Flying Squirrel brews community, one cup at a time

November 5, 2022
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Photo by Bobby Quinten

By Bobby Quinten

Mansfield Record

Amy and Daryle Ryan are quintessential entrepreneurs. Driven by a longtime dream and a passion for community service, the Ryans opened Flying Squirrel Coffee Shop in historic downtown Mansfield three years ago.

Through the pandemic to today, Flying Squirrel remains many residents’ go-to for a cup of joe and that feeling of family served with it.  Thanks to its success, now Flying Squirrel #2 will open on East Broad next year.

On a recent rainy Friday evening, Amy and Daryle joined me at one of their favorite local spots, Steven’s Garden and Grill.  

“The first time we came here, we loved its quaint, small-town vibe,” said Amy Ryan. “It has a good atmosphere and some quiet space.”

As we snacked on chips and queso, the Ryans shared their small business journey with me.

The Pilot and His Squirrel

Amy Ryan is the heart and soul of Flying Squirrel.  Her longtime love for coffee is connected deeply to her father Ed Slayton Jr., who nicknamed his daughter “The Squirrel” for her high energy and constant movement. Slayton served as a United States Air Force pilot for over 20 years. When he retired, Slayton flew for American Airlines.  Some of Amy’s deepest memories of her father are drinking coffee with him and talking about running a coffee shop together.

Over the years, Amy realized that those moments, and even her dream, were less about the beverage and more about the social benefits of coffee.  As Amy states on the Flying Squirrel web site, “I love coffee, but I love the connections that happen over coffee even more.” An early stint with Starbucks enhanced her belief that coffee and connections can coexist successfully.

As the years passed, the dream of her own coffee shop lingered for Amy.  After working for Starbucks, she worked in management at The Home Depot in San Antonio.  While there, Amy met and fell in love with a colleague, Daryle Ryan. The Ryans have been married for 15 years and are raising five children.  Daryle serves the Dallas suburb of Cockrell Hill as a police officer.

Amy learned from her Depot experience that “you need to do all you can for your customer. A retail business must be relational.” Relational remains a cornerstone of her customer service philosophy at Flying Squirrel.

Amy’s father became seriously ill during her time as a recruiter for Life Time Fitness.  The couple moved their family closer to Ed Slayton, who lived in Granbury.  

“My company’s closest office to Granbury was in Mansfield, so we moved to Mansfield,” recalls Amy.

After her dad passed in 2016, the couple talked and “we decided to stay in Mansfield because we loved it so much.  It is a community that is big enough, but still has that small-town feel.”  Even after Amy’s employer eliminated her job, the couple doubled down on living in Mansfield. That decision proved to be a turning point for the Ryans and for Flying Squirrel.

When the opportunity arose to lease Flying Squirrel’s current space at 110 N. Main Street, Daryle Ryan took responsibility for getting the shop ready to open.  

“I was not a coffee guy at first,” Daryle admitted. “I just wanted to support Amy 100 percent to fulfill her dream. There was no general contractor, but the process was smooth. The building itself was in great shape.”

After Flying Squirrel opened in November 2019, Daryle eventually stepped away from the customer experience.  

“I do not want to take hours away from the staff,” he said while also confessing he is not very hip on coffee lingo.  “Someone asked me for a wet cappuccino once,” Daryle chuckled, “and I thought, ‘Wet? Isn’t all coffee wet?’”

“I always wanted a business that could make a difference,” recalls Amy.  Because of that, the working name for her future coffee shop originally was Purpose Pour, “but it just never sounded right.”  One day on a walk with her sister, “It just hit me.  Flying Squirrel.  That was it.”

The name combines her father’s love of flight with her paternal nickname. While she never realized the goal of running a shop with her late father, Amy believes Ed is there, immortalized in the coffee house’s unusual brand name.

The company’s original logo never set right with Amy, as well.  Six months after opening, Amy talked about Flying Squirrel while visiting Lucky’s Barber Shop in Midlothian. When she expressed dissatisfaction with their logo, a tattoo artist named Sean overheard her. Within 15 minutes, Sean spontaneously drew a suggested logo for her.  “I loved it!  It’s the logo we have today,” said Amy.  “I paid him $100, thanked him, and left with it!”

Only five months after the coffee shop opened, the doronavirus pandemic locked down the world and grounded Flying Squirrel.  Without a drive-through lane and with limited parking space, Daryle remembers, “Suddenly, I was learning everything I could about delivery services, curbside service, anything and everything we could do to sell.”

