- By Nicole Ziege @NicoleZiege
Ruthie and Timothy Caldwell, a local couple from Pikeville, are weaving food, history and storytelling together to create a unique culinary company.
Mr. Tibbs’ Trading Company is an e-commerce business that sells handmade gift boxes, containing hand-picked foods and activities from different cultures and heritages, specialized to each box and each theme. Inside the box, there is also a letter detailing the adventures of a fictionalized character named “Mr. Tibbs,” who is the company’s namesake and a 1920s explorer. Mr. Tibbs’ adventures, Timothy said, are inspired by real food, places, people and events and create a unique storytelling experience for their customers.
“You’ll open the box and be greeted by a letter that’s sealed in wax by a 1920s explorer named Mr. Tibbs, and him and his pet pig Squeebah in the 1920s went across the world discovering the great flavors that the world has to offer,” Timothy said. “They send the boxes to you and talk about their adventures in the 1920s in that place. They also tell you why anyone should be proud to be of that culture or heritage. Then, the food itself continues the story where each food, we describe its significance to the people and how it tells a story of that people.”
The Pikeville duo started Mr. Tibbs’ Trading Company in August 2019 after they wanted to start an old-time candy store in downtown Pikeville. Due to cost barriers, they decided to take a different route with their company and focus on how to start a business in a more manageable way.
The couple started selling specialized homemade drinks in pop-up booths at several festivals, including the Jenny Wiley Festival and the Pikeville Winterfest. From there, they decided to expand into e-commerce and create a new culinary experience for their customers. Since the pandemic, they have sold items at special events for the motorsports non-profit organization Backroads of Appalachia, with which they hope to partner in the future.
“Every day we saw an increase in sales. People
really appreciated our drinks because all of the drinks are our own creation, and the business really started to pick up from there with the drinks,” Timothy said, regarding their initial pop-up booths. “We kind of used it as a stepping stone to get to what we really wanted to do, which is e-commerce business, which brings us to the real heart and soul of the company.”
Each box they sell contains different types of foods and activities. For example, the Appalachian Snack Box contains some snacks from Appalachia — like Ale-8-One soda, banana Moon Pie, apple butter and crackers and shredded Mingua beef jerky, among other items — in order to provide customers with a taste of Appalachia. That particular box was developed for Backroads of Appalachia and is still available on sale on the company’s website.
Another example was the Christmas Heritage Box, which allowed customers to explore Christmas traditions of a country of their choice (between Great Britain and Germany), taste traditional foods from that country and play a traditional game that tells the story of that people. This box is now sold out on the website.
In their heritage boxes, Ruthie said, they provide six items, including a food made during the good times, a food made during the low times, an iconic food of that culture, a delicious treat from that culture, a unique food to “challenge taste buds” and a traditional game or activity that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
Timothy emphasized why they wanted to provide this kind of unique experience to their customers.
“The idea is that you have a truly immersive experience with your box,” Timothy said. “It’s not just another food box. It’s all hand-curated stuff that we pick out and that we think is really the best that represents those things. On top of that, you have a story to go along with it. The idea behind it is that by the time you’re done, that it’s not just eating food but you’re experiencing another culture.”
Ruthie and Timothy have participated in SOAR’s Invest 606 accelerator entrepreneurship program, and their company was recently named one of the eight company finalists competing for the program’s $15,000 grant. The final pitching competition takes place on April 17.
One of the company’s next boxes, Ruthie said, will be an Appalachian Heritage Box that features food items made from the produce of local farmers, and Timothy said that they plan to introduce new products in the spring. As the company grows, Ruthie said, they also hope to employ local Appalachians, as well as people in addiction recovery, to assemble their boxes.
“There probably won’t be too much until the springtime because we’re just really trying to get everything together to ramp up for a bigger launch,” Timothy said. “We’re hoping to have a new website, a bunch of new boxes and all sorts of stuff.”