Just Call Me The Gadget King
This time last year Bernie Abbott stood in his CNE booth with his last two bucks shrinking in his pocket. This year he’s there again with his homespun chatter and his kitchen gadgets worrying about his income tax
AT THE CNE
IF DANNY KAYE meets any rival in showmanship at this year’s Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto it will probably be 35-year-old Bernie Abbott, of Blackpool, England, who during the last 12 months has chattered his way from penury to the blue chips by imparting theatrical know-how to the sale of kitchen gadgets. From last year’s CNE many visitors scurried home with the news that a comic guy who sold egg beaters put on a better show than Olsen and Johnson. Says one housewife who missed 15 minutes of the grandstand spectacle through listening to the L°ucashire lad’s Canadian debut:
“They had to get Danny Kaye this year to draw the crowds away from Bernie Abbott.” On the day the 1949 CNE opened Abbott had 2,880 pastry cutters and precisely $2 cash. A month earlier, after a disastrous business adventure in New York, he’d planned to sail from Montreal to Liverpool with his wife Doris and admit that as an emigrant he’d been a flop. Then, on a desperate impulse, he’d burned his bridges by spending on the rent of a CNE stand $200 originally reserved for part payment of two steerage passages He’d broken his last $10 bill to buy a white $3 jacket and $5 worth of lumber. He’d built the booth himself and decorated it with pictures of the Royal Family examining pastry cutters at the Ideal Homes Exhibition in London. When Continued on page 2i
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the CNE gates opened Abbott had been up all night in the customs sheds waiting to clear his stock. Neither he nor his wife had had any breakfast.
At the end of the first exhibition week he had sold all his pastry cutters at 98 cents apiece, and made himself more than $1,000 profit by demonstrating them and chattering about them in a broad Lancashire accent for 12 hours a day.
On Monday of the second week he was swallowing glycerin to ease a chronic croak and casting around for more merchandise. A Toronto department store gladly provided a job line of 3,000 British egg beaters.
With a spiel that included comedy, cooking tips, pathos and household economics, Abbott, wearing a clean white coat every two hours, sold out the lot at a profit of $700 to himself.
On New Year’s Eve last, less than four months later, Abbott had sold $136,000 worth of British-made egg whisks, pastry cutters, rolling pins, icing sets, palette knives, omelet pans, pie crimpers, waffle molds, meat mincers, tea strainers, cream horn cases, potato mashers, vegetable peelers, butter curlers, grater spoons, fish turners, cooking tongs, can openers, sink strainers, cake stands and kitchen knives, by what he now calls “An Abbott Demonstration.”
Shy Grunts From the Crowd
His profit was nearly $13,000.
Abbott, who is tall, blue-jowled and sallow, has a droll turn of humor, a roguish resemblance to Groucho Marx, and an unshakable belief that he is the world’s best salesman. He frequently calls on his Maker to give credence to his statements. Tapping his open books excitedly he exclaims, “It sounds like a fairy tale! But, as God is my judge, it is
Though he is now creeping into the big time (he calls himself the “Gadget King of Canada”) he still demonstrates all new lines himself, surrounded by two or three white-coated trainees whom he schools personally. He seems to draw a score of onlookers in about 30 seconds.
In his homely vernacular he begins: “Now, ladies, just let me roll this dirty old bit of pastry and I’ll give you a surprise. I know this pastry is looking tired. But don’t worry. It’s the only thing that’s not for sale.”
He flips the pastry onto a plate, thumbs round it, and says: “Now,
when I was a boy, this is the way my dear old mother used to crimp the edges. I’ll bet many of you ladies who think you are modern are still using this dated method. Aren’t you now? Admit it! Come on, don’t be ashamed!” There are several shy grunts from the crowd.
“Now I’ll show you the 1950 way. Come a little closer, please.” He whips round the pastry with a gadget. “Notice that it not only crimps but cuts off the excess at the same time. It’s so simple that even a man can do it.”
