Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Eastern: Freak show

By Cameron Walker

Shortly after he arrived in Wilmington in 2007, at the end of a gap-year, cross-country road trip, Freaker USA founder Zach Crain wandered into a Stitch ‘n Bitch knitting meetup and had a lightbulb moment: What if he could make a one-size-fits-all drink koozie?

That idea became the Freaker, a whimsical, $9.99-and-up knit beverage insulator that stretches to fit everything from a 2-liter soda bottle to a beer can, emblazoned with sports team logos, comic book characters and punny designs like “Golden Gulls” (sea gulls in wigs) and “Grand Theft Otter” (an otter on a motorcycle).

Product idea in hand, Crain contacted Robinwood Enterprises, a family-owned hosiery mill in Troy. They joined to make the Freaker a reality, with Crain visiting for days at a time, often sleeping on the factory floor, to tinker with the equipment.

“They were willing to do anything for us,” says Crain. “In the beginning, I would go up and stay the night and change the yarns on the machine and try out new styles. Can you imagine that? They have these really expensive machines and here’s this person they just met — and they let me stay here overnight and just poke around?”

The Pennsylvania native financed the venture with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2011, which netted $62,770 from 2,416 backers. The campaign resulted in an appearance on the television show Shark Tank. Crain failed to land funding but introduced his product to 7 million viewers and  became the subject of the 2014 crowdfunding documentary Capital C.

Financed entirely through relatively small investments, the business started turning a profit in 2011. Four years later, Crain and his company went beyond koozies to launch Freaker Feet, a line of 127 quirky sock designs. Freaker returned to Kickstarter, this time surpassing its goal, with $250,000 pledged from almost 5,000 people.

One of Freaker’s prominent marketing points is the company’s emphasis on local materials and manufacturing. The cotton is sourced from the American South, nylon is from Greensboro, spandex is from Burlington, yarns are dyed in Belmont, socks and Freakers are still knit in Troy, and the final product is shipped from Wilmington. The 30-year-old Crain employs 15 people in the coastal city with a goal of creating local jobs, even if few buyers pay attention. “You could probably get these made for 30 or 40 cents in another country, but it wasn’t even an option for us.”

“It’s a shame more people don’t pay attention to where products are made,” he says. “For a lot of people, ‘Made in America’ feels like it’s after the fact. If they saw pictures of those thousand people (involved in making the Freaker), they would say, ‘Oh cool! That’s what Made in America means.’ It’s friends and neighbors that you end up supporting — the families around you.”

Perhaps that message does make a difference. In the past year, Freaker has sold more than 200,000 pairs of socks, starting at $15.99, at about 1,500 boutiques. A late September appearance on Good Morning America resulted in 3,000 retail orders overnight.

Klausner Lumber will open a $110 million lumber mill in Enfield in 2017, four years after it was initially announced. The Germany-based company expects the mill to employ at least 350 workers, including electricians, mechanics and forklift operators. Klausner, which was attracted by the area’s pine and softwood forests, is eligible for more than $4.5 million in state incentives, provided it meets hiring targets. The expansion is good news for Halifax County, where Safelite AutoGlass‘ windshield plant closed in October, idling more than 200 people. Safelite opened the plant in 1970.

GREENVILLE — East Carolina University received $23.7 million in commitments for its $55 million expansion of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during the first six months of a fundraising campaign. The renovation, which will add 1,000 club seats and a new press box, is to be completed by mid-2018.

WILMINGTON — More than 40 senators asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to investigate the pending stock transfer of Vertex Railcar, based here. Under the deal, China Railroad Rolling Stock would own a majority stake in the rail-car manufacturer.

PLYMOUTH  — Domtar is cutting about 100 jobs at its 460-employee pulp and paper mill here by mid-2017. Weyerhaeuser owned the plant for decades before selling it to Fort Mill, S.C.-based Domtar in 2007.

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