James Kabler of Virginia Beach bet on what some merchants thought was a white elephant -- and won.

The white elephant was a Japanese ice cream maker, called the Donvier, that K mart Corp. had tried to sell for two years before giving up on the product.

Three years ago, K mart sold what was left of its stock of 30,000 hard-to-sell Donviers to Kabler. Those machines helped Kabler breathe life into a product that had been largely unsuccessful in this country.

His company, Nikkal Inc., which has its roots in tidewater Virginia, expects to sell 1.5 million units this year.

In the Washington area, the machine has sold briskly. Elaine Clifton, assistant manager at Kitchen Bazaar in Washington, said the Donvier is one of the store's hottest-selling items. Williams-Sonoma, one of the country's largest kitchen products retailers, has sold more than 16,000 units in six months, and its officials said the Donvier is its second-biggest-selling item ever. The chain's two Washington-area stores have sold between 150 and 200 of the ice cream makers each and have been sold out for three weeks, according to regional manager Sharon Long. Williams-Sonoma plans to carry the Deluxe Donvier in its January catalogue.

Kabler says that since the product officially came on the market last May Nikkal has sold 500,000 units. Part of the success of the Donvier -- which is made in Japan and sells here for $30 to $40 -- lies in the simplicity of its design. It looks like an ice bucket. After freezing the liner of the bucket for seven hours, you pour in the ingredients, crank the handle a few times and in about 20 minutes you have ice cream -- not frozen rock-hard but definitely ice cream. It requires no ice, no salt, no electricity and a minimum of cranking.

"Donvier" is the transliteration of the Japanese word for "chill-fast," the non-toxic coolant responsible for the product's simplicity. In a traditional ice cream maker, salt is used to lower the freezing temperature of ice to chill the ingredients enough to make ice cream. The chill-fast coolant used in the Donvier retains a much lower temperature, about 7 degrees. This lower temperature reduces the need for cranking and shortens freezing time.

Kabler found the device when Den Fujita, the "Japanese McDonald's king" with hundreds of the fast-food outlets, introduced him to the Donvier inventors at Nippon Light and Metal, the largest aluminum company in Japan.

The invention of the Donvier was an accident, Kabler says. A scientist was developing a chilled sushi tray that could be left out on tables or bars for 10 hours. One day at home, the scientist's 9-year-old son spilled a glass of milk on the device. The milk immediately began to harden. The next step was to make a bowl from the tray materials, add a lid and a crank, and the Donvier was ready for the market.

Nippon Light and Metal successfully sold 3 million units in Japan -- a country that doesn't eat much ice cream. Still, the company's attempts to market the product in the United States failed -- until Kabler got involved.

Kabler, an investment and real-estate counselor whose wife is the daughter of publishing magnate Walter Annenberg, bought the U.S. patent rights to the Donvier and made an initial capital investment of $500,000. Last January, he decided to test market it at Zabar's in New York. Pierre Franey, New York Times food writer, saw the Donvier at Zabar's and described it as "the most ingenious device I've seen in years." Zabar's sold out immediately, and Kabler was "flying the Donvier in from Japan and still couldn't keep it in stock, and it was cold that January and February."

Kabler then tried to sell the Donvier to the makers of Cuisinart -- but the firm wasn't interested. Kabler also took the idea to White Mountain Ice Cream Makers and was rejected again.

Kabler's product took off last May at the International Gourmet Market in San Francisco, where he officially introduced the Donvier. The night before the fair he and his brother David slipped fake mail-a-grams under the doors of "every hotel room in the city." The next day there was a line at their booth a half hour before the market opened. In two days, they received orders for 300,000 units. But Kabler had only a fraction of that number in the United States and had only between 10,000 and 15,000 on order from Japan. Nevertheless, he promised his customers delivery by July 1 and hired 150 regional sales representatives to aid distribution.

Kabler also hired Don Birch to take charge of marketing. This Christmas, the firm spent $750,000 on television ads and held 2,000 in-store demonstrations of the Donvier each Saturday in December. Kabler said the company is investing all the revenue from the Donvier in marketing and product development.

Currently, Nikkal sells pint- and quart-sized ice cream makers. The pint size retails for $30 and the quart for $40. Soon it will come out with a deluxe model that also will serve as an ice bucket, a mug size that will make a single serving and a children's model that will feature the Peanuts characters. It also will be possible to buy additional liners so you won't have to wait seven hours between batches.

Nikkal also has been selling Donviers in Canada, Europe and Israel. The company sells only the pint size outside the United States, where refrigerator freezers are generally smaller.

James Kabler serves as the chairman and president of the company, a joint venture with Nippon Light and Metal. His brother David left his real-estate company, Kabler and Riggs in Sandbridge, Va., to join the company a year ago. David serves as vice president and runs the day-to-day operation.

In addition to his responsibilities at Nikkal, James Kabler is a director at Seaboard Investment Advisors, a Norfolk investment firm, and three insurance companies. He also has interests in real estate, energy, stocks and entertainment. His entertainment company plans to take a Broadway show to Japan next year at a cost of $10 million. Kabler has been learning Japanese from a private tutor an hour each day in his office. He served as the State Department's assistant chief of protocol from 1974 to 1976.

Nikkal plans to come out with a whole line of food-preparation products and has begun to export glassware, ice cream scoops and pots and pans to Japan. This spring it will introduce the original refrigerated tray Nippon Light and Metal was working on when it came up with the ice cream maker. Nikkal will introduce a new item that Kabler describes as "the food-preparation innovation of next year." The firm plans to display its wares at trade shows in Paris, Milan and Birmingham, England.

Kabler says everyone told him he would be lucky to sell 200,000 Donviers in the United States. This spring he expects to see another major surge of sales as stores across the country demonstrate Donviers at their counters. Kabler joked that recently the company even sold the Donvier to a tribe of Eskimos.