Chris Schutte created a kitchen device that has garnered a lot of interest but little money. How long will he chase the dream, and at what price?
Members of the Inventors Association of Manhattan sat rapt. The burly, friendly-faced speaker before them was listing his successes with a homespun kitchen tool called the HotDog Ez Bun Steamer, and they were wowed.
“I’ve received two patents and gotten two trademarks,” he said. “I’ve appeared on QVC multiple times. I’ve been on a long-running national TV commercial. My product’s been in grocery stores and catalogs and won best new product of the year. I’ve been named inventor of the year. My story’s been in books, newspapers, on radio and the evening news.
“And,” Chris Schutte said, lowering his voice to a near whisper, “it doesn’t mean squat, because I haven’t ... made ... a dime.
“You could hear everyone in the room just go ‘awwwww,’” Schutte, 52, recalls. “Here they were thinking I was going to tell them how many millions I’d made because I’d accomplished all these things most inventors only dream of. Then they hear the truth.”
The truth is his bun steamer isn’t selling much these days, the adrenaline rush from all that free publicity has petered out, and he and his family have been pushed to the financial brink. This is, Schutte says, “our darkest hour.”
He is sitting in the dining room of his spacious and bright Suwanee home, a fire crackling in the hearth nearby, with his wife, Janay, seated across from him. She seems to be reliving his New York moment with him, though she wasn’t there, high above Times Square, last September.
The boyish enthusiasm that is Schutte’s natural demeanor gives way to a look of resignation as he tells the story that concludes with him sleeping overnight in the LaGuardia Airport baggage claim because he couldn’t afford a hotel room.
“Unfortunately,” he says after a moment, “suicide is very high among inventors.”
It’s just an observation, but for Schutte, the point is clear: There is risk in pursuing any dream, for the pursuit may fail, and the dreamer is left in the emotional and financial rubble.
But what happens when you can’t let the dream go?
2. Eureka moment
One day in 2003, Schutte was watching Monday Night Football, and he ambled into the kitchen during halftime to make himself a hot dog.
“It was delicious,” he says. “Great dog, fresh bun ... Six days later, that Sunday, I’m watching football again and I go for another one. Ugh. It tasted like crap. The hot dog was still good, but the bun was stale.”
That’s when he remembered his mother, a frugal sort who “used to freeze everything.” To thaw buns, some of which were six months old, she would stick them in a little bun warmer, and they would come out soft and tender.
“To a little kid, it was like magic,” he said.
Schutte, a handy sort, began configuring a series of metal wire grills that, when placed inside a pot of boiling water, could steam the bun while cooking the hot dog. Iteration after iteration didn’t quite work.
Finally, he hit upon a solution.
“In that moment, I said, ‘oh my God, I’ve got a million-dollar idea,’” he recalls.
Janay wasn’t as impressed.
“I’d seen all these prototypes with wires everywhere ... I felt like I lived in an orthodontist’s office,” she quips. “I was always encouraging, but it didn’t hit me like a bolt of lightning.”
“It’s ’cause she’s from England,” Schutte chides, to her amusement. “Hot dogs are no big deal. It’s bangers and mash over there, and they don’t use buns.”
Despite his eureka moment, Schutte sat on his brainstorm for four years. He was working 60 or more hours a week, running HiFi Buys and Tweeter electronics stores. He was earning more than $100,000 a year and had little time to spare, but he did devour books on patent and trademark law in case the day came.
It did in 2007 when his company folded and he became unemployed. One day, newly jobless, he was walking through a Home Depot store and saw a wrench on display. It was just like one he had once conceived in his mind and hoped some day to invent, but never followed up on.
“I said, ‘Honey, I have this idea for the hot dog bun steamer, and I can’t go through life wondering what if I didn’t chase this dream,’” he told Janay. “For months I was scared I’d walk into a grocery store one day and see it hanging there before I had a chance to develop it.”
As far back as he could remember, Schutte had always wanted “to invent a simple little product everyone would know and love.” It didn’t have to be a hot dog bun steamer, or a wrench.
“If someone asked me when I was 10 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve said an inventor,” he says. “It was festering inside me for years.”
He had been schooled in entrepreneurship and self-motivation as a child when his father, and later his mother, joined Amway, the direct sales company. He would listen in as his parents recruited members and sold products from their home.
Now here, he thought, was his opportunity.
3. Hits and misses
In March 2008, shortly after Schutte lost his job, he and Janay walked into a housewares industry trade show in Chicago. They brought with them hundreds of Hot Dog EZ Bun Steamers they’d had manufactured by a small firm in Texas and a cooler full of hot dogs they would cook and pass out. They wore T-shirts bearing their product’s name.
Janay also brought a hot dog costume, which she was prepared to don for the cause.
“To drum up some business, I was going to put it on and sing,” she explains.
“You gotta have some hot dogs baby tonight,” she belts out.
“Luckily, I didn’t have to put it on,” she said.
She didn’t need to. Schutte made a connection at the show that landed a deal to make his product in partnership with a big manufacturer and split the profits. It was an unheard of rapid success.
