From Clearwater, a kitchen wares inventor taps HSN to build $100 million business
Wake up and good morning. Anybody got a "kake-kut'r" I can borrow? If that's not ringing a bell, it's okay. I was not familiar with the funky "cake cutter" brand name (see the product, left) until I read an interview in this morning's Wall Street Journal with entrepreneur and kitchen gadget inventor Debbie Meyer of Clearwater, Fla.
It's a cool tale of how Meyer rose the be a player in kitchen wares, a tale made all the more compelling because her business is here in Tampa Bay and flying largely under the radar of local media.
The Journal interview says fans of St. Petersburg-based HSN, the home shopping network, might recognize "the soft-spoken uber-housewife" Meyer. "What many may not realize is that behind the apron is a shrewd entrepreneur who's built a company, Housewares America Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., with more than $100 million in annual revenues."
Her patented products, including best-seller Debbie Meyer GreenBags, are now sold in Target, Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond and other stores. Meyer, 59, whose breakthrough invention in 1999 was a cake cutter, recently teamed up with Reynolds to sell vacuum-seal bags, the Journal says in a Q&A with Meyer. Here is the full Journal interview with Meyer, but below are the key highlights.
* How Meyer got started: "I studied business in college and graduate school, and worked in marketing for big companies. Then I met my husband [South African-born entrepreneur Neville Meyer] who lit the fire under me. I came up with my first invention in '96-'97, when my son was young, and I thought, 'this is the perfect time to stay home and do the things I always wanted to do.' "
(An earlier 2004 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer adds that the cake cutters went back and forth to the knife factory in China a few dozen times for the better part of a year to get just the right weight, springiness, blade and handle thickness.)
* It all started with inventing the "kake-kut'r" – how she came up with it: "I developed this cake cutter – it wasn't very sharp but highly polished – with two handles that you could squeeze together and walk around the room, saying: 'Who wants a piece of cake?' To make it, I went to a sheet-metal shop with my design, and asked the guys to cut me a piece of metal. They thought it was crazy, but I said, 'just do it.' When I showed friends – they said, 'Can you make me one? And can you make one for my mother?' " Here's a video of the product.
* So Meyer had a first product. How it was sold to the public: "We got some real prototypes made (and) found a sales rep who let us have a portion of his booth at the International Home & Housewares Show, where people in the trade place orders. That was my jumping off point. Home shopping network QVC came by and said, 'We want this on air.' "
(The Inquirer story notes that several months later, Meyer demonstrated the product on QVC and sold 10,000 sets in six minutes.)
* That was 40 products ago. Meyer now appears exclusively on HSN: I launch all my products on HSN, then we decide if we want to go to infomercial. We want to make sure it's a proven, desired product before we do infomercials. Then we roll it out into retail stores.
Quite a Cinderella story for this kitchen queen. I'm showing another of her inventions, the CupCakeGenius, for adding filling to cupcakes (in photo above, left, and here's the video). Meyer also promotes her GreenBags that absorb ethylene from fruits and vegetables as they age and claims to keep the food fresher for longer in the refrigerator.
Meyer started up her business in the New York area, relocated to Wilmington, Del., to be closer to QVC and is now in Clearwater, just down the road from HSN.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist