If you look at the sign for ICUP, based on Pennington Road in Trenton, you might pronounce it to rhyme with hiccup and pass right on by. But if you read the initials I.C.U.P., you might blink and wonder, is this a double entendre? And the answer would be yes.
In 1997 Steven B. Trachtenberg took his diploma from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and decided he could make money with the kinds of double entendre quips that can be classified as locker room humor. Among the novelty gift and apparel products that ICUP wholesales to adult bookstores and gift shops are shirts with crass but clever slogans. The other product lines also target men from the age of 18 to 30. "Sex, drugs, and rock & roll, that’s what we’re about," says Trachtenberg in a telephone interview.
Trachtenberg employs 15 people on Pennington Avenue; he has the products designed in-house and manufactured domestically and overseas. For seven years he ran his firm under the radar of public notice but recently he was the center of a media storm when he began to sell hemp flavored lollipops, dubbed Pot Suckers. The $2 lollipops contained no active marijuana ingredient, only hemp oil, but were advertised with the slogan "tastes like the real deal."
Hemp lollipops caught the attention of watch dog groups (such as the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America) and legislators. Reporters, ranging from newspapers in the Carolinas to USA Today, began to call for interviews.
Now ICUP has voluntarily suspended marketing and distribution of the product. "It makes up a very small portion of what our company is about," says Trachtenberg. "We are more than lollipops."
ICUP’s "Stonerware" line also includes clothing, glassware, pot-leaf molds for ice cubes, a chess set, games, puzzles, and cards. ICUP is a licensee for other products, such as rock and roll merchandise for AC/DC and Pink Floyd, and it will soon come up with Rolling Stones bar ware and house wares. Of the 100 items in the catalog, 40 percent are manufactured in China, the rest domestically.
"I definitely believe there has been no wrong doing, but this had gotten completely out of hand," says Trachtenberg. He professes not to understand why the watch dog groups and the legislators did not call him directly. Could it be because they were using the lollipops as a rallying point around which to raise money and support? No comment, says Trachtenberg.
"In my opinion, we were doing the right thing with the product, distributing to stores that are not child friendly. Adult video stores are our market – head shops, smoke shops, tobacco shops," he says. One store at Quakerbridge Mall, Spencer’s, carries some of his line. "It’s up to parents to police their kids."
But as his Wharton instructors must have warned him, what happens to your competitor is your problem too. His competitors were distributing hemp pops to convenience stores and gas stations, yet the media most often focused on Trachtenberg’s candy. "I think we know how to put an item on the map, and that is the reason for all the attention," he says.
Trachtenberg says his well-rounded education from Wharton gave him a background for the real world. "Having dabbled in everything from accounting to statistics to business law, though on a superficial level, it gave enough knowledge for guidance," he says.
He admits that, with his long hair and aversion to number crunching, he was not the typical Wharton student. He and his older brother grew up in York, Pennsylvania, where both parents were in the medical field. One of his mother’s favorite sayings was, "To each his own," and even as a teenager he learned to be comfortable with a persona that was different from most in his conservative community.
"But my Dad used to say ‘you can make more money with your brains than with your brawn,’ and I was a straight A student," he says. "I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and always wanted to go to Wharton. I used to dabble in the stock market."
He met his future wife in high school, and he majored in entrepreneurial management and marketing at Wharton. "My fellow classmates were interviewing with Goldman Sachs and blue chip corporations and I decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t go on one interview," he says. Other classmates who were entrepreneurs were starting dotcoms. "I guess I couldn’t think of a dotcom idea that hadn’t already been done."
Trachtenberg declines to give sales figures or any other statistic to prove his success other than staff size and longevity: "I made it past the first five years, and we’re on year seven now."
Trenton’s loss will soon be Bucks County’s gain. The Bucks County Economic Development Corporation has sponsored Trachtenberg’s $432,996 low-interest PIDA loan to buy a 26,870-square-foot facility warehouse at 1135 Cedar Avenue, Croydon Industrial Park, Croydon, PA 19121. ICUP plans to move from there with from 12 to 21 workers by the end of this year.
Said Dennis Yablonsky, Pennsylvania’s secretary of community and economic development: "The PIDA program is an invaluable economic development tool that helps strengthen our communities and our economy by creating and retaining good-paying, family-sustaining jobs."
Aside for the recent media firestorm, Trachtenberg says his business challenges include hiring the right people. "It is hard to balance a fun-natured company, to hire people who are mature enough to handle the subject matter, yet apply their smarts to it. All of our ideas are conjured up from within the company. We have a sales team and do a dozen trade shows a year."
For some trade shows Trachtenberg’s items are not allowed to be seen outside his booth. In one recent show at New York’s Jacob Javitz center, the wearer of one ICUP tee-shirt was required to stick a piece of tape over an offending word.
Does Trachtenberg do witchcraft products? "No, because witchcraft has more of a female demographic. I also feel I have to like something for it to reflect my company. We do just sex, drugs, and rock & roll."