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[Blog] The Sweet Spot

blog Mar 23, 2022

            When Nathan Clark was racking his brain trying to come up with a neat Christmas gift for his wife, Jenn, he had no idea what he was getting them into. The make-your-own marshmallows kit he landed on was a hit, and they found themselves experimenting with new flavors they shared with friends.

            Then someone asked to buy a batch and, a decade later, their Wondermade company is producing around ten million marshmallows a year. The popular treats have been featured everywhere from Martha Stewart’s show to the New York Times and opened an unexpected door for the couple to quietly share their faith with customers and employees and model a different way of doing business. The venture has proven to be “just a little terrifying and a little crazy and a lot of responsibility, but a lot of joy,” Clark says.

            The Clarks’ mouth-watering creations have been wholesaled in around 500 stores across the country, from Macy’s and Anthropologie to indie gift boutiques. Then there are online sales and corporate gift accounts, plus two retail locations in the Orlando area. One is in Sanford, part of their 5,000-square-foot bakery and distribution center. The other, more recently opened location is in Disney Springs, the shopping and entertainment neighborhood at the Walt Disney World Resort.

            Wondermade typically has around 30 selections available—they vary seasonally—with more than 400 created through the years. Birthday Cake, S’mores and Salted Caramel are perennial favorites. There’s also a Wondermade line of ice creams.

            In addition to making people’s taste buds pop, the company has two main aims—to spread a little bit of joy and provide work opportunities for people who might normally not get a break.

            With that in mind, staff orientation at the company’s retail locations includes telling them that “we’re not running a marshmallow store or an ice cream shop,” Clark says. “We’re running a worth-transference station.”

            That’s “a place where people will come in and walk out feeling like they have been given more worth through the way that we treat them and care for them. You don’t say, ‘Welcome to the worth-transference station,’ but we treat them like they are wonder-made and hope that out of that we can shift the course of their day.”

            Clark pauses, not wanting to sound too grand. “I’m just selling marshmallows and ice cream,” he says. “It’s not like dialysis or anything like that. But I think all of us, myself included, have underestimated dramatically the impact we get to have in people’s lives, even in those short interactions.

            It’s like the chaos theory butterfly flapping its wings in Asia and causing a hurricane on the other side of the world, he goes on. “These acts of love, when somebody treats you with kindness, when someone shares a moment of joy with you, can lift your whole day, can change things in a big way.”

 

Staying humble

            Having started “largely by accident,” Wondermade has grown into its missional expression over time. A key influence has been Adrian de Visser, the founder and leader of a church-planting organization in Sri Lanka that emphasizes providing jobs, that “employment should be ministry.”

            As the Clarks (they share the title Chief Marshmallow Agent) began to employ more people—they are currently up to around 40—they found “it provided us with a unique opportunity to pour into people on so many levels,” Nathan says. “As the company has grown, we have had more economic opportunity to do the things that we have had other people instill in us as the values that we should have around business.”

            They center on treating people as deserving of love, rather than as transactions. “If God made you with wonder, in his image, then you’re worth more than all the wealth that I’ll ever get to touch in my entire lifetime,” says Clark. “So Wondermade isn’t about how we make our food. It’s actually about how we treat the people that we come into contact with who are wonder-made.”

            Clark speaks more about this in “Love and Marshmallows,” a TEDx Talk available online that has led to invitations to share his philosophy with other businesses, though he hasn’t pursued those kinds of opportunities. In part that’s because life is busy enough (he and Jenn lead a small church and are also parents of six), but also because of a measure of discomfort with the whole celebrity thing.

            “We live in a very egocentric age,” he explains. “Everything is so self-promotional and it’s really hard for me to square that away with the practice of love. Like, if love is elevating others and there’s so much that has become more and more fundamental to American culture that’s about elevating yourself, I don’t think I can do both very effectively.

            “The more time I spend booking myself conferences, or even taking the time that I spent posting about myself [on social media], the harder it’s going to be for me when the opportunities come along to lift other people up. Some of that might just be me personally, but I think it’s probably also just a general challenge that we’re running into.”

 

Letting go

            Clark repeats the word pour when he is asked for advice he might give to other would-be entrepreneurs. He recommends they keep in mind the temporary nature of whatever success they might get to enjoy.

            “It’s so easy when you’re in business to think about the enduring value of the work that you bring to your clients, to your customers, to your community,” he says, recalling a time way back when a then-marketing client replaced the logo Clark had designed for them, after a few years. “It was so crushing to me,” he admits, “but none of it lasts, right?

