If you had asked them just three years ago, brothers Ryan and Robbie Mueller of Fairhope never would have imagined that, today, each would manage his own niche business. Sure, there were some entrepreneurial childhood schemes in the past, including an ill-fated attempt at raising money from their friends’ parents to build a tree fort in their Fairhope neighborhood.
“There weren’t even any trees in our backyard,” Robbie remembers with a laugh. “So I was building this tree fort on the ground.”
Older brother Ryan certainly didn’t envisioned himself running a successful snack mix operation. After studying industrial design at Auburn, he returned to Fairhope where he designed and built cabinets for a couple of years before getting the opportunity to learn commercial architecture under his father, Rich. He spent nine years at Mueller Design Group with Rich, learning the ins and outs of the industry. “But my heart wasn’t in it,” Ryan admits.
All the while, Ryan was making snack mix in his leisure hours for holidays and road trips. The recipe came from his mother Patti, who served it throughout his childhood.
“She quit doing it for a couple of years, so I grabbed it and said, ‘No, we’re going to keep this going.’ Then it kind of grew from there. I concocted a batch for a friend’s wedding, and they said, ‘Man, you’ve got something here.’”
When a friend offered Ryan the opportunity to use a commercial kitchen to get his snack mix off the ground, he “pretty much took it and ran with it.” That was in December of 2018.
Today, Mule Mix — Mule was Ryan’s childhood nickname — under the banner of Ryan’s business Fairhope Snack Company, can be found in 70 locations across seven states. The snack combines eight ingredients: Rice Chex, Corn Chex, Wheat Chex, pretzel sticks, Cheez-Its, Honey Nut Cheerios, unsalted peanuts and honey-roasted peanuts (not to mention some secret spices). Ryan hand-seals 500 bags of the snack per week. Locally, hungry readers can find Mule Mix at Piggly Wiggly, Rouse’s and Greer’s, but Ryan also ships orders across the country.
“My story’s a little different,” younger brother Robbie says. After studying industrial design at Auburn like his brother, Robbie went to work for his mom in medical billing for almost 10 years.
“It wasn’t really my thing,” he says. “I always loved doing woodwork on the side, and I had some experience building cornhole sets and selling them on Etsy. In November of 2020, I started seeing pictures of people throwing parties with marquee letters, and I thought, ‘Man, I could do something like this.’”
Robbie used his savings to purchase the materials to construct the four-foot letters and numbers in his garage, often working into the wee hours of the morning since he still worked for his mom by day.
“I launched my business Rent the Lights in mid-January of this year,” he says. “My first rental was the first weekend of February, and I’ve had a rental every weekend since.”
Robbie, who has since jumped into the new venture full time, hasn’t paid for any advertising; photos on social media of his letters and numbers at birthday parties, weddings and every occasion in between have allowed Rent the Lights to grow organically. The hand-crafted quality of his marquees, complete with built-in lightbulbs, is a point of pride for Robbie.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist,” he says. “I built every marquee myself — wired it, tested it, painted it.”
“We’re usually pretty critical of each other,” Ryan says, laughing. “But I will say, the craftsmanship of his letters is top-notch.”
For those with a business idea, the brothers offer advice that is both encouraging and realistic.
“Definitely know what you’re getting into financially,” Robbie says. “We’ve been lucky to have a mom who has shown us how to manage our books, but in terms of getting a business license and business insurance, it’s important to do your due diligence.”
“If an opportunity comes along, take it,” Ryan adds. “The hardest part for me was making the decision to do it.”