Saturday, January 20, 2018

Business born in grief brings Spring Hill family together


In pictures pinned to a corkboard in Lisa Kraus' sewing room, her son Matthew beams.

Nearby, Lisa crosses the carpet, flecked with scraps of the fabric she uses to create bow ties like the ones Matthew used to wear.

At the sewing machine, she cuts and traces, sews and presses. A bow tie takes about an hour to make. Then she packs it for shipping and picks out fabric for the next one.

The work is for Ella Bing, a small business she runs with her family, which sells the bow ties and accessories she makes.

Nobody gets a paycheck. But the goal of the business, born in grief, isn't profit.

"It's a tribute," she said. "That's why we do what we do."

Matthew, who was raised in Spring Hill, wore bow ties before they were trendy. Lisa, 51, turned a necktie into a bow tie for him the first time he asked for one.

"He said it was a little small," she said, so she tried again, and got it right. He wore bow ties to work or to clubs, and he stood out, in a good way.

"Whenever Matthew walked into a room, everybody was drawn to him," Lisa said.

He acted at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill, the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson and in Springstead High School's theater program. His senior year, he was president of a thespian group. He graduated in 2003.

As a young adult, Matthew wanted to leave Spring Hill.

"Who wouldn't?" said his older brother, Brent Kraus, 32. "He always knew there was something bigger out there."

So Matthew moved to Tampa.

"That was difficult for us," Lisa said, but not a surprise. "I always knew he wouldn't stay here."

He took classes at Hillsborough Community College and worked at a Fossil store. He wanted to move to New York, to become a pastry chef.

"If that's what you need to do, we give you our blessing," Lisa told him.

"I certainly couldn't say no," she said.

Matthew sold everything he had and moved to Manhattan in 2008, where he worked at a J. Lindeberg clothing store in SoHo and studied at the French Culinary Institute. He sent his family photos of what he baked.

"He was proud," Lisa said.

"Everything was going the way it should have been going," said Matthew's dad, David Kraus, 55.

On Aug. 31, 2010, about six weeks before Matthew, 25, would graduate, Lisa called him. He didn't answer. She tried again. He returned her calls about 10 at night.

He had been at school all day. She had forgotten.

"We chatted as we always had," she said. "We said we loved each other. That's how we always ended our conversations."

She told him she would talk to him the next day. Before midnight, she received a text message from one of Matthew's friends who asked if she knew where he was.

She texted him. He didn't answer. She tried again. She texted his friends and sent them messages on Facebook.

"We were up all night, pleading with him to call," she said.

Then the phone rang, but the call came from a police officer.

"It was just horrifying," Lisa said. "The worst day of our life."

David doesn't like to talk about his son's death explicitly.

"He suffered from depression, and people can put two and two together," he said.

Lisa acknowledges: "He took his own life."

• • •

Brent stood in front of a mirror in a hotel room in Michigan the afternoon of a cousin's wedding in 2012. He held a blue- and pink-striped bow tie. It had belonged to Matthew.

"Brent wanted to wear one of Matthew's bow ties to honor Matthew," David said.

But nobody knew how to tie it.

"We're all in the bathroom trying to help," Lisa said. They watched a bow tie tutorial on YouTube.

"It almost didn't happen, but we got it," Brent said.

He also got an idea. He brought it up first to Lisa, who liked it: a bow tie business, in memory of Matthew.

So in the summer of 2012, they started Ella Bing, named after Brent's 4-year-old daughter, Ella, whom Matthew met only once. They attached Bing because it "added some pop," Brent said.

The business sold its first bow tie on Aug. 9, 2012 — to a man named Matthew.

Lisa said that's how she knew Ella Bing was "meant to be."

Brent, who works in information technology by day, manages marketing and sales for Ella Bing. Lisa, who works at Home Depot, makes the cloth bow ties and accessories. David, a Winn-Dixie butcher, makes wooden bow ties, a tie line created last year.

After Matthew died, David had stopped woodworking, his hobby since adolescence.

"When you lose somebody like your son, you don't care about too much," he explained.

He took it up again when Brent suggested he get involved with the business. The wooden ties are Ella Bing's best sellers.

"The product lines are growing with demand," Brent said.

He hopes to recruit people this year to help make the ties and accessories.

Ella Bing products are for sale online and at High Cotton Living in Hyde Park and Black & Denim in Ybor City in Tampa. Brent said he hopes to sell the products in other stores in Florida eventually, and perhaps outside the state. So far, the business has sold about 500 ties. The Krauses donate 10 percent of each sale to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which has a suicide prevention program and other crisis services.

"The little bit we can give hopefully will help another family," Lisa said. "We certainly wouldn't want anybody to go through what we've gone through and continue to go through."

The money they don't donate is used to operate Ella Bing and for supplies.

Each item is handmade, and no two ties are exactly the same. Customers have included Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and professional boxer Hugo Centeno Jr. The Krauses have sold and shipped products to people all over the world.

The ties are out of the box, David said. They turn people into "the hit of the party. If I can make that wood bow tie look like a clothe bow tie, that guy gets a lot of attention when he walks into a room."

Brent says Ella Bing brings the family together.

"I'm here every single afternoon," he said in the kitchen at his parents' house.

They talk about the ties, about Matthew.

In the garage, David sands 2 1/2- by 4-inch blocks of wood, and saws them into the bow ties.

"I call it my therapy," he said.

Lisa said she thinks of Matthew as she sews.

Next to the pictures on the corkboard, she has pinned a note he wrote as a kid.

Hi Mom, it says at the top. At the bottom: I You.

Beside it, on a shelf, she keeps his bow ties.

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.

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