Local inventors' hot dog gadget gains national attention
June 30, 2011 9:30 AM
At TeleBrands Inventors Day in Washington, D.C., in February, John Twerdok presented his unique hot dog shaper. Judges laughed out loud.
By Jill Thurston
If you're grilling frankfurters this holiday weekend, you might want to know about a kitchen gadget that will transform an ordinary wiener into the shape of a smiling man.
Called the Happy Hot Dog Man, the device has garnered media attention with mentions on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and "Good Morning America." Prime time news magazine "20/20" ran a segment on infomercials last week featuring the product's infomercial shoot.
Happy Hot Dog Man's roots are right here in the South Hills.
In 2008, the original device was marketed by Upper St. Clair residents John Twerdok, 53, and Dan Brodland, 26, who originally called it the "Frank Former."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story about the invention in early 2008.
The kitchen gadget caught the eye of TeleBrands founder and CEO A.J. Khubani at a TeleBrands Inventors Day in February and made its own transformation from the "Frank Former" to "Happy Hot Dog Man" when TeleBrands in May chose to test market the product.
Telebrands, headquartered in Fairfield, N.J., is a leading consumer products company with a focus on direct television marketing. It renamed the product and launched a television infomercial.
After he signed a contract, Mr. Twerdok said his life was like "being shot out of a media cannon."
The infomercial hit the air on June 5.
"Immediately, we saw hits on the Internet and found mentions on blogs as far away as Korea and the Netherlands," Mr. Twerdok said.
On Wednesday of that week, late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel mentioned it in his monologue. The product was shown on "Good Morning America," and the "20/20" segment about informercials aired that Friday.
Before the contract with TeleBrands, Mr. Twerdok and Mr. Brodland had small successes with batches of orders for the novelty device. Around Christmas, Mr. Twerdok made a New Year's resolution to take a serious run at marketing the product, which was inspired in 2003 after he returned from a youth group camping trip with his church, where Mr. Brodland had used a pen knife to carve his hot dog into the shape of man before he grilled it.
Mr. Twerdok, an engineer, researched marketing and decided he would approach TeleBrands first and sent the company a video presentation. This is his first patented invention.
"TeleBrands is the largest direct television marketer. Their whole purpose is to make commercials, get a product branded and then get it into retail stores," Mr. Twerdok said. He described TeleBrand's Inventors Day as a cross between TV's "Shark Tank" and "American Idol."
"There were bright lights, cameras and you had five minutes to pitch your product," he said.
Of the thousands of entrants, he was one of 25 picked to be a presenter. Within a few weeks, a contract offer was extended.
Mr. Khubani said he sees hundreds of potential new products per year and usually knows within the first minute of an inventor presentation whether he's interested or not.
"My first reaction to John's product was a big smile on my face," Mr. Khubani said.
"The odds of an inventor coming in, getting selected, then going through a successful test market and getting to store shelves is about 1 percent. We make sure we convey that to the inventors before they spend money coming to see us," he said.
Mr. Twerdok developed the prototype with help from the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson Product Innovation Center. He received a patent for the invention in 2006. With assistance from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners and Plastics Technology Center at Penn State's Behrend College in Erie, the first mold was developed and manufactured by Omega Plastics in Erie.
"I'm surprised at all the attention it's getting," Mr. Twerdok said. "There were so many people who applied to the Inventors Day show. Dan and I talked to some nice inventors with good ideas. The odds are really against you."
Will Happy Hot Dog Man successfully make it onto store shelves? Mr. Khubani said it's a little difficult to tell right now.
"We're still in the test marketing phase, but initial results look promising."