Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In June, a frankfurter sent a woman to the hospital. Kathy McVay was watching a Philadelphia Phillies game when that team's mascot--the rotund, green-furred Phanatic--fired a hot dog gun into the stands, smacking her in the eye.
"Mascots look like big stuffed animals. How could they possibly hurt anyone?" says Doug Kincaid, owner of the Kincaid Karacter Company, a mascot manufacturer for 40 years. Yet such incidents are not uncommon. In a theme park, a costumed character "might come running out with their arms thrown open and knock over kids like bowling pins," Doug says. "All kinds of things can happen."
Safety and conduct training, what Doug calls MLM (mascot liability management), is an increasingly popular service at the Kincaid Karacter Company, a five-employee enterprise that moved last year to Atlanta to take advantage of the trade-show and business traffic. But the company grew up in St. Louis, where in the 1980s Doug and his brother Bill were ubiquitous: The two appeared both as young entrepreneurs and as Harvi Hippo and Grouchie Gator, their costumed alter egos who promoted the business.
"We went everywhere. We did parades. Elks Club parties. Every telethon," recalls Bill, who sold his half of the business to Doug in 1989. "Grouchie bowled with [professional bowler] Dick Weber. We gave out Harvi and Grouchie coloring books."
Delighting children, however, was a side benefit. Delighting clients paid the bills. Hundreds of Fortune 500 companies, universities, sports teams, and nonprofits have entrusted the Kincaids with the manufacture and maintenance of their jovial goggle-eyed ambassadors. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch has been a client since 1984: Over the decades the Kincaid Karacter Company has produced thousands of Bud Man, Spuds MacKenzie, and King Cobra Man costumes for promotions at bars and events. Home Depot never thought to turn Homer, the bulbous-nosed handyman pictured on its iconic buckets, into a life-size mascot until 1991 when Doug suggested it.
The Homer costumes are beautifully made and easy to clean, and the business re-dyes the hats and aprons for free to maintain that signature orange, according to Jennifer Wyatt, Home Depot's corporate archivist and manager of the company's mascot program. "The children get so excited to see Homer. And he's a favorite with the associates," she says. "Sometimes at our corporate office we'll have a special event, and someone will put on the suit. And the most serious guy from finance will see Homer and want to give him a high-five or a hug.
"We love Kincaid Karacters," Wyatt says.
The trouble with feet
It began with Star Wars. In 1977, marketers weren't yet churning out toys and souvenirs to exploit every blockbuster, so fanboys like Bill and Doug Kincaid made their own. The brothers, 19 and 15 at the time, had built a vacuum-forming machine in their parents' basement to mold slot-car parts. Obsessed with George Lucas's space opera, they switched production to science fiction models, masks, and gadgets. Doug's high school friends snapped up all things Vader-ish, and soon trade-show exhibitors were recruiting the brothers to draw foot traffic by setting up shop in their booths.
Eight months later, Doug approached the local Six Flags theme park with vague ideas about making contacts or sales. Instead, the company offered him work as a costumed character. Doug charmed visitors from inside the hides of critters like Tic Tac Turtle and--as himself--befriended staff at every level. Hearing about the Kincaids' basement workshop, one employee asked whether they could repair costumes that would otherwise be shipped to the manufacturer in Texas.
Then appeared what Bill calls "the ray of luck that shines down on the Kincaid brothers at all times." By chance, Kincaid Studios--as it was then called--was listed first on a roster of vendors working on the park's characters. One day, a local business called White Elephant Car Wash contacted Six Flags to find out who made their costumes. "The person who answered looked at the top of the list and gave them our name," Bill says. "It was a happy accident."
The car wash gig (24-hour turnaround on a pachyderm in a circus costume) led to other orders, including a cast of original characters for Magic Castle Pizza, a local startup trying to capture the Chuck E. Cheese's magic. Bill devised a way to sculpt heads that weighed just a pound or two, a vast improvement over the sometimes 20-pound noggins Doug wore at Six Flags. Then with the theme park's help, the Kincaids won their first mass order: 33 Armour Hot Dogs that wandered the park as part of a sponsorship. The Kincaids were firmly in the mascot business.
