How a high-school freshman from Parkside launched a kitchen gadget on an international stage
It’s the fourth day of the International Home & Housewares Show (IHHS) in Chicago, and R.J. Batts of Salisbury figures he’s walked “a million miles.” A four-day trade show is long for anyone, but it’s an endurance test for a 14-year-old — the youngest exhibitor ever in the show. Yet, he gamely welcomes two more visitors to his tiny booth in the “Inventor’s Corner,” to demonstrate his brainchild, the Tip Tough Finger Guard.
Statistics say 1 in 14 professional chefs, line cooks and kitchen workers will visit the emergency room this year, each with a knife cut severe enough to warrant stitches — resulting in lost wages, lost product and workers’ compensation claims. Batts’ dad, Bob, currently a chef at the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel in Ocean City, cut himself several years ago — severely enough to be one of the above-referenced statistics.
“I was 12 when my dad cut himself, and I got so upset,” said R.J. to the prospects. “No one should get hurt doing what they love. I became consumed with finding a way to protect his hand, so it couldn’t happen again.”
While playing around with a plastic container, R.J. had an inspiration. If he could encase a chef’s four fingers in a box, then tuck their thumb around the back, the knife would never reach the fingers.
R.J.’s mom, Lori Batts — a former teacher and high-school principal who currently works for Wicomico County Public Schools, training guidance counselors — realized early that her son was a different type of learner.
“He’s a doer, and he was hungry to get out to do this. He wanted to develop the idea, obtain a patent and bring it to market. Bob and I agreed that this was a tremendous opportunity, and we had to encourage it,” she said.
R.J. developed the design and had it rendered through 3D printing. Serendipitously, about the same time he had the plans in hand, he was accepted into the first class of the region’s Young Entrepreneur’s Academy (YEA!), sponsored by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.
YEA! is a year-long program that provides professional mentors, speakers and field trips. It culminates in a serious “pitch presentation,” which puts the kids in front of business people, or “cohorts,” who may be willing to invest. Between 15 and 20 middle- and high-school students are accepted to each cohort, all of them serious about bringing a product or service to market.
“We would not be here without YEA!,” said Lori. “YEA! mentors taught him how to write a business plan, market the product, raise money and obtain patents and trademarks. It was an amazing educational opportunity.”
R.J. named his company Picklehead, LLC. “It seemed fitting,” he said. “My dad used to call me that as a little kid, and I was doing this to protect him and other chefs.”
Back at the IHHS booth, R.J., with professional aplomb, explained to the guests (who, it turns out, are buyers for a major chain store) how the Tip Tough works.
“See these baby carrots? They normally roll around and are a pain to cut. But the Tip Tough not only protects your fingers, these little prongs hold down the carrot so, it stays in place. Line it up, and you can get very thin cuts you could never get otherwise without cutting yourself. And,” he paused, smiling, “It’s totally dishwasher-safe.”
He stepped back and invited the reps to try it out. They asked if they could buy it now, and he told them they could get the hand-assembled stainless-steel version at TipTough.com. He explained that the first manufacturing run of the stainless-steel Tip Tough Professional Chef would be available in June and that he is raising money to create the molds for the plastic “Home Chef” version, which he hopes to have in stores for this coming holiday season.
“I’m super-excited about the Tip Tough Home Chef because it comes in three sizes: medium and large for adults, and small, to protect kids’ hands. This means kids can learn to cook with less risk. Because what is it that keeps kids from cooking most?” he asked. “Knives. Everyone’s afraid of giving kids knives. Tip Tough makes it much easier and safer.”
R.J. won $15,000 at Salisbury University’s Shore Hatchery Competition last fall, taking second place in a pool of 30 adults. He’s received a $6,000 investment from TEDC, a Maryland-based innovation program, for the development of the stainless-steel molds. He was also just nominated for a Small Business Administration Rising Star Award.
At IHHS, he participated in a program called “Pitch to the Pros” — a group of industry professionals who come to give the inventors feedback on their products, Shark Tank-style. Nearly every one of the 15 judges he saw in the three rounds said R.J. “had something” and encouraged him to continue to push the envelope, refine the packaging and expand the reach of his social network.
A longtime host on the Home Shopping Network visited R.J. at his booth after one of the sessions and told him “you’re TV” — meaning that he had the potential to reach the same heights as one of R.J.’s own idols, Scrub Daddy’s Aaron Krause.
“That was so cool,” said R.J., who had the opportunity to speak with Krause — a source of inspiration to R.J since his Shark Tank debut. “I think I have watched every episode of that show, and I knew Scrub Daddy was going to be a hit. To meet Aaron and get some wisdom from him was amazing, and to hear I might be just like him one day, even better.”
Packing up the last day of the show, R.J. and Lori were tired but victorious. “This was so validating,” said Lori. “Several times during the show I thought I was going to cry, because each time someone in the industry praised him, I realized this was going to be a success. His dream is going to come true.”
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