How I Created An Inclusive Set Of Kitchen Tools For Kids
Hi! My name is Marci Heit, and I’m the owner and creator of Q.D. Foodie, a super fun lifestyle brand that keeps inclusion in mind. Our home products are designed to make everyday tasks not only more accessible but more joyful for everyone, too!
Our first pieces, seven Q.D. Foodie Kitchen Tools, are bright and colorful, like real fruits and vegetables, with sensory-friendly handles and braille on the measuring cups and spoons.
We sell both direct to consumers, as well as through wholesale, often to gourmet housewares stores. Our products are sold individually and as sets, so it’s easy to mix and match to suit the occasion. We love the reaction that people have to our products. They always bring smiles!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’m a voiceover artist. I was living in Los Angeles and was with a large talent agency. This was before I had my own recording studio, so I was more or less dependent upon my agent, who was wonderful, by the way, for auditions and gigs.
At the same time, I was involved in a puppet show program called Kids on the Block, a disability/differences awareness show with the message that kids are different, but inside, they’re the same. There were skits and songs, and speakers after each performance.
I got to know one of the speakers quite well. Her name was Elda. Elda lost her sight at age 70. We met when she was 90. She was pretty impressive! She learned to do almost everything without being able to see. She even taught people who were losing their vision how to function. She also loved to bake, and even though she never learned braille, she did know enough to mark her spices. On her oven, she put a mark at 350°, and then baked and cooked amazing things.
I loved the message of the puppet show, and it inspired me to create my own content with similar themes running. I figured I’d write a show and sell it (like it’s just that easy, right?) to create some voiceover work for myself and not be solely reliant upon my agent. I wrote an animated show, with some guidance from writer friends along the way. It was Los Angeles, after all, and there were those who knew the ropes and were willing to share their knowledge.
I teamed up with a producer who had recently left Disney. She taught me how to pitch, and despite my nerves, our meetings with the studios went quite well. Ultimately, we didn’t sell that project then, but I was encouraged to continue to write.
By this point, I did have my own recording set up in the closet of my apartment and was working steadily as a voiceover artist. Still, while writing wasn’t part of my original plan, it turned out that I actually enjoyed the process of creating the content, in addition to the voice work. So I continued to write, as well, and before I knew it, I had a small little library of content. All with voiceover parts for me, of course. Little by little, I began to get hired by others to write, too. Definitely a thrill! So I started a company called It’s Real Entertainment, where we create our own original content to sell, and we develop content for clients.
One of the original properties I created was Q.D. Foodie (previously called Foodies, but that was not trademarkable) and was loosely based on my friend, Elda. Quinn Daisy, Q.D. for short, and her friends, all unique characters in their own ways, have food-related adventures and make things with food in their watermelon-shaped tree house. Q.D. has been blind since birth, so she finds different ways to do some things. It definitely doesn’t hold her back!
The characters use these illustrated cooking tools that work well for Q.D. Each tool was different, and she could easily recognize what each one was, without having to feel the dirty part of a mixing spoon, for example. As an animated project, we could make them as whimsical as we wanted. They weren’t created with the idea of turning them into merchandise. But they were so cute! I wanted them in MY real kitchen, though, and I figured that others would, too.
I did a lot of farmer's markets, holiday boutiques, pop-ups, etc It’s not as far-reaching, of course, but there’s a lot of value in it. Not only did it lead to direct sales, but it also led to additional connections that brought about other sales.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I knew nothing about the manufacturing business, but I knew I had to learn and make these products, and that people would love them! I found an industrial designer to turn my illustrated tools into ones that would work in the real world. The process took a while because I didn’t always have the cash flow, so depending on the timing and the cost, I’d sometimes have to hold off for a few months, before going forward with the next stage of development.
I also found a domestic injection molding manufacturer to make them. After speaking to many factories, I found one that I felt was a terrific fit. They were willing to work with smaller runs, and they were very generous with the time they devoted to determining how best to build the molds, making the runs most efficient, which then lowers cost.
