What started as a Southport couple’s chilly dinner out in Portland in September has become a steadily growing business venture with customers in 15 states, plans to create a line of heated outdoor furniture and new (sort of) professional titles for Colin Greig and Jocelyn Olsen, Hüga’s president of back-end operations and cheek executive officer.
“We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously,” Olsen said about the titles.
Greig and Olsen designed a heated cushion for seated outdoor activities, primarily capitalizing on people’s desire last winter to continue dining out during the pandemic, when many restaurant and tasting room customers were unwilling, or able, to eat inside. By keeping customers comfortable, Hüga cushions also helped keep those businesses alive. The business launched in January.
“Before Hüga, we had customers stay for one drink and come back inside shivering,” said Sam Pierce, co-founder of rum distillery and tasting room Three of Strong Spirits in Portland. “Once we starting using the cushions, we had customers start staying for two to three more drinks and still be comfortable outside.”
Restaurants in the dining mecca that is Portland, including Chaval, Tiqa and Little Giant, were some of Hüga’s first customers. “It’s nice for us because it’s very gratifying to feel like we’re making people happy and helping the restaurants to stay open,” Olsen said.
Now, the couple is looking into expanding beyond the restaurant market, with an all-white wedding cushion, the Silver Sparkle, aimed at brides and grooms who marry in Maine without realizing quite how temperamental summer weather may be, Greig said. They’re also exploring how to serve the sitting-around-the-campfire market, and they’re working on a cushion that will fit Adirondack chairs.
Even if fewer restaurants offer outdoor eating next winter, Greig said, he feels confident about Hüga. “We can always count on good old New England being chilly,” he said.
Greig and Olsen got the idea for the business after a dinner outside at Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room in the fall prompted them to try to buy their own heated cushions to take to restaurants when they ate out. All they could find were hunting or stadium cushions that were hard to clean and lasted only a few hours on high. “We started to think that heated cushions made of sanitizable, durable material with a battery powerful enough to keep the cushion hot for a whole restaurant shift could help our favorite spots continue serving outdoors this winter,” Olsen said.
They enlisted the help of a close friend, Kathleen Parr, senior copywriter at Creative Canvas in Boothbay, who offered to sew a few prototype cushions and helped create the design – as well as their punny business titles. As they worked to improve the cushions’ function, Olsen took the sewing into her own hands. “We wanted to make more prototypes to keep tweaking the cushion, so I watched some YouTube videos and taught myself to sew on Colin’s daughter’s sewing machine,” she said.
Once they had a solid design, they tested the product by eating out all over town, including at Eventide and Honey Paw. They were amazed by the difference cushions made in comfortably withstanding the cold.
Soon after, they developed enough prototypes to test out by distributing them to a dozen restaurant customers, including The Boathouse Bistro and Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Boothbay, where they said they received positive feedback from all who used them. “As people left the restaurant, they were handing them to folks at the neighboring tables and saying what a difference it made, so we knew we were onto something,” Olsen said.
After another successful test run one night at Three of Strong Spirits, the distillery put in Hüga’s first official order: 16 cushions customized with the business’s logo. Soon, more orders came in.
Greig and Olsen, who had been sewing and stuffing the cushions themselves, realized they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand. They turned to Flowfold, an outdoor gear company based out of Gorham, that helped hone the design and now makes 100 cushions a week. “This was a step up from Colin rolling out vinyl on our bedroom floor and cutting it by hand,” Olsen said.
Flowfold connected Greig and Olsen to Alfred’s Upholstery in Alfred, which produced another 300 cushions and continues to help manufacture them. Hüga also has received a $25,000 grant from Maine Technology Institute to ramp up production at both Flowfold and Alfred’s. They hired Talley-O Design in Portland to create their logo and build a website.
On the January day that the website launched, they were interviewed by New England Cable News. After the interview aired, they started receiving orders from all over the country and have since gotten them from as far away as Texas, California and Oregon. Basal Pizza in Iowa ordered 10 cushions last winter. “We have a lot of cooler days this time a year in Iowa, so being able to provide an alternative dining option is a competitive advantage,” Tony Eischeid, the restaurant’s owner, said in March. “We have received a lot of positive feedback from our guests.”
Restaurant orders have ranged from 12 to 25 cushions. “We have a deal that we will put the restaurant’s logo on the cushion if they buy more than 20,” Olsen said. They have also seen an uptick in the number of individual customers, who average four to six cushions per order.
Hüga sold 100 cushions in its first month. They doubled their sales in February and, in March, sold 260 cushions. They estimate selling 1,000 by the end of 2021, and in mid-May were well on their way – Grieg said they’ve sold almost 700 so far. Although Hüga has not yet made a profit given the upfront costs to starting a business, they expect that to change soon, “once our supply chain is running smoothly,” Olsen said.
For now, Hüga will remain a side project for the couple. Greig is a realtor with William Raveis and a carpenter who runs his own contracting business, and Olsen works full time for Kasa, a short-term rental startup out of San Francisco. For the foreseeable future, they plan to balance their day jobs and Hüga.
Hüga is now trademarked, and Greig and Olsen are talking to lawyers about patenting their design. In addition to the original navy blue cushion, they now sell the cushions in gray and are working on offering custom designs. They also plan to design a cushion that can go over the top of a chair for back warmth and a line of heated outdoor furniture. Eventually, they’d like to have their own commercial sewing facility and employ Mainers.
Although the sales have slowed down as it’s gotten warmer, Greig and Olsen believe their product will continue to sell into the spring and summer and even after the pandemic because of the unpredictability of Maine weather and because customers have said they plan to continue using them.
“There’s nothing worse than heading out to a favorite restaurant, excited to enjoy a meal on the patio, only to have the temperature drop mid-meal,” Olsen said. “Think of Hüga as your insurance policy against the cold.”
Food editor Peggy Grodinsky contributed to this story.