Amy and Daryle are grateful that their already-loyal customer base carried them through the worst months of 2020.  As an example, Daryle recounted how “one of our best customers purchased his usual coffee and a $100 gift card.  Then the next day, he ordered a coffee and another $100 gift card.  I told him you do not have to do that, that we will be fine, but he insisted on it.”

COVID also turned running a coffee shop into a family activity. Amy speaks proudly of her oldest son Micah, who worked in the shop daily for four straight months.  “He earned Air Jordans for himself,” she stated.  “Micah was a lifesaver.”

Another positive result of the pandemic is the Kombi, a renovated passenger van, a Brazilian import purchased for $20,000 and reconstituted as a mobile Flying Squirrel.

The Kombi gives Flying Squirrel the capability to serve large events anywhere while enhancing its community engagement. The rolling caffeinator has proven so popular that, according to Daryle, “our Kombi T-shirts regularly sell out.”

Like other small businesses, Flying Squirrel is challenged by supply chain issues, lower quality goods, and the increased costs of almost everything. Additionally, ongoing workforce issues require effective labor management to maintain employee engagement.

“It is a challenge for our business because I must balance work shifts and still generate great customer service all day, every day,” the owner said.

Amy Ryan engages her staff by first being a role model.  

“I lead by example,” she said. “I do not ask them to do something I will not do, like cleaning a toilet or taking out the trash.”  

At Flying Squirrel, management and staff are partners.

“We treat them like family, and in meetings, we treat them like equals,” she said.

Occasionally, the Ryans host team dinners. In October, they took the Squirrel staff to the State Fair of Texas.

For Amy, leadership is all about mutual respect. Her favorite boss modeled the same leadership style the Flying Squirrel owner uses.

Amy explained, “That General Manager challenged me, yet she did so while always being human with me and respecting me. She mentored me and held me accountable in a good way.  Sure, we had tough conversations, but it was never personal.  We had mutual respect.”

At Flying Squirrel, coffee and connections extend to charitable work in Mansfield and internationally.  The potential impact of coffee connections became vivid when the Ryans visited Ebenezers Coffeehouse in Washington, DC.  

Like Flying Squirrel, Ebenezers sits inside a restored early 20th century building. The shop prides itself on a shared customer experience along with its menu.  With all profits going to humanitarian causes, Ebenezers’ mission of “Coffee with a Cause” made a deep impression especially on Daryle.

“I knew what a coffee shop could do for the community,” Amy explained, “but Ebenezers opened Daryle’s eyes. Once he saw how he could give to the community and abroad, he was on board.”

Flying Squirrel gives back regularly to the local community and to global projects.  As an example, they recently donated funds for a new water well in Kenya.

“We watched online as it was being dug,” Amy remembers with a smile.

On Oct. 24, the Mansfield City Council unanimously approved a permit that allows Amy and Daryle to open a second location at the corner of East Broad and Cannon. The space once occupied by Branded Burger will open as Flying Squirrel Coffee Shop in March 2023.

A welcome by-product of the permit process came when City Council members spoke publicly about their respect for Flying Squirrel and their love for what the Ryans bring to Mansfield.  Amy said those kind words of elected officials were “super humbling.”

The second Flying Squirrel will allow Amy a drive-through lane, bakery space and the capability to roast her own beans.  However, nothing changes at the original Squirrel. When asked, Amy declared, “I like what we have downtown, and I don’t want to lose that.”

The queso cup was empty with a few tortilla chips still in the basket when I asked, “What would you change if you could do it all over again?”  Daryle laughed and said “more capital” in the bank when they started.  Interestingly, Ed Slayton Jr.’s daughter declared“Honestly, nothing. All of it is a learning process.”

Epilogue:  So, Where Does Amy Ryan Like to Drink Coffee?

Without hesitation, Amy identified Grounds and Gold on South Bowen in Arlington. While she critiques coffee everywhere she drinks it, Amy also prefers G&G for its excellent customer service. “I can go work, hang out, spread out and relax there. The service is excellent.”

On their website’s home page, Grounds and Gold welcomes visitors with their motto “Coffee and a Cause.” Of course.  That’s so Ryan.

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Mansfield, Texas, is a booming city, nestled between Fort Worth and Dallas, but with a personality all its own. The city’s 76,247 citizens enjoy an award-winning school district, vibrant economy, historic downtown, prize-winning park system and community focus spread across 37 square miles. The Mansfield Record is dedicated to reporting city and school news, community happenings, police and fire news, business, food and restaurants, parks and recreation, library, historical archives and special events. The city’s only online newspaper launched in September 2020 and will offer introductory advertising rates for the first three months at three different rates.

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