A tattoo artist spreads the clever creations he made as daily pick-me-ups for his son.
Kindergarten is a time for newfound independence. The demands of real schooling begin. Letters turn into reading and numbers into math. Simon Says take a great big step into the world. But what happens when the subtext of that phase is another kind of transition?
When Jeff Stelle dropped off his son each day for kindergarten, 5-year-old Edwin cried, not from the anxiety of a new experience but from something deeper. His parents were splitting up. His small corner of the world had cracked.
Edwin's mom had moved in with family in Johnstown, 30 miles away from Jeff's Groveport house. To maintain some stability as they untangled custody agreements, Edwin stayed with his dad, a gifted tattoo artist, in the home he knew.
“Dropping him off at school was intimidating,” Jeff says. Edwin hadn't gone to day care, so kindergarten was already an adjustment. The transition was made more painful by his mom's absence in the mornings. “Every day, I knew that in a matter of moments the tears would come,” Jeff says. “It was so hard.”
He got calls from the school on days when Edwin couldn't stop crying. “I was just trying to do something,” he says. “I had to help him.”
So he did what he knew. One morning, when Edwin saw an ornamental “E” his dad had drawn in black Sharpie on an otherwise uninspiring plain brown snack bag, curiosity bested the tears. Jeff knew he was onto something. He got creative. “Take me to your feeder” read a subsequent bag, complete with a requisite green alien. “Creature from the snack lagoon” was another. The tongue-in-cheek lunch bags became a daily diversion. The crying stopped, and a startup was born.
“I thought the drawings were weird at first, but I loved that it kept happening,” Edwin says of the brown-bagged levity that brought him confidence (his friends loved them, too) and comfort. Jeff only realized the healing power of it all when he found 25 bags tucked behind some furniture.
“I'd assumed Edwin had been throwing them away,” he says. “He was actually collecting them. They really meant something.”
Three years later, Edwin sits in his dad's tattoo shop listening to him tell the origin story for the snack bag project, now dubbed Audience of 1. Edwin is filled with creative energy and self-assurance most 8-year-olds just don't have. He remembers that first hand-drawn “E” and the increasingly elaborate designs that came afterward.
Jeff still dedicates about 20 minutes each school morning to the artistic, punny packages, which have gained traction beyond school grounds.
“I left a box of the [kindergarten-year] bags out, and all my clients would look through and lose their minds,” he says. “I displayed about 100 at an art show in Gahanna and got such good feedback. I always thought it'd be cool to turn the bags into a business that helped people, but I needed believers and investors.”
In came an investment team that specializes in small shops and startups, adding marketing and business-plan acumen to the venture. Jeff aims to begin selling packs of Audience of 1 snack bags before the school year begins. He now has an audience of many, from Edwin's classmates to his own clients who plan to switch their generic grocery store bags for “Baby got snacks” or “Count Snackula.”
“I'm not focusing on kids of divorce,” Jeff says, adding that he just wants to share the artwork and the story behind it. His goal is “to make smiles,” and this time the subtext is solidarity. “I want people to know they're not alone.”
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