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Smart Ideas Roundup 09/08

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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.

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