Edward Anderson was the founder of Minneapolis-based Lil' Orbits, the world's foremost supplier of nonindustrial mini-doughnut machines. And though that is an odd claim to fame, Anderson's life encapsulated the hopefulness and haplessness of 20th-century American entrepreneurship. He died March 19 of cancer at 78.
Born in Nyack, New York, Anderson toured Norway and Alaska as a child, singing and playing the ukulele at tent meetings while his father,
an evangelical preacher, stirred souls. At Gettysburg College, Anderson set up a workshop under the bleachers and repaired the school's furniture in exchange for tuition. He made extra money building do-it-yourself paddle kits for fraternities.
During the '50s and '60s, Anderson displayed a knack for ideas that failed quickly and colorfully. There was the Flip 'n Flop water slide, launched concurrently with and eclipsed instantly by the Slip 'n Slide. There was the trampoline park, consisting of 10 holes in the ground with nylon stretched across them. (Sunlight degraded the material. Kids fell through.) Anderson's most successful business during this era was Micronics, which sold a vacuum-powered tool used by aerospace companies to assemble miniature parts.
In the '70s, Anderson branched into vending. His Stocking Box machines dispensed pantyhose -- and wolf whistles that horrified the women who used them. A second vending venture sold hot foods, but the thermostats tended to malfunction, causing cans of pork and beans to explode.
Anderson was inspired to build his mini-doughnut machine by long lines for the delicacies at the Minnesota State Fair. Mini doughnuts existed, but the machines were utilitarian. Anderson re-imagined doughnut making as spectacle. In his garage, he devised a machine in which a ring of batter plops from a funnel into a small river of hot oil. As the doughnut moves downstream, an arm reaches up and flips it; at the end of the ride, another arm tosses it into a waiting tray. "He wanted a machine that was also an attraction," says Anderson's son Charlie Anderson, who succeeded him as CEO. "People are so amazed to see what it does that they buy the product."
Customers for Lil' Orbits's machines, accessories, and batter are chiefly mom-and-pop operators who make and sell doughnuts at fairs, flea markets, and other events. The 13-employee company sells to 76 countries. Sales never suffered from Anderson's refusal to extend credit.
"When Ed was a boy, we used to find him in the chicken coop dickering with motors and little machines," says Gordon Anderson, Ed's older brother. Not long ago, says Gordon, "he helped me invent a device for people with hearing-aid problems. He would tell me about his ideas. And I'd say, 'It sounds good, Ed, if you can get it to work.' "