Smart Ideas Roundup 09/08
The Real Deal
By Celeste Hoang
What: Online store that sells merchandise from restaurants around the country
Who: Mari Prentice of HungryPotato.com LLC
Where: Los Angeles
When: Started in 2006
Startup Costs: $24,000
Mari Prentice and her husband, Gregg Mulpagano, loved eating at new res- taurants and trying regional flavors as they drove to the East Coast to visit their families. But it wasn't until the couple was back home that Prentice was inspired to build a business around these authentic dining experiences. "A few years back, if you went to Old Navy, they had these diner T-shirts that said 'Joe's Diner,' and I thought, 'That's fake! I want real diner T-shirts,'" recalls Prentice, 39. "I thought about all the places we went on our cross-country trip, and that's how I started my list."
Today, with Mulpagano as the company's merchandise man-ager, HungryPotato.com LLC offers merchandise from restaurants across the nation. The online store sells everything from original barbecue sauces to gift certificates and features items from unique restaurants, like Lucy's Retired Surfers in New Orleans and the landmark Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire. In 2006, the couple launched a "potato tour," during which they met with as many restaurant owners as possible to encourage them to make their merchandise available on the site.
"For [restaurants] to pay monthly fees for a web store when they're not sure how much business they're going to do is a real risk," says Prentice, who expects sales of $235,000 this year. "We're looking for the owner who's too busy to have a web store but could really make extra money."
While the site takes a portion of the profits, Prentice emphasizes that she focuses on helping small restaurants she admires while also providing an outlet for customers looking for merchandise they might not otherwise have access to. In one instance, a man was able to track down a souvenir for his girlfriend from the place where they had their first date.
Designs That Inspire
By Jake Kilroy
What: Culturally relevant dÃ©cor and accessories
Who: Beverly Sutherland of ABC Kidz Designs
Where: Los Angeles
When: Started in 2005
Startup Costs: $150,000
Beverly Sutherland first knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur when she was a child watching her older brother run his ice cream truck fleet. But it wasn't until her own child came along that she decided to start a business.
"I was seven months pregnant with my son and was looking for culturally rel-evant dÃ©cor for his nursery," says Sutherland, 42. She wanted an Afrocentric theme, but after doing an exhausting and disappointing sweep of possible vendors across the U.S., Sutherland decided to forge the market herself.
In 2004, Sutherland contacted the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Once she secured the rights to all Negro League team logos from the museum, Sutherland started ABC Kidz Designs. "I get my inspiration from what people do. I love biographies. I love history. I find it very inspirational," says Sutherland, whose first product was a bedding set for infants with Negro League team logos on it.
Not long after starting, Sutherland wanted to move beyond bedding, so a mutual friend put her in touch with artist Troy Johnson, who now does all the art for ABC Kidz's colorful wall prints. Today, the company's products include all types of bedroom dÃ©cor, such as lamps, wallpaper and dolls for young children. The designs are sold on the company's website, abc-kidz.com, and Sutherland plans to sell them in specialty stores soon. The artwork celebrates black culture and heritage, featuring images heralding iconic figures such as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Since her son Elijah was the reason she started the business, Sutherland still keeps him involved in the process. "With a new product, I always have him and his friends look at it," says Sutherland. "If he gets excited, then I think I have a chance."
ABC Kidz is currently getting ready to unveil designs in a deal with Major League Baseball and has plans to expand beyond black heritage. Sutherland expects 2008 sales of nearly $2.5 million.