It’s rare to find Tina Carman without a smile.
As a small-business owner in a world of coffee shops big and small all around her, Carman goes about her day offering not only a hot drink but a warm expression.
The key to her business’ survival, she believes, is customer service.
She injects her personality into her job because … well, that’s just who she is.
“I’d like to think I have a different relationship with my customers,” Carman said. “They get to come in here and it’s more like a ‘Welcome to my kitchen, let me make you some coffee and let’s talk about our day,’ sort of thing.
“There’s no rush. I’m interested in what people have to say.”
For Carman, owning her own business, Drag ‘N’ Fly Espresso, is like a dream come true.
She calls the espresso shop that sits next to the entrance to Saar’s Marketplace in Oak Harbor her “baby.”
It’s dear to her because it’s the place she got her start as a barista shortly after graduating from Oak Harbor High School in 1994.
Now 38 and a mother of two, she’s the business owner as the result a whirlwind series of events that started with a simple Facebook message four years ago.
“You interested in your baby?” she remembers the post reading.
The question was being posed by Christian and Erika Kar, owners of The Espresso Connection chain that once dotted the landscape in Skagit, Island and Snohomish counties.
The Kars knew the business held special meaning to her. Carman got started at The Espresso Connection stand near Marketplace’s former location on Midway Boulevard and another location on Ault Field Road.
She spent eight years working for the company, eventually becoming a trainer at other locations.
Ultimately, she went back to school to learn about the healthcare field and started working at Island Hospital in Anacortes and began a family.
But when the opportunity came to run her own business at a place dear to her, she knew she wanted to make it happen.
“I love people,” she said. “That’s all there is to it.”
And many seemed drawn to her and the two baristas she employs, Courtnie Deckwa and Katherine Ebert.
Carman has some of the same customers she had when she was 20.
“I used to make hot cocoa for kids who are now adults so now they’re getting coffee from me,” Carman said, “and some of them have them have their own kids now that I’m making hot cocoa for. It’s kind of sweet.
“I get to watch these kids grow up and having families. It’s rewarding.”
But the journey hasn’t come without struggles and challenges.
Carman is a single mother with a 9-year-old son, Kalvin, and 7-year-old daughter, Kilee.
However, she is surrounded by a supportive family that includes her parents Kim and Leroy Armstrong of Oak Harbor.
“My parents raised us to be able to take care of ourselves,” Carman said. “I’d like to think I’m doing a pretty good job at it.”
Carman’s daily inspiration comes from the two little ones she sees off to school each day. She wants her kids to see her as a role model.
“I would like it some day when they’re old enough to see that as a single mom, running her own business, trying to take care of two kids, and being there for them during school activities, that that is a good role model,” Carman said. “We get a little busy, but we always sit down at the table for dinner. We always talk about our day.”
And oftentimes, at Drag ‘N’ Fly Espresso, it’s an eventful day.
Inspired by the Navy aircraft that buzz overhead, she chose the name. Inspired by the people she meets and their stories, she keeps a smile on her face.
But there was one day last fall when that smile disappeared and she broke down.
With business slow and the holidays approaching, Carman was worried about finances and began exploring the possibility of getting a second job.
Then one afternoon in November she checked her mail and opened a letter from her credit union from which she borrowed money to buy the business.
The balance for the loan showed zero, and there was a message attached to a receipt.
“All you owe is your dad a hug.”
Carman remembers the rush of emotions she was feeling. There was a little pride involved. She had almost paid off the loan on her own, but the payoff lifted a huge weight off her shoulders.
She picked up the phone.
“My mom answered the phone and I was in tears,” Carman said. “She was like, ‘Leroy your daughter is on the phone and she’s very upset right now.’ And I told him, ‘Why did you do this?’”
Her told her he wanted to help her like he’d helped others in the family.
“He’s a surprising man,” Carman said.
Her parents’ generosity has taken off some of the pressures of running the business.
“I’m looking to bring in some cups to sell,” Carman said. “That’s a dream of mine to be able to sell my own cups and travel mugs. How cool would that be to be able to see people walking around with your cup?”