WHEN Boston University (BU) offered to rent students a MicroFridge for their dorm rooms, housing officials expected the response to be modest.
But interest was so high that a few hundred students had to be put on a waiting list.
"We were bowled over by the response," recalls Marc Robillard, director of housing at BU, which now has 1,000 MicroFridges rented at $150 each for the academic year.
What exactly is a MicroFridge? It's a compact "multipliance that includes a microwave oven, a freezer, and a refrigerator.
A novel idea? Maybe not. "This is not rocket science," says Robert Bennett, president and chief executive officer of MircroFridge Inc. A lot of people recognize that if one unit can microwave, refrigerate, and freeze, there are many applications for it.
Founded in 1987, MicroFridge Inc. has researched and taken hold of a niche: the need for the conveniences of home for extended-stay guests. Since shipping its first unit in 1989, the company has sold more than 30,000 units and grown at an annual rate of 100 percent. Depending upon the number of units an institution orders from MicroFridge, each costs from $379 to $429. In three years sales have grown to $7.4 million.
"Students drove the design of the product," Mr. Bennett says. For example, through marketing research, MicroFridge found how important a "real" freezer was to students, one that would accommodate more than an ice-cube tray and one that would keep ice cream frozen.
The MicroFridge has convinced both students and housing administrators at more than 100 colleges and universities: It allows the comfort of home food preparation without blowing any fuses or starting fires.
At BU, for example, "before, we weren't allowed to have any food preparation appliances ... except air popcorn poppers," says Senior Kevin Knoblock. Now, with a MicroFridge in his room, he says "it's really nice and convenient."
Donald Arndt, recently retired director of housing at Pennsylvania State University, says he was overwhelmed with initial demand for the MicroFridge on his campus as well. He found that if students had to choose between a MicroFridge and cable television, two-thirds said they preferred a MicroFridge in their rooms. Presently, Penn State has 4,000 units.
Universities are just one spoke of MicroFridge's marketing plan. The company has found buyers in hotels, government, and military facilities. New target markets include retirement communities and small offices.
Competition? Not a worry, at least at the moment, Bennett says. MicroFridge won't be sold at the retail level. Smaller players "can do a better job serving a niche market than bigger companies," he says.
MicroFridge is manufactured in Singapore and Tijuana, Mexico, and shipped from San Diego.
The three-year-old private company, based in Boston, employs about 25 people. According to Bennett, that number should rise to about 40 by the end of this year.
With a marketing strategy that sells a "home away from home," Bennett says, "we plan to maintain our presence and push the domestic demand in major niches."