Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Seth McGinn was never looking to create a  product to sell. He just wanted to spend less time behind the grill. He discovered the answer--and a  business--in a fine old prairie tradition.

McGinn and his wife, Sonja, spent many weekends at their North Bend, Nebraska, home hosting family gatherings and football-viewing parties for up to 50 people. That meant they had to cook enough  food for up to 50 people. "I was behind a grill for two hours while everyone else was playing," says McGinn, 41, a self-described "meat and potatoes" guy.

McGinn remembered the weekends he spent as a kid on his grandfather's ranch, helping to brand cattle. After a long day's work, his grandfather would bring out an old cream can that had been adapted for cooking. Cream cans are large metal vessels used in the early part of the last century to store and transport dairy products. His grandfather would toss in vegetables, meat, and a six-pack's worth of beer, then place the can over heat. In a few hours: dinner.

Could such a rudimentary appliance created long ago be reimagined for modern hospitality? McGinn thought it could. So in 2007, he began experimenting. After several tries--and a few ruined dinners--he made one that worked and a year later filed for his first patent. In 2009, he founded Seth McGinn's CanCooker, in Fremont, Nebraska.

McGinn's insight was that sometimes the simplest product, removed from its limited context, can enchant a whole new audience. CanCooker has transcended its ranching roots to become a common sight at campgrounds, tailgate parties, and even inside homes. Major retailers, including Walmart, Cabela's, and Bass Pro, carry the brand.

A four-gallon CanCooker retails for $90, while a two-gallon junior version goes for $60. McGinn says that CanCooker, which has nine full-time employees and approximately 50 commission-based sales representatives, is a "multimillion-dollar business." The Omaha World-Herald reports that the company received more than 60,000 orders for its original CanCooker in 2014.

"You can tell that Seth's got a great work ethic, and that he's a great communicator," says Scott Getzschman, the mayor of Fremont, who helped McGinn find office, storage, and distribution space in the town of 27,000. "He's been able to make some things happen that just not everyone could do."

Feeding hungry ranch hands

New England has clambakes. The Midwest and West have cream-can dinners.

Cattle ranchers and farmers originally used steel cans, which stand three to four feet tall, to hold milk and cream. Savvy ranchers like McGinn's grandfather discovered they were also great for cooking. At eight pounds, cream cans were the perfect size for feeding dozens of hungry ranch or farm hands.

A cream-can cooker acts as a cross between a convection oven and a pressure cooker. A rancher would fill the can with meat, vegetables, and a cooking liquid, such as water or beer. He would then put the lid on the cooker and place the can over heat. Once the liquid heated up and turned to steam, the steam and heat cooked the food.

The ranchers would also drill a small hole in the lid to let out excess steam. That way they could remove the lid at any time and--unlike with a pressure cooker--not worry about exploding food.

At first, McGinn figured he would just buy a cream can, but the company that manufactured them was out of business. So he decided to make one himself. He tried bolting together several pieces of metal. But during cooking, the bottom would give out from too much pressure, spilling food everywhere. Next, he substituted a square receptacle for a cylinder, but food stuck in the corners. Finally, McGinn tried a cylindrical container made out of a single piece of aluminum. That worked.

McGinn made that first can cooker for his use alone, so he could spend more time with his guests while entertaining. But friends and family kept asking for cookers of their own. One friend told McGinn he should patent it.

Initially, McGinn brushed them off. Then he remembered something his grandfather used to say: "God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason." Inspired by the enthusiasm of his family and friends, he decided to try turning his product into a business.

An influential fan

McGinn had some experience as an entrepreneur. Before launching CanCooker, he worked in product development for Hewlett-Packard and ran a side business importing raw materials for health supplements. But manufacturing a product and bringing it to market was a greater challenge. Ask McGinn how he did it and he laughs. "I still don't have a handle on it," he says. "The idea was the easiest part."

McGinn thought he should get some protection for his product, and that designing improvements would help. So he developed a silicone gasket to ensure food didn't stick to the bottom of the can and a clamp to keep the lid on during cooking. With those additions, he was able to receive a patent.

Although McGinn wanted to manufacture the CanCooker in the U.S., he quickly discovered that China was the only financially viable option. He bought a round-trip ticket to Beijing (his first trip outside the country) and--with the help of a buddy who worked in the turkey-fryer business--met with several Chinese manufacturers. He ordered a few hundred CanCookers and stocked them in his garage, selling the first few to friends and nearby mom-and-pop shops. As orders started flowing through the CanCooker website, McGinn, Sonja, and their three children would pack and label the product, ready for shipping. When the operation grew too large for McGinn's garage, he moved to a friend's shed.

Next, McGinn embarked on what he describes as "a little bit of marketing ... which I thought was a lot of marketing at the time." He packed up his car with CanCookers and set out to demo the product at various hunting and fishing trade shows, as well as other outdoors-themed events, around the Midwest. Recognizing a market beyond backyard entertainment, he also began cold-calling the big hunting and fishing stores, including Cabela's, Bass Pro, and Dick's Sporting Goods. It took more than a dozen calls, but in 2010 Cabela's finally agreed to stock CanCooker.

McGinn's biggest break was meeting an influential fan. At a trade show in 2009, he encountered Michael Waddell, host of Bone Collector, a hunting program that had recently premiered on the Outdoor Channel. Waddell told McGinn that he had used a friend's CanCooker recently at a tailgate party and was hooked. He wanted to help McGinn with his business. In 2010, McGinn released a line of CanCookers inscribed with the Bone Collector logo, geared toward outdoorsmen. McGinn credits "flag wavers" like Waddell for getting the word out about CanCooker.

From lobster to flan

Part of the appeal of CanCooker is its versatility: It cooks more than just stew. At trade shows, customers would come up to McGinn and share their favorite recipes. "There would be someone from the East Coast saying, 'Oh, we made our best lobster in this,' and somebody in the South who would say they used it to do a country boil," says McGinn. "That just blew my mind." One particularly creative customer stacked five loaf pans inside her CanCooker and made flan.

McGinn's personal favorite CanCooker dish is a hash made out of potatoes, cabbage, baby carrots, onion, kielbasa sausage, and a can of Mountain Dew. That last ingredient started as an improvisation: McGinn substituted it for beer, which he couldn't find at a trade show.

Six years after its founding, CanCooker is becoming the growth business McGinn never thought he would build. Sales have at least doubled every year, and the company has hired a public relations firm to step up marketing. (The first live infomercial aired in December, on a cable channel called RFD that is geared toward rural markets.) The company now has 24 products, including lines of spices and cutting boards.

As for McGinn, he remains focused on the same simple goal he's had since starting the company: getting product out to the people who want it.

"I don't know where the business is going to go," he says. "That's the exciting thing."

 

 

Published on: Jul 5, 2016