Al Contarino was thwarted one too many times trying to make pizza on a traditional grill. He couldn’t manage to get a consistent high temperature to cook his pies. Every time he lifted the lid, he lost heat, and the bottom cooked faster than the top.
But when he and fellow inventor George Peters were tinkering around with the concept of a grill-top pizza oven in 2010, they built a chamber—stuffing it with charcoal and hard wood chips—that could reach 750 degrees and cook a pizza in about five minutes. Although the KettlePizza co-founders got their steel grill insert into Crate & Barrel stores and on CrateandBarrel.com and Walmart.com and opted to start selling on Amazon.com several years ago, they’ve still battled a brand-awareness problem.
To make some gains in that area, Contarino and Peters pitched their product to The Grommet, an online marketplace and product discovery platform, for a spotlight slot. And they got a bite. Although Jules Pieri, the marketplace’s co-founder and CEO, said she was extremely impressed by the pizza grill sleeve itself, it was the company’s insistence on retaining that “Made-in-the-USA” stamp that earned her admiration.
Getting The Grommet
The pizza oven launched on TheGrommet.com on June 1—just in time for Father’s Day shopping. The video accompanying the item puts a face to the KettlePizza name—offering a peek behind the curtain and talk of corporate social responsibility in a format that’s too often reserved for mere product demonstration.
Case in point: The fact that Contarino and Peters have found partners all over the country to cut steel, fit nuts and bolts, handle the pizza stones and make boxes for the brand wouldn’t normally make it into a manufacturer’s description on a product detail page. But the narrative bent of The Grommet’s video shoots allows for—and actually demands—that background context.
“It has been a joy when you deal with other companies—and a lot of family owned companies—around that are still being committed for decades to making things here in the U.S., where we’re getting product from,” Peters said in the video piece.
“You want to be able to create jobs for people in your community or in your own country,” Contarino added.
The “locally sourced” angle played well at The Grommet since it aligns with one of the marketplace’s core tenets. The Boston-based outfit, which has been around for nine years, caters to local “makers” and small businesses offering innovative items. But its biggest differentiator is that the site focuses heavily on “values” shopping, Pieri said. Products featured on the TheGrommet.com, which has 16 merchandise categories, fulfill at least one of the company’s 10 values:
- Crowd funded
- “Made in the USA”
- Sustainable living
- Independent maker
- Technology and innovation
- Underrepresented entrepreneurs
- Social enterprises
- Made for a lifetime
“[With] the KettlePizza video, when I see those two guys, I’m like ‘I’m in. I’m in! Whatever you’re doing, I want to know more,'” Pieri told audience members during a 2018 Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition session on heightening product visibility for online shoppers. “When they talk about the joy and use words like that for helping other businesses create jobs… It takes this product, which is brilliant, and it transcends [and that is] almost heroic to me.”
People “orient” to companies—not just products, said Pieri, adding that the “Made-in-the-USA” mission resonates.
“What we’re really in it for—and what our community is in it for—are those founders,” Pieri said. “You hear what they care about… It’s very much the reason why we exist—because you might never know of this company otherwise. There are not natural outlets for these kind of companies, and that’s what we’ve become.”
Peters, who declined to give exact online sales figures for the private brand, said that thanks to The Grommet, KettlePizza doubled its online sales during the first half of June when compared with last year’s seasonal numbers.
Making it to market
Each week, The Grommet receives about 300 submissions from business owners looking to highlight their product on the marketplace, and a team of 10 whittles down the list of pitches before turning items over to the larger group of nearly 100 employees for testing. Ultimately, six products are selected to represent values its consumer audience cares about, and they are launched on TheGrommet.com with an original introduction video.
Many of the more than 2,800 products Pieri has had a hand in launching—like Fitbit, OtterBox, SodaStream and Bananagrams—have become household names. The Grommet is the third startup for Pieri, who began her career as an industrial designer, and she built it as an outlet for her professional frustration.
“Every business needs to have a sort of burning problem driving the founder crazy,” she said. “And in the larger consumer products companies that I worked in, I was finding that our best products were not making it to market.”
While Pieri was working as a senior executive at Playskool, she asked her boss, Meg Whitman, why they were producing the same old products. Whitman, who went on to run eBay Inc. and HP, responded: “If Kmart, Toys R Us, Target or Walmart don’t want it, we can’t make it.”
“What was happening in retail and in toys is that specialty retail was really shrinking. Main Street retail,” Pieri said. “And that just pissed me off that any company—large or small—with a terrific ability to innovate, to do good, to push the envelope… was losing its access to customers.”
Ahead of the curve
Meanwhile, there was another shift occurring.
