HOLLISTER, Calif. — Deborah Evanoff thought she'd traded her frantic Silicon Valley career for a lazier pace when she took over the low-tech toy company her parents founded in the late 1960s.
Instead, she's ramping up Arrowcopter Inc.'s manufacturing operations and getting a record number of orders from retailers in 11 countries. More people are buying the slingshot-like gizmo, which starts at $4 and — as the packaging proudly proclaims — is made in the United States.
As consumers look for alternatives to Chinese-made toys following a series of recalls this year, dozens of small toy companies are struggling to meet surging demand. Some owners report online sales up as much as fivefold from last year. They're hiring extra workers, expanding warehouses and adding extra assembly shifts.
"Every time there'd be a new recall this summer, we'd get a huge new order," Evanoff said as she watched contract manufacturers stuffing neon-colored copters, rubber bands and wooden sticks into plastic packages. "We didn't stop all summer long."
Experts say the boutique American toy boom won't last beyond the recalls, which started this summer. So far, more than 21 million toys made in China — from Baby Einstein Discover & Play Color Blocks from Kids II Inc., to Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway by RC2 Corp. — have been found to contain excessive levels of lead paint, tiny magnets that could be swallowed or other potentially serious problems.
Retailers such as FAO Schwartz Inc. and Toys "R" Us Inc. downplay the recalls, saying they aren't likely to dent holiday sales or significantly change their orders. About 80 percent of toys sold in the United States are made in China.
Executives at Mattel Inc. — which has had 20 million toys recalled — are touting improved manufacturing standards. Safety experts say American toys aren't necessarily safer than those made in China; Europe has the highest standards, but even there quality varies from factory to factory.
Experts say even if Americans produce several hundred thousand more U.S.-made Little Tykes, K'Nex or Rainbow Creatures, China will retain manufacturing dominance in the $22.3 billion toy industry.
"It's a blip," said New York-based toy consultant Chris Byrne. "In the fourth quarter, a lot of purchases are made based on supplications to the North Pole — and the phrase 'country of origin' isn't in the vocabulary of children writing to Santa."
But boutique toy makers are thankful for any advantage, however ephemeral. They've been unable to compete against low-cost manufacturers on mass-produced items, often settling for niche markets with limited potential — organic-fabric dolls, wooden animals, special-educational toys. Now they're enlarging their "made in USA" labels, bringing photos of their manufacturing facilities to toy fairs, and placing ads in industry publications.
"The ball is in our court right now," said Mary Jo Meister, sales manager for Lauri Toys Inc., which sells soft puzzles and other educational toys built in Smethport, Penn. Orders over the summer were up 30 percent from last year. To meet anticipated demand in October and November — peak months as retailers stock up — the 50-employee company added a midnight shift.
"We've had so many phone calls from moms and grandmas who think this is really serious and say they'll never buy a toy made in China," Meister said. "Next year at this time — when an awesome new battery-operated toy comes out and it's made in China — will people say no way? It just depends on the mood of the consumer."
Maple Landmark Inc., which makes toys in Middlebury, Vt., says direct sales are five times more than a year ago, and overall annualized sales are up 70 percent. The 36-person company, which shipped about 1 million items last year and sells toys from 50 cents to $50, hired 10 additional full-time workers this year. Orders for one popular train set are delayed by two weeks.
"In the past two months, everything's changed for us — we are running flat out," said Mike Rainville, 44, president of Maple Landmark, which he founded in high school 28 years ago. "It's been a roller coaster in recent years because of foreign competition, and this helps put us back in a better place."
Mark Carson, president and co-founder of Fat Brain Toys Inc., said the 25-person company would hire 125 seasonal workers this year. The 5-year-old business builds its own line of Dado building blocks in Elkhorn, Neb., and earlier this year it tripled the size of its warehouse.
"A lot of retailers told us we were crazy for having a toy manufactured here," Carson said. "We had to have everything perfect — perfectly manufactured and perfectly safe — and the only way to do that was to keep everything close to home."
Tiny mom-and-pop businesses say the boom is a mixed blessing. They're furiously building cradles and rocking horses, pushing their old-school jigsaws, auger bits and miter boxes to their limits. Their spouses are taking phone and online orders at all hours.
"I get calls from people who are absolutely panic driven," said Ron Voake, 62, owner and sole employee of Vermont Wooden Toys. Voake hand-makes wooden trains, arks, animals, ferry boats and other toys. Prices can exceed $175 for large models, which he builds by hand in the basement workshop of his Norwich, Vt., home. Orders are nearly double what they were a year ago, and Voake — who cranks out less than 200 toys a year — can't keep up.
"Usually I have the summer to stock up for Christmas, but I'm already behind," said Voake, a former middle school teacher who began making toys 30 years ago. "This is actually an aggravation — we are so busy here, and it's just me and the dogs. I don't have any help."
Abby Reyes, a 34-year-old San Francisco resident, appreciates their labors. While attending a country fair last weekend in Waterford, Va., the environmental and social justice lawyer purchased a $20 rattle and a $12 wooden acrobat toy for her 5-month-old son, Kiran.
Plastic, Chinese-made equivalents would have been a fraction of the price, but Reyes was happy to pay — in part because she met the makers, Don and Dawn Shurlow, owners of Rhodes, Mich.-based Toys From Times Past. She hopes the recalls get other parents thinking about the potential consequences of their purchases.
"The question isn't whether I'd shell out a bit more for these well crafted toys rather than going the cheap and easy way," Reyes said. "The question is whether I'd feel queasy about going the cheap route, and the answer is unequivocally yes."
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