CLEARWATER — Bob DeCecco grew up around the TV ad slogan, "But wait, there's more!"
As a kid, he owned a Pocket Fisherman — the "biggest fishing invention since the hook!" — and a Mr. Microphone — "Hey, good lookin', we'll be back to pick you up later!"
DeCecco was in awe of Ron Popeil, the face of the handy-dandy Ronco gadgets, who recently retired after 50 years.
"Back then, there weren't a lot of infomercials, and I enjoyed sitting and watching him," DeCecco said. "I loved the products. They were something I could use."
Decades later, DeCecco, 46, operates the entire line of Ronco household products. In April, his Clearwater company, Infusion Brands International, acquired the rights to Ronco Holdings in a complex deal that also involved Infusion's merger with the publicly traded company As Seen on TV.
As chairman and CEO, DeCecco aims to revive the kitschy Ronco brand with a new product he says will revolutionize the way people prepare meals.
"This is the first new cooking system since the microwave," he said, with true pitchman swagger.
The Ronco Ready Grill is a vertical indoor electric grill with a removable nonstick, dishwasher-safe basket that holds meat, vegetables and other commonly grilled foods. Similar to a toaster, the grill roasts food between infrared heat shields. Fat and juices drip down to a patented exterior tray.
The Ready Grill drew a lot of buzz recently at the International Housewares Association's Hot Housewares show in New York. Consumer Reports named it one of five products with "maximum gee whiz appeal" that could "bring true innovation to the housewares category."
The Ronco grill debuts June 23 on HSN, followed by the launch of its TV infomercial and retail rollout in the fall. Depending on the promotion and call volume, it will cost $60 to $100 — payable, of course, in "three easy payments!"
The company has already signed a deal with an undisclosed national chain to sell the grill in stores, where the big numbers happen, DeCecco said. Every dollar from infomercial sales generates $5 to $10 in sales at brick-and-mortar stores.
"This is going to be a top holiday gift," said Andrea Pass, a Ronco spokeswoman.
Already, the Ronco Ready Grill is being compared with the George Foreman, a fat-reducing, indoor grilling machine that has sold 100 million units since 1994. Ronco promoters say their grill is even better because it can cook an entire meal — meat, vegetables and potatoes — at the same time, and it's easy to clean. A slim 4 inches thick, the Ready Grill can fit on any countertop.
Infusion has hired Clearwater pitchman Marc Gill to serve as brand ambassador for Ronco. Gill, 43, decided to go into the business after watching Ronco infomercials and learned to cook using its Showtime Rotisserie oven ("Set it, and forget it!").
Gill sees the Ready Grill as an everyday solution to people's problem of not having enough time to cook healthy, tasty meals. As proof, he points to his waist. Since cooking with the Ready Grill, he has lost 35 pounds.
Last week, Gill was at Bluewater Media in Clearwater taping the infomercial to air on cable stations nationwide and across Canada this fall. The 30-minute ad shows Gill cooking stuffed burgers, lobster tails and chicken for families and apartment dwellers, the Ready Grill's target audience.
"Just load, turn the dial, and when the bell rings, dinner's done!" Gill said.
Success of the Ready Grill would be a game-changer for Infusion, a consumer products company that builds brands through TV advertising that asks consumers to respond directly, usually by calling a toll-free number or visiting a website. In the past four years, for instance, the company has sold more than 1 million Dual Saws ("The saw that can do it all!''). The 50-employee company did $30 million in revenue last year and is projected to do $58 million this year and $155 million by 2016, DeCecco said.
Eventually, Infusion estimates Ronco products will make up more than half of the company's sales, mostly because of the huge market for home goods and small appliances. Also in the pipeline are infomercials for other Ronco kitchen products centered on the brand's new mantra: "Healthy, delicious food made easy."
In April, Infusion expanded its portfolio of direct-response brands with the merger with As Seen on TV, a multichannel distributor of 1,500 consumer-friendly products, from Wonder Wax to Magic Mesh. As Seen on TV was founded by Kevin Harrington, an infomercial pioneer and investor on the ABC TV show Shark Tank. Harrington is no longer part of the company, which was trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market at about 7 cents a share this week, down from 30 cents a year ago.
Infusion is working out of Bluewater Media near Ulmerton Road but plans to move into the As Seen on TV building a few blocks away on Icot Boulevard. To fund its growth, it raised $10 million from the Mallitz Investment Group in Lakewood Ranch.
"But wait, there's more!" After the domestic launch of the Ready Grill, Infusion plans to market it worldwide, tapping into densely populated urban areas where kitchen space is at a premium. Because, as Gill would say, "Everyone's ready for a Ready Grill!"
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.