The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 22, 2013

Family makes business out of candy-coated fruit

By Kevin McClintock
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Ignoring the sweltering July heat, Joplin native Eric Stuhlman and his 14-year-old daughter, Ana, tidied up a storefront for their family business, Carmen's Apples.

The future store, which the family hopes to open later this summer inside Evans Plaza on North Range Line Road, may become a home away from home. The chocolate-covered fruits sold by Ana, Eric and his wife, Carmen, over the past four years have been pieced together with tender loving care from their Joplin home's kitchen.

From that kitchen, the three create, sell and deliver for free roughly 100 pounds of fruit arrangements, caramel apples and chocolate-covered fruit each day.

Operations "have always been in our home, and we do it all inside our kitchen," Eric said. "And we've gotten so good at it, you can hardly tell we do it there now. We actually take on well more than people would ever believe."

When the new store opens, it will be nice, Eric quipped, to get the kitchen of their South Wall Avenue home back. Still, he can't believe how fast and far Carmen's Apples has come over the past four years.

"I get chills when I think about it," Eric said. "I get chills talking about it right now. I just can't believe what a few covered apples have turned into."

Storefront start

Four years ago, while Eric worked on a Fort Bliss-based construction project in Texas, his daughter saw a man selling candy-covered apples from his vehicle in the parking lot of a retail store. They were looking to make some extra cash, and he decided that selling sweetened apples would be a neat way to do it.

So Eric and Ana visited a Texas retail store with their very first 30 caramel-covered apples in hand and immediately went to work.

"We were standing at the front door," Eric said. "People were coming and going and I told Ana, 'you get the people going in, and I'll get the people coming out.' ... We were saying, 'Excuse me, sir, would you like to buy a covered apple?' and Ana was hooking people. And they were coming back out of the store with change (in their hands). We were selling $4 per apple, and we sold all 30 apples in less than 45 minutes. I couldn't believe the profit we made (that day)."

Carmen's Apples was born. They made their first big sales while still in Texas, gaining confidence in their creations and customer service after an El Paso, Texas-based law firm and bank made large orders.

When the Stuhlmans moved from Texas back to his hometown of Joplin, they hit the ground running without any hiccups.

"We did some research and looked up stores in New York and Chicago to see what they were doing there," he said. "Then we tried to do what they did as closely as possible, and people have just never seen anything like it around here. They love it."

Full day of work

A lot goes into the delicious treats, made with fruits purchased from local farmers market dealers.

"It's my daughter's hard work, it my wife's hard work, and it's my big mouth going out there and not taking no for an answer," Eric said.

Husband, wife and daughter rise from bed each day, seven days a week, at 4:30 a.m., to blanket select assortments of fruits Ñ apples, strawberries and bananas, to name a few Ñ with chocolate, caramel, nuts and sprinkles. They also make fresh fruit bowls and fruit salads.

"We sell 88 apples a day, 30 bags of strawberries, 30 bags of pineapples, about 25 bulk mixed fruit bowls and 15 bags of chocolate-covered bananas," Eric said. "About 100 pounds of fruit leaves the house each morning, and 100 pounds of fruit comes back into the house each night."

Free deliveries to anyone within 30 miles of Joplin takes place until about 11 a.m., Eric said.

"After that, I just drive around town and go to the hospitals, doctor's offices, restaurants and beauty salons," he said.

It's hard work, Eric said.

"But we're not complaining," he said. "That's the thing about working for yourself. If you're going to do it, you've got to put in the hard work."

Finding fruit

For now, you can purchase Carmen's fruit and arrangements by calling 417-434-8939 or by visiting the business's Facebook page. All candied or caramel-covered apples are $4. Chocolate-covered strawberries range from $4 for six to $28 for a tray of 30. Two chocolate-dipped bananas in a bag cost $3.

When the new store opens for business on South Range Line Road, Eric will be hard at work throwing together a second store location, which is earmarked for 32nd Street.