Then he rolls the pastry once more, making frequent references to his mother and home and the struggles of cookery before he, Abbott, “lightened the ladies’ day by selling them leisure.”
He makes a clumsy act of cutting out cookies with an old cup then shows a shining bladed instrument which produces half a dozen different shapes in a single roller movement. Triumphantly Abbott announces: “The brain
child of a great Lancashire inventor who used to watch his mother baking when he was a boy.”
He produces a glass, breaks the white of an egg into it, and takes a plunger. “In less than 10 seconds, ladies, I’ll beat this white so stiff you could cut it with a knife. If the chickens knew what we did to their eggs they’d go mad.” He adds the yolk and announces that he will make an omelet sufficient for two people out of the one egg.
“You will notice that I’m using only best butter. But that’s because my firm pays for it, not me. You may use margarine. In seven seconds that omelet will be cooked.”
He talks about the need for a low light, the uses of pepper and salt, the vagaries of frying pans, while a goldenbrown circle inflates itself on the grill. Still chattering, Abbott cuts this up, spears pieces on cherry sticks and hands them round the crowd.
“Would you believe it?” he cries. “An omelet for two out of one egg! All through this special plunger selling at 98 cents.”
The Cordon Bleu would not accept his dish as an omelet. But its size and its taste are impressive.
Following a three-minute demonstration recently in a Toronto department store Abbott sold 17 egg plungers. He banks on taking himself between $10 and $20 a performance.
A student demonstrator who took over Abbott’s ready-made crowd spent five minutes on the same demonstration and sold only eight plungers. “You see,” said Abbott, “it’s personality and experience that make all the difference. But the boy’s coming on well.”
Before 1950 dawned, and within six months of selling his furniture in New York to pay his debts, Abbott moved into a small suite of offices just beyond the gypsy zone on Queen Street West, downtown Toronto, set himself up under the trade name of Abbott from England, hired a manager and four clerks and started making regular $60 trans-Atlantic telephone calls to speed up consignments of British kitchen-
In reputable department stores in Ontario, Quebec and Vancouver he is now employing 30 demonstrators trained in his own line of patter.
He has on the road five commercial travelers who arrange demonstrations and sell in the orthodox way British kitchen goods ranging in size up to entire sink and cupboard units. They are also breaking ground for a variety of new lines such as plastic horses, ducks, elephants, lambs “or other lovable characters,” and red lamps for putting around holes in the road.
Women Respect Male Cooks
Men outnumber women two to one among Abbott’s demonstrators. Wherever cooking is involved he uses men. “Women customers,” he says, “show more respect for a man’s cooking ideas. Also, it amuses them to watch a tnnn messing about.”
He uses women to demonstrate polish, dishcloths, and cleaning gadgets. In a Montreal department store one of his demonstrators, Aimée Gonthier, makes $100 a week regularly. His demonstrators now get $40 a week flat plu9 a sliding commission on .weekly sales, but the boss is considering a profitsharing scheme for his staff.
About 50 applicants ask him for jobs each week; only one in the 50 turns out to be the right type. “I can spot a born demonstrator at once,.” he says. “It’s all personality . . . God’s truth it is!” His staff includes a former policeman, actor, laundry hand, truck driver and hotel receptionist. “Good salesmen are good spenders,” Abbott adds. “They are often broke. This is because they know they can always go out next week and make some more.”
The gadgets Abbott sells cost him approximately half the retail price. When all his overheads are met he figures on clearing 10%.
At the CNE last year a man who said he was also in the demonstration business approached Abbott and asked confidentially, “Your pastry works swell. How do you mix it?”
Abbott, who buys ordinary pastry from bakery stores, said from the corner of his mouth: “You take a
pound of flour and a pound of soap flakes. Add a cup of water and throw in a dash of oil of cloves. Then roll a strip of plasticine into it and whiten with tennis shoe cleaner.”
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The man took careful notes, thanked Abbott. “I’d like to have seen him working with that mixture,” says Abbott wistfully.
