The Tea Whisperer
From the time Nella Fusco was 9 years old, she had stomach issues. Always either diagnosed as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), her ailment caused her to spend years in and out of the hospital, never fully understanding the underlying root of her problems.
Nearly 13 years later, a friend and health coach introduced her to kombucha. Every day, Fusco would drink 16 ounces of the fermented, lightly effervescent tea, and within a week, she noticed a colossal difference. Her GERD went away, and the IBS settled down. “It was the pinnacle of when I realized what fermented foods could do,” Fusco, 34, says of the beverage that changed her life.
As the owner of Whispering Oak, a Fort Pierce–based kombucha company, Fusco is now changing the lives of others as well. “Figuring out how to make the best product that actually helps people without jumping on a trend that’s really big right now is what’s most important to me,” she says.
Part of being the best has to do with her brewing process. While kombucha is normally brewed in stainless steel vessels or glass, Fusco brews hers in American oak barrels. “Microbes and bacteria love porous wood,” she says of the two most essential components in kombucha. “They flourish because there’s constant air flow, so it creates this rich environment for the microbes and bacteria to have this beautiful community.”
Recognizing that the word “bacteria” doesn’t necessarily bring with it a positive connotation, Fusco explains that the human body has nearly 40 trillion microbes. When those microbes begin to deplete, bad bacteria will grow and stomach ailments can arise. “A huge portion of our immune system starts in the stomach,” she says.
A one-woman operation, Fusco brews 20 to 50 gallons of kombucha in eight oak barrels for about 30 days. She makes the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), which is central to preparing kombucha. A pellicle that grows in harmony on the top of every fermentation barrel, the SCOBY feeds off of the sugar and tannins from the tea. Fusco flavors each batch with seasonal fruits, roots, and vegetables and uses a pump, the closest thing to a machine she uses, to transfer the kombucha to the kegs. The end product is handmade, organic, and a perfect balance of sweet and sour, just as Fusco says kombucha ought to be. The beverages can be found in health food stores like HHH Organics in Stuart and Peggy’s Natural Foods in Hobe Sound, as well as at local markets like Market on Main in Stuart, where Fusco can be found every Sunday.
The mom of a 6-year-old son, Zion, Fusco says it’s her mission to make a delicious product that helps families the same way it helped her. “I did this because of what it did for me, because I knew it was working for me,” she says. “And I know it’s going to work for everybody else too.”
The Chainsaw Master
Deep in the Florida swamps, where the murky water is as still as the alligators that skulk beneath it, Scotty McAllister is on a mission. In a small boat with a winch in tow, he navigates through low tide in search of driftwood. For most, the fallen cypress and cedar trees often found in the swamps are useless. But for McAllister, they are the cornerstone of his work.
For 35 years, 57-year-old McAllister has made his living sculpting aquatic and land animals. With a chainsaw and grinder—tools that once covered his arms in scars—he has created sailfish, manatees, dolphins, bears, giraffes, pelicans, and eagles. For the last 10 years, however, his area of expertise has evolved; he now carves bird and fish heads on the ends of the wood he collects along the riverbanks of Florida.
Traveling to places like St. John’s River and Cypress Springs, McAllister gathers logs in their natural state. Whether they’re clad in barnacles, have roots that jaggedly branch out, or are stained with a reddish hue from Mother Nature’s touch, he leaves them virtually intact, carving on one side. “Sometimes I’ll twist the log around 100 times before I see the fish,” says McAllister. “I see a fish in almost everything now.”
He ventures into swamps to procure material that cannot be found on the beach— material that has been petrified after years of baking in the sun, is impenetrable from bugs and rot, and does not crack. “It’s all about the wood,” he says. “Even my dog’s name is Woody.”
A Michigan native, McAllister moved to Jensen Beach in the late 1980s. He was selling sunglasses along the Jensen Beach Causeway when he met a guy named Gary Vaughn, who was carving animals. He paid Vaughn $1,000 to teach him his craft, and together they began making creations out of cypress and cedar logs. As he gained momentum, McAllister started selling his goods from Key West up to northern Maine and showed his art in state fairs and renowned art shows, often winning first place.
Today, McAllister is semi-retired. His kids are grown, and he and his girlfriend are enjoying life on the river in Fort Pierce. But you can still find his pieces at local South Florida markets, including the Fort Pierce Farmer’s Market, where his booth is always one of the busiest. He’ll be easy to spot: He’s the easy-going guy with an arm tattoo that reads, “Don’t yank my chain.” Find him on Facebook at Chainsaw Sculptures by: Scotty
The (Budget) Fashionistas
Quietly sitting in the corner of a Panera Bread in Palm Beach Gardens, Ashley Belford is trying to post her latest design on her company’s social media page, to no avail. The signal is sluggish. She, on the other hand, is not.
Looking up from her phone, Belford unveils a resplendent smile that complements her sun-kissed skin and blueish-green eyes. The deep taupe-colored tank top and white elastic-waist shorts she’s wearing are adorable indeed—but it’s her jewelry that is the pièce de résistance of the ensemble.
The dangly, tassel hoop earrings perfectly match her top. And the bracelets—a wicker bangle, beaded stones, and a white geode—are at once chic and casual. The whole look screams vibrant, trendy, and approachable—a fitting description for the owner of the handmade jewelry company known as Tassel Soul.