The manufacturer also had suggestions for the tools that mostly impacted how the products were built on the inside, to lower cost, so we redesigned where necessary. We had to let go of some things that I had a hard time letting go of, like the bowls that were intended to be part of the first collection, but getting the design on them with the texture proved to be difficult, expensive, and something that would delay the process for longer than I was willing to wait.
At this point, I teamed up with a company that helps to bring products to market. I came across them while looking for packaging only, not knowing that they had another part of their business. They really loved the product and the story behind it, so I brought them on to help with the many other aspects that go into launching a brand. We had incredible prototypes made and were able to get lots of photography done to start building an audience.
We even had an opportunity to pitch to a shark tank type of investor group, where I actually got an investment deal with five of the six investors (who went by “moguls”). After several meetings, I ultimately chose to not work with those investors. One of the main reasons I created the product was to have an accessible line of kitchen tools that everyone could use together. Not just for someone who needed an accessible product. As far as the kitchen goes, cooking is a life skill and a kitchen is a place where so many memories are made. I wanted to build a brand that could be enjoyed by everyone, simultaneously and individually.
These investors wanted to make the product without regard to those factors that I believed had great appeal. Adding those elements adds cost to the product, but also value. They were only interested in bringing the cost down, even though it meant sacrificing the value. Ultimately, I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign. And ultimately, I had to move the manufacturing overseas.
Being in close proximity to the production is a luxury. But it’s simply three times as much to manufacture in the United States, unfortunately. Not only would I not have been able to afford those start-up costs, but nobody would buy products like mine at that price. I’d love to manufacture in the U.S. and use the wonderful factory that helped me get started in many ways.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching a business is not for the faint of heart. Kickstarter was definitely harder than I thought. My campaign’s purpose was to fund the molds and production. While I didn’t know the majority of people who helped to fund my campaign, I still went through the process of reaching out to everyone I’d ever met, essentially asking them for money. It’s super hard to ask people for money. Sure they get the cutest kitchen tools ever, as a thank you, but when your family and friends buy, it’s because you’re you, regardless of what you’re selling.
So I’m super grateful to those I know who contributed, but I also know that it’s not a good indication of what the general population will buy, once the product is out on the market. I also learned that many people go into the Kickstarter campaign already funded. That certainly helps build the momentum on the platform and something I would recommend, if possible, to Kickstarter newbies. Even without that head start, I now had the money, which enabled us to create the molds and do sampling. We had minor issues to fix. It took three months after Kickstarter to actually go into production. We wanted to get the shipment in time for the December holidays.
During that in-between period, I reached out to as many businesses and organizations as I could who were involved in getting kids cooking and bringing families together in the kitchen, in whatever forms or approaches they took. I created many partnerships this way. One of the partners, unbeknownst to me, contacted The New York Times, who wanted a sample. I didn’t have one. They weren’t here yet. They were on a boat! (See, this would not have happened if I were able to manufacture domestically!)
We didn’t make the December holidays. But now here was The New York Times asking for my tools, and I wasn’t saying no. Thankfully, I was able to have one shipped from the overrun. And when someone from The Times called me to fact check, while I was driving, I nearly got into a car accident! A few days later, during the first week of January, Florence Fabricant, the famous food writer, wrote up Q.D. Foodie in the Food section. Orders started pouring in.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Listening to customers. In the case of Q.D. Foodie, it was always the plan to sell individually and as a set. Initially, however, they were only sold as a seven-piece set. Together, the pieces tell the story of what Q.D. Foodie is about, and I wanted to get that message out there. It’s a little harder to sum that up by just looking at an individual piece, or so I thought.
But people kept asking for one or two pieces as much as for the set, so I gave them what they wanted. I’m so glad that I made that adjustment early on. I would have been cutting off half of my customers!
