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Red Plates Are as Good as Gold for Pair Who Supply Gift Stores

Ronald Reagan has one. So do Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

And more than 500,000 ordinary people have gotten them, too. The distinctive red earthenware plates, emblazoned with the words “You are special today,” have been increasingly popular gifts for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions for more than six years now.

The gift of such a plate, which retails in thousands of stores across the country for $28 to $30, is “magic . . . a visible reminder of love and esteem,” according to Lucyann Cameron and Elizabeth Smoot, founders and owners of the Costa Mesa-based Original Red Plate Co. Inc.

And if the company’s backlog of unfilled orders and its hassles with competitors are any indication, it just may be that there is more than simple advertising hoopla behind the claim that there is something magical about the plate.

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“You just can’t get this anywhere else,” Cameron said, pointing at one of the plates. And that’s how she and Smoot want things to stay.

But demand for the one-of-a-kind product is strong, and the company has never been able to churn out enough plates to fill its annual orders.

That kind of success breeds imitation, which--although a form of flattery--does nothing to improve a company’s earnings.

So, through their copyright attorney, Smoot and Cameron have fired off letters to 10 different firms over the last six years, warning that if they continued turning out unauthorized copies of the red plates they would find themselves embroiled in a copyright-infringement case.

Two Firms Were Sued

All but two--International House in Atlanta and the Albert E. Price Co. in New Jersey--backed off after receiving letters, selling whatever plates remained in inventory and then discontinuing production of their copies.

Lawsuits were filed against both International House and Price.

International House, a nationwide wholesale giftware distributor, settled out of court with Cameron and Smoot two years ago. Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but Cameron said they were “to our satisfaction.”

Price, a distributor with $16 million in sales last year, battled Cameron and Smoot in court, denying that its white porcelain plate, with “You are special today” in red lettering, infringed on the Original Red Plate Co.'s copyright.

But after three years of battle, Price recently was enjoined in federal court from selling its plate and was ordered to destroy its inventory. Smoot and Cameron also were awarded damages, which have yet to be established. The Original Red Plate Co. claims that it lost between $100,000 and $300,000 in revenue because of Price’s copies.

The idea for the “You are special today” plate was born in 1979 after Cameron’s son received an unadorned red plate as a wedding gift. The marriage ceremony took place in Connecticut, and the gift-giver said that it was a regional tradition to give a red plate on a special occasion.

Cameron thought the idea was marketable, as did Smoot and Carolyn McCulloch, her partners in a previous antique business.

The three women (McCulloch died in 1984) formed a company, made up a prototype red plate with the “You are special today” logo on it and visited a 1979 Los Angeles gift show.

During the show, they received orders for 2,000 plates from gift shop owners looking for something new to offer their customers.

The red plate became a best seller of sorts, and the three women were able to move out of their cramped Corona del Mar garage within six months. In 1982, the company’s best year, they racked up $1.3 million in revenue with the sale of 100,000 red plates.

Now the Original Red Plate Co. Inc. sells an average of 75,000 red plates a year and occupies a large office and shipping warehouse in a Costa Mesa industrial complex. Thirteen sales representatives blanket the country, wholesaling the plate--and several other earthenware items, such as a $42 serving platter honoring grandmothers--to 7,000 gift stores and outlets.

Business so far has been limited only by the sale of unauthorized copies--and by recurring production snafus.

Only 10,000 Shipped

This year the company stopped accepting Christmas orders in July because production problems left them far short of the number of plates they needed to fill their backlog. So far this year, only 10,000 plates have been shipped, while more than 38,000 have been ordered.

Despite delays, however, Smoot said that very few retailers cancel their orders. “Sometimes when we tell them they’ll have to wait,” she said, “they just add another plate to the order.”

Cameron said the company “could easily” sell 100,000 plates each year “if we could get production.”

But from the start, the plate has been a difficult product to manufacture.

Initially, more than a dozen potters turned down the contract to make the plates, all claiming that the red glaze the women demanded was unstable in the kiln.

They finally found a willing potter in Chino who made the plates until December of last year, when he decided not to renew his contract after 6,000 plates broke while being fired in his kiln.

That’s one reason why Smoot and Cameron’s last fiscal year, ending in May, was their worst.

It also is the reason Christmas orders were cut off in July.

Problems With Importing

It took nearly five months for Smoot and Cameron to find a new manufacturer. In fact, Cameron said, they had to find two--one in Japan and one in Germany--and both were chosen only reluctantly.

Importing their product and dealing long distance with their suppliers, she said, makes it difficult to get a smooth flow of supply.

Additionally, she said, “the plate is based on an Early American tradition. People are more pleased with it being made in this country.”


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