Jan (left) and Bonnie (right)Jan (left) and Bonnie (right)

Beverage Butler

Holdrege Sisters Solve Dripping Spigot Problem With Beverage Butler Invention

Nine years ago, inspiration struck Holdrege sisters Jan Fowler and Bonnie Young.

While attending events, such as high school graduation parties, they noticed the spigots on beverage coolers always dripped, and the “solutions” people had tried weren’t working. Party hosts placed a chair under the spigot, which only impeded guests from getting to the cooler. They placed towels or bowls on the floor to catch the drip. Or, sometimes they just gave up, using nothing at all and leaving a sticky mess that created slip and fall hazards.

These two sisters, grandmothers and lifelong residents of Holdrege, thought there must be a better way. They started brainstorming a solution and eventually created The Beverage Butler drip catcher that offers a much-better solution.

Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn
Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn

Through the years, the sisters have continued to promote their product, unfazed by rejection. They see each experience as an opportunity to mine their contacts for information and insights on how to make their product even better and to get the word out. They received a huge boost in January when the Beverage Butler was one of a handful of products chosen by Kathie Lee and Hoda of the “Today Show” for their spotlight on “products that will make your Super Bowl watch party a winner.”

Creating A Solution

When Jan and Bonnie first started researching solutions for the dripping spigot, they checked online and discovered that many of the existing products were expensive and not well designed.  They sketched a drawing of a better solution that eventually became the Beverage Butler. Next, on advice from a friend, they traveled to Omaha to visit a molded plastics factory. But, that visit was a bust. Undaunted, they kept at it in Omaha until they found Design Plastics, which would eventually make the steel mold they are still using today.

Determined to make a great product, they asked lots of questions, researched the internet and took notes. On the trips to and from Omaha, Jan and Bonnie bounced ideas off each other.  They learned the best plastic was polypropylene and that gray was a better color than white because it wouldn’t be as likely to show streaks. They added the “living hinge,” which, unlike their competitor’s, allowed the customer to fold and store the product inside the beverage cooler.  The hinge, Jan said, has been tested to fold a million times without breaking. They took the advice of a friend, Tom, a restaurant owner from Hastings, and adopted the pebble design that helps to deflect the beverage splash in the bottom of the Beverage Butler.  The women laughingly referred to it as “Tom’s bumpy bottom.” The finished product is not only attractive but functional.

Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn
Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn

Taking the Beverage Butler On the Road

Of course it’s not enough to make a great product if nobody knows about it. Jan and Bonnie knew they had to pitch their product in as many ways as possible. They started with Cash-Wa Distributing in Kearney. The two entrepreneurs were encouraged by the response from Cash-Wa. So, they hired a lawyer, got their patent approved and started production. The next step was to find stores to sell their product. Grow Nebraska, which promotes Nebraska-made products, agreed to sell the Beverage Butler in its stores and through its website, which began a successful and continuing relationship. Cash-Wa eventually agreed to include the Beverage Butler in its product line.

Jan and Bonnie kept trying other options and had many “near misses” along the way. After sending in their product to the International Housewares convention in Chicago, a positive response resulted in the women traveling there to give a 15-minute demonstration of their product for Rubbermaid. Even though it didn’t pan out, they were encouraged by a glowing rejection letter. The Beverage Butler was featured as one of the new products in “Inventor’s Digest” magazine’s “Under the Radar” section.  They did a spot on “My Cool Inventions” radio with John Cremeans, the “Doctor of Shopology,” who was the long-time pitchman for the HSN network. Their product did not get selected, but it was another step in getting the name out there. They paid for ads, including an infomercial by “Shark Find’s” Kevin Harrington. They also were interviewed by “Catering Magazine” and “Special Events Magazine.” Last November, Jan did an interview on “Word of Mom” with host Dori DeCarlo. Bev.

Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn
Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn

Persistence finally paid off for these two rural Nebraska businesswomen. At one point, they pitched their product to TV personality Steve Greenberg of “Gadget Nation,” who was doing a pilot for the DIY Network.  Although the Beverage Butler didn’t make the cut, they kept in contact with Greenberg, who was the expert for the Super Bowl segment on the “Today Show.” Jan and Bonnie contacted him on Jan. 17, got accepted, and rushed the Beverage Butler there by Jan. 24.

Jan said those 12 seconds of free TV time, which included Kathie Lee’s quip, “I want it,” were worth more than a $1,000 of paid commercials. Since then, these two grandmothers have been busy. In a typical month, they sell a few dozen products. They sold more than 400 in the week following the “Today Show,” all of which were packaged up and mailed out from Jan’s home.  This didn’t include orders through Grow-Nebraska, Cash-Wa, Ebay, and other outlets. In the months since, they have sold hundreds more with packages going out almost daily.

A Family Legacy

According to national estimates, only about 1 percent of inventions actually become successful in the sense of making more income than expenses. Katie Burg, HR Manager at Midlands Molding in Kearney, where the Beverage Butler is currently manufactured, said that many would-be entrepreneurs change their minds when they learn that the steel mold alone costs $10,000 or more – and that’s for a small item.  A larger mold like the one for the Beverage Butler costs much more. For Bonnie and Jan, this is strictly a family enterprise. Unlike many startups, they have no outside investors. Even their website, www.thebeveragebutler.com, is managed by Jan’s son, Jeremy.

Jan and Bonnie both have prior business experience. Jan and her husband operated the family business, Palmer Brothers Granite, for 24 years until they sold it, and Bonnie ran a day care. They said their father, Bernard Palmer, inspired them to take risks. Although he was the second generation owner of the family granite business, his real love was writing.  During his life, he authored more than 300 young adult and regular fiction novels and non-fiction works. They saw their dad get rejections from publishers, but he would never give up, which taught them a valuable life lesson.

Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn
Beverage Butler, photo by Linda Liljehorn

And, the sisters encourage each other to keep going. When expenses were piling up and they were hitting a wall, they would ask each other, “Is this the time to give up?” And, then, Bonnie said, “One of us would have an idea, and we would move on.”  Positive feedback helped, too.  Jan said, “I get overwhelmed when people say awesome things about our product. It is so exciting.”

As for the future, Jan and Bonnie plan to continue promoting the Beverage Butler. On their website they listed several alternative uses.  Some of the ideas came from satisfied customers: the living hinge works well hanging off a shelf or in the seat back pocket in a car for holding pens, keys, cell phones, etc., and its stable base allows it to used as a gift basket for candies or other goodies.

photo by Mike VaughnWilliams
photo by Mike VaughnWilliams

The Beverage Butler, which retails for $14.99, is now sold across the United States and in 17 countries in Europe. Jan and Bonnie are working with a well-known big-box store, whose name they could not mention yet, that could result in the Beverage Butler going on display in more than a thousand stores across the country. In the meantime, online sales continue to be brisk.

No matter what, Bonnie Young and Jan Fowler don’t intend to give up. Bonnie summed it up this way: “We always thought you can not do something, and nothing will happen, or you can take a risk and follow your dream.” These two entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to dream big.

Learn more

Read more about Grow Nebraska and how it works to help Nebraska entrepreneurs in GROW Nebraska CEO works to preserve rural lifestyle with global opportunities.

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Mike VaughnWilliams

Mike VaughnWilliams spent his career in special education and has a passion for fitness, health, sports (especially golf), and for running marathons. He and his wife Susan live on a farm between Holdrege and Funk.

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