By Rae Wagoner
Crayon Rocks is a cottage industry located in the heart of Hestand’s Amish country. That’s in Monroe County, and while UPS doesn’t have any trouble finding this hidden treasure, it’s a good thing that the ladies behind this niche product have a global distribution network. The 4,000-square-foot office/plant is definitely a destination.
The company was established in 2006 by then-Californian Barbara Lee. Lee, a special education teacher, saw a need to help young children (especially those with developmental disabilities) grow and train their tripod grip muscles so that writing and drawing would be easy and fun. She said that the perfect rock fell into her hand while repotting a plant. It can only be gripped and used with those three important fingers that form the tripod grip: thumb, first, and second. That rock became the pattern for the original Crayon Rocks mold, a version of which is still being used today.
Beyond the grip, Lee knew that the colors had to be rich, vibrant, and easy to apply – that’s where the U.S. grown and processed soy-based wax comes in. Crayon Rocks was born, developed, and improved upon over the years. Eventually, Barbara Lee made her way to Kentucky, and just in the past year, she sold the company to Natasha Browning.
Fortunately for Natasha, longtime Crayon Rockers Jill Port and Suzette Zeoli stayed on through the transition and have no plans to leave. And why would they? Crayon Rocks are an interesting product, and the team spirit between the three was evident. The day we visited, the long “to be shipped” list was neatly placed on the bulletin board, and barrels of Crayon Rocks – ready to be packed – were just waiting for busy hands to put them in bags and boxes.
All Crayon Rocks are made in Hestand, and “all” is a lot more than we ever imagined. Browning said that it works best to make only one color each day and that the custom-built machine affectionately known as Daisy can crank out about 14,000 Crayon Rocks in about six hours, with minimal help from her operator. Before Daisy ever enters the picture, though, Production Manager Suzette Zeoli gets busy. Zeoli said it takes about 8 hours for a pot of wax to reach 161 degrees in the specially-built heater boxes. If 161 sounds very specific, that’s because it is. “Too hot, it’s a mess,” she said. “Too cold? It’s a different kind of mess.”
“We use 2 different kinds of nontoxic soy wax,” Zeoli said, “and we make 32 colors.” The process itself is somewhat mechanized, but still very hands-on. Thankfully, there are lifts and carts on rollers that allow the small staff to manage independently. After the wax heats to the magic 161 degrees, she adds the color, which comes in a highly pigmented powdered dye form.
Once the color is mixed in, it’s on over to Daisy, the one-of-a-kind, patented Crayon Rocks machine. Daisy has 12 molds, and each mold makes 24 Rocks at a time, for a total of 288 Rocks. We did the math, and as best we can figure this small company churned out more than two million Crayon Rocks last year.
Two million! “We are really only limited by our production,” Browning said, “Which we could easily increase. And I have been thinking about some new places I’d like to get our product into. Crayon Rocks are a great gift or souvenir item, they’re good for touristy places like zoos, aquariums, and even garden centers. They don’t take up a large footprint in the store, and they last a really long time.” She’s setting her sights high and has targeted some popular chain businesses that are located just off of major interstate highways.
If you can’t find them in a store near you, Crayon Rocks are available at retail price (plus shipping) from the website https://www.crayonrocks.com/ or through Amazon (eligible for Prime). They’re sold in packs of eight primary colors, best for the youngest learners, because not only do they work on that all-important tripod grip, but also for learning basic color names. The 16-pack includes primary colors plus pastels, which is best for early elementary school children who are learning the color wheel.
The 24-pack includes primary colors, pastels, and warm neutral colors for all-purpose creating, while the 32-pack includes all of the above plus what they call “People Pebbles,” chosen for their suitability as skin, eye, and hair color. Teachers and occupational therapists are drawn to “Just Rocks in a Box,” which features 4 each of the 16 primary colors plus pastels.
Though direct retail sales are growing, the real revenue source is wholesale orders. Crayon Rocks are available with custom labels, so if a destination like a zoo or an amusement park wanted to custom label an order of Rocks with their information, that’s absolutely possible.
While domestic wholesale orders are going strong, we were surprised (and delighted) to hear that Crayon Rocks are sold wholesale internationally as well. There’s a world map in the office, and it has a pushpin everywhere this clever invention is sold. We saw outlets in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, and numerous areas in Asia.
Not bad for a shop off the beaten path in Hestand, Kentucky.