(Ciao! Baby co-creator Kim Strong with Evelyn Sprigler, 1.)
Two Local Entrepreneurs are the creators of Ciao! Baby, the first portable highchair
By Steve Kaufman | Photos by Tony Bennett
It’s an old and familiar saying: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Well, here’s a local, real-life spin on that saying: Invention was the necessity of a mother.
Twelve years ago, Kim Strong was that mother, with three little ones: a four-yearold daughter, two-year-old son and three-month-old toddler who still ate in a highchair.
“Just going anywhere with them was burdensome,” recalls the Clarksville native. “Especially figuring out how to feed the baby when we got there.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” she mused to Jamye Baker, a former colleague at work, “to have something lightweight you could fold up and stick in the trunk of the car?”
“Wouldn’t it be nice” is the kind of thing almost all of us say in stressful moments, only to forget a half hour later. But Strong had been in sales, Baker in marketing, and they were used to setting goals and seeing them through.
After some research determined that there was nothing at all like this out in the market, the pair based their new concept on those folding camp chairs people bring to soccer games and concerts. “Something portable and easy to fold,” Strong says, “great for the soccer field or the beach, camping, traveling, any time you have to feed your baby outside the comfort of your own home.”
Twelve years later, Ciao! Baby has sold about 200,000 chairs, an “overnight sensation” that took years of actual overnights – late hours, midnight oils and both ends of the candle – to perfect. “You don’t just come up with the idea of a product for kids and take it to market,” says Strong.
All the problems of creating a new product that actually meets a need were complicated, in this case, by the safety guidelines, regulations and restrictions required for any children’s product. The idea of a converted camp chair with a tray just for baby? That simple solution was long gone.
The material used had to pass a flammability test. The food tray had to meet medical-grade food-safety standards. There had to be safety belts, The straps and harnesses. The leg holes had to be a certain diameter: too small and they cut off baby’s circulation, too large and baby could slip through.
The lightweight frame also had to be durable and tip-proof. The surfaces couldn’t be toxic. Liability insurance was critical – and very expensive!
Prototypes were designed. Samples were manufactured. A licensee took the product on. And then, recalls Strong, came the recession of 2008 to 2009 and the licensee lost interest.
However, she was soon to learn that fate can cut two ways.
The ABC Kids Expo is the country’s largest tradeshow for juvenile products. Nearly 15,000 attendees – retailers, buyers, sales reps, distributors, manufacturers, agents, brokers, trade association members, government agencies, charitable organizations and specialty media – from 79 countries visit more than 1,000 booths spread out over 1 million square feet.
It’s normally in Las Vegas. In September 2011, due to a scheduling conflict, it was being held in Louisville.
“Talk about fate intervening,” says Strong. “We had to do this show! But we had no product, just a handful of samples.”
Three days later, they had orders.
“We quickly found a manufacturer and placed an order for our fififirst container,” she says. “It arrived in April 2012. We sold the entire thing pretty quickly.” (That’s roughly 5,000 chairs.)
They’ve worked with licenses to add custom patterns, like with Mossy Oak, the insanely popular provider of camouflage prints, and with a collegiate licensing company to use schools’ logos.
“Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State – those are our most popular,” says Strong. “Around here, of course, we sell a lot of Kentucky and Louisville chairs.”
The website Heavy.com/baby recently named Ciao! Baby one of the “Top 35 Best Baby Shower Gifts.” Parenting OC magazine featured it in a list of “What’s Hot” products in Orange County, Calif. It was a top choice in Baby Maternity Magazine. USA Today featured it in a list of “Best SkyMall Products for Families” before SkyMall declared bankruptcy. The website DailyMom.com gave it a Green Scene Mom Award 2016 for eco-friendliness.
Today, Kim Strong is well-removed from the days of hauling highchairs around and still far from having to deal with grandchildren. ThThThose infants of yore are now 16 (Samantha, at Assumption Academy), 14 (Chandler) and 12 (Benjamin – both boys at Christian Academy). Her husband Terry, a retired LMPD officer, also has his own business, a drowning prevention program for infants and toddlers.
“He always opens up a Ciao! Baby chair on the side of the pool when he teaches,” says Kim. That’s the thing about successful businesspeople. They never stop selling.
HOW TO FIND A CIAO! BABY CHAIR
Whether you’re a parent or grandparent, here’s where to buy a Ciao! Baby portable highchair.
Strong and Baker sell their product directly from their website, theportablehighchair.com.
“We charge the suggested retail price of $67.99, plus shipping,” says co-founder Kim Strong. “We don’t undersell or compete with our selling partners.”
Because of licensing fees, chairs with the Mossy Creek camouflage pattern are $79.99; chairs with college logos are $100.
Strong said it’s also available, online, at Amazon.com (Ciao! Baby’s largest customer), Walmart.com, Target.com, BedBathandBeyond.com and BabiesRUs.com.
“We’re working on Babies R Us to put us in their store, but they haven’t yet taken that step with us,” Strong says. “They’re testing us online, first. It’s more risk-averse. Retail floor space is valuable.”
Ciao! Baby is available in more than 300 baby boutiques and specialty gift stores around the country. It’s also available in Hallmark stores and is carried by sports and camping retailers like Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops (there’s one in Clarksville), REI and Camping World.
It’s also available in Louisville at Kiddie Kastle, 215 S. Hurstbourne Pkwy., where, says Strong, “you’re likely to get a great selection of UK or U of L chairs.”