“Here we’re at it only nine months and we’ve arrived!” he remembers thinking.
“We started calculating out the sales ... there’s 50,000 grocery stores in America, and if we sell one at each a week and make 50 cents apiece on each ... well the math isn’t hard to do,” he added.
“I believed in it 100 percent,” Janay says. “I mean, he was so passionate about it. And I’d seen the journey. I’d been living it. And I got caught up in it.
“But I will say that I was the one who kept my feet on the ground,” Janay says. “‘Let’s dial it down,’ I’d say, especially when the talk came up about the big dollars and how we’d get a big house at the River Club (a ritzy subdivision). I was afraid, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if this doesn’t work out how devastating it would be. For Chris, mostly, but for all of us.”
She was right to be cautious. A month after the Chicago show, the owner of the manufacturing company called to say they’d decided to pass on the project.
“Talk about the air going out of the balloon,” Schutte says. “Psssssssss.”
Demoralized, he took a job with Circuit City. It was a steady paycheck, after all. But the chain folded a few months later, and he was jobless again.
Still, he had his bun steamer, the support of his investors — mainly his mother and uncle, who’d put in tens of thousands of dollars — and Janay, whose income from a dental office job helped pay the bills.
Another bolt of fortune struck in 2009 when Schutte landed a coveted appearance on the QVC shopping channel. The network asked for $23,000 worth of bun steamers and granted Schutte a chance to sell them in the early afternoon, prime time for housewares sales.
He flew to Pennsylvania to learn how to present on TV, got additional funds from his investors to make more product and pinched himself that he was so lucky. The publicity was sure to pump sales and get his company out there.
But the day Schutte appeared live on QVC, Sen. Edward Kennedy died, driving viewers to news channels. He only sold 300 steamers and was left with thousands of unsold units.
“Honey,” he asked Janay when he called home, “how big is the garage?”
The experience left him with what he described in his blog, aninventorsjourney.com, as “a sinking feeling in my gut. What was I going to tell my investors?” he wondered.
Schutte got a second shot on QVC in September 2009, in the early morning hours, and although he fared better, it wasn’t enough. His home shopping fate seemed sealed.
Afterward, down as he could be, sitting in a budget motel in Pennsylvania and contemplating his next step, Schutte got more good news. An executive for Legal Zoom, a web-based legal service that handled his incorporation, patent and trademark work, called to ask him to tape a testimonial TV commercial for the company.
“I’m devastated and then I get this call for a screen test. I’m walking this tightrope, trying to keep my emotions in check,” he says.
Schutte was flown to Hollywood in late 2009 to shoot his commercial.
Again, he calculated the benefits of the spot, which would be seen on stations across the country at all times of day.
“I called my investors and said, “I need inventory! I need another $60,000!”
He was getting in deeper, but what choice did he have, he thought. He couldn’t stop now — not with success so close.
“You just ante up and ante up,” he reflects, “and pretty soon all the chips are in the middle of the table.”
Schutte was one of three entrepreneurs in the Legal Zoom commercial, which aired widely, but he was so charismatic, he got 22 seconds of the 30-second ad to himself. It shows him steaming buns and talking about the origins of his idea. He was a smash. Only good things would come of it, he thought.
Only they didn’t. Monthly sales on his website increased, but only from $300 a month to $3,000. He was banking on $30,000.
But, as had become the pattern, good news again followed bad.
A major grocery store distributor agreed in early 2010 to test the bun steamer in stores later that summer. If enough people bought it during the trial, it could lead to a nationwide rollout.
That fall, The Steamie — a multiuse follow-up to the Hot Dog Ez Bun Steamer — was selected as the best new as-sold-on-TV product of the year. Then Schutte won an award as inventor of the year from the Electronic Retailing Association. He also landed a licensing deal to sell The Steamie in infomercials.
Everything was going his way. How could he fail now?
“My God,” he thought, “it’s just a matter of time.”
That’s when reality came crashing in again.
The infomercial deal fell through when the company discovered the existence of another product they deemed too similar.
The grocery store test came back and the results were bad. The packaging was poor and the price too high, he learned.
Schutte did manage to get a third shot on QVC in summer 2011.
To prepare for that TV appearance, he and Janay had to unpack 8,400 boxes of unsold bun steamers and Steamies, reconfigure them and then repack them into 4,200 boxes to meet QVC’s specifications. It was seven weeks of mind-numbing, assembly line grunt work in the garage. Still, they made the most of their time together.
“We had the radio on the classic rock station and we would say to each other, ‘Where were you when this song came out?” Janay recalls.
“And then we would tell our stories. We learned more about each other from years ago. We had fun,” she said.
“I have to say, those were some of the most amazing moments of my life,” Schutte recalls.
But, as was the case with his previous two appearances on QVC, sales fell short of expectations.
Ever the optimist, Schutte doesn’t beat himself up over his inability to hit it big, or fret over what he might have done differently.
“It’s just the odds every inventor faces,” he says. “Only one out of a hundred developed inventions ever becomes a successful product, and on average it takes seven to 10 years to turn a profit.”
