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Junk Food for Thought
Va. Couple Give Up Jobs to Cook Up Game That Tests Sweets Savvy

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

People do it all the time. Whether they're stuck in traffic, walking the dog or sitting frozen on the ski lift waiting as the minutes tick by -- they come up with sure-fire ideas that could land them a pot of money. No more commute. No more cubicle. No more working for the Man.

And where do most of those brilliant ideas go? Nowhere.

People sober up, think about the grind of research and cost of attorneys, the work it would take to make that great idea come to life, and then the spark is lost. Along with the millions.

Well, one Alexandria couple decided their idea wasn't going to become another coulda-been.

Monica Ash, 33, and Eric Ash, 34, quit their software jobs and threw their energy into creating a board game. About snack food and sweets. That's right: Moon Pies and Twizzlers and Pop Rocks.

They scoured the Internet for obscure trivia (Did you know it takes 252 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?) and spent weeks hunting the shelves of their grocery stores and 7-Elevens, delving into the mysteries of the junk food that Americans so adore.

And it looks as if they may have found sweet success.

Since its launch in February at the American International Toy Fair in New York, the largest toy show in North America, Eat It! has won praise from gamers and been picked up by such nationwide retailers as Target.com and Toysrus.com, where the game is on back order. Not surprisingly, it's also being sold at places that sell candy and snacks. And the Food Network series "Unwrapped" is doing a feature.

The Ashes said it took a mere five months to sell the first 10,000 copies at $29.99 a pop. Now, based on verbal commitments from retailers, they hope to distribute 325,000 more in the next year, a goal toy industry experts say is lofty.

The Ashes weren't hankering to become inventors. Not even close. The idea for the game was born July 4, 2004, during a family vacation in Florida.

Monica's cousin, Christine Jennings, 34, introduced the idea. She was tired of being beaten at board games by her teenage son. Why, she lamented, don't they make games about snack food?

"Finally, I'd be able to win," she told them.

They laughed but then began summoning up product jingles and the names of their favorite candies from childhood.

Do you remember which candy bar was advertised as "fluffy, not stuffy?"

Anyone? Anyone?

That's 3 Musketeers.

How about this one: This raw ingredient was added to ice cream to create a popular flavor in 1991. You know you know it. Yep, it's cookie dough.

Sure, the concept was funny. Maybe even inspired. But would anyone buy something like that?

Two weeks later, the Ashes called Jennings. They wanted to go for it. The threesome became equal partners.

"Few people take the initiative to follow ideas through to fruition," Eric Ash said. "We decided to do it."

After quitting their sales jobs, the Ashes hunkered down in their separate home offices, making the game their sole vocation: Monica, a certified public accountant, handled the operations, and Eric, sales and marketing.

Although the couple won't disclose their start-up expenses, they said a single prototype cost about $7,500. In October, the Ashes secured branding rights from some of the companies whose products are featured in the game -- Tootsie Roll and Cinnabon among them -- allowing them to feature corporate logos.

Jim Silver, editor in chief of Toy Wishes, a semiannual consumer magazine that focuses on toys and family entertainment, reviews thousands of games each year. Many start-ups never get off the ground. Conversely, if a game is good, a large toy manufacturer will try to acquire it, Silver said.

No matter who develops a game, big company or small, Silver said, the same principles apply. "If it's going to be successful, it has to be a good game and it has to be fun," he said.

Eat It! is strictly trivia, so full of history and nostalgia that it's not recommended for children.

Sure, there are easy questions. Any grade-schooler knows which Hostess snack has a sponge cake outside and cream filling inside. (That would be the Twinkie for you nutrition freaks.)

But can you get this one? "Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey Chocolate Company, was so devoted to his wife that he brought her what every day of their marriage?" A Hershey's Kiss, fresh flowers, a box of chocolates or jewelry?

If you guessed flowers, you're right. And they say chocolate is a substitute for love? Mrs. Hershey probably would have begged to differ.

Monica and Eric Ash met four years ago on the job. As their company's two loudest employees, they gravitated toward each other.

Sitting last week in the family room of the Stonegate townhouse they share with two guinea pigs, they talked excitedly about the game that has reshaped their lives.

"It's been fun to do," said Monica, who is four months pregnant, a condition that has curbed her passion for chocolate, one of five categories in the game. "But you have to run it like any other business."

The game is reminiscent of Trivial Pursuit, which at the height of its popularity sold millions of games a year. Eat It! players go around a board, but rather than acquiring pieces of a pie, they compete for cards that represent the building blocks of a "redefined" food pyramid featuring cookies and candy and ice cream instead of grains and veggies and so forth.

Customers sitting Wednesday night at the bar at Monroe's in Alexandria tried their best to answer questions off the cards, certain they could match wits with a game about snack food.

Bartender Jack Vernon had trouble with this very Washington-centric question:

"In a letter composed by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams in 1785, he wrote, 'the superiority of [fill in the blank], both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America, which it has in Spain.' "

"Tobacco!" Vernon answered with gusto befitting a Jeopardy! contestant. Sadly, he forgot this was a game about food.

The correct answer, according to Eat It!, is hot chocolate.

Okay, so maybe you don't eat snacks or sweets aren't your thing. But if you know what comedic musician wrote these lyrics, perhaps the game and its pop culture allure are for you:

Don't want to argue, I don't want to debate.

Don't want to hear about what kind of food you hate.

You won't get no dessert till you clean off your plate.

So eat it!

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