By Lauren Sage Reinlie
In the security area of a small Florida airport, an agent asked Rick Stanfield if he preferred to be taken to a private area for his full-body search.
“Uh, no … Why? What all are you going to be searching here?” he asked, joking, but also with some trepidation. He spread his arms and legs as the agent patted him down. Nearby, his wife, Tina, giggled nervously, snapping photos with her phone.
“This is definitely going on social media,” she said.
Rick had foolishly forgotten to take his wallet out of his back pocket, one of those rookie mistakes of the unseasoned traveler. But, he really didn’t know any better.
At 46 and 47 years old, Tina and Rick Stanfield were taking the first commercial flight of their lives — to New York City, no less.
Their business, Sweet Henrietta’s, an idea the couple came up with when they found themselves homeless and living out of a car, had become so successful it was being featured on an episode of the Today Show. In fact, it has become so successful the two are looking to sell — they just can’t keep up with demand.
Less than a decade earlier, a series of business decisions and difficulties combined with a plummeting economy led to a hasty loss of almost all Rick and Tina’s hard-earned possessions.
First went their cars. Then their 16-year-old son’s brand-new convertible. The furniture. And finally, the house. A big eviction sticker was plastered on the front door.
They sent their son to stay with friends and spent their nights sleeping in a borrowed, broken-down car parked at a public beach access in South Walton, Florida.
Curled up in the barely reclining seats, it was hard to sleep. They spent some time reflecting on how they got there. But they also started dreaming.
What if we opened a business where we bake cupcakes and cookies to sell around town? Just the two of us and a little truck. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Part One: Love
Rick and Tina started dating way back when, in seventh grade. They lived one block from each other in the small town of West Plains, Missouri.
Their backgrounds were modest. Rick remembers when his parents were able to move his family from their trailer into a one-bedroom house.
They both worked through high school, Rick full-time at Piggly Wiggly and Tina at the snack bar at a convenient store named Duckie’s. They squirreled away what they thought they would need to start their life together as a married couple: silverware, cups, a mixer, six months worth of toilet paper.
A year after graduating from high school, they were married. Soon after that, along came Ricky, their only son.
Rick, whose grandfather, father and brother were all police officers, became a state trooper, and Tina did what she could while taking care of little Ricky. She started a home daycare service, worked at JC Penney’s and then started dabbling in real estate, buying houses and flipping them for a profit.
During this time, Tina and Rick stumbled across a property they thought would be perfect for a gas station and convenient store. They became obsessed with how great it could be, and one day Rick went to the bank.
“I don’t know what made them think to loan a half-million dollars to a penniless state trooper, but they did,” he said.
Part Two: The Scrappy Couple
And this was what led to their first rough patch. They built the store from the ground up and in 1997 they opened the doors.
But the customers didn’t come.
Rick remembers someone coming in the store and telling him they wouldn’t last a year. “It made me even more determined,” he said.
They didn’t have enough money coming in to hire staff so they worked the store themselves, 18 to 20 hours a day, every day of the week. They couldn’t even imagine a day off. Most nights, little Ricky fell asleep in a booth before they could close up shop.
This went on for about three years, but Rick said he never even considered quitting. “It would have been a lot easier, but it never even occurred to my mind. It just wasn’t an option.”
And then, about three years in, they turned a corner.
“I don’t know what made us think we could do it, but it was a perfect location,” said Tina, a glint of pride in her eye. “It became a 24-hour truck stop, one of the busiest stores in Southeast Missouri.”
At one point they owned six stores across the region. They were bringing in about $300,000 a year.
Part Three: Living the Dream
They started to get days off and those days were most often spent in South Walton, Florida, a small but quickly growing community tucked right along the Gulf of Mexico.
When they were on vacation, they dreamed of just packing up and moving there, getting out of the small town they’d always known, living a life at the beach.
One day, they thought. Why not?
They purchased a new home, still under construction, and started a new life in Florida.
They bought a franchise of a cheesecake company. They spent their downtime in the sand. They were happy.
“We’d gotten success at a relatively young age,” Rick said.
That was 2007. The next year, the housing market bottomed out. People stopped coming on vacation. Rick and Tina were suddenly in over their heads on their new home. Their business failed. Some other investments went bad. Their safety net, in real estate back in Missouri, lost its value.
All the things that would have to happen at the same time for everything to go wrong, well, they did.
Rick and Tina sold everything that wasn’t repossessed and started all over.
Part Four: Overnight, It Can All Be Gone
“It totally changed us,” Tina recalled recently, sitting in her living room in a rented home scattered with the accouterments of a baker: mixers, a convection oven, pecans, chocolate chips and flour. Lots and lots of flour.
“You think more about what you are doing, you appreciate things more than you ever had,” said Tina.“When you see homeless person with a sign, you don’t judge them. You don’t take anything for granted when you know everything can be taken away from you. Just overnight, it can all be gone.”
Tina and Rick crawled their way back cleaning toilets and scrubbing sinks, doing yard work, any work they could find. Eventually they saved enough to buy an old ice-cream truck and Sweet Henrietta’s Treats was born.
They started with old family recipes and them improved them. “When you bake every day you start tinkering,” Rick said. Altering the baking soda. Trying sour cream. They both do the baking, but, Rick said, “Tina’s the real talent.”
People started stopping Tina when she was out and about to say how delicious everything was. They would tell her it was the best cake they’d ever had. Orders started coming in. And then they started coming faster. And faster.
Famous Chef and television personality Emeril Lagasse, who has a home in the area, orders their desserts. (He loves their coconut cake. “He said we knocked it out of the park,” Tina recalled.)
Vern Yip, famous from his Home and Garden television show, Trading Spaces, featured their cakes in his recent book. That’s how they got the call for the Today Show.
Demand has far outgrown a mom and pop business. While chatting in the living room, Tina’s phone was a constant flurry of beeps and rings. She said she gets about six to seven calls an hour.
Rick and Tina are back to working seven days a week again. Their days off are few and very far between. While they love the work and especially the community that has embraced and encouraged them over the years, they’ve decided it’s time to sell.
They are looking for an owner who can take the business to the next level. “I know the perfect person is out there,” said Rick.
He’s gone back to school and will finish his law degree by the end of the year. He wants to start a new career making a difference in law enforcement. He’s written a cookbook, sharing their story and some of their most-popular recipes. He hopes their story might help other people faced with a similar situation.
It’s not about making money for him anymore.
“When you’re young, it’s all about money,” he said. “We’ll never have a lot of money again. If we were ever in a position where it was excessive, we would give it away. To accumulate too much, almost seems wrong. That’s just the way I see it now.”
Part Five: The Big Apple
It’s not just the pace of the business that have Rick and Tina ready to sell. They’ve been on a plane. They’ve seen New York.
“And I loved it,” Tina said.
She was nervous on the flight. Every bump and bounce, she would grasp the armrest of her seat in fear and then laugh.
In the city, they borrowed a kitchen on the bottom floor of their hotel to bake and decorate their cake and cookies for the show. Once they were done, they still had to get the treats two or three blocks to Rockefeller Center.
“So here we go, pushing this cart down the busy sidewalks,” Tina recalled. “It was elbow to elbow and here we are in the middle of it all.”
They were both impressed with how nice everyone was and what all there was to see and do, how you didn’t have to have a car.
They can’t wait to get back.