Two Dartmouth engineering students, Krystyna Miles and Shinri Kamei, were blowing off some steam last year by going out for dinner and drinks. In a casual conversation with their server they discovered an interesting fact: the trusty serving tray that we have used since, well, drinks have existed, has major design flaws.
For one thing, serving trays force you to awkwardly contort your hand backwards, putting way too much pressure on the nerves in your wrist. “It turns out that all the waiters at that restaurant had tendonitis from carrying trays,” says Miles. “They were just waiting for carpal tunnel syndrome to set in.”
Then, there’s the fact that tall, heavy glasses are prone to toppling over and shattering because trays are unstable. But Miles and Kamei happened to be enrolled in a product design course, so they immediately started thinking of possible solutions to the problem. They played around with a ton of different prototypes and brought them to restaurants to see what waiters thought. Eventually, they came up with a winning design which they called Tray Bien. (Cute, no?) It is a simple round slab with holes that fit glasses and a handle, so users can grip it firmly with their hands. It is made of a light material that can withstand the industrial dishwashers that restaurants use.
“We wanted to make the tray as simple as possible because the standard black plastic tray is our biggest competitor and the best feature of that tray is that it is so simple,” says Miles. “We knew that we couldn’t create something complicated with moving parts. It needed to be intuitive to use.”
And it turns out, there’s a huge market for an improved wine tray. Shortly after developing their prototype, Miles and Kamei had the opportunity to set up a booth at a major food service supply trade show in Washington, D.C. Their tray was a hit. Everybody wanted to get their hands on one and several companies wanted to license their design on the spot. But the women decided that they would try to find their own way to bring the product to market, so with some initial prize money they had won at a Dartmouth entrepreneurship competition, they worked with a manufacturer to bring their idea to life. Partnering with a food service supplier, the design has already found it’s way to restaurants around the country.
They then launched a Kickstarter to produce a second iteration of Tray Bien, one with a nonslip surface, so that waiters could put additional glasses on top of the tray, in the middle of the wine glass holes. They quickly discovered that consumers were also crazy about the tray, since they quickly got 200% of their Kickstarter goal from people who wanted to pre-order one for home use at a cost of $25. They’ll be ready to ship in March 2015.
Going through this process, Miles and Kamei realized how unusual it was for two women entrepreneurs to be doggedly launching a product for the alcoholic beverage industry. “We’ve been reminded over and over again that there aren’t that many women entrepreneurs out there,” says Kamei. At the Dartmouth entrepreneurship competition, for instance, all the other teams were made up of male students and the judges were all men.
“There is this idea of the stereotypical boy who is interested in startups and we defy that image,” she says. “We never expected to end up launching a product like this, but now that we have, it has changed our lives. Both of us are excited about possibly pursuing careers as entrepreneurs after college.”