CAPE MAY, N.J. — ELLEN GRIMM sees teddy bears in your great-aunt's old mink stole. She also sees them in your grandmother's beaver coat sitting in cold storage and your mother-in-law's Persian lamb jacket hanging in that back closet.
What's more, she's been fashioning those outmoded fur pieces into sentimental keepsakes for 13 years in her shop in this Victorian summer resort. She calls her business Mother Grimm's Bears, and makes about 400 a year, including ones out of cloth like the bear made recently from a receiving blanket.
"It tells a story," Mrs. Grimm explains about the birthday gift from a mother to her 27-year-old daughter.
Three years ago, Ellen and her husband, Ed Grimm, a retired salesman, decided to franchise her craft when requests, from as far away as England and Germany, got to be too many.
"I've always had trouble keeping up," she confesses.
The couple will travel to Washington, D.C., to exhibit at the International Franchise Expo which opens Friday at the Convention Center.
According to figures from the International Franchise Association, there are about 2,500 franchisers who license their names and business formats in the United States in exchange for fees and royalties from about 275,000 US franchisees. Franchising is one of the faster growing sectors of the US economy.
O date, the Grimms have licensed 16 franchisees in California, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, and here in New Jersey. A license costs $12,000 and includes a start-up kit, the 22 different pieces for making bears and a week's training in Cape May where would-be Mother Grimms learn to hand-stitch the bears.
"You're not going to keep the bear's personality if you manufacture it by machine," says Mrs. Grimm, who prefers to train individuals who don't know how to sew. She has discovered that men as much as women are interested in learning how to make teddy bears.
Each bear receives his or her own personality depending on the placement of the eyes, the ears, and the nose, and on how they are stuffed. The Grimms hold patents for the preservation process that halts deterioration of the furs, and for the metal and wooden joints.
"My biggest order was 12 bears for one individual," Mrs. Grimm says, recalling the fur used as black seal. "They were going to be gifts for her grandchildren."
According to her husband, a single stole makes one bear, a jacket makes two, and a coat will make as many as four bears whose average size is 21 inches. They typically sell for $149 a piece.
"The costs of goods on a fur bear is less than 6 percent," he adds. "All you buy are the eyes, the nose, and the stuffing.
The Grimms say making teddy bears is a home-based business, pointing to Ellen's early beginnings when she displayed her first bears in boutique windows in their native Connecticut. She offered a percentage to shop owners for every referral that turned into a bear. With an annual advertising budget of $200, Mrs. Grimm also attends craft shows, festivals, and antique shows.
"Mink stoles are out-dated," Mrs. Grimm comments. "If you took one to a furrier, he'd offer you $10, tops.
"Yet, the Teddy Bear Museum wanted us to be represented there. So, I made them a mink one. They insured it for $500."