Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In the space of a year, Glenn Crider lost his job and saw his products enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution.
Crider makes nutcrackers. If you mailed or received Christmas cards in 2008, you've probably seen his work. That year a fierce soldier in a yellow uniform, a shaggy-haired drummer, a red-suited Santa clutching a snowflake staff, and a king in a high golden crown stared proudly from the perforated frames of holiday stamps. After posing for their close-ups, the four wooden originals marched from Crider's garage workshop into the U.S. Postal Museum in Washington D.C.
For Crider it was a magical moment in an otherwise dark time. In 2009, the Richmond, Virginia native was laid off from the IT job that had paid his bills for almost 30 years. For longer than that he'd been building nutcrackers as a sideline and selling them at regional craft fairs. Unable to find work at age 54, he decided to fulfill a long-held dream and plunge full-time into nutcracker manufacture, which -- philatelic achievement notwithstanding -- had "basically kept me as a starving artist," he says.
Today, Crider's company, called TRC Designs, has more than $1 million in annual revenue and a dozen full-time employees. (TRC is an acronym for Three Ring Circus. The company does business as NutcrackersUSA and Ginger Cottages.) It is one of just two or three businesses making nutcrackers in the United States, and, according to Crider, the only one that both designs the dolls and constructs the jaw mechanism. "The opportunities for growth for us are off the charts," says Crider. "We can pretty much make anything you can dream of."
TRC Designs occupies 15,000 square feet in a former lawnmower and tractor repair shop across the road from a cornfield in the small town of Manquin, Virginia. Twenty miles to the southwest is Richmond, a city that does the holidays up right with a festival of lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and the Dominion Christmas Parade. The Richmond Ballet, which is the State Ballet of Virginia, presents an acclaimed annual performance of The Nutcracker. Crider creates the eponymous props, including a model cleverly constructed so that it appears to come apart in the hands of careless Fritz.
Each year, TRC churns out roughly 100,000 nutcrackers, music boxes, and "Ginger Cottages" -- diminutive wooden buildings with snow-draped eaves and peekaboo interiors, which now account for 90 percent of volume. (Most cottages sell for $19 or $20. Nutcrackers retail for around $180.) It also custom designs ornaments and cottages for the gift stores at places like nearby Colonial Williamsburg, the Alamo, Mount Rushmore, and Boston's Old North Church. Its products are strong sellers at businesses like Cracker Barrel and the celebrated Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
"It's amazing the amount of detail he and his team put into each piece. You put a light in there and it opens up this whole new world," says Stacy Tuck, a buyer at Bronner's, which has carried Ginger Cottages for five years. Bronner's best-selling item in that line is a replica of the store's on-premises Silent Night Chapel, which is itself a replica of the Austrian site where that iconic carol was first performed. The Ginger Cottage version even includes tiny pictures of the carol's librettist, Joseph Mohr, and composer, Franz Gruber. Tuck says Bronner's has sold more than a thousand of those.
As for TRC itself, "they are festive over there, always cheery and ready to help," says Tuck. "A real joy."
Young man with a lathe
Crider's grandparents on both sides were tobacco farmers. In their 30s, his parents left their families' fields and moved to Richmond, where his father took a job at DuPont. The family had little money, so holidays were largely DIY affairs. Crider made construction-paper chains, strung popcorn, and frosted pinecones. Summers were for yard sales. "I would paint rocks and make necklaces out of keychains to try to sell," he says. "I was never very successful. But the spirit was there."
In 1975, Crider earned an associate's degree in mechanical engineering from a local community college and took a job as a frozen food and dairy manager at Ukrop's Supermarkets, a Richmond chain. His grandmother had recently died and left him an antique clock in her will. It was broken, and "rather than pay someone to have it fixed, I took the road less traveled and decided to learn to repair it myself," Crider says. On Tuesdays, his day off, he apprenticed with a jeweler who taught him watch and clock repair.
Long hours in the grocery business proved untenable for a young man starting a family. Crider studied computers in night school and found a less draining, more lucrative job as a software developer and data analyst at a food brokerage.
Still itching to work with his hands, he installed tools in his backyard shed and started making wooden circus toys: trains full of animals with bobbing heads and unicycle riders that danced through the air on a wire. He and his wife, Diana, sold the toys at craft fairs with little more success than he'd experienced at his parents' yard sales.
"Then one day at a show I had this little toy soldier, maybe an inch tall," says Crider. "A customer was looking at that, and she said to me, 'Can you make a miniature nutcracker for my dollhouse?' That's when the light bulb came on."
Stamps of approval
Nutcrackers, Crider explains, were born hundreds of years ago in eastern Germany, where people turned to woodcarving when the mines stopped producing. Now considered lucky, "they were originally a satirical comment on the oppression of the day," he says. "There was a saying that people's lives were as hard as a nut." So craftsmen would carve "a king or a policeman or a guard who cracked a hard nut, which represented your life."
