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Snack bag plus puppet equals Snuppet, a budding business

ST. PETERSBURG

The executives at Glad headquarters in Oakland, Calif., have no idea there's a 42-year-old mother of three in St. Petersburg who sits at her sewing machine dreaming of taking them down.

Well, maybe not taking them down exactly, but she does want to win over their customers with her reusable snack bags that double as hand puppets. She calls them Snuppets and thinks the idea is promising enough she has had the name trademarked.

"My dream is for it to become a household name like rather than Ziploc, it's Snuppet," said Janie Allen, who has been selling her creations about a year. Locally they are available for $10 each at Rollin' Oats and Thank You Mama. Allen also sells them online on her own website, Snuppets.com and Etsy, the e-commerce site selling millions of handmade products.

Other than the local seamstress she found to help her with the large Rollin' Oats order, Allen makes all the Snuppets herself at her Huskystar sewing machine in a sun-room off the living room. Until she has more sales, she can't afford the cost of subbing out manufacturing because she wants Snuppets to be made in the United States. She hasn't found an affordable manufacturer to take on her small number of orders.

Allen, who was originally a graphic designer, draws the characters' faces and backsides on her computer, has the designs printed on fabric then sews them together with a plastic liner and Velcro closure. There are five characters: a pig, lion, cat, penguin and monkey.

Her favorite is the lion. Her good friend loves the penguin.

"I was trying to decide which one to send to this blogger and I asked my husband: 'What do you think the best one is,' and he was like, 'Hands down, the pig,' " Allen said with a laugh.

Allen is smartly reaching out to bloggers, the new frontier for winning the hearts and minds of customers. She was recently featured on the blog Oh Dear Drea, which gets 5,000 hits a day.

"(The blogger) is vegan and all about the environment," Allen said. Three Snuppets sold within an hour of the blog post.

"Engaging bloggers is free. So for startup businesses on a tight budget, the strategy works well," said David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR. "It is usually smaller, more nimble companies and entrepreneurs who succeed with this strategy. The bigger players are too focused on traditional (expensive) advertising."

Snuppets are a niche product for a definable market (moms with small children) that will translate well to bloggers with a focused but big following, he said.

"I'd love it to create a big online following and people would buy directly from me. Then the profit margin would be higher and it would be doable to have a manufacturer," Allen said. "I'm not really making much money at all when I sell it wholesale (to retailers) but it's still beneficial to me because I'm trying to build the Snuppet brand."

As the next generation of lunch eaters and consumers grows up much more in tune to environmental practices than their parents, Allen thinks reusable bags will become an automatic rather than an exception.

"It surprises me that most grocery stores don't have any green lunch solutions on the shelves. I hope that's the next step," she said.

Snuppets isn't her first business venture. In 2007 she had a store on Central Avenue called Blue Jane Baby where she sold dresses, headbands and other children's items she designed and made. She also carried other locally made items. But the store didn't last.

"It was before Central (Avenue) was really developed like it is now. I was just squeaking by and people weren't really finding me over there," she said.

Then as her kids started going to school she sewed a few reusable bags for them to take in their lunch boxes or for snacks. They were durable, washable and better than filling the trash with plastic bags. But ultimately, the bags got left behind on the lunch table or lost on the playground.

"It was probably in the middle of the night, I came up with the idea to make a snack bag that could be played with after they ate what was in it. I thought they would love it and they wouldn't leave it behind if they got attached to it," Allen said.

Allen believes she is the only one selling an environmentally friendly bag that doubles as a hand puppet, but she is far from the only one to make a cloth sack that holds food. Search "reusable bags" on Etsy and more than 8,000 hits come up.

That's why Allen is continually marketing and perfecting her product. She recently redesigned her five characters to look more alike, with the same eyes and mouths. Customers need to see them and know what they are right away, she said. She's also making prototypes of a lunch box that would double as a house for all the Snuppets. And in a slight departure from the lunch products but in the same reusable mind-set, Allen is working on a bib that doubles as a superhero cape.

"I always loved doing crafty things. I used to get old Levi's and paint flowers or patterns up the sides when I was in high school," she said. She wasn't just an early crafter but also an early promoter. She sent pictures of her jeans to Levi's hoping they would want to sell them.

Now she doesn't need a big corporation to promote her idea. She's got her sewing machine, her Snuppets and the Internet.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com. Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

Snack bag plus puppet equals Snuppet, a budding business 02/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 4:00pm]

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