Kenny Kramm stays at work most nights until 10 o'clock. So does his mother; she doesn't want him to be alone.
"I'm here working on the computer, and she's sitting there falling asleep," he said. His tone is slightly hushed, sitting in the back office of the pharmacy where both his parents are scurrying around helping customers. "I feel bad about it. I mean, she's in her sixties. She shouldn't have to work that hard. Sometimes I leave a little earlier than I would, just so she doesn't have to stay. I take the work home with me."
This is the kind of choice most people in business don't think about. No one worries that a boss or co-worker is going to stay at work just to be good company. But even if Kramm feels bad about the arrangement, he doesn't resent it. In a family business, the dynamics are just different, he said.
And were it not for his family, Kenny Kramm would not be running a million-dollar business.
The corporate headquarters for that business, Flavor-x, is unassuming, tucked in every spare corner of the Center Pharmacy that Kramm's father, Harold, has run for 36 years in Northwest Washington. Behind the counter, pharmacists and technicians fill orders for worried parents with ailing children. It is every bit the typical independent pharmacy -- a bit of a relic in the days of Rite Aid and CVS, and comfortingly familiar.
But everywhere else in the pharmacy -- in the office, the hallways, at the counter, in an unfinished room next door -- the business is Flavor-x. The company makes flavorings for children's medicines, so children will actually take their prescriptions. For many parents, it has been a godsend, and as a result, Flavor-x has gotten an enormous boost in the press around the country. Retailers such as Giant Food have also run full-page ads touting the service.
All that attention belies the quaint culture of the company. But it also presents a significant challenge: transitioning from nice little family business to something of a health care hotshot.
Woodie Neiss, the company's chief financial officer -- and Kenny Kramm's brother-in-law -- is charting the growth plan for Flavor-x. Neiss left a big job, and a big salary, at the California software firm Peoplesoft to work for Flavor-x, and he is fired up like a business school graduate at a hot Internet start-up.
"I know this is going to be a huge, huge, multimillion-dollar business," he said, rattling off all the possible applications for flavorings that the company can tap. "As far as the structure of the company? We're working on that."
Neiss is one of seven full-time employees of Flavor-x. Four are related: Kenny; his father, Harold; Kenny's wife, Shelley; and her brother, Woodie. Beyond that, the company has a vice president of sales and two women who put all the mailings and literature together for the 1,500 drugstores the company now counts as customers. Other staffers from the pharmacy help out, as does Kenny's mother. Shelley's 91-year-old grandmother in New Jersey often addresses envelopes -- and Kenny pays for her prescriptions.
"She enjoys the work, and it's a big help to me," Kenny said. "We send people updates for their manuals, and we've found if we print a label, people don't open it. But if it's addressed by hand, they do."
With so many family members involved, there is a common goal at Flavor-x -- helping Kenny and Shelly's younger daughter, Hadley, now 7. Born prematurely, she had a brain hemorrhage when she was 10 days old and suffers from multiple disabilities, including seizures and cerebral palsy. She is the inspiration for Flavor-x.
When Hadley was a baby, her seizure medication tasted so bad she would not take it. As a result, she was constantly in and out of the hospital. So Kenny, who had worked in his parent's pharmacy on Massachusetts Avenue off and on since he was 12, and his father, the pharmacist, started flavoring Hadley's medicine. They found a medical-grade flavoring that masked the intensely nauseating taste of phenobarbital. Hadley never complained again.
"She hasn't been in the hospital since then for noncompliance [with her medicines]," Kenny said. "If people realized what some of these medicines tasted like, they'd realize their children aren't just being difficult."
Kenny and his father began flavoring other people's prescriptions in their pharmacy for a small fee. Then they marketed the service to pediatricians around town. Doctors raved, parents raved, and soon, Flavor-x was a business unto itself.
At first, the Kramms licensed the 31-flavor system only to other independent pharmacies. Harold Kramm thought the product would give an edge to his fellow pharmacists fighting off the onslaught of chain stores. But when the Kramms heard of parents driving hours to find a pharmacy with Flavor-x, they expanded.
Flavor-x now sells to a wide network of supermarket pharmacies and is in various stages of negotiation with nationwide drugstore chains. The Kramms sell a set of 40 flavors, such as chocolate mint and orange creamsicle, for $2,500 (although it can be less for a big chain) and a $500 annual renewal fee. Most pharmacies charge between $3 and $4 to flavor a prescription. Flavor-x also sells flavor kits for veterinary medicines, featuring tastes such as chicken, alfalfa and cantaloupe.
In its fiscal year ending in June, Flavor-x had sales of about $500,000. Neiss estimates the dramatic growth the company has experienced since then, and the pending deals with chain stores, will push the company's revenue to the $6 million-a-year level by next summer.
The company's growth has been fueled more or less by word-of-mouth publicity. But the Kramms and Neiss want to launch a nationwide marketing campaign, and they need to invest in new work space, new workers and more technology if they're going to reach thousands more drugstores. They are trying to raise $2 million from family, friends and professional investors.
Even with the money, building the business beyond this point will not be easy. Neiss, 30, is used to the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, and now, he said, he's trying to convince a conservative group of (mostly) men his father's age that Flavor-x will change the way they do business. "It's much harder than I thought," he said.
If he succeeds, rapid growth will quickly alter the culture of the company, which is so dominated by family and so focused on Hadley. It is a trade-off.
On a Monday morning at Center Pharmacy, Shelley and Hadley visit after an appointment at the pediatrician's. Everyone in the pharmacy knows Hadley, and they stop at her wheelchair to chat -- even the wholesale deliveryman. She is a beautiful little girl with a pixie haircut and a nearly permanent smile. She doesn't say much, but she likes to hold hands. She doesn't let go.
Kenny admits freely that he threw himself into Flavor-x in part to help him cope with his daughter's problems. Now, along with his family and co-workers, he is motivated by what he hopes the business can do to protect Hadley's future. Her medical bills can reach or exceed $100,000 a year.
"It's important that this be successful for Hadley," Kenny said. "Her medical care is always going to be expensive. She'll never live independently."
Shelley strokes her daughter's foot. "The end-all worry," she said, "is what happens when we're no longer here."