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Fresh Off the Farm

Farmer Tom Mertz stumbled upon an ingenious business-to-business marketing idea: putting advertisers' logos on kitchen magazines. Now, he's a successful promotional products supplier.

There are a lot of fun, cutesy names in the retail world, like a balloon decorating company called Balloon Lagoon. It’s rhyming and memorable. Behind the festive inflatable palm trees sold by Balloon Lagoon, however, there was an unseen allergen lurking that was wreaking havoc on the health of co-owner Lori Garofalo.

Today, Garofalo is a Kaeser & Blair dealer. She runs Image Branderz in Colusa, a small, agriculturally minded community north of Sacramento, CA.

But in 1997, Garofalo and her older sister (by 19 years) were in a low-cost business together doing inflatables for birthdays, weddings, quinceañeras and other festive parties. The sisters started with just $400 in their pockets and flew by the seat of their pants. They divvied up all the management chores equally. But Garofalo was getting more than her share of asthma attacks and rashes.

“We live in very much of a farming community, and there’s always something in the air,”says Garofalo.“I had no idea what was having this effect on me.”

After a particularly bad asthma attack, she went in to see her physician. The doctor said this was getting so bad that it was time to figure out the culprit once and for all. A battery of tests was done, and the results showed that Garofalo might be allergic to latex. So she stayed away from the balloons for four weeks. Voila. The rash and the asthma went away.

So the sisters had to ditch the balloon side of the business. They already had a gift shop; the idea to expand that into a deli/bakery/coffee business seemed like an easy, low-cost idea. Little did they know that one part of the new additions to their store would become such a huge success.

“Nobody else in our little town was selling espresso,”says Garofalo. “People told us we were nuts to try and sell coffee for four dollars a cup. That just wasn’t the nature of our town. But I’d say after just one week sales went crazy. It got so big we had to move to a new location.”

At the new space, the sisters got more experience with commercial baking, and further built out the restaurant/deli. Things were swimming along until a dispute with the landlord, and they lost their lease.

While searching for a new line of work, Garofalo found a post on a jobs board for a position that allowed her to work from home.

“The promotional products industry intrigued me,” she says. “It sounded easy to get started. Believe me, though, I found out it’s not as easy as just taking some catalogues and immediately getting sales.”

For two years, Lori researched the industry, got familiar with some computer-based art programs and made a few sales on a part-time basis.

It was just a year ago that she really felt ready to tackle the business on a full-time basis.

“I find that I enjoy being a small-business owner,”she says. “I market my business and I enjoy helping my customers market their businesses. It makes me feel like I am a part of so many other people’s business plans.”

Specifically, Garofalo points to an upcoming ban on plastic bags in California as a tip for where the market may be going. But in general, she advises anybody else who thinks they may want to give this industry to get immediate guidance from experienced professionals.

Like so many others starting out, Lori found that not having a mentor can be crucial.

“Somebody that can guide you will be key,” says Garofalo. “On the surface, this industry seems easy. But there’s so much you have to learn.”