Kelley Pitcher reached up to hang a sign above her vendor stall at the Hyde Park Village monthly market which showcased images of her newly patented product — the stainless steel “Belly Bowl.”
Pitcher, a Valrico resident, wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.
It was still steamy outside over Labor Day weekend. She’d had already skipped the August market because of the weather and was worried few shoppers would be in attendance. But she was too excited to show off her latest invention — a mixing bowl you balance against your tummy, to local shoppers in Tampa Bay.
As Pitcher and her partner Joel Lebel set up their custom display shelves in front of the shopping plaza’s iconic fountain, Lebel said: “I don’t expect a huge turnout...”
“But sometimes it’s a surprise,” Pitcher added.
They’ve sold goods at the local Hyde Park Village Fresh Market countless times before under the name Pitcher Pottery. Together Pitcher and Lebel organize hundreds of ceramics, from mugs to food trays, in time for shoppers arriving for brunch and to browse in the late morning.
Over Labor Day weekend, Pitcher made room for a brand new display. Three metallic models of dented mixing bowls stood stacked together to show off the 7-, 9-, and 11-inch varieties found in each set.
Pitcher was ready for the confused expressions people might have when they stumble upon her lopsided bowls. She’d originally sold them in ceramic form until a friend told her years ago to apply for a patent.
Most people assumed Belly Bowls were a potter’s mistake that Pitcher ran with. But the design was intentional.
The idea began with a friend from her hometown in Poland Springs, Maine, who commissioned Pitcher to create a bowl he could use to cook with and then eat from of while watching movies at home. Picture it — lounging on the sofa with a bowl of food pressed against his stomach, as the name suggests. While Pitcher was developing it, she said she found other natural uses, from mixing with additional support to offering an easy pour because of the two edges.
When shoppers look curiously at the bowls, Pitcher said her strategy was to walk over to them and get it into their hands.
“As soon as I hold it to my side or put it in their hands, they’re like ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Why hasn’t anyone ever done that before?’” she said.
Pitcher said she didn’t have high expectations for the stainless steel set at this particular Sunday market. The clientele there is usually looking for more handmade goods. Her goal instead was to raise awareness, especially ahead of the holidays.
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“To actually make a bowl, it doesn’t take that long,” said Pitcher, as she threw fresh clay on the wheel and began shaping the bowl from her market vendor stall. It must dry for a few days before she’ll fire it into a kiln, glazing it and then firing it again. “So that whole process usually takes about a month.”
Pitcher wanted to use a material that didn’t take as long to produce and wasn’t as fragile or heavy as ceramic. She considered glass at one point but it offered similar problems. So she settled on stainless steel.
Pitcher said she might one day expand to sell Belly Bowls in glass and plastic ... if the idea takes off.
She has big dreams for her invention. Pitcher hopes to sell Belly Bowls on a national scale, in kitchen retailers like Williams Sonoma one day. But she’s taking it one day at a time.
It’s been “daunting” to develop a business plan for the product as a local small business owner, Pitcher said. Prior to Belly Bowls, she’d never had to work with an attorney to secure a patent or research factories that can make a custom mold before.
“When I went to the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City, I started asking questions trying to figure out where to start and what to do,” Pitcher said. “It’s kind of a hiccup for somebody that doesn’t have tens of thousands of dollars.”
It took nearly three years before she had everything in place. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved her patent in 2020. Then she found a supplier in China that could create the mold, even though COVID-19 and supply chain woes slowed her down. Pitcher ordered the minimum of 2,000 sets that the manufacturer required to see how they’ll perform.
Her next step, she said, was to get the word out.
“We have no idea how many we’ll sell,” Pitcher said. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants.”
She’s had some friends, family and long-time customers buy sets already, each one costing $130, but it was time to try it out in front of strangers. Shoppers began to trickle into the market that morning. Pitcher wiped her brow after ensuring every mug and bowl was lined up neatly.
Families stopped to stare and point at the bowls. Just minutes into the market, one Tampa woman picked up a ceramic Belly Bowl and asked if it could be shipped to Pittsburgh for her sister who loved to bake.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said 36-year-old Jennie Friedman after handing her credit card to Pitcher.
Just a few minutes later, another customer bought a Belly Bowl — this time in stainless steel.