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Taco Plate is Fayetteville inventor's big break

By Chris Bahn

This article was published July 20, 2014 at 2:27 a.m.


NWA Media/DAVID GOTTSCHALK 7/14/14 - Steven King, A Shift (cq, this is the name of the shift) supervisor at PolyTech Molding Inc. in Prairie Grove, examines a new The Taco Plate manufactured in a injection molding machine at the plant Monday July 14, 2014.

Picky eating habits are earning Hugh Jarratt more than good-natured ribbing from family and friends these days.

A desire to keep tacos upright and separate from other foods on a plate gained the Fayetteville attorney and inventor national notoriety as well as a commitment from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to purchase 1 million of his Taco Plates.

Jarratt has sold nearly 500,000 of the durable plastic plates since 2008, and last week, the world's largest retailer announced its intention to more than double Jarratt's previous sales with a single purchase.

"I'm not sure I have wrapped my mind around it yet," said Jarratt. "This all started because I got tired of tacos falling over, back when I ate way too many tacos."

Wal-Mart committed to purchasing the plates, which sell online and in local retailers for between $4 and $5 each, as part of its Made In America push. Last year, Wal-Mart announced that it will purchase $250 billion in American-made goods through 2023, an initiative aimed at returning more manufacturing to the United States.

Jarratt's Taco Plate pitch was one of about 800 made on July 8 at Wal-Mart's "Open Call" event. He met the next week with the world's largest retailer to work toward a final sales agreement.

While a 30-minute, in-person meeting at the event was enough to get a commitment, getting to that meeting was a five-year process for Jarratt and Nicole Jarratt, his wife of nine years.

Earlier this year, the Jarratts, the only two employees of Jarratt Industries, stopped distributing the Taco Plate from their home. Nicole Jarratt, a former attorney, fills a number of roles in the business, including sounding board, research and development assistant, and fulfillment manager. For the first five years, she organized evenings where orders for the plates would be packaged and shipped.

With the couple's now 5-year-old son, McCall, in the vehicle, Nicole Jarratt could transport 24 boxes of Taco Plates. She'd sometimes make two trips in a day to the plant where they are manufactured so she could pick up plates and fill orders.

If the weather was nice outside, the packaging would take place outside the Jarratt home. When it was cold or precipitating, the operation would move into the kitchen.

"It's crazy when you think about all the steps we've gone through to get to where we are from where we've been," said Nicole Jarratt. "It's a blur. To think this started in one of our bedrooms, it's hard to believe where we are now.

"It's like living in the Nutty Professor's house," she added. "If he had more time in the day, there's no telling what he'd come up with."

By day, Hugh Jarratt is a title attorney for Lindsey Management, but he spends much of his time at home thinking of inventions. It isn't unusual, friends and family said, for Jarratt to have 20 or more working ideas jotted down at any time in a notebook. Jarratt keeps the notebook on a table next to his bed just in case an idea pops into his head in the middle of the night.

Jarratt's Taco Plate prototype was developed from malleable materials that he purchased at a toy store. Satisfied with the results, Jarratt found someone to make a sturdier example of what he envisioned, and then he began searching for a manufacturer. Jarratt applied for a patent in October 2007; it was approved in August 2008.

Online research led Jarratt about 15 miles west of Fayetteville to PolyTech Molding, a custom injection molder in Prairie Grove. PolyTech Molding, owned by Jim Benton and John McCutcheon, produces a variety of products, including parts for fitness equipment and items used on military vehicles.

McCutcheon accompanied Jarratt to the Wal-Mart open-call event. Both entered the meeting with tempered expectations but had a game plan in case there was interest.

Selling in Wal-Mart had never really crossed Jarratt's mind until late last year. It seemed like a long shot until he read about the retailer's open-call event in the newspaper.

What happened during that open-call meeting far exceeded what they envisioned. Not only had Wal-Mart arranged for an ABC News crew to shadow the Jarratts and McCutcheon, the company's U.S. Division President and CEO Bill Simon was present for the pitch meeting.

"It was the best day of my business life," said McCutcheon, who has a background in sales and marketing for a locally based manufacturer. "I've made bigger sales in a day. This might not have been as big in dollar figures, but to be at Wal-Mart headquarters, shadowed by ABC News, there's been nothing like it."

Jarratt has similar feelings about the commitment from Wal-Mart. Hearing that the retailer was interested helps validate the work he has put into his inventions over the years. It was especially sweet, Jarratt said, because the Taco Plate is a truly Arkansas-based item.

While the idea originated with a picky eater who grew up in Forrest City and later relocated to Fayetteville, the Taco Plate has involved people across the state. Patent attorney Steve Schrantz lives in Jonesboro. Labels for the Taco Plate are produced at First Tape and Label in Texarkana, Nicole Jarratt's hometown. Manufacturing is handled in Prairie Grove.

"This is an Arkansas product," Hugh Jarratt said. "That's something that means a lot to me being from this state. We're excited to have been able to include the state in our success."

SundayMonday Business on 07/20/2014

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