It is fitting to refer to Chad Romzek’s 2010 startup business as a result of “the spark of an idea.” The business, Kick Ash Baskets, ignited into a line of specialty grilling baskets that are sold throughout the United States and globally.
A trained mechanical engineer, Romzek, of Neenah, worked for companies like Boeing in Seattle before moving back to Wisconsin in 2009 with Kimberly Clark. Although he enjoyed those jobs, he was pulled toward entrepreneurship.
“I knew I wanted to do something else and had a few ideas,” he said. “In 2010, I made a prototype of a grilling basket and started to think, ‘Maybe, I can make this work.’”
The basket solved the problem of ash accumulating in the bottom of charcoal grills like the “Big Green Egg.” After making a prototype and sharing it with several of his friends, the response was always the same, “Why didn’t I think of this?”
But Romzek, who considers himself an cautious entrepreneur, didn’t feel quite ready to launch. That led him to enroll in the eSeed Class at the Venture Center at Fox Valley Technical College to learn more about running a business.
He said, “Writing a business plan seemed overwhelming and I didn’t jump in until 2013. My wife, Tracy, and I were working with a life coach to figure out where we wanted to go with this or what we wanted to do and our coach gave us the push to find a manufacturer.”
Because it was a small order, it was a challenge to find one. Finally, after being turned down by many companies, in the fall of that year, a company in Oshkosh gave them a chance. The manufacturer helped work through the design, and Romzek ordered his first 100 baskets.
When the baskets were ready, he headed to a specialty grill shop in the area to see if they would carry them. The owner thought it was a great product, but there was a problem. The baskets had been designed for the previous model of the grill and did not fit.
“It was too big, but also, we mixed up a dimension with the manufacturers that they had been cool enough to correct,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a total loss, but it turned out that the bigger one fits in several other brands. It’s the old adage, ‘It’s better to be lucky than good.’ I was able to put those baskets to use.”
From there, he started a Facebook page and had an inexpensive website built to see if the product had potential. He posted on blogs and started to gain traction.
“I was following blogs and got brave enough to respond on one of those with a picture of the basket,” Romzek said. “I said, ‘We are bringing this to market; check it out and tell us what you think.’ That was the spark that got us going to the Green Egg market.”
There was immediate interest and in 2014, a business owner from Atlanta reached out and said that the basket was a great idea and would be OK if he sold it in his grill shop.
“That’s where we fit in best. These are custom designed and that is how we started growing. Stores started picking us up, and by 2015, I was able to start investing in other basket sizes,” Romzek said.
That has led to a retail network of more than 300 stores in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and the Netherlands. The products are also sold on his website (www.kickashbasket.com) and on Amazon, a decision he regrets.
After putting the baskets on Amazon in 2016, despite Romzek having a patent, the baskets were copied almost immediately. He said that it was like a kick in the guts as copies came in from all over China. One company even used the photos from his site.
He explained that these scamming companies follow bots and algorithms to figure out what sells and then make copies. Legitimate companies invest in research and development and go through the process of obtaining patents, and the ideas are basically stolen.
“It is the Wild West on Amazon; I no longer put anything new on there. Don’t go to Amazon unless you have your product completely buttoned up and have an attorney to fight for you,” he said. “Here’s what people don’t know. They see a product and just go for the cheapest one, but the copies are just an inferior product being sold at wholesale cost. Instead of getting angry, I take a deep breath, reconcile, and tell our story.”
Despite the copies on Amazon, he still does about one-third of his business there with the remaining sales being divided between his e-commerce site and retail stores. As the business has grown, it has changed manufacturers, developed a new website, hired a marketing company, and added two employees. He also has two attorneys and a business adviser.
His theory is that solid growth depends on surrounding yourself with good people and not trying to do everything. His wife has been an important part of that; Romzek says that she is the numbers and he is the creative. Together, he says, they have achieved that balance of being able to work hard and spend time with their two sons.
“Our story is not the typical story,” he said. “When Trevor, our life coach, asked what it would take to bring a few of these to market to see what happened, I liked the idea of moving the needle a little at the time. I have a pork butt business plan. Grow low and slow and be smart about it.”
Low and slow has been derived in a product line of 23 styles of baskets for 12 grill models. There are spices and rubs, accessories, gifts and other merchandise. He purchased a free company about two years ago, and additional products are in the making; all designed to solve problems.
“I was raised on a small farm in lower Michigan,” Romzek said. “My dad was an insurance salesman so he was an entrepreneur but we were always fixing things. I grew up as a problem solver. When we stumbled on to this, it was like this is my baby and we are bringing it to market. I was so nervous, but now we sell about 100 baskets a day.It has been a long, steady journey.”
It has also been a journey that is laced with an evident joy of making grilling easier. His tagline is, “Shake that ash and light that fire.” The idea for a product that collects ash has evolved from a concept to a high-quality line that has impacted the grilling world.
At the end of a conversation, Romzek is sure to bring a smile as he concludes, “Have a Kick Ash day!”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kick Ash Baskets of Neenah shows strong, steady growth of product line