Using pictures from a German catalog for his model, Crider began making 4-inch nutcrackers, the size accommodated by his watchmaker's lathe. At the next year's fair, his circus toys once more languished. The nutcrackers sold out in one day. Customers bought the tiny figures to hang from trees and wreaths. "We were selling them for $10 apiece," says Crider. "At some point, I realized it's the same amount of work to make a miniature nutcracker as a regular one, and the regular ones sell in Germany for over $200." Crider increased his scale and raised prices to just under $100.
For almost two decades, Crider worked 70-hour weeks, splitting time between his IT job and building nutcracker inventory. Come December, he and Diane would hit Virginia's two big craft shows, the Bizarre Bazaar and the Richmond Christmas Market. A few weekends' take might be as much as $30,000. In 2000, Crider incorporated TRC, which by then had moved from the shed to his garage. "We thought about it as an activity for our retirement," says Crider.
In 2006, the Postal Service found Crider online and contacted him about creating nutcrackers that could be photographed for holiday stamps. Crider produced drawings and provided swatches of synthetic fur and fabric for hair, beards, and other accoutrements. After a little back and forth, the designs were approved: Crider built the models and shipped them to Washington. "You would expect that working with the Postal Service there would be a lot of red tape, but it went pretty smooth," says Crider. Two years later, the Postal Service issued 1.46 billion nutcracker stamps and displayed the originals in its museum. "I went from being an artist nobody knew to being able to say my work was in the Smithsonian," says Crider.
But that achievement did nothing to save Crider's IT job when recession struck. Crider sent out 200 résumés, but the economy and his age worked against him. Determined to go all in with TRC, he looked for ways to expand his offerings.
Among Crider's nutcrackers is a baker holding a tray of treats including a tiny gingerbread cottage. In 2009, a customer unable to afford the doll asked whether she could just buy the gingerbread house. Crider saw an opportunity. Using a laser engraver he had purchased to inscribe the company's name on wooden nutcracker boxes, he began cutting out plywood roofs, floors, and walls and assembling tiny structures that looked like real estate from Santa's Village. The Ginger Cottage line was born.
A cottage industry
Crider says he is in the business of creating memories. Ginger Cottages serve that mission. Peer through the window of any building -- the Big Red Sock Stocking Company, Santa's Ski Lodge, or the Elf Academy One Room Schoolhouse -- and you will see an intricate scene that can be illuminated by a Christmas tree light. "It's like the surprise in a box of Cracker Jack," says Crider. Each cottage also comes with a challenge to spot certain details: for example, rings and bells hidden in a wedding chapel, or certain treats in a candy shop. "It's like Where's Waldo or the hidden pictures in Highlights magazine," says Crider. "The kids look for the little secrets, and that builds the memories."
Optimistic about the prospects of his new line, Crider in 2010 hired his first sales rep and charged him with selling 1,000 Ginger Cottages in Richmond. That first year, he sold 4,000. Two years later, in a watershed moment, Cracker Barrel came calling. The national restaurant chain, which features a homey gift shop, ordered four tractor-trailer loads of TRC products. On the strength of that account Crider moved into his current facility and bought more equipment to produce at volume. "We were off to the races," he says.
Today, Cracker Barrel accounts for 30 percent of TRC's business. But Crider, chary of the one-basket strategy, says he has positioned the company for 30 percent growth in 2017 even without that chain. "The little guys are as important to us as the bigger accounts," says Crider. "For example, we have lots of [independently owned] Hallmark stores." The company sells online as well, but only in December, so as not to compete with retail customers, which typically don't reorder in the last month of the year.
About 15 percent of TRC's business is custom work, and Crider says that is growing dramatically. Among clients that have ordered site-specific Ginger Cottages or ornaments for their gift shops: Busch Gardens (which commissioned a model of the Santa's Workshop in the amusement park's German section); Mount Rushmore (the studio where Gutzon Borglum designed the monument); and Colonial Williamsburg (six historical buildings at the living-history museum). "It turns out they have 400 buildings they want done," says Crider of Williamsburg. "I don't think I'm going to live long enough."
The emphasis on customization is wise at a time when cheap Chinese imports are threatening the industry. Last year, Steinbach, a 200-year-old nutcracker maker in Germany, declared bankruptcy because of rising labor costs. But Crider is confident that a combination of craftsmanship and technology will keep TRC humming.
"There are two times during the year when Middle America will spend money," says Crider. "They will spend money on vacations. And they will spend money at Christmas. We are building memories of Christmas and souvenirs for the tourist industry. With a formula like that, we have to succeed."