Welcome to the second installment in our new “Meet the Maker” series, where we profile a rockstar maker from our Close to Home shop. Jennifer Smelker, of the Tandem for Two brand, definitely fits the bill. This mom and engineer turned small business owner is bursting with passion for her brand. Her bright and cheery designs make me want to drop everything, buy a lake house in Michigan and decorate exclusively with her fun pillows! She is the type of woman you want to be your best friend – I adore her outlook on life and her business, and her “keep it local” mantra. Today, take a peek at what goes on behind the Tandem for Two brand and learn more about Jennifer’s story.
I had a chance to chat with Jennifer about her brand and background. Check out the Q&A below!
Tell us a bit about the story behind your business. How did you get started?
I designed my first bucket list-type canvas for our family in 2012. My kids and husband helped to come up with a list of activities, memories, and attractions. The next year, I showed this canvas at an art event in our beach town of Grand Haven, MI and the owner wanted to sell similar items. I created a Bucket List on a postcard for our town and it sold out in 3 weeks before the tourist season. From there I made note card sets, mugs, and tote bags and by the end of 2014 I had other town designs and was in retail stores in 6 towns.
The following year I connected with a local fabric printer and started making my best seller – custom printed pillows. Word of mouth spread, so by the end of 2015 I was selling in over 40 retail stores in 4 states. I started hiring contract workers, prototyping my own tote bags, adding new designs and I currently am selling in over 80 retail stores in 10 states with our handmade products that are completely made in the Midwest.
My company name and logo was born when my son suggested naming it after the classic Montgomery Ward tandem bike that I found in a farmers’ barn. This orange tandem bike, that went from a Midwest farm to a small beach town, sums up all that we love about where we live. It’s bike basket has carried veggies from our farmers’ market, towels for the beach, picnic dinners to the park, and even our dachshund gets an occasional ride. It’s about slowing down and exploring and celebrating what we find, whether that’s where we live or where life takes us.
I see that your shop was growing so fast that you were able to quit your 9-5 and run Tandem for Two full-time. What was it like transitioning from engineering to running your very own small business?
I was juggling both my day job and my small business from the beginning and as I grew the hours (nights) got longer and more hectic. There were times it was “all hands on deck” and my family would be stuffing pillows and fulfilling orders while I was at our kitchen counter sewing pillowcases. To quit my day job was actually freeing and a huge weight of pressure to do it all was lifted. I have one half to me that is very analytical, organized, process orientated (the engineer in me) and then this creative side to me. It is actually incredibly handy to be able to think through the manufacturing process, keep track of the million details, and figure out how to make products from scratch, and not just come up with fun and creative designs but not have a way to see them made.
I love the bright, cheery colors and fun designs on your products. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Thanks so much! I have always admired all white decor, but could never have it in my own home because there are just too many colors that I love! I was born and raised here in Michigan, but love to explore so many places, so I’m really inspired by the places I visit and the colors we find around us in all seasons. I can’t imagine living somewhere without dramatic changes in seasons like we have here in the Midwest. There are so many colors in nature that by taking a walk in our nearby woods or at our beach always rejuvenates me.
What sets your products apart from other handmade giftables on the market?
Every single one of my handmade items celebrate where we live, vacation or our everyday activities. People love their states and towns – we are proud of where we come from and are loyal to where we vacation. My products celebrate that and include all the fun things that make a town or state special.
Part of celebrating where we live is making the products in our communities and involving others on this journey. I love working with people that need experience, income, or flexibility and are able to put their talents to a purpose. We are single and stay-at-home parents, retirees, the underemployed, and students who need first time job experience. I also partner with other small, local businesses that employ even more individuals and refugees where we live. With every purchase, 10% of our profits are given back to our communities. This year we hope to support as many refugee families as we can. As they have been torn from their communities, we want them to feel welcomed and become a part of ours.
Tandem For Two is not only a creative outlet for individuals, or a champion of our communities, but we provide an avenue to celebrate the everyday activities of where we live with handcrafted products that we take pride in creating.
Do you have a favorite item?
I’m really excited about my newly designed fabric line, and those are on my pillows (which I have several on our couch and front porch swing) but they will also be available as cocktail napkins. My favorite design is still my classic bucket list, for Michigan of course! I haven’t done everything on it yet, but will!
Shop the Tandem for Two brand here – warmer weather will be here before we know it, and her designs offer that much-needed pop of color to breathe new life into your decor.