Business innovator keeps on going strong

Monday, July 9, 2007

One of the first people I met when we came to McCook in 1957 turned out to be one of McCook's most interesting and colorful figures -- Bud Harmon. Bud was working on a new product for the food industry and needed to borrow a pail of corn syrup), which we were happy to supply.

Bud turned out to be a highly entertaining fellow with whom to visit. He had, and still has, a fertile imagination and a creative mind, coupled with unvarying good humor and boundless optimism and enthusiasm. Over the years I have looked forward to our visits, which do not happen nearly often enough to suit me.

Bud has always been a devotee to the inventor's motto, "Find a need and fill it." He graduated from McCook High School in 1936, and after a year at McCook Junior College he went to work as an over the road salesman for Shores Auto Supply, then after his marriage to Betty Carpenter, in 1938, he worked for Dutton-Lainson, of Hastings.

But Bud was drawn to the food industry and by the time World War II came along Bud and Betty were the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores in McCook, which Betty managed. When the airbase was under construction Bud met a new need---that of a downtown 24-hour-a-day-restaurant, for the workers who worked shifts around the clock.

When wartime shortages made certain items hard to get, Bud began to develop and manufacture his own products -- detergents, salad dressings, syrups, pie fillings, and biscuit and pancake mixes. When a fire destroyed the restaurant's meat supply, with no ration stamps to buy more, Bud and Betty were forced to consider closing the restaurant.

Instead, Bud called the governor of South Dakota and made arrangements to buy some of that state's surplus buffalo, which the McCook Packing plant agreed to process. Buffalo steaks proved to be tough to eat so Bud developed a superior meat tenderizer. It made the meat tender, yet not "mushy", and of course he glamorized his "bison burgers."

Other restaurants began to hear of the products that Bud had developed and there were requests to buy these products. This led to the formation of Harmon's Restaurant Supply Co., which did business in a 150-mile radius of McCook. Bud was not only a good salesman; he was also a good listener.

When his customers complained and told him of their problems, Bud did his best to solve those problems. This led to the development of new products, such as "Liquid Malt" -- the nation's first (to replace powdered malt, which absorbed moisture and plugged up dispensing machines), "Gardoil" (an anti-oxidant, which doubled the life of fryer oil), a spot-free, disinfectant rinse for dish washers, "Spud Sparkle" (which kept potatoes, and other vegetables and fruit from discoloring in the air), liquid "hot chocolate mix" and "iced tea concentrate."

In the case of the latter two items, Bud also developed the machine that dispensed the items automatically, hot chocolate in the wintertime, iced tea in the summer.

Manufacturing iced tea concentrate created large quantities of left over tea leaves, which were discarded.

This led to Bud's development of "Harmon's Tobaccoless Chew," a healthy replacement for chewing tobacco, such as Beechnut, or Red Man.

Bud also listened to his family. When a daughter wanted to take a "different" type of treat to school Bud stirred up a candy, made from Jello, which he wrapped in Saran wrap and called "Gobs of Glob" a precursor of the popular "Gummy Bears" type of candy. At one time the Woolworth Stores were huge customers of that product.

In the 1960s, Bud listened to the "Healthy foods proponents," who deplored the unhealthy aspects of most snack foods. He came up with very tasty, salted wheat snack food he called "Sizzle Seeds."

That item caught the fancy of the snacking pubic, and before long Bud and Betty had turned their little store near Central School into a Sizzle Seed factory, working three shifts, 24 hours a day in an attempt to keep up with the orders.

Probably the most popular of the Harmon products came into being in 1954 when Bud came up with the idea of dipping the lowly toothpick into cinnamon flavored oil, and packaging the picks as "Cinnamon Toothpicks," which people used to sweeten breaths and to curb appetites and smoking urges.

The finished product was packed by hand (at one time there were 65 ladies packaging toothpicks at the South McCook factory!)

To keep those 65 ladies busy, Bud hit the road, setting up a nationwide distribution network to sell the Harmon products. At one time they had 284 distributors, each consisting of several salesmen. Thirty-seven factory reps were supervised by an eastern sales manager in Monmouth Beach, N.J., a central sales manager in Chicago, and a western sales manager in Palo Alto, Calif.

They called on the distributors, and reported directly to Betty in the McCook office. In addition to the normal wholesale distribution, Bud worked with the managers in selling to large accounts, such as Howard Johnson, Dairy Queen, The Harvey Houses, Greyhound Bus headquarters, Superior, Farmer Bros. and Continental Coffee companies, and many other smaller restaurant chains.

In 1993 Bud and Betty sold 51 percentr of their parent company, "Harmon's Grain Products Inc."

They decided that 55 years in the business was enough, and they would begin to enjoy a new life in retirement.

Now, retirement suits a good many people just fine, and they enjoy their life of leisure. But for Bud and Betty, retirement was a bad idea. Bud was miserable. His mind continued to work and he found himself continually thinking about new products, new formulae and methods for old products.

There was just one thing to do. Bud went back to work, and of course Betty went along.

So now, after almost 70 years in the business, McCook's answer to the "Energizer Bunny" is still going strong, still happy and optimistic, still listening to the needs of his customers. In 1998 Bud and Betty formed a new company, "Harmon's New Concepts."

Bud has updated the formula for the toothpicks and the reports from the field indicate that people like it better than the original formula (picks are sweeter, hotter, and longer lasting).

And unlike a good many of Bud's generation, who are terrified by digital phones, DVD players, and computers, Bud and Betty embrace the new technology, and a good part of their new business is done via the Internet hottoothpicks.com, and payment is by credit card.

And business is good. There is currently a backlog on orders as McCook's two long running entrepreneurs work hard to fill those orders. And best of all, Bud is happy -- doing what he loves to do.

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