Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Sue and Stanley Jennings's love story began underground. In 1984, Sue was a miner, running big machines in a coal pit in Philippi, West Virginia. Stanley was a mechanic, servicing those machines. "He had 10 years underground and I had five," says Sue, who had followed her best friend into that career.
Two months after they met, the mine shut down for a year, preparing to become a non-union outfit. The couple spent four years largely adrift. He tried strip mining but quit because he found the environmental practices odious. She was a school janitor and worked in a greenhouse.
Then they found their calling: wooden spoons.
Allegheny Treenware is part of the Jennings's farm on 45 acres in Thornton, West Virginia. Grafton is the nearest big town--if 5,000 people counts as big. Land here is lush and forested, although big timber and gas wells are taking their toll. The farm provides produce, and both Jenningses like to hunt. In lean years, that kept them fed.
Today, Stanley, 69 and largely retired, slices boards from the surrounding hardwood forests on a once-portable sawmill, now anchored to the ground to discourage neighbors from borrowing it. Inside the wooden structure that serves as a plant, Sue, 60, and four workers labor with band saws, hand gouges, and sandpaper, producing tens of thousands of utensils a year. Wood scrap feeds the outdoor furnace that heats their home and workshop. Sawdust makes excellent mulch for the blueberry patches. "We are about as close to 100 percent green as you can get," Sue says. "If we didn't have to buy electricity, we would be there."
"Treenware" refers to wooden household and kitchen utensils. The Jenningses manufacture roughly 170 types of such objects ranging from simple dinner spoons to measuring cups. Those cups, as well as wooden measuring spoons, soared in popularity four years ago when chef Damaris Phillips started using them on her Food Network program Southern at Heart. The orders came so fast the Jenningses eliminated ladles from their offerings, so they'd have enough thick boards to make the cups.
About 85 percent of products are crafted from cherry. The Jenningses buy their lumber from local landowners. Sometimes, after a particularly violent storm cuts a swath through the area, people will just give it to them.
Allegheny Treenware is sold at retail stores, online, and to tourists who pass through the Jennings's log cabin showroom after visiting the plant (and making their own spoons). They come for the workshop, "but we have a beautiful farm and a greenhouse and an awesome koi pond," Sue says. "People like to see how we are living off the land."
The company's largest distributor is Tamarack, a sprawling showcase of the state's crafts and cooking, in Beckley, West Virginia, that features work by more than 2,000 artisans. Alleghany Treenware is among its top nine sellers, and No. 1 in the wood products category. The products "have a nostalgic feel, like representations of very old cooking utensils, rooted in Appalachia," says Norma Acord, Tamarack's marketing and events director. "They are well-made, super-smooth, and very beautiful."
Carving a niche
Shortly after meeting, Stanley and Sue discovered they had two things in common: both had roots in West Virginia and both were handy.
Stanley was just 3 when his father, who owned a sawmill, was killed by a drunken driver. Raised by his mother, a librarian, he studied biology in college, and then did road construction before finding his way to the mine. When Sue met him, he was living in a house he'd built himself.
Sue knew her way around tools as well, having helped her father at his Ohio home-construction business from an early age. "If I had a dog and I needed a doghouse, I built a doghouse," she says. After Sue's mother died when she was 12, she and her father moved back to his native West Virginia and lived on a dairy farm.
"One of the first things Stan and I talked about was, if you had your dream, what would it be?" says Sue. "I said I would be a woodworker. And that's what he'd always thought he would do."
Given their lifestyle, the Jenningses didn't need much money. But one day in 1990, with phone and electric bills to pay, they decided to see if they could scrape up some funds at a local crafts show. Using her father's tools, which Sue hung onto after his death, they made wooden baskets, signs, and other tchotchkes. They found that kitchenware sold the most: wooden spoons, flippers, and paddles, for $5 each. After a while they began traveling, each year pitching those items at 21 shows both in and outside of West Virginia.
To make a spoon, Sue or her employees trace a pattern on a board, cut it with a band saw, hollow it out with a router, shape it with a hand gouge, sand it, and soak it in mineral oil to enrich the color. Finally, they burn onto the handle the type of wood used, the couple's shared initials (SJ), and the date. The spoons cost about $10 and take 15 minutes to make. Measuring cups cost $50, reflecting the 45 minutes or more required to craft each one. "If we hate making something, we make it more expensive," Sue says.
From shows to shops
The Jenningses learned wholesale from the folks at Tamarack. The West Virginia showcase, which started as a small shop in the Culture Center in Charleston, became Allegheny Treenware's first account. In 1996, it moved to 60,000-plus square feet of space, off the West Virginia Turnpike, where it attracts 350,000 visitors a year with shopping, food, and a conference center.
Talking to buyers at Tamarack, the Jenningses realized that what they spent on craft shows--including booth fees, travel costs, and time away from the workshop--exceeded what they made from charging higher prices at retail. So in 1997, when Tamarack sponsored a bus tour of West Virginia artisans to a wholesale show in Philadelphia, Sue signed up. The next year they invested $3,000 to field a professional display there. "We thought we could make some money if we got 25 new accounts," says Sue. "We came away with 60."
At Tamarack, artisans can display personal contact information on their products, enabling Allegheny Treenware to gin up more accounts. Some buyers who approached them were from stores associated with museums, like the Folk Art Center and Moses Cone Manor, both in North Carolina. Today Allegheny products are in 140 stores--some as far off as California.
For a while in the early 2000s, the company employed 12 people. Recently, though, the Jenningses have purposely ratcheted back. They added e-commerce, but now do just four craft shows a year. And their wholesale accounts have declined as some small retailers have gone out of business. Production is also a problem: Sue says West Virginia's opioid crisis has made finding help next to impossible. "In 2016, we hired 32 people trying to fill one spot, and most averaged less than a week," she says. "Drugs was a lot of them."
Stanley still cuts logs. Otherwise, he spends his days working the farm. "We are back to raising our own food," says Sue. She runs the whole business now, but prefers to hand off as much as possible to her four remaining workers. "Most artists put about 25 percent of their time into their craft and the rest into their business," she says. "The art is what makes me happy. All day, every day, I sit here in my little corner, shaping spoons."