Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Mounted on the wall of Richard Mungeam's office in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida is a rack holding row upon row of small jars of sand. Back when he was designing high-end resort homes, Mungeam traveled to vacation spots around the world and brought home, as souvenirs, scoops of their local beaches. "They are labeled with all the places I had been," says Mungeam. "There are probably 150 from all over."
Mungeam wasn't obsessed with sand in those days. He couldn't have told you where to find the best quality (by the dunes) or how much water is required to form a mass that won't break down when carved (a lot). As owner of his own architecture firm in Colorado, Mungeam designed for rich customers large permanent structures that other people then built. He never imagined he'd one day earn his bread teaching families to raise small temporary structures with buckets and shovels along the Gulf Coast.
Many people lost everything in the 2008 financial crisis. Few reinvented their lives so thoroughly as Rick and Capri Mungeam, owners of Beach Sand Sculptures, a business with $350,000 in annual revenue that over 10 years has instructed thousands of people in the fine art of "granular engineering." Most of their clients are families vacationing on Florida's Emerald Coast, roughly 100 miles of sugar-white sand along the Gulf of Mexico from Panama City to Pensacola.
But the couple also flies around the country to run team-building exercises or create giant projects for corporations, the largest, most elaborate of which they might spend a week to construct for a charge up to $15,000. Among their most ambitious sculptures: a 50-ton bartending octopus in pirate garb they erected for Bud Light at a music festival. Recently the Mungeams have begun licensing their sand castle instruction methodology to Princess Cruise Lines.
Then there's the romance niche: sand sculptures for weddings and marriage proposals. A proposal sculpture might incorporate a large heart, a banner, or an open book inscribed with a customized "Will you marry me?" message. Mungeam crafts sand vases around the base and fills them with (real) roses. He stands guarding the sculpture from destructive beachgoers up until--and typically through--the popping of the big question. "For the last nine years we were 100 percent" in terms of proposal acceptances," he says. "Then last year someone said no. So now I am only at 99 percent."
The Mungeams, who employ 15 instructors during their busy seasons, charge $220 to $370 for a two-hour lesson, depending on the size of the group. Joey Gates, a Dallas small business owner who regularly vacations in Florida, has done the class twice with six or seven family members, ages 2 on up. He also commissioned Mungeam to build a large heart-shape sculpture on the beach by his condo, with which he surprised his wife on their 10th anniversary.
"You build the biggest, baddest sand castles on the beach," Gates says. "Everyone comes by and says, 'Oh my god, who did this?'" But castle construction is just one part of the experience. "You also learn about wildlife and sea turtle safety and about the science of building sand castles," he says. "It's really fun but also educational."
When they're not at the beach or away on a job, the Mungeams live in an RV, which they drive down to the Keys to do volunteer work at state parks. (The couple recently bought land, and Mungeam is designing their first traditional home in 10 years.) Florida's state parks are a big part of the couple's story. They gave the Mungeams a place to stay when their fortunes were down. And they provided inspiration for the business with which they rebuilt their lives.
The search for a new chapter
Growing up in Berlin, Massachusetts, Richard Mungeam spent long hours in his father's basement woodworking shop, and studied mechanical drawing at a local vocational high school. Unable to afford college, he took a draftsman job at a custom kitchen company, and five years later moved to Colorado for the skiing. There he taught himself industrial engineering and worked at a series of small architectural firms.
He met Capri in 1983, and at her urging launched his own architecture firm, Richard Mungeam Designs, in 1994. The business, which at one time employed four people, designed resort homes for well-heeled clients around the world. In 2008, the construction industry collapsed, and Mungeam's clientele vanished. With foreclosure nipping at their heels, the couple sold their home, which Mungeam had designed and built and where they had raised two sons, at a substantial loss. "We bought a large RV and went to find out what the next chapter of our life would be," Mungeam says.
Heading south to escape the snow in late 2011, the Mungeams passed through South Padre Island, in Texas. While walking on the beach, Mungeam spied a man building large abstract sculptures from sand. Over a couple of beers the man explained his techniques to Mungeam, who harbored fond memories of sand sculpting from childhood vacations on Cape Cod.
Still chasing warmth, the Mungeams fetched up in northwest Florida. There they learned that state parks let campers park for free in return for volunteer work. At Topsail Hill Preserve in Santa Rosa Beach, the couple cleaned bathrooms and campsites, did gardening and repairs. Mungeam spent most of his spare time on the beach, developing his skill in the playful new form of architecture.
From the South Padre encounter and subsequent research, Mungeam had learned a lot about sand castles. His creations grew increasingly elaborate. Most were still castles, sure. But they were castles wrapped round by octopi or mounted by dragons. And they were big--three or four feet tall. People came by, asked questions, took photos. Eventually someone from the park suggested a new volunteer job: teaching sand castle construction. "I was a little nervous at the time because I didn't really like to talk in front of people," Mungeam says. "I had to tell myself I'm not really teaching. I'm sharing what I do."
At some point the couple realized the lessons could be a business. People routinely gathered to watch Mungeam and his students at work. Capri would answer questions and pass out business cards. Then they found Trip Advisor. "When we first got on, we were like No. 97 in our category. But we quickly rose to single digits," Mungeam says. "Now about 70 percent of our business comes through Trip Advisor. They put us on the map."
How to make perfect castles
Every grain of sand on the beach is different. But the Mungeams strive to make every lesson taught by Beach Sand Sculptures the same. All their instructors work from a script. Following a meet-and-greet, the students fetch water from the gulf, then build foundations for their structures. Next comes the "pound up," a technique to ensure the sand is firm and dense--almost like concrete--so it won't crumble during carving.
Mungeam customized the pound-up for the company's standard 3½-foot-tall castles. Here's how it works: take a large bucket from which the bottom has been removed. Pour in dry sand and lots of water. Tap the side of the bucket (called a form) until the sand settles as a liquid. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Next the instructor demonstrates the tools. Most are pedestrian devices: pastry spatulas and melon ballers, masonry tools and palette knives. Mungeam has designed a few of his own, including ones for writing and drawing in sand. Among the most useful instruments is the simple straw. "Most professional sand sculptors use straws to clean the loose sand from the intricate details, like if you're making an eyeball," he says. "We call it a 'portable pneumatic device.'"
If you can dream it, you can build it
Although instructors demonstrate on castles, clients can make whatever they want. "I have had people make Batman. Penguins. Ballerina slippers. A banana with the peel coming off," Mungeam says. "One guy was a plumber. We were here building castles. He was over there making a large toilet."
About 5 percent of the Mungeams' revenues come from sand castle tool kits that the business manufactures. Another 20 percent derives from weddings and proposals, and from team-building sessions and custom projects for companies. For the latter, logos and products are popular subjects. A 20-ton bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon featured a remarkably realistic rendition of the dripping wax seal.
The bulk of the business is lessons. For Mungeam, those are also the best part. "Our target client is a woman between the ages of 35 and 70," he says. "She is a mom or a grandmother who wants to see her family playing together. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about how much they enjoy that."
Dana Morrow is one such client. Sand castle sessions have highlighted two vacations for Morrow, her husband, and her two children, who live in Dallas. "You can go shopping and you can go to the water park," she says. "But building a sand castle on the beach as a family--saying we have a task and we're going to do it, well, that is cool."