The Grouchie dividend
In addition to building their own mascots, the brothers repaired and improved mascots made by others. Bill, an artist who designed the costumes, had studied engineering at Washington University. With firsthand knowledge of how it felt to march down parade routes in the heat wearing a synthetic fur suit and foam-rubber head, he developed in-costume ventilation and water circulation systems for hot days. He also installed speakers for basic communication. "Even Disney doesn't have that," Bill says. "If Mickey Mouse comes up and just stares at you, it kind of scares the little kids."
Doug was the sales guy and performer. Spotted in 1980 by a local news station, he was hired as a puppeteer for a Saturday morning kids' show. In 1988, he wrote and starred in Gator Tales on Viacom's KMOV-TV, in which Grouchie Gator and a storyteller spun yarns from the swamp. The show ran 11 years, won several local Emmys, and provided a weekly showcase for Kincaid Karacters' craftsmanship.
Corporate accounts rolled in: Little Caesars, Post Cereal, McDonnell Douglas, United Van Lines. The company took on public service announcements and industrial films; it constructed props and special effects. The staff swelled to 20 people; still, Bill often found himself in the shop until 11:30 p.m. Burned out, he left in 1989 for the less frenetic life of a safety engineer at OSHA. Over the years, he would continue to pitch in whenever Doug needed help building molds or machines or a 30-foot-tall dragon.
Without Bill's design and engineering expertise, Doug needed talent. So in 1990, he relocated the business to Orlando, where he hired puppeteers, special effects experts, and artists moonlighting from Disney World and Universal Studios. For three years, the Kincaid Karacter Company repaired and enhanced costumes for Universal and built mascots for, among others, Publix Supermarkets (Plato the Dinosaur) and Sea World (Penny Penguin and Pete Pelican).
In 1993, at the behest of his homesick wife, Doug returned to St. Louis. Over the next 25 years, the Kincaid Karacter Company churned out thousands more mascots for clients ranging from Cartoon Network to the U.S. Federal Reserve. The business expanded into accessories, developing carrying cases and foam displays for mascots not in use. Doug also opened a character-themed restaurant in 2000 and operated it for three years.
Protecting your character
Increasingly, the Kincaid Karacter Company has been in the business of education. In 1994, Doug began traveling the country to teach mascot performance, maintenance, and safety to corporate clients. Today he is working on a school to expand those offerings.
Safety is a particular concern. A mascot actor can get dehydrated or scratched by an exposed bolt from the belt attaching his tail. Or he will fall down or bump into people. "Many companies will wait until a parade or a festival to put somebody in this costume for the first time," he says. "Their vision is restricted. Their mobility is restricted. They need to practice going up and down stairs, stepping on curbs."
Much of the safety program was designed by Bill, drawing on his study of engineering and his time at OSHA, including best practices for preventing dangerous debris from accumulating in carrying cases and injuring costume wearers. Sexual harassment, too, is on the curriculum. "In the old days at Six Flags, you would just put your arms around people to get your picture taken," Doug says. "But you can't see where your hands are going. So one thing we teach is you let them decide if they are going to touch you."
Now that he's in Atlanta, Doug is chiefly focused on the school. But the Kincaid Karacter Company continues to build and enhance mascots. During one recent week, the business had 16 new mascots in production, including several Elroy T. Elks for the fraternal organization that is a 30-year customer. Ventilation systems were being installed in the Hofstra University lions, Kate and Willie Pride. Some Snow Plow Sams from the U.S. Figure Skating Team were getting new shoes, name tags, and carrying cases.
"I want to keep my toe in this industry, but don't know if I want to be a builder all my life," Doug says. "Our greatest asset is knowledge accumulated over 40 years. A lot of people can make a giant goose."