Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Folksy toys made in USA are big this Christmas
By Scott Beveridge
NORTH CHARLEROI, Pa. – The Christmas season began in the heat of the summer at a toy factory in Pennsylvania that has been bucking the soured economy.
Channel Craft in North Charleroi had to hire 17 temporary workers in July to keep up with the demand for its time-tested, affordable toys at a time when many mainstream retailers have been closing their doors.
“Stocking stuffers are the name of the game now,” said Dean Helfer Jr., founder of the business that sells such old-fashioned playthings as boomerangs, kazoos, wooden whistles and jacks. “Our customers, they’ve got to make Christmas happen.”
The company has become a novelty in the toy industry because it didn’t follow its competition out of the United States to Mexico or Asia in a market in which 80 percent of the toys sold in this nation are produced in foreign countries.
“We’re the last of the Mohicans,” said Helfer, 47, of Bethel Park. “We need to get back to inexpensive, American-made stuff rather than the plastic things that have a gimmick,” he said.
He got his start by making boomerangs in 1983 and selling them on weekends at craft festivals while attending West Virginia University,Morgantown.
He did that by traveling around the country in a 1972 Ford van, where he set up a makeshift factory with his grandfather’s saws. His boomerangs became so popular that he was netting $65,000 a year in sales by the time he graduated from WVU in 1985.
His factory since has expanded to having 32 employees who work in an old U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boatyard along the Monongahela River.
The toys are not typically sold directly from the factory to the public, but are distributed through such outlets as museums, Bass Pro Shops, Cracker Barrel Old Country stores and restaurants and national parks. A deal is in the works to sell them across the country at TravelCenters of America.
The toy line has expanded as well to include small board games in tin boxes and a line of IQ tester peg games introduced this year. Also new are wearable scarves – Fundana Bandanas – that can be spread out on a table or lawn to play such games as tic-tac-toe, bingo and scavenger hunt.
“Our customers are directing their purchase orders to things that are going to retail,” Helfer said.
He also had to expand his assembly line to make items – tops, whistles and kazoos – that he used to purchase from other manufacturers that folded because of the economy.
“It’s more work for our people,” he said.
Yet the boomerang remains his No. 1 seller. They are made with thin layers of laminated birch and finished with colorful silk-screen designs.
“Boomerangs: That’s what we keep seeing coming up on the reorders. Everybody does jacks, yo-yos and pickup sticks.”
In fact, Helfer’s company is the largest worldwide producer of that boomerang, said Joe Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council.
“He is a nice guy,” Kirk said. “It’s a trite thing to say, but he is a prime example of someone who had a dream in college of starting a successful business, and he had
the vision and commitment to hard work to build that vision.”
(This story originally appeared in Living in Washington County, a publication of the Observer-Reporter. It was reprinted with permission.)