Back in 1994, Mary Hunter had an idea for an innovative marinating stick. She’s been following through on it ever since — winning a TV-show contest and gaining chefs’ approval. Mary Hunter has always been happy to cook for her congregation at the Yes Lord Church in Gary, Ind. Her recipes, she told me, come directly from God. “I don’t have a cookbook,” she said. “God gives me my own.” Prayer is “where I get 99 percent of my recipes.”
Mrs. Hunter, who is 73, likes to cook big roasts for her church, “and if I had a difficult piece of meat I might marinate it in some beer and celery” with a blend of her secret seasonings. When she learned that she had diabetes and high blood pressure, though, she had to cut out her salty marinades and cook the meat more blandly.
Then, one day, God had an idea. “I was writing down some recipes and God said to me that I should take that ink pen and stick holes all though it and put a clip on one side so that you can open it” — lengthwise — “and then put your onions and your garlic and your aromatics down the middle and put it inside your meat — then, you won’t have to eat bland foods.” And so was born her invention, a long stainless steel device that, according to tests in restaurants and elsewhere, far outperforms those herbal injectors and other disappointing methods for introducing flavors into the interior of a big piece of meat.
Later this month, Mary’s Marinating Sticks are scheduled to go on sale in Target stores. Mrs. Hunter’s invention follows the classic arc seen in movies: she had a good idea, got it patented and found a market. But that’s the movies. In real life, it’s never that easy. For starters, Mrs. Hunter’s divine idea came to her in 1994. She’s been following through ever since.
It’s safe to say that many very good ideas never get out of the pew — or off the barstool — where they were conceived. Inventors are often quick to explain that a brilliant idea is the easy part and that the real work comes in navigating through the mundane problems and scut work of getting to market. Mrs. Hunter’s sticks are proof of that claim.
Not long after her vision, Mrs. Hunter took the advice of a Gary alderman to attend a class on patenting, offered at a Chicago library. Thus she learned the ropes. Three years later, she had a patent and an industrial designer, David Smith, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He has designed products from cellphones to ergonomic chairs to cheese boards for stores like Crate & Barrel, Sears and Sharper Image. Mrs. Hunter got the idea committed to paper, a schematic of how the device should be engineered. Mr. Smith created several proof-of-concept versions, but they all proved frustrating.
“I had spent an entire summer making a prototype and made 20 renditions and none of them worked,” Mr. Smith recalled. He also attends Mrs. Hunter’s church and one day went to her house with bad news.
“I told Mary I couldn’t do it, but she said: ‘God told me you are the one to do this.’ And I’m sitting there in Mary’s dining room, when God showed me an old commercial for the Maxwell House percolator.” That memory of the commercial made him realize that the device would not only have to hold the spices and aromatics but also allow enough flow to permit juices to move in and out. He went back to the shop and hammered out a new stainless steel model.
To test it, Mrs. Hunter and Mr. Smith gave versions of the stick to two establishments in Chicago — Jilly’s, a piano bar on Rush Street, and Mas, a restaurant in Wicker Park. The positive reactions from the chefs eventually led to a deal with All-Clad, a maker of kitchen products. It was 2004, and Mrs. Hunter was on the brink of commercial success.
“The vice president of All-Clad said, ‘We are ready to roll,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled. Nothing could go wrong — except, of course, it did. “That following week,” Mr. Smith added, “All-Clad was bought out by a French conglomerate” — Groupe SEB, noted for its Krups coffee makers — “and they had to halt all R.& D. “So at that point in time we just decided we would try to make it ourselves,” he said.
Mrs. Hunter took out a second mortgage and contracted with Innovation Stamping, a California company that specializes in producing exhibition booth components. There was some success afterward. She got the product sold in a number of Jewel food stores.
She also created a sales force out of her church. In doing so, she was reaching back to one of the great traditional strategies in in African-American capitalism. A famous practitioner was Sarah Breedlove, a child of slaves, who created a cosmetics empire beginning in 1905 under the name Madame C. J. Walker. She was a pioneer of the strategy now known as direct marketing by creating a sales force drawn mostly from African-American churches and schools, eventually employing 3,000 people.
Around the time that Mrs. Hunter was putting together her own sales force, her son, the Rev. Dwayne Hunter (now the pastor at Yes Lord), managed to get her a spot in the International Home and Housewares Show at McCormick Place in Chicago, one of the biggest exhibitions of its kind. (In 2014, the organizers expect 60,000 people like Mrs. Hunter to attend.) A representative from the Hagen Grote catalog in Germany saw the marinating stick there and bought a hundred. As the product hummed along — popular in Gary, Ind., and Germany — Mrs. Hunter attracted the attention of Lucky Dog Productions, a television company trying to put together a show called “Invention Hunters.”
So, last season, Mrs. Hunter found herself on a television show among a dozen other inventors. The exciting conclusion came down to her battling it out with two other contestants: a real estate broker who had invented a sponge that soaks up pan grease, and a man with a cooler that launches beers at you, perfect for the tailgating demographic. In the show, the hosts took the marinating sticks to Rosebud Steakhouse in Chicago where the chef Michael Ponzio tested them and gave them a rave — declaring that the sticks earned an 8 out of 10 points. Mrs. Hunter was the undisputed winner.
The producers told her that their patent search revealed that kitchen inventors had been trying to devise gadgets for introducing flavor into meat for almost 200 years. Mainly what they had come up with was the injector. A flaw with shooting liquid spices into meat is that they tend to pool at the point of insertion, later revealing an odd circle of green in your sliced roast. Mrs. Hunter’s sticks manage to flavor every bite of the meat with the added, unexpected benefit of keeping it moist.
This month, the company Lifetime Brands, which awarded Mrs. Hunter the winning title on “Invention Hunters,” has listed her product in Chefs catalog (where it is called a “seasoning stick”) and plans to have it on the shelves of Target stores — 19 years after God gave her the blueprint to an idea for a long tube punched full of holes with hinges and a latch.
article by Jack Hitt via nytimes.com