He points out that inventors from Thomas Edison to the guy who came up with the HoneyBaked Ham slicer endured setback after setback before they made it.
“He did all the right things,” said a small business consultant Mark Smith in Greenville, S.C., who’s also Schutte’s uncle, mentor and co-investor.
The biggest blow, he says, was losing the infomercial deal when a competitor beat him to market.
“I’ve seen a lot of small business people sacrifice for the success of their business,” Smith says. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Chris went as far as he could go. He really did. At every juncture you thought he had it made, then it didn’t work out. My heart goes out to him.”
4. Paying the price
“Chase your dreams to the end of the earth,” goes Schutte’s mantra, “or they will haunt you for the rest of your life.” But after five hard years, even he has to wonder whether the quest is worth the cost.
Today Schutte is broke and on the verge of bankruptcy. He is working again — selling cars — but he can’t keep up with the debt he’s accumulated from the business. He may hang onto the house his family’s lived in for 16 years, but only because he owes more than it’s worth. Otherwise, it’s a bleak picture.
His two sons — Dylan, 21, and Jeremy, 19 — had to cut back to part-time at Gwinnett Tech because the tuition was too much. Last summer, the hottest on record, the family went without air conditioning. When the disposal went bust, it was time to stick a bucket under the sink. There are no real vacations anymore and credit collectors call day and night. It doesn’t stop.
Then there was Christmas. Instead of ATVs and Game Boys for his sons, there were boxes of cereal and pancake mix wrapped in gift paper. For Janay, it was a $6 bottle of perfume from Walmart.
When Schutte mentions the perfume, choking back tears, Janay jumps in to comfort.
“I didn’t complain.”
“I know you didn’t,” he replies quickly.” But I’m supposed to be the provider of the family.”
In Schutte’s garage, where hundreds of bun steamers sit in stacked boxes on the floor, there is a tiny Post-it note on the wall. The simple message, enclosed in a hand-drawn heart: “I Love You. Keep the dream alive!!”
It’s from Janay, but it might as well be a message from his whole family. They believe in the project, but, more than that, they believe in Schutte. And more than that, even, they believe in their family and that this whole crazy bun steamer idea has made them stronger.
“It’s actually kind of inspirational because he never gives up,” Dylan says about his father’s struggles. “It’s not like he’s doing it in a crazy way. He’s just passionate about what he does. He keeps the ball rolling no matter what happens.”
Jeremy agrees. “This has probably taught me some life skills,” he says.
Schutte chokes up hearing them talk. Heartened though he is, he can’t shake the idea that he’s let them down.
His mother, Marlene Nieman, offers him comfort.
“As a mother, I get very upset when I see the burdens Chris has had to bear,” she says, “because sometimes he does doubt himself.”
She is crying now.
“But you can see the dynamics of this family. It does my heart good to see how the kids have rallied through this. It’s the old adage: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
5. One more try
But all is not lost, at least not yet.
Thanks to a new grocery store trial, the results of which he’ll know this summer, there is still a chance Schutte’s bun steamer could hit it big. It is being tested in supermarkets to gauge consumer interest.
And if this last best shot doesn’t pan out?
“At that point it has to stop being the primary focus,” Schutte acknowledges. “And we have to figure how to get our lives back on track.”
He claims he’s OK with that and with all that’s happened.
“I may be selling bun steamers online for the next 30 years,” he says. “I may be working as a greeter at Walmart when I’m 75. But at least I will know I’ve done everything I could.”
And if it succeeds?
It will all be worth it, all the struggles, all the pain to him and his family.
It would pay off the bills, pay back investors and pay back anyone who might have doubted him.
It would repay Janay for sticking with him when most spouses would have long since abandoned his flight of fancy, perhaps even the marriage.
Maybe he could even buy her one of those luxury houses over at the River Club — even if she is just kidding him about wanting one.
How we got the story
One of the things I love about Personal Journeys is it features stories from the notebooks of AJC reporters with diverse areas of expertise. Today, business writer David Markiewicz tackles a linchpin of the American economy: small business. Small businesses employ half the private sector workers in the U.S. and account for two-thirds of jobs created. Entrepreneurship runs deep in the American experience. Markiewicz, who covers small business for the AJC, wanted to get at that phenomenon by telling the story of an inventor he met several years ago. In terrific prose, he plumbs the highs and lows of of Chris Schutte, who caught the entrepreneur bug and wouldn’t let go. It’s a great story, and you won’t find it anywhere else.
Tell us your personal journey at email@example.com.
assistant managing editor
About the reporter
David Markiewicz covers the small business beat for the AJC. He has written about all manner of entrepreneurs, from developers of sleep aids to soft drinks to baseball bats. Each has had an interesting and personal tale to tell of what it takes to go from a mere idea to the reality of an actual product. But none of those journeys featured the wild highs and lows experienced by Chris Schutte and his family, whose story provides a window into passion and obsession. Markiewicz, who writes about the business of the health care industry, previously covered sports for the AJC and other newspapers.
About the photographer
Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Boca Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal.
Next week: Death row pardon taught Billy Neal Moore a lesson in the power of forgiveness.