After serving as the scoutmaster of a boy scout troop, Jeff Kelly spent half a career as a manager and engineer for global travel company Expedia before he got into the business of sending potatoes through the mail.
Along with his business partner Jim Owens, the retired former CEO of the non-profit Cast for Kids Foundation, Kelly wanted to find a new product or business idea to which, he said, he could bring both his experience in customer service and his values as an Eagle Scout. Something “uplifting”.
They discovered the two month-old site MysteryPotato, which had been set up to post potatoes with little messages – “printed on the side through the mail. The owner, who found himself inundated with orders he could not fulfil, was ready to sell Kelly and Owens the business. They bought it right away.
There are three main potato-sending sites in the US: MysteryPotato, Mail-a-Spud, and PotatoParcel. Mail-a-Spud specialises in sending just the potato, with no packaging; sticking postage on the legume itself. MysteryPotato is a more boutique outfit, moving around 10 potatoes per day.
Kelly said that his company – which also offers glitter-bombs – was profitable, though not so much yet that it covers his and Owens’ living expenses.
The bigger PotatoParcel, founded by Riad Bekhit, has a claim to be both the first, and the largest, potato-sending company in the game. With between 25 and 50 orders a day, Bekhit told the Guardian that his company was processing between $10k and $20k every month in sales.
“It’s the art of surprise,” Bekhit explains when asked about the appeal of sending a message on a potato. “The messages can be anonymous so when people open the package and it says ‘happy birthday’, ‘I miss you’, ‘I love you’, people get a real kick out of it because it’s something they haven’t seen before.” The company has also been franchised out, he said, with local “ambassadors” in the UK, continental Europe, Australia and Canada.
“There’s been a few copiers and they copied us after seeing our stuff,” Bekhit says of the competition. “I mean, if you search in Google for ‘send a potato’ or ‘potato message’, we pop up first, so we’re getting all the Google traffic for search.”
“Other people are trying to copy our idea and offer potatoes with messages on them. [But] we’re the frontrunners,” he added.
Kelly downplayed the competitive aspect of the market. “Among the three potato-sending companies, we each have our different space and our different sub-niche,” he said. “So there isn’t any underhanded competition going on, but there are times when other businesses will crop up that will attempt to get into the space.”
Mark Rojek, one of Bekhit’s best customers, told the Guardian that he and his wife had struggled with Christmas cards until, last year, he discovered Potato Parcel. “I think it’s fun to throw people a curveball now and again and this fulfilled that plan perfectly,” he said.
He told his wife that he had fixed their Christmas card problem. She rolled her eyes. But when Christmas day came around, people started texting them, or posting pictures on Facebook with their potato. Each one had “we forgot to buy cards so here’s a potato. Merry Christmas from the Rojek family” printed neatly on it.
What Rojek liked was that it was a “warmer” way of communicating than a text or short email. “It’s not the cheapest way to do holiday cards,” he said. “But I guarantee it was the only potato people received.”
Kelly and Bekhit both said they consider their companies “gag-gift retailers” rather than potato-only ventures. Bekhit’s company now offers a “potato postcard” feature where you can upload an image and they will print it directly onto the side; for Christmas this year they experimented with holiday-themed gifts – a potato Christmas-tree decoration, or a lump of coal.
Kelly said that they too had experimented with other message vehicles, like carrots, but that the basics remained the most popular.
“We tried yams,” he said. “But yams are basically potatoes.”