and left her unable to see or speak for a month. Her doctor gave her a 30 percent chance of survival and, if she lived, a 50 percent chance of being left blind.
“The nurse said it right in front of me. I was devastated,” Spencer recalled. “But my mother said, ‘Sarah doesn’t listen to anyone. She doesn’t listen to me, so she’s certainly not going to listen to you. She’s going to outlive all of us.'”
Spencer made a full recovery. But in her twenties, after losing her mother to cancer, she felt directionless. One day, while mucking out her horse barn, she heard about a radio contest, called in and won.
Louie Manno, the longtime Burlington radio jock who answered the phone, told Spencer she had a great voice. “So I said, ‘You got a job for me?'” Spencer recalled with a laugh. “And he says, ‘Yeah, actually, I do.'”
Though her father warned her that Manno was probably kidding, Spencer went down to the station to claim her prize and her new job, still wearing her dirty barn boots. The station manager hired her on the spot. That was in 1985.
Though Vermont Chalky Paint was her first foray into selling products, Spencer was no newbie to home improvement when she started the business. In 2005, she bought a 2,500-square-foot barn in Richmond, built in 1801. She agreed to forgive her ex-husband’s child support debt if he would gut the barn so she could convert it into her home.
Spencer admitted that she didn’t know what she was doing at the time and didn’t care. “I just had an idea of what I wanted,” she said. She went dumpster diving to outfit the kitchen and finished the rest of the house on a shoestring budget. Five months later, she moved in.
About a decade ago, a Middlebury woman hired Spencer to do internet marketing for her online paint company. Though the concept of selling paint online seemed like “the craziest thing I ever heard,” Spencer said, she helped the woman quadruple her sales.
After the woman retired and closed her business, Spencer said to herself, “How hard can it be to make paint? Famous last words of a fool,” she recalled.
In 2017, Spencer competed in FreshTracks Capital’s Road Pitch, an annual multiday motorcycle trip for investors, who stop in Vermont towns to hear entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas. There she met Andrew Meyer, owner of Vermont Natural Coatings, a Hardwick company that manufactures environmentally friendly paints, stains and finishes. When Spencer explained the products she wanted to sell, Meyer agreed to partner with her.
In an interview, Meyer said that, while his company provided the technical expertise and facilities to bring her product to market, it was Spencer’s original concept and passion that made it successful. He believes she’s only begun to tap her business’ full potential.
“Compared to what’s on the market, she’s got a gold mine,” he said. “It’s a beautiful product.”
Spencer never intended to open a brick-and-mortar store. But in 2020, she was walking her dog on Railroad Avenue when she noticed that the old Tip Top storefront was vacant. On a lark, she rented it for a few months to use for shipping and storage.
Soon, Spencer found it convenient having studio space where she could help customers work on projects. She started offering paint ‘n’ sip classes, then summer camps. Essex Junction Recreation & Parks now books her events, all held in the same location where she overindulged on candy as a child.
“It’s kind of neat to have it come full circle,” she said. “The store that I got in so much trouble with is now my livelihood.”