            “We are the only thing that God designed to be forever. And so do everything you can to pour into people. I don’t say invest, because invest is a word that has a slightly different meaning. It means that you expect to get something more out of it at the end. I mean, literally just pour into people with no guarantee that you’ll get anything back—whether that’s your customers, whether it’s staff, whether it’s people in your community.”

            No matter how great your business is, he says, it won’t last forever. No matter how great your product is, it won’t last forever. “But the people that you can come into contact with, they were designed to be eternal and so the biggest change you can make is going to come through the people you get to interact with. And as long as you keep that in mind, you’ll always have incredible opportunities for kingdom impact.”Like the best marshmallows, this business emphasis isn’t all soft and gooey: Clark notes that before jet puff production came along in the ’50s, marshmallows were more substantial than the typical present-day version.

            While Wondermade has a high commitment to sticking with employees through their hard times, he has had to let some go for things like fraud and theft. “There was a point when I was probably very against that, because ‘we can always rehabilitate people,’ right? But that’s not actually the case.

            “You can even see this with Jesus: He didn’t chase people down in the way that you might think that he would. Sometimes he would kind of say, ‘Hey, this is it, so if you want to follow me, this is what you need to do.’ And then people wouldn’t, and he would continue on his journey. That’s something that I had to figure out for us here and for myself. I mean, if I could save people, Jesus wouldn’t need to show up in the first place.”

            Having said that, Wondermade aims to extend as much grace to employees as possible. As part of the onboarding process, new hires are told that they’re going to make mistakes and that while that’s OK, they need to keep mind it’s a cost the company has to bear.

            “We’re in such an age of anxiety,” Clark says. “Everyone’s so afraid that they’re going to get fired or canceled or whatever for every mistake that they make. And we just want to help create some space and environment to work against that.”

            It’s been a calculated business decision—literally—to take on some folks coming out of “very challenging personal challenges.” MBA wisdom says not to retain staff who are constantly in crisis because they are going to prove costly, “but if you decided on the front end that having people cost you a lot is actually OK, because you want to help them get from where they are to where they are supposed to be, then they don’t become people that you fire.”

            That doesn’t mean there’s no accountability. “It actually means you become part of a care team that offers restorative workplaces and some flexibility, and some personal costs—because if somebody doesn’t show up, guess who’s going to cover for them: me or my wife.”

 

Transforming power

            Though Wondermade came about unexpectedly, Clark did have some business DNA to draw on. Both grandfathers owned multiple businesses, and prior to going into pastoral work, he had co-owned a branding consultancy. “I actually thought at the time I would end up doing business and then just be an active part of my local church.”

            Then he had a dream one night in which he heard God tell him to shut the company down because there was something new ahead. Clark called his partner the next day, told him what had happened, and the pair shut up shop.

            It was kind of crazy, Clark acknowledges, “but, you know, if there’s a lesson in the Bible, it’s when God tells you to go, you go. Like the story of Jonah: he could have ended up in Nineveh without fish guts, without all the fights, without all the fear; he could’ve just done the thing.

            “He didn’t and guess what? God still took him there, but with a whole lot of pain and hurt and baggage. And so, if I’m sure God’s telling me to go somewhere, I would prefer to get there without the pain, without the hurt, without the baggage, without the embarrassment, without the shame, without all of those negative consequences.”

            The day after shuttering his business, Clark went for a preplanned lunch with a pastor at the church he attended, which led to an invitation to join the staff there.

            As Wondermade has expanded, Clark has shrunk—or maybe, better, refocused—his church involvement. Last year he left his megachurch staff post after almost 20 years to start a small home-based church that’s part of a loose affiliation of similar congregations. The name: Church of Wonders.

            “Clearly, I like the word wonder,” he says, referencing how the growth of the early church, as recorded in Acts 2, was attributed to people’s reaction to “signs and wonders.” “I used to think that the signs and wonders were like fire, or people speaking in different languages and being understood and, yes, those things happen throughout the Bible,” he says.

            “But what I realized was that the most amazing wonders are, are stories like a person who was known to be one thing who suddenly, through the work of the Holy Spirit on his heart and the redemptive power of Jesus, becomes different. That is a wonder, when there’s a change.”

            Many of the first converts in Jerusalem probably knew Peter and the other disciples, Clark notes, wondering what it would mean for 3,000 people in Sanford—as happened on Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost—to respond to the gospel. “It would be teachers at my kids’ school. It would be servers at the restaurants I go to. It would be clerks at the grocery stores where I go. And I would notice.”

            Hence Church of Wonders, “because that’s our job. We’re supposed to be the wonders who go and bear testimony of the transformative power of Jesus in our lives to the people that are around us and our community.”