According to recent research Pieri cited, 66% of people would like to support small businesses. Other notable takeaways from The Grommet’s analysis:
- These same smaller retail players rank very high in The Pew Charitable Trusts survey while big competitors do not.
- 29% of people want to support businesses that support their personal values.
- 64% of people felt guilty about some of their purchases.
This undercurrent, driven by consumer sentiment, may be quite apparent now that the marketplace is nearly a decade in, but Pieri said the “Citizen Commerce” concept was not a given back when The Grommet was starting up. At that time, she and her co-founder had no access to meaningful data to support their proposed business strategy, which is how it usually goes in an industry that expects entrepreneurs to be ahead of the curve.
“We’re good at reading the Zeitgeist,” Pieri said. “I have to skate to where the puck is going, in the Gretzky-type analogy—I’ve always been paid to do that. And so it wasn’t hard for us to know what some of the current values were.”
Strategy by proxy
Around 2007 or 2008, Pieri noticed that farmers markets had been growing 17% year over year for several consecutive years. “That was my best proxy for shopping by values because shopping at a farmers market is super inconvenient, and it can be expensive,” she said “But you’re making a statement: You’re going out of your way to do that.
“And even though tomatoes aren’t a proxy for pizza ovens or dog toys or personal accessories or outdoor gear and all the things that we launched, it was the closest thing I had, and I had to go with that,” Pieri added. “But it made me queasy to take that leap of faith and hope that there was a large enough cohort of people (interested).”
More recently, independent bookstore trends have bolstered Pieri’s early speculations on values shopping. That market has been growing 11% year over year for the last few years, Pieri said, and this shopping behavior is a similar expression of personal values.
Aside from unearthing interesting products that do what they purport to do, the trick is to commit to storytelling, which is an expensive endeavor for The Grommet, Pieri said. The marketplace wouldn’t be successful if her team just copied and pasted the specifications from a manufacturer’s product detail page, she said. But with a bit more marketing energy, any “Made-in-the-USA” items—which perform the best of all values, Pieri said—transform.
Pieri recalled her experience with Zkano’s pitch. One day, she came into work and saw two pair of ordinary white athletic socks on her co-founder’s desk. “She said ‘You’re gonna love this!’ [I was] like, ‘Is she smoking dope?’ We do special products every day. I could buy these socks from anywhere,” Pieri recounted.
But then came the backstory. Creator Gina Locklear grew up in Fort Payne, Ala., where her parents built a sock-manufacturing company in what was the sock-making capital of the United States throughout most of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the country offshored sock production, and the hosiery business took a major hit in Locklear’s hometown, which was suffering.
Looking at the family business with fresh eyes, Locklear realized that organic cotton socks weren’t really being produced here with known local sources, and that was a huge market opportunity. She opted to start making her products from certified organic, ring-spun cotton grown without pesticides or chemicals, and the green business has been a boon to the local industry.
“Again, like the pizza oven, they go from sitting on a table… Kind of can’t talk for themselves, looking very uninteresting… To when you learn the story, it’s like the heavens open,” Pieri said. “You say ‘Oh my gosh! We need to buy these socks. We need to help Gina!’”
The Grommet has yet to have run into a values-driven competitor even after operating for nearly a decade, she added. Pieri watches her merchandise return rate “like a hawk,” and the marketplace comes in under 3%, which she said is “unheard of” outside of a retailer that’s selling washing machine repair parts or something in that vein. For Pieri, it’s a signal that products are delivering on their promises and that The Grommet’s reputation and credibility with customers isn’t jeopardized.
Here are a couple of Pieri’s other favorite launch stories:
- Product: Bathymetric depth chart maps of lakes. The wooden topographic wall art depicts shorelines, colors and up to eight depth dimensions of more than 4,000 bodies of water.
- Value: “Made in the USA”; handcrafted
- Story: The Michigan-based, father-daughter-operation makes its frames from reclaimed wood gathered from the abandoned homes in Detroit. Since the business launched on the marketplace, The Grommet sold $6 million worth of the frames. The Lake Art team has expanded from a handful of people to 40 employees.
- Product: Hard-boiled egg peeler. The shells slide off once the egg is shaken in some cold water with the help of a hand-held kitchen device.
- Value: Underrepresented entrepreneurs; “Made in the USA”
- Story: Inventor Bonnie Tyler, who is a senior citizen, offered to bring deviled eggs to a party one night and wound up switching out to a bag of potato chips after she botched the egg-peeling step. After some research at the local library on industrial peeling—which combines vibration, movement and water—she prototyped a miniaturized version of a peeler. Tyler even manufactures the product in her own backyard: Connecticut.