Supporting Catholic-run small business in the Tri-Cities

Faithful parishioners have started successful operations on little more than a wing and a prayer

By Casey Keeley

Small businesses have been the backbone of the U.S. economy since the country’s early years. In recent years, however, owners have been struggling to stay in business.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the shut-down of roughly one-third of U.S. small businesses, according to a study published on June 8, 2021, in the Austin American-Statesman.

Several parishioners at St. Dominic Church in Kingsport have been bucking that trend with their entrepreneurial ventures. From coffee shops to food trucks to farm-to-table homesteading, there is a variety of local businesses within the parish working to grow their brand and strengthen the Catholic community of East Tennessee.

The following stories of these families taking the leap and creating a successful business on a wing and a prayer are nothing short of inspiring.

Mark Walters owns Early Birds Coffee Co. with his wife Stephanie. The St. Dominic parishioners operate a mobile business that brings fresh-brewed beverages to consumers.

Early Birds Coffee Co.

Mark and Stephanie Walters are the husband-and-wife owners of Early Birds Coffee Co., a mobile coffee cart that serves handcrafted coffee and other beverages to locals at events, schools, and businesses. The couple talked about opening a coffee shop for years before finally taking the leap and launching Early Birds in April 2021.

“We picked this industry because it is a customer-facing environment,” said Mr. Walters. “I go everywhere, I see thousands of people, and I have the opportunity to impact people’s lives by giving them joy, bringing them a cup of happiness, and putting it in their hand wherever they are. That in itself is evangelical, even though I may not be saying God’s name.”

As of 2022, they are the only state-certified coffee cart in the area. In addition to freshly made coffees, teas, and smoothies, they sell whole bean coffee, loose leaf teas, and wholesale beverages by the gallon. They also provide catering.

The company has plans for expanding and moving into an espresso shack in the near future. In the first year of business, they built up enough demand for their product to hire additional employees.

Since the business is currently still mobile, its schedule is updated weekly and posted on social media platforms under the handle @earlybirdscoffeeco.

Hindsight Homestead

Hindsight Homestead is a growing family farm in Piney Flats that provides farm tours and products including berries, fruits, vegetables, flowers, baby animals, and fiber products such as wool and yarn. The farm also provides a meeting place for workshops where people can learn skills to enable them to begin their own homestead.

Neva and John Keeley began the process of homesteading after the birth of their triplet daughters in 2006. With a family totaling nine people and seven children under the age of 7, the couple began to look for more affordable ways to feed their family on a limited budget.

The more they looked into affordable options, however, the less they liked the quality of food available in supermarkets.

“All of this started by us learning where the food comes from and what was in the food that I was feeding my kids,” Mrs. Keeley said. “It was like a research domino where researching one topic led to the research of another and then another.”

St. Dominic parishioners Neva and John Keeley started a homestead farm in Piney Flats to sustain their family that has evolved into a small business.

The family started its first garden in 2006 in the backyard of its rented home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Evans, Ga. Over the next three years, the family strung up a clothesline, began a compost pile and a worm farm, and began canning vegetables bought in bulk from the local farmers markets.

In 2009, the family moved across the state line to a country property in South Carolina, where they began to acquire the animals. Starting small with chickens, then eventually purchasing sheep and goats, each member of the family continued to learn and develop skills and appreciation for the land and animals.

“It makes you feel so accomplished,” Mrs. Keeley said. “The first time I canned tomato sauce it felt like I was in my own store.”

In 2012, the family made its final move to Piney Flats, between Johnson City and Kingsport, where the Keeleys purchased 100 acres of land near Boone Lake. Originally, they intended to follow the same path as in their previous locations by just raising animals and food for themselves, but they eventually realized they had acquired too much knowledge of the land and practical skills to keep the farm small.

They have been steadily adding to their land over the years and improving the quality and quantity of their agricultural produce.

On the animal spectrum, pigs, cows, poultry, alpacas, and two breeds of sheep call Hindsight home. The easy access to the lake, along with the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, woods, and various plants and wildlife also provides a beautiful environment for families and individuals to rent time slots for photography sessions.

“Our farm provides inspiration for every home to be a homestead,” Mrs. Keeley said. “Our original calling as a human race was to tend the earth. God created the garden and then He created man to tend the garden, so I would say it’s every home’s responsibility to take care of the earth. We are available as a resource to teach people how to do that on whatever scale they want.”

The farm became an official business in 2020 by becoming a limited liability company, and it now operates with seven full-time employees.

Hernandez, La Abejita Food Trucks

La Abejita is a Mexican grocery store in Kingsport owned and operated by Carlos Hernandez along with his wife and two daughters.

The family bought the business in 2006 when the oldest daughter was 1 year old, trading their only truck for the store and starting their operations with only the $4.25 in change that was left in the truck when they cleaned it out for the trade.

The Hernandez family jumped in feet first into the business, reaching out to another local Mexican store for advice and to learn the names of the suppliers of groceries and wares.

The physical location of the storefront changed several times within the first few years in business before the family finally settled on Bloomingdale Road. Prior to that, the store was set up in Lynn Garden, which was a turning point in the girls’ lives.

Daniella was 7 years old and her sister, Carla, was 6 when their father made a deal with a local shaved ice distributor who was dissolving his business.

Mr. Hernandez told the girls he would put down $200 from his own pocket to buy a shaved ice truck with all of the necessary equipment, but he would contribute no more after that and they would be responsible for giving the previous owner $100 per month until the shaved ice unit was completely paid off.

The girls agreed and paid off the truck by the end of their first season in business.

“From a young age my girls have learned respect for others,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We have served young people to old people to people with special needs and there is no discrimination. They learned that you don’t get to judge a book by its cover.”

Three years later, the girls calculated their savings and expanded their business with the acquisition of a used ice cream truck. The following year, they purchased another ice cream truck and began to hire staff to drive them. Now age 17 and 16, the sisters own a fleet of nine trucks and three trailers.

Both Hernandez sisters are diligent high school students, dividing their time between work, home, business, and band practice. They manage their time wisely, doing their homework during the downtime in the trucks.

“You just have the right mindset about it,” Daniella said. “It is hard and exhausting, but in the end it’s worth it because we’re achieving our goals.”

Daniella and Carla have learned the value of a hard-earned dollar, and both admit to being very good at managing and saving their money. They have been so successful with their trucks that in 2019 they were able to take their parents on a trip to Universal Studios in Florida, with all the expenses paid from what they had earned in tips from the trucks.

“I’m very grateful to God, because He is the reason we have all of this and why we are where we are,” Carla said.

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