Once a woman in the crowd embarrassed Abbott by insisting he used special water in his pastry. Finally Abbott said, “Yes, madam, we use heavy water—the same stuff required for the atom bomb. It’s flown to us from Chalk River.”
Dressing Women in Windows
He likes repartee and encourages arguments. Once he had to separate two women who started pushing each other around during a fierce debate on how to put the rise in a Yorkshire pudding.
To one woman who listened to five gadget demonstrations without buying Abbott said quietly: “Come, madam, when are you going to make up your
”1 bought one yesterday,” she returned. “It’s a proper champion. But I just like to ’ear you talk. You’re a Lancashire lad, aren’t you?”
“That’s right, lass!” beamed Abbott.
In all Abbott’s amusing recollections there is a Chaplinesque undertone of tragedy. He talks about himself endlessly and frequently interrupts himself with “No, I’m telling a lie.” Then he recasts his sentence.
He was brought up in gaudy, frolicsome, beery Blackpool, which outphonys Coney Island, and caters to Lancashire cotton workers on their annual sprees, called Wakes Week.
“I had to take a job at 14 dressing dummies in a store window because my mother was going blind and my father had broken himself financially trying to cure her. My school friends used to gather outside and laugh at me. One day I had such a time getting a tight sweater onto a ‘woman’ that I twisted her arm off. I walked straight out without waiting for the sack.”
He daren’t tell his parents. “I stood on the end of Central Pier—no I’m telling a lie, it was North Pier—wondering whether to throw myself off.” Wandering aimlessly round the amusement arcades he watched the cheap-Jacks and mock auctioneers unloading baubles onto holidaymakers and decided to try his hand.
“My mustache was like a soccer match—11 on each side— so I blacked it, told them I was 19, and got a job. They gave me the big tough stuff to sell, canteens of cutlery, and the like. But I got going so well that whenever I had a customer interested one of the other chaps would sidle across, say, ‘Let me clinch it for you, son,’ and then claim 80% of my commission.”
By the time he was 16 Abbott was demonstrating gadgets all over the United Kingdom.
A Fat Woman Hit the Road
On New Year’s Eve when he was 17 he was returning from Newcastle to Blackpool after a highly successful week and he accepted a glass of whisky from some men in the train.
“My father was waiting to meet me because he needed my money. There was I standing with four empty bags, one under each arm and one in each hand, the family breadwinner. But my dad smelled my breath. I left the station with my dad walking backward in front of me smacking both sides of my face and saying, ‘I’ll teach you to come home rolling drunk.’ ”
Today at an ordinary gathering Abbott allows himself up to two shots of whisky. But on New Year’g Eves he’ll take four.
When he was 20 he wanted to be a
real commercial traveler. So he started shadowing Thomas M. Nutbrown, a hardware manufacturer in Blackpool.
“If ever I drove a man crackers it was Mr. Nutbrown,” says Abbott. “Honest I did! When he went for a beer there was me waiting to buy him one. When he went to a restaurant there was me sitting at the same table. Once on a tram I’d paid for his ticket before he realized I was straphanging at his elbow. He was nearly crying when I finally landed a job.”
Abbott told Nutbrown he could drive. Nutbrown bought him a secondhand car and put him on the road. Abbott learned to drive secretly. “Within an hour of passing my test I knocked a fat woman off a bike. But I talked her out of reporting me by buying her a new pair of silk stockings.”
On his first sales tour he headed for Glasgow. In 120 miles the car broke down four times and each time Abbott had to call Nutbrown to wire money to get the car out of the garage. Nutbrown whimpered: “Abbott, you’ve
already wrecked my digestion. Now you’re trying to bankrupt me. What is all this?”
But Abbott survived because he was a natural salesman. By the time the war broke out he was on Nutbrown’s London staff.
