Angela Robertson would like to be a millionaire. She's working on it in her hot and dusty barn off East Tanque Verde Road.
But from the barn-turned-workshop, as she sands a hardwood cutting board with a howling electric palm sander, it looks like a long, slow, hard road to riches.
Robertson, 50, is a recently divorced mother with two teenagers and has her mother living with her.
She says she got a couple of cutting boards in the recent divorce.
It's better than it sounds. She got the rights to make and sell two of the many wooden kitchen products — utensils and butcher blocks — her now-ex-husband used to produce for their local business, Ozark West.
On Jan. 1, Ozark West split into two companies — Robertson's Ozark West Fine Culinary Wood Products (www.ozarkwest.com) and Phoenix Culinary Products, owned by her ex-husband, Rick Odea, and based in Wisconsin. Ozark West continues to sell walnut end-grain and cherry end-grain cutting boards; Phoenix Culinary sells all other end-grain cutting boards, edge-grain cutting boards, butcher-block tables, utensils and custom orders.
"That was 50 percent of our business," Robertson says of the walnut and cherry end-grain cutting boards sold via Ozark West's Web site. But at most, she says, her ex-husband was able to hand-make just 50 of the cutting boards a month.
"I'm not a woodworker," says Robertson, a former bank worker.
Fortunately, she says, she led the charge to find a manufacturer who could copy the company's hardwood cutting boards at a much higher volume, while meeting its quality standards.
"It took two years of trips, including to a place in Nuevo Laredo (Mexico), a plant owned by an American who makes them now," says Robertson.
The producer does fine work, but Robertson says she has to hand-finish the boards herself, wet-sanding them to smooth the joints in the checkerboard pattern and even out the finish, and screwing on rubber feet.
The boards — in three sizes, 12-by-16 inches, 16-by-20 inches and 18-by-22 inches, in a choice of natural walnut or cherry, go for $189 to $299.
There are foodies willing to pay that much, Robertson says. So many that getting enough of the boards is the problem in expanding the company. She has to pay on delivery for product, between $5,500 and $15,000 a shipment. She says every dime she doesn't spend on keeping the family going goes back into getting more boards to sell on her Yahoo Business Web site.
At this point, she's not even advertising. While she was still married, Robertson said, the couple paid as much as $1,500 a month to get top results on Web search engines when people looked for cutting boards.
"Right now we're selling 40 a month with no advertising," she says.
On the Web site, she can take credit cards. She even takes checks, saying that she's never been stuck with a bad check.
"It's a high-end clientele," says Robertson. "I don't worry" about taking checks.
But that clientele is also "very picky." They can, and do, send boards back for even the tiniest flaw, such as raised grain, or even naturally occurring wood features such as "bird's eye" and color variations.
The need to ramp up production stems from her success in getting product placement on 14 Food Network shows, including "Essence of Emeril" and "Everyday Italian" with chef Giada De Laurentiis and nearly a dozen other cooking shows.
She's just been told her boards will be used later in the season on "The Next Food Network Star."
"They looked absolutely beautiful on camera," said Patricia LaMorte, a former Food Network culinary associate producer on "Essence of Emeril" and other Food Network shows.
She said product placement on the cooking shows is tough, and not necessarily rewarding now that the network has gone to "seamless programming," with no credits between shows.
Still, she says, "Just to have their product there, they will do it."
With that exposure, Ozark West is still profiting from that paid search-engine placement Robertson can no longer afford.
"You Google 'Food Network' and 'cutting board' and we're first," Robertson said.
But she says her business will really bloom if she lands a deal with the cable shopping networks QVC or HSN, both of which she has pitched. That will require a backer or a partnership with her producer, as the shopping network requires as many as 30,000 units in its warehouse before it will sell the item on TV. Robertson says the manufacturer will work with her. But she hasn't gotten a go-ahead from the shopping channels yet.
Even while working in the barn/shop at 2 a.m. sanding out flaws, Robertson believes she will be a millionaire. "I will be there, whether it takes me a year or 10. I believe in the product," she says.
On the Web
Find Ozark West Fine Culinary Wood Products online at www.ozarkwest.com