Tony Bien cuts lumber. He might even cut into a melon. But service in the Kansas Army National Guard taught the hands-on force behind Swell Spark’s in-house design workshop to avoid cutting corners.
“I’ve been very blessed in my career with the Army and with what I am doing now,” said Bien, who serves as the production manager and master craftsman at Sandbox by Swell Spark, formerly known as Catalyst Build, as well as a non-commissioned officer (NCO).
Click here to learn more about Swell Spark, the company behind such Kansas City experiences as Blade & Timber and Breakout.
First joining the Army at 18 as a cook, Bien was building on culinary classes he completed at Olathe North High School. At the time, he saw cooking as a convenient way to earn military benefits, but later regretted not choosing a more challenging path within the service.
He learned an important lesson: Seize any opportunity to learn something new.
“The Army would have not only taught me something for free, but paid me to learn how to be a pilot or engineer or all these different jobs,” Bien explained. “I wasted a huge opportunity; and for the past 11 years, I’ve really kept that mindset of not wanting to waste opportunities.”
Striving to feel fulfilled through his work, Bien ultimately transferred to the Kansas Army National Guard’s Religious Affairs department and still works within the department as a specialist today.
“It’s been phenomenal — being able to deploy with the Army in that status was incredibly fulfilling [along with] helping soldiers during deployment,” he said. “Where we were [stationed] was full of Biblical history; and as a Christian, that was an incredible perspective to feel like I was able to walk out the Bible.”
Bien returned home from his deployment to the Middle East in 2018 with an open mind — and no job, he recalled. A friend who worked for Sandbox (known only by Swell Spark’s “Breakout” brand at the time) convinced him to join the team as a craftsman.
Watch a video below of Tony Bien discussing how he transitioned from military service to working at one of Kansas City’s most-talked-about companies, then keep reading.
On Day 1 of the new role, Bien helped execute Blade & Timber’s buildout in Leawood’s Town Center. Anticipating a stressful work day, Bien was pleasantly surprised when he found more enjoyment than stress on site, he shared.
“It’s been three years now, and it’s pretty much the same thing,” he said, adding that the team and resources have grown alongside Swell Spark’s national expansion. “It’s nothing too stressful, nothing to get overworked about. We have fun, and we want the people who come to our stores to have fun too.”
As a non-commissioned officer, Bien sometimes has to leave Sandbox for afternoons, days or weeks at a time in order to fulfill his duties, he noted.
“I help out a lot with the military funeral honor program here in the state; so when a veteran passes away, they’re awarded military honors at their funeral,” Bien explained. “That’s something I’m very passionate about and have been doing for the past six, seven years. So there might be a day where I’m clean-shaven and bring my uniform to work and need to step out for an hour or two to perform honors at the funeral.”
“[Swell Spark] has never even questioned if I’ve got to go do something with the Army; they’ve been incredibly gracious and supported me,” he added.
Click here to read more about Swell Spark’s recent expansion.
The analytic artist
Before the world of sanding, building and fabrication, Bien kept his hands busy with another craft: fruit carving.
“Olathe North High School had a phenomenal culinary arts program,” Bien noted. “… Part of that, there’s an annual competition they do at the state and national level. I was interested in the edible centerpiece competition. I thought, ‘That’s cool. I like art and sculpture.’ So I started looking into that.”
In his first year competing, Bien won the state competition for a Toucan-like fruit sculpture. Birds became flowers and Bien found himself very engrossed in the artform, he shared.
“I started working with the American Culinary Federation to do some sculptures for them and got to meet some really cool people,” he said.
In 2010, Bien and two other chefs traveled to Colorado for the Guinness World Records’ tallest edible centerpiece, he recalled. They carved more than 600 watermelons, building a structure nearly 18 feet tall.
“I was kind of sad, actually — Guinness didn’t show up,” Bien said, laughing. “The record before that was something like 9 feet tall, so we blew it out of the water. … But finding refrigeration for 600 watermelons is [tough], so by the time we actually put it together at the Colorado state fair, it was getting a little smelly — it kind of looked like a rotting Christmas tree — but it was an awesome opportunity.”
While Bien was deployed with the Army, he met a man who ran the Army’s kitchen. Blocked by a language barrier, the two men communicated mostly through fruit carving, Bien shared.
“He caught on and was very good at it — very talented. I was like, ‘You should have my knives.’ And then I just let them go,” Bien recalled. “I thought, ‘If I ever want to do it again, I can always buy more knives. But I’ll let him enjoy them and hopefully develop this relationship while I’m here with this gentleman.’ He left the next week, and I never saw him again.”
Today, Bien still keeps art in his life. He and his wife, Nicole, co-founded Elements Made — a lifestyle brand and maker space specializing in wooden rings.
Although Army and civilian life are vastly different from one another for Bien, he sees ties between all his various opportunities — specifically, a chance to learn, fail and problem solve.
“I very much enjoy being educated; I get educated every day when I do things wrong, which is every day,” he said, smiling. “I’m really good at doing things wrong and failing. I’ve heard people call it ‘failing forward’, and it’s very humbling. I’m grateful to be humbled.”
With little expertise around woodworking when Bien first started at Sandbox, he is now able to lead large projects and refine his newly-learned skills in metal fabrication and laser cutting.
Looking ahead, Bien plans to continue serving in the religious affairs department within the Kansas Army National Guard, possibly working his way up to the Sergeant major seat, he shared. Bien also hopes to continue building his business as a financial advisor and continue growing alongside Swell Spark.
“There’s so many creative people here [at Sandbox by Swell Spark], and I like building what they come up with,” Bien said. “We surround ourselves with all of these people who are incredible at what they do; and through the knowledge that they have, you can’t help but do some cool stuff and create great things.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.