Abbott married his dark, CockneyIrish wife Doris, who used to be a ballet mistress at the Palladium, during a London blitz. At the time he was medical category B, an orderly room sergeant in the pioneers. In December, 1948, the two decided to move to America to manufacture and market cheap kitchen scales in New York. The venture was a flop and the two were reduced to one meal a day.
Abbott, a heavy smoker, once even bummed a cigarette from a stranger but was so humiliated he never tried it
The Precious Gift of the Gab
He sold for $1,500 furniture which in England had cost him three times as much; he had also spent $600 to ship it out. When they paid their debts in New York they had $250 left. Feeling it was safer for British subjects to be broke under the Union Jack they headed for Canada. Abbott’s idea was to get a job in Montreal for just as long as it took him to save another $100 toward fares for England.
“But a few days after I crossed the border,” he says, “I could have kicked myself for not coming to Canada in the first place. Everybody was so friendly. And the opportunities ! Heavens above ! The country’s wide open to anyone who’ll work.”
To his wife’s surprise he took a job demonstrating in a department store. He told her he’d learned this game as a boy and then abandoned it for the “more respectable” straight commercial traveling.
The first week of demonstrating in Montreal Abbott made $25, the second week $65, the third week $35. “My share of the commission was absurd,” he says. “I was very worried. We were making no headway toward the fare home. But I realized I still had the gift of the gab and that on my own I could make a go of it.”
Doris agreed to risking their fare money on rent of a booth at the CNE and they got a lift to Toronto where they moved into one room. Abbott cabled his old employer, Nutbrown, to telephone him. When he was advised that Nutbrown was putting the call through he exulted, “Faint heart never won fair lady.”
Abbott told Nutbrown of the stand and the opportunities it presented for breaking into the dollar market by
demonstrations. At once Nutbrown shipped Abbott 20 gross of pastry cutters “on the cuff.” Said Abbott as he replaced the receiver and sank into a chair, “The Lord looks after His own.” Since then it has been clear sailing.
All last winter the Abbotts rented a pretty eight-room house in North Toronto which belongs to R. York Wilson, a well-known Canadian artist who was then painting in Mexico. They paid $150 a month. They also bought a 1950 Chevrolet.
Last spring they sailed to England first class in the Queen Elizabeth to look over new lines.
“There were a lot of chaps in Britain who’d heard I’d gone broke in New York,” says Abbott, “and who were just waiting to tell me ‘We told yotí so.’ They laughed on the other side of their faces when I showed ’em the orders I was dishing out. Eee-eeeh by goom, it did my old ticker good!”
Never Tell When You’re Broke
When he returned from England after six weeks Abbott moved into a suite at the King Edward Hotel, Toronto, and started house hunting again. Within 10 days he’d talked a North Toronto builder into renting him a brand-new unfurnished house originally intended for sale. Abbott who still pays $150 a month rent but may buy the house eventually says: “Who wants to buy a home before they’ve lived in it for a year? Not me! I like time to find out all the snags.”
Last fall the Abbotts entertained the entire company of George Formby’s visiting show. At parties Mrs. Abbott likes to teach everybody the samba, perform solo tap dances and tell nostalgic stories of the days when London’s West End knew her as Doris Dooley, the boss of the Crazy Gang chorus. Abbott looks on with mingled pride and anxiety. Once when his wife greeted guests in a vermilion skirt he said reproachfully, “Eeeh luv, you look like a red devil.”
This year the self-styled Gadget King hopes to make himself $40,000. Inundated with offers of merchandise from dollar-starved English exporters, he’s already strong enough to stipulate “sole agency in Canada.” He’s bought controlling interest in a small company making utility polish and has begun stamping out a few kitchen utensils of his own design in Toronto. Soon he hopes to re-enter the American market, once so disastrous for him.
Bernard Abbott has three precepts on which he’s based his success: “No job is undignified if it pays off”; Always keep a smile on your face”; “Never tell when you’re broke.”
One of his friends says: “He’ll make those Canadians who say that British salesmanship lacks aggression eat their own words. But first he’ll sell them a gadget for preparing the words daintily.” it
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