MANSFIELD — Joyce Wells didn't start out as a creative business maven, but she's shown a remarkable ability to adapt her talents.
Wells is the owner and operator of Eatmor Bundt Company and Twisted Fig Tea at 837 Lexington Ave. She describes her shops as "quirky" ideas that have taken on a life of their own.
It turns out that quirkiness is exactly the characteristic a business needs to survive, thrive even, in the face of traumatic obstacles.
The tea industry, which represents a multi-billion dollar industry around the world, is gaining momentum in the United States. Last year’s sales in tea were an 84 percent increase from 1990’s $1.84 billion in sales.
It encompasses all tea products, including ready-to-drink tea products, food service and the specialty tea segment. A state of the industry report from the Tea Association of the USA shows that in 2015, the industry’s sales steeped to over $11 billion in the country, representing a six-percent increase from 2014.
But the momentum hasn’t come full-swing for Wells’ loose-leaf, specialty tea shop, Twisted Fig Tea. For Wells, loose-leaf tea is a hard sell in a market where coffee and ready-to-drink products govern most consumer habits.
“Maybe because we’re a hurried up, unrefined society?” the business owner wondered aloud, chuckling. “Tea drinkers seem to be a little bit not such in a high gear.”
In Wells’ words, loose-leaf tea sommelier-esque drinkers are … well, quirky. Perhaps that quality has carried Wells’ resilient business through the throes of time and continues to serve Mansfield’s zany crowd.
A ‘quirky’ idea
Wells’ story starts with a dubious idea inspired by a transition in life.
Wells started Eatmor Bundt, a gourmet bundt cake bakery, after she left her job in the healthcare industry in 2004. It was just a few years before the recession. Twisted Fig Tea comes later in Wells’ enterprising story.
“I was at home with three large boys who said, ‘you’re home, so you should bake for us,’” she fondly remembered.
Because her family preferred bundt cakes and powdered sugar over regular cake recipes, she started experimenting.
“I have a pharmacy background. So I was just playing with stuff and it got to like, ‘wow these taste pretty good.’ And then my friends were all coming over and one said he could make a webpage. So I said, ‘ok, I’ve got nothing else to do — let's try this.’”
Just like that, she had a small business baking bundt cakes. The idea of selling gourmet bundt cakes was such a new, out-of-the-box idea at the time that, Wells remembers children asking her what “butt cakes” were.
After designing a one-page website and convincing five local food vendors to carry her cakes, she created a job for herself -- and a fun one, at that.
Shortly after the creation of the webpage, MidWest Living magazine contacted Wells to write a feature on her unique business venture. When the story published, Wells described her success as an explosion.
“ … When you’re in one magazine, other magazines call you,” she said, listing off other major publications like Country Living and Long Weekends. She appeared on Cleveland and Columbus television stations as she pretended to prepare her bundt recipes. Wells even made appearances at baking classes.
“I’m not even a baker,” she said, flashing air quotes around the word “baker.” “I just make bundt cakes. It just turned into a whole lot of fun.”
Wells said that Eatmor Bundt’s biggest claim to fame was catering Victoria Secret’s Holiday Show in Orlando in 2012 and again in 2013. For the first trip, she rented a panel van to transport all 2,500 individually wrapped bundt cakes, which were packaged with jimmy-rigged strawberry cartons.
“When we got there, they were so nice. They took us in and showed us how to do it better for the next time,” she said, laughing. “It was obvious that we were from the Midwest.”
When Wells’ initial flame of fame calmed, she had another idea.
“We needed a pairing. So tea seemed like a good pairing — that seemed like the right thing for bundt cakes,” she said.
Without thinking twice, she joined the World Tea Academy and the Specialty Institute of Tea. She hopes to one day become a certified tea sommelier.
In April 2006, the Twisted Fig Tea Room was born. She set up shop in the storefront that is now Relax, It’s Just Coffee in downtown Mansfield, found a tea purveying company based in Hamburg, Germany, and started concocting tea blends that would pair well with her bundt creations.
Her tea blends also won her newly formed company awards. Citrus Splash won the Best Herbal Iced Tea, among others.
The idea for the name was inspired by her friend’s fig tree, which was conspicuously placed in the dining area of her humble shop when they opened Eatmor Bundt.
“It was literally twisted,” Wells reminisced, laughing. “I liked the sound of that, so that’s what we decided to call it.”
Even with business running smoothly as a bundt cake and tea shop, the market crash had Wells, and many other small business owners, doing some soul searching.
Was the business worth keeping? Could it stay afloat?
At the low point, she had already moved on to the operation's second location just up the road in Richland Bank’s small storefront on Main Street.
But instead of disbanding like 170,000 small businesses across the nation did from 2008 to 2010, Wells stuck with it.
In Mansfield, there were a total of 60 small businesses that tanked from 2009 to 2010 alone, a 2.2-percent decrease, according to a Business Journals’ database. Mansfield ranked number four in Ohio’s top five cities who lost the most small businesses during that time period. Of the 19,354 cities in the U.S., Mansfield ranked 807th.
She decided to move her shop again, this time to a smaller location on Lexington Avenue -- where it remains today. To make sure the transition wouldn’t debilitate them, Wells opened the Lex Ave. shop months before moving everything over.
“We could have stayed downtown and toughed it out. But I watched like 10 businesses come and go so downsizing seemed to be the right job. So I opened this shop up for seven to nine months and saw that yes they would still come down here,” Wells said.
The move ended up benefiting Eatmor Bundt and Twisted Fig Tea because the businesses were moving into catering and shipping through online ordering. Today, at face value, Wells’ business in bundt cakes and loose-leaf tea admittedly looks mute.
However, Wells believes the opposite to be true. She is providing catered weddings and private parties with bundt cakes and other desserts. The loose-leaf tea business continues to thrive through online orders for catered parties and private tea-cupping parties.
The shop on Lexington Avenue also carries travel mugs specially designed for tea drinkers, Magic Pots, bundt cupcakes, cookies and bundt pans. Her tea can be bought within the shop, as well as Vitality Natural Wellness on Main Street next to Bankz Salon, Sweet Home Ohio in the Richland County mall and at downtown’s Butterfly House.
Ask Wells about tea cuppings, which are currently showcased at the Mansfield Art Center, Kingwood Center and the Falcon Room.