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Chicago innovators take their wares to International Home and Housewares Show

Adrienne Blumthal demonstrates Chicago Metallic's crunch cohomemade marsh mellow tool for Chicago Metallic during International Housewares Show McCormick Place Sunday

Adrienne Blumthal demonstrates Chicago Metallic's crunch and coat homemade marsh mellow tool for Chicago Metallic during the International Housewares Show at McCormick Place Sunday March 3, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: April 6, 2013 6:15AM

Focus Products Group International, of Lincolnshire, has nearly doubled the size of its innovation team and brought two pastry and baking chefs into its test kitchen to keep up with a surging demand for homemade marshmallow desserts.

Company officials caught onto the trend by tracking foodie bloggers, noticing that marshmallow shops had started popping up throughout the Chicago region and learning that marshmallow treats had become a “hot” item at wedding receptions.

“The perceptions among consumers was that you can’t make marshmallows, and if you try, it’s difficult and messy,” said Karen Swinford, president of Focus Products Group’s consumer retail division.

Focus, with new owners and a new management team, worked to change consumers’ minds.

The result: A collapsible pan, a perforated cutting wheel, a crush-and-coat set and the company’s first self-published recipe book, “Marshmallow Confections,” all due out in September at retailers not yet being disclosed.

The marshmallow innovations demonstrated on Sunday revealed one of three trends — modern homesteading and home cooking — highlighted at the 2013 International Home and Housewares Show at McCormick Place Convention Center, which continues through Tuesday.

The show, which is closed to the public, features 2,137 exhibitors, with 30 percent of them coming from countries outside of the United States such as Brazil, Colombia, France, Hong Kong and Turkey.

The other trends are home remodeling, as consumers open their wallets ever-so-slightly to continue their stay-at-home nesting habits, and healthier eating habits as reflected by people growing their own food and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

For the first time in four years, a larger percentage of customers who stay on the cutting edge of home and housewares trends said they were less worried about money than in the previous year, according to International Housewares Association surveys. The IHA sponsors the International Home and Housewares Show.

Nearly one quarter — 23 percent — of respondents in a June 2012 survey said they were less worried about the future, compared with 13 percent in the 2011 survey.

Yet show exhibitors said consumers still want affordable, easy-to-use products that save time while letting them feel successful in their harried lives.

That’s why this year’s 300 new products at the show featured “best of the best” product winners such as a gourmet harmonic-whistling kettle, a one-touch automatic cappuccino machine and an ultrasonic aroma diffuser.

Housewares are increasingly driven by innovation, and businesses have started figuring out how to adjust to pressures such as the relative weakness of the U.S. dollar, increasing costs of manufacturing outside of the United States and a lack of manufacturing infrastructure inside the United States, said Evan Dash, CEO of New York-based product development firm StoreBound and a member of the board of directors of the International Housewares Association.

Indeed, CEO Steve Greenspon of west suburban Berkeley-based “Honey Can Do” storage and home-products company, said he is working hard to find a way to bring the manufacture of plastic coat hangers and other plastic mold-injected products back to the United States from China.

Manufacturers want the company to buy the molds, but Greenspon said Chinese manufacturers invest in the molds themselves, and so far, he hasn’t found a homegrown investor. The cost of labor in a prospering China has jumped 10 percent to 20 percent in each of the past several years.

“Every time we hear about a good plastic molding injection supplier in the United States, we try to make it work,” he said. “It would help not just the companies making the hundreds of thousands of hangers. It would help transit and logistics companies, the printing and corrugated-box companies, plastic resin suppliers and those that make and service electric mold injection equipment.”

Honey Can Do, which employs 50 in Berkeley and 12 in Shanghai, China, keeps growing by staying abreast of the latest trends such as bamboo furnishings and sleek single-serve coffee packet storage drawers. The company keeps its prices competitive, ships on time, reliably supplies goods to large retailers and employs an in-house design team that makes product packaging with bright colors, product photos and point-by-point descriptions of a product’s value, Greenspon said.

The company, which supplies retailers such as Macy’s, Kmart, Walgreens and Ace and True Value hardware stores, landed at No. 42 on Inc. magazine’s 500 fastest-growing private companies in 2012, with $24 million in 2012 revenues and more than $30 million projected this year.

Innovation is proving to be a competitive leverage for Focus Products Group, too, which under previous ownership laid off about 100 employees as it closed offices, distribution centers, manufacturing plants and other facilities at the height of the recession. The owner, a private-equity group, had bought 16 companies from 2001 to 2008 and found itself saddled with a huge debt load. It sold Focus Products Group to another private-equity group, Centre Lane Partners of New York, in September 2012. Centre Lane Properties is leveraging Focus Products Group to enter the consumer market.

Focus Products Group’s portfolio includes storied brands such as 103-year-old West Bend appliances, 112-year-old Chicago Metallic baking products, 75-year-old Swing-A-Way and 40-plus-year-old AMCO Houseworks housewares.

Focus Products Group’s new CEO, Jeff Ackerberg, started the turnaround process two years ago. Ackerberg is a graduate of Wheaton-Warrenville South High School who earned his bachelor’s in marketing at North Central College in Naperville and his MBA in marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.

He said Focus Products aims to meet its 5 percent to 8 percent growth target this year for the first time in about five years by listening to the “needs, wants and desires” of consumers.

The company intends to grow its existing business, expand into new categories and acquire other companies when it makes sense strategically, Ackerberg said.

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