A Jupiter native, Belford, 41, began making jewelry seven years ago. She had seen a pair of earrings on a TV show that she wanted. They were hot pink and magenta but, at $200, a bit too pricey. She went online, searching the internet for material and wholesale vendors, until she was able to find all the pieces to re-create the earrings for a fraction of the price.
That’s how it started. Soon she found herself making more earrings for herself, as well as for her sister and friends. People would post pictures of her earrings, creating a demand around them. She expanded her creations to include beaded bracelets and necklaces, selling them on Etsy, Facebook, and Instagram. Then wholesale and retail stores, like Tide and Table in Tequesta, wanted a piece of the action.
Having a background in interior design, Belford has always possessed a creative eye, but she also had a practical goal in mind. “I wanted to make pieces for women who like to be stylish and fun but also for moms who have budgets,” she says. Her three sons—Ryder, 12, Cooper, 10, and Zane, 7—help her dye beads or load the car during art shows, and she keeps her prices between $10 and $50.
Belford has since teamed up with another local mom and business owner, Tristan Whitaker, to offer customers something new. The founder of Love Hate Apparel, Whitaker, 43, makes local- and beach-inspired tops by hand in her Jupiter home, sometimes with the help of her daughters Hope, 9, and Georgia, 6. The poly-cotton blend she uses gives the tops a soft, breezy feel. And the fact that she has zeroed in on Jupiter living as one of her themes has given her line a competitive edge.
Whitaker made a few shirts for Tassel Soul. And then, she says, “Ashley posted a picture with a caption that said, ‘Tassels and Tanks,’ and I knew we had something.” The two women partnered to create the now-popular monthly subscription boxes, where they pair a tank top with jewelry at a discounted price.
They have some other ideas in the works, especially for the holiday season, and they’re talking about expanding their partnership to include the artwork of another local business owner. Says Belford: “We’re local moms, after all, trying to gear toward other local moms.”
When Brittney Hurt talks about her adolescence, it’s as though she is recounting the life of someone else. It’s a story marred by trauma that involves living in 30 different foster homes, being separated from her twin sister at 13 years old, and then sexually trafficked a year later.
By all accounts, Hurt could have wound up another statistic, destined to live a life of poverty, mental illness, addiction, or crime. But nothing could be further from reality. Today, the 29-year-old wife and mother of three is thriving—and so is her business. Hurt is the founder of Native Armor, a company dedicated to brewing potent and delicious elderberry syrup, and she and her business partner, Ashley Lancelot, are knocking it out of the park.
Elderberry is an antioxidant-rich medicinal herb that Hurt procures from the European strain Sambucus nigra. Every week, she and Lancelot brew the organic berry, refrigerating it in amber bottles in a kitchen in Port St. Lucie. They add cinnamon, clove, ginger, and Manuka honey to pack a powerful, immunity-building punch.
Hurt started out making the syrup for family and friends. At 11 weeks pregnant with her first child, she was in the emergency room with the flu and a 103-degree fever. Her doctor prescribed Tamiflu, but while she was desperate to get better, she was even more desperate to keep her baby safe from any risks associated with the drug. Torn, she began researching natural alternatives. She came across a recipe that incorporated elderberry as an ingredient and gave it a shot. After 24 hours of drinking the tea, her symptoms were gone.
A concoction of elderberry syrup and Manuka honey became her go-to elixir. “Whenever I heard a sneeze I didn’t like, a runny nose, anything, I would turn to elderberry,” she says. “Making it from scratch and adding Manuka honey is the best way.”
It wasn’t until her third pregnancy in 2019 that Hurt’s husband suggested she launch an elixir business. “I thought, no one is ever going to buy this,” she recalls. “And I don’t know why, but I decided to give it a name.” In that moment, as the words “Native Armor” rolled off her tongue, her vision unfolded and her business took off.
Last October, Hurt decided she needed some help with Native Armor. That’s when she met Lancelot, also a mother of three and a former church deacon. “Ashley just gets people,” says Hurt. “She’s so genuine and kind. I knew she would be perfect.”
Lancelot, 33, radiates joy, a sense of purpose, and an intoxicating energy. And since she came on board, the company has seen record-breaking sales (a portion of which are donated to The Inner Truth Project, a nonprofit organization on the Treasure Coast that helps victims of sexual violence).
The women became business partners in March, and Native Armor products are sold in natural retail stores as well as farmer’s markets including Stuart’s Market on Main, the Fort Pierce Farmers Market, and the St. Lucie Mets Community Market. Hurt is proud to provide beneficial and affordable products to families—because if anyone knows how challenging life can be, she does.
This past July, Stuart Main Street introduced something new to the Market on Main: a Kids Market, where young entrepreneurs showcased their precocious talents and business acumen. Children stood behind their booths—which were filled with everything from homemade pastries and organic quail eggs to sugar scrubs and handmade crafts—beaming with pride. River Robbins, a 3-year-old CEO of a lemonade stand, handled his own transactions. Nearby, siblings and artists Carmella and Ben Rodriguez talked about their inspiration (for Carmella, it is nature’s bounty; for Ben, it’s his sister, Carmella). Tristan Gray displayed his handmade hardwood shelves, and sisters Gemma and Chloe peddled their custom dog tags. Some of the entrepreneurs exhibited heart-melting timidity, but all were professional. “Not only does [the market] teach entrepreneurship, but it also teaches social skills, responsibility, and work ethic,” says Candace Callahan, executive director of Stuart Main Street. “We are the incubators for small businesses with big dreams.” Flagler Park, Stuart; every Sunday (Market on Main); last Sunday of each month (Kids Market)