It may be called The Whoopie Pie ‘Guys,’ but there’s a very sweet lady behind one of Polk County’s favorite farmer’s market treats. Lakeland native Tracy Nichols has been “everything from a theme park employee to a lunch lady.” She has a family history steeped in entrepreneurship. “Owning my own business was always on my bucket list. I just didn’t know what it would be,” she said.
Sugar and spice and everything nice have been a hobby for the baker since elementary school. She would bake for friends and family and enter goodies at the 4-H Fair. “My grandmother was always baking – always. There was always icing around to play with,” she said. Her grandmother signed her up for a cake decorating class when she was ten, and the rest is history (though it’s a much smaller treat she’s making these days).
‘I CAN MAKE THESE!’
Tracy and her husband, Mark, travel a lot. He gets almost a month and a half of vacation time at his job, and they take advantage of every single day. “We’re big fans of regional food,” she said. “Our first stop when we land anywhere is the grocery store. We’ve got to see what people are eating, drinking, what they have on their hot bar, what they have in their bakery.”
A trip to Pennsylvania was all it took to give these self-described regional foodies and “chocolate milk connoisseurs” an idea that changed their future. “We were planning on eating through the state – literally,” said Nichols. When they landed in Lancaster, PA, they decided to pick up five or six flavors of this little dessert called a whoopie pie. They’d never seen them before, but man, were they good. Tracy said, “I can make these!”
“Mark is very encouraging and very supportive of anything I want to do, and he always has been,” said Tracy. The couple has been together for almost 20 years. After that trip six years ago, they went home, and Tracy began working on some recipes. “Our family ate a lot of whoopie pies testing the recipes.”
Once she had perfected a few flavors, Nichols decided to try selling them at a market just a few miles from their home in Orlando as The Whoopie Pie Guys. “We started with a four-foot table, and now we’ve got a store and a van and a food truck and do three markets every Saturday.”
As it grew, customers would ask if she could do 100 whoopie pies for a birthday or place an order to treat their office. The Whoopie Pie Guys operated as a cottage food business for about four and a half years. “Market opportunities kept presenting themselves, and festivals, and one-off events,” said Nichols. She thought, ‘I’ve either got to stop or grow.’
“We decided to grow.” She got her food license, and “the stars aligned” when she met the owner of Magnolia Popcorn, Chris Kittelberger, as they were both on the hunt for a commercial kitchen space. “We’re a great fit together. It’s like we’ve known each other all our lives which is pretty awesome,” Nichols said. “Now, there’s no stopping. We’re even outgrowing this space.” According to the Whoopie Pie Guys owner, what started as a gig for fun money has now become their retirement plan.
KEY LIME OR BUST
What they’d dubbed ‘The Classic’ is one of their signature flavors. “That’s what most people know a whoopie pie as – chocolate cake, top, and bottom, with either marshmallow filling or buttercream icing.”
The Whoopie Pie Guys opted for buttercream frosting because that’s what Nichols liked making, plus it held up in the Florida humidity. Joining ‘The Classic’ in the starting lineup for the WPG is Chocolate Peanut Butter and this writer’s favorite whoopie pie flavor – Key Lime. “That is a love it or hate it flavor,” she said. “That’s my Florida spin.” As for Nichols? “I’m a ‘Classic’ girl, all the way.”
“We get a lot of ‘Who made it? Pennsylvania versus New England.’ We let them fight it out – we just make them,” Nichols said.
The Whoopie Pie Guys offer an assortment of flavors coming and going with the seasons and holidays. Last month, they had a Chocolate Strawberry flavor in honor of Valentine’s Day and plan to do Chocolate Mint for St. Patrick’s Day. Not only does Nichols get festive with her holiday flavors – she’ll even dress up. During the holiday season, Mark and Tracy paraded the Winter Haven Farmers Market as Santa and Mrs. Claus. And if you see the Easter Bunny at the market next month, between you and me, that’s Tracy!
Along with their signature whoopie pies, WPG offers an assortment of jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, local honey, and dip mixes. “We’ve got everything from sweet to savory to heat,” said Nichols. Everything they sell is $5, from whoopie pies to jams and jellies, “Because fun stuff should be accessible to everybody.”
Everything The Whoopie Pie Guys produce is made from scratch in small batches in their commercial kitchen. Nichols sources locally as much as she can. Ingredients like strawberries and peppers are bought right out of the back of a farmer’s truck at the Plant City Produce Market.
They even use eggs from their chickens in the backyard for all baked goods. The family has about 37 hens and seven roosters. “Happy chickens make yummy desserts,” Nichols said. The business supports an animal rescue in Tampa called the Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary. Consider dropping some scratch in the jar the next time you buy a whoopie pie. They raised almost $350 for the rescue when they dressed up for Christmas.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
So who are the ‘Guys’ that make up The Whoopie Pie Guys? “I’ve recruited every available family member,” said Nichols. Nichols’ sister left a corporate job to help with baking and run the WPG storefront on Edgewood Drive in Lakeland. Her mom and dad are the market managers at their stand at the Winter Haven Farmers Market, and her two aunts help run it too.
The family is close, according to Nichols. The Whoopie Pie compound, if you will, is on a large plot of land in north Lakeland. “I’ve always lived like this,” she said. “My parents are fifty steps away. My aunts are fifty steps away. […] Everything is a family affair.”
Wholesale has become an unexpected part of her business, opening many doors for the baker. With four wholesale accounts currently and more coming in the next few months, Nichols said, “I had never envisioned this. We just wanted to make a couple of extra bucks for vacation. Now we can take the whole family on vacation every summer. It’s very nice.”
SMALL DESSERTS, BIG PLANS
We met Tracy on the Black & Brew patio at the Lakeland Public Library. When asked about future plans for the business, she said they were mulling over the idea of a small event center and pointed to a row of brick shops across the parking lot. “Honestly, I’d love to have one of those spaces in that brick building because that is where my grandfather had his shop when he was younger.” Her grandfather owned a hobby shop that offered model cars and airplanes in that building.
“We’d like an event center where maybe 50 people can come. You can have a small wedding, you can have a birthday, you can have a retirement party, and you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on it,” she said.
As for The Whoopie Pie Guys, “If the pace keeps up, we’re going to have to get a bigger kitchen.”
A new venture you may see Nichols and family trying out involves a hot dog cart. “But not just any hot dog cart – it’s a bicycle and solar-powered. It’s adorable.”
See what the big whoop is all about (I have a ‘filling’ you won’t be disappointed) at the Winter Haven Farmers Market every Saturday and at The Whoopie Pie Guy storefront in Lakeland, Tuesday through Friday 11 am – 3 pm. Follow their social media to see what other markets and events they’ll be attending.