By GREGORY ZELLER // A few things inventor Celestina Pugliese has learned since she launched her company in 2010:
- There’s always something to worry about
- Being a registered woman-owned business is huge
- Appearing on television is nerve-wracking but potentially ginormous
- There’s a Four Seasons hotel in Bora Bora
- Rapper Fifty Cent owns his own vodka brand
- It’s really annoying when restaurant servers continuously ask if you’re ready to pay the check
Actually, she knew that last one already, and it’s the main reason Pugliese, a Lynbrook High School and Adelphi University graduate (bachelor’s degree in management and communications), went into business in the first place.
She’s told the story many times: a 2009 dinner date, a check on the table, a persistent server who asked “Can I take that?” over and over – three, four times, the story goes, until he basically just stood there and waited.
The irritating experience set off a lightbulb in Pugliese’s head. What if the little faux-leather folder containing the bill had some kind of indicator to alert the server when the customer was ready to pay? Pugliese was no inventor, but it seemed a simple and elegant solution to a common annoyance.
Simple, elegant and, it turns out, a hit. Less than five years since she incorporated, her Ready Check Glo folders can be found around the world. The inventor estimates over 1,100 clients across the United States, Canada and Mexico, with some European restaurants sprinkled in and even a deal with the Four Seasons Resort in Bora Bora. Pugliese hasn’t been to French Polynesia – not yet – but her bright idea has.
Similar to the check folders found in most restaurants, Pugliese’s product is outfitted with a small window that lights up to alert servers that payment is ready. The window can be customized with the restaurant’s name or any corporate logo, creating a marketing component that makes the invention a winner not only for diners and wait staff, but for restaurateurs and other corporate clients.
The journey to commercial success hasn’t always been smooth. Pugliese admits there’s been plenty of “day-to-day grind” since she commissioned her first prototype – produced by a Midwest engineer she met through small-business resource hub Guru.com, who did it for $400 – and filed for her first patent, which is still pending.
Headlining her entrepreneurial misadventures is a New Jersey-based manufacturer who kept producing defective units. Kind to a fault, Pugliese says “quality control issues” was the reason she switched this summer to a New York-based manufacturer, Matrix Source Industrial Co. of Hartsdale, though privately she recalls a calamity of non-functioning products.
Pugliese has enjoyed much better luck with her printer, Farmingdale-based Infinity Screen and Pad Print, which doubles as Ready Check Glo’s distributor. A very satisfying five-year relationship with Infinity, she noted, is one of the reasons her East Northport enterprise has already shipped about 24,000 customized units to that global client list.
Early customers included W Hotels and Resorts, where Ready Check Glo debuted in 2011, Harrah’s Las Vegas and the Culinary Institute of America. And the list has only grown more impressive. It now includes Nolet Distillery in the Netherlands – distributors of the Ketel One vodka brand – and Curtis James Jackson III, better known as megastar rapper Fifty Cent, who distributes the glowing portfolios to buyers of his Effen vodka brand.
An appearance this March on the Food Network program “Food Fortunes” – a “Shark Tank” knock off for the culinary world – led to a call from Staples Promotional Products, an online offshoot of the office-supply chain that offers customized promotions to a wide range of corporate clients. Anheuser-Busch, one of Staples’ clients, saw the episode and reached out, and Ready Check Glo units featuring light-up Budweiser logos now grace pubs nationwide.
Pugliese has also landed various independent restaurant clients by attending trade shows and networking events, and the entrepreneur admits that even she’s impressed by her product’s rapid rise.
“My success can be measured by the demand of hundreds of restaurant operators who have purchased my product,” she said. “It’s very gratifying, seeing the name out there.”
And the best is yet to come, according to Pugliese, a familiar face at Suffolk County Inventors and Entrepreneur Club meetings. With new federal restaurant-based credit card laws rolling out in October – by this time next year, servers won’t be allowed to walk away with your card, and will have to process credit payments right at your table – Ready Check Glo is working up a 2.0 model that includes a built-in card scanner, as well as a beeper to give servers an audible alert when customers are ready to settle.
“That’s probably going to catapult us,” Pugliese said of the scanner-equipped portfolios, which should be market-ready by 2016. “Credit card companies are already the biggest buyers of check presenters – they give them out as marketing – and this will allow me to license my product directly to the credit card industry.”
Giving clients what they need is one of the biggest small-business lessons Pugliese has learned in her five years. A close second is being certified as a Woman-Owned Business – which Ready Check Glo became in July – a distinction that doesn’t only benefit companies seeking government work.
“A lot of women think they register to be a Woman-Owned Business only to get government and state contracts,” she said. “That’s a total fallacy. All of the Fortune 500 companies, including restaurant companies, support women-owned businesses, and they all have diversified-supplier programs. It really opens up doors.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson she’s learned so far – a shared experience with many daring entrepreneurs – is that “you’re going to make mistakes.”
“There are going to be challenges, whether it’s money or manufacturing or production problems,” Pugliese said. “You just have to learn from them, and you have to keep going.
“Every time I make a sale, it shows me my product is well-received,” she added. “And that’s what keeps me going.”