Prior to covid, I did a lot of farmer's markets, holiday boutiques, pop-ups, etc. These were amazing opportunities to connect directly with customers and have them actually hold the product and see how comfortable it was in their hands, plus they were opportunities for me to share my story and to hear customer stories and feedback. It’s a lot more personal than creating engagement through a computer screen. It’s not as far-reaching, of course, but there’s a lot of value in it. Not only did it lead to direct sales, but it also led to additional connections that brought about other sales.
Additional sales channels include our website, Etsy and Amazon. With Amazon, even unique products like mine are a challenge, when it comes to making a decent profit there. Getting placement on the first page is costly. What’s more, they take a large part of each transaction. In the housewares category, there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of products. Still, having merchandise on Amazon is worthwhile. Consumers trust Amazon.
If Oprah comes asking, do whatever she wants.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
These days, we’re busy, and we have plans to roll out two new Q.D. Foodie collections. Additionally, my production company is doing development on multiple writing projects that grew out of the Q.D. Foodie brand. That came about unexpectedly, but it has really been great, and I’m embracing it. I’m excited to share more details about that, once I’m allowed to. You never know what opportunities will arise. Be open to them!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The Q.D. Foodie pieces are sold on Amazon, Etsy, and on our WordPress site, qdfoodie.com. Etsy is pretty new for us, but we like it. Customers go there looking for unique products, so that's a good place for the tools to be. I appreciate the ease of use of it, as well. Amazon is shockingly difficult to set up, and we had to jump through many hoops (seemingly unnecessary hoops) to get listed. It is very quick to get help on the phone, though, and I find that to be a huge plus.
Shopify is something we're considering adding to the mix. Our website purchases are run through Stripe. We typically schedule meetings with Google Meet. The access is simple, and we are not as restricted on time. I prefer face-to-face meetings to phone calls, where possible. Running a business is, in part, about creating and building relationships, which historically included a meeting in an office or a restaurant, rather than on the phone. Necessity is the mother of invention, however, and it's wonderful that in our world today we're able to accomplish this without necessarily being in the same physical space and still get the benefit of that face time.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I don't watch much tv, but I do watch Shark Tank. I've learned so much from people's stories, how they came to their inventions and what is and isn't working. I love hearing the feedback from Sharks and the incredible advice they often offer. Of course, they've made some mistakes (Ring, Kodiak Cakes), and there are lessons to be learned there, as well.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
To anyone starting out, I would say several things:
1) Without a doubt, the unexpected will arise, whether it's a design change or something unrelated to your life that will modify your timeline. Accept that as part of the path, and that you will get there. There will be bumps in the road. But even before getting to the bumps, have a clear vision of what you want your product to be and why. Keep pushing through. Trust your gut. Passion is infectious. Be prepared to work your butt off. Resourcefulness is also key. Getting to this point was full of hurdles for me, the biggest one being money. Hang in and let your passion guide you. It's everything.
2) Marketing, patents, and so many additional things. It’s a fortune. You’ll need more money than you think. Whether it’s actual marketing dollars spent, or time spent creating content for social media platforms, creating brand awareness and selling a product are two full-time, separate jobs. Budget more dollars or time for marketing. Budget more time for promotion. Getting the word out in a sea of products is a lot of work.
3) Share your story. We all love stories. Share your story in a genuine way. Your story is interesting and powerful.
4) Conduct your business professionally. It may be your passion, but you are also in it to make money. People will always ask for free products. They have a blog, an event, or something where they will promise great exposure. There’s nothing wrong with giving away merchandise in exchange, but it can be endless, and it can be challenging and uncomfortable to pick and choose one who has asked over another. Find a path that makes sense for your donations, should you choose to make them. In our case, we donate products to non-profits with cooking programs.
There are big and small organizations that fall into this category. We do get exposure through it, and we regularly see retail sales come from it, as well. And we get a tax deduction. There are exceptions to this rule, but usually, when people ask for free stuff, you can say, “we donate to…”. You’re not stingy. You’re just professional. And of course, if Oprah comes asking, do whatever she wants.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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