May 23, 2023
Steve Glew was a Michigan machinist. A job he hated. Hated. But he loved his wife, a ’60s “flower child.” And his hobby, collecting old cereal boxes, which he found really cool. Glew was not your normal average Joe (or Steve). Maybe a little obsessive-compulsive.
Searching for boxes led him to big stashes whose boxtops he could mail in for premiums, mostly little toys, to sell at toy shows, helping ameliorate his family’s poverty. Until the cereal companies adopted “one per family” strictures.
But meantime Glew’s toy show peregrinations clued him to the huge Pez subculture. Pez was a popular candy sold in little hand-held plastic dispensers with varied colorful evocative designs — avidly sought by fanatical collectors. Glew smelled opportunity.
This story unfolded in a 2022 Netflix documentary we stumbled upon, The Pez Outlaw. That was what Glew eventually dubbed himself. The film was a hoot.
Glew got a tip that there was a factory somewhere in Europe where you could get Pez in quantity. Might as well have been Mars, given Glew’s impoverished insularity and psychological challenges. Yet he actually managed to scrape up the money and gumption to go, with his grown son along to help. Didn’t even know where the factory was! (Slovenia!) But somehow found it, connected with the guy in charge, and came back with sackfuls of “product.” Costing him pennies, some would go for hundreds or even more in the hot U.S. collector market.
Getting them through customs was dicey. Not exactly contraband, but not exactly legit either. I frankly didn’t understand this. If Glew did get the goods “under the table” somehow, so what? What business was that of the government? (I’m a free trade libertarian.) Anyhow, it developed that the Pez company had dropped the ball on trademark paperwork, or something, leaving the officious customs guys with no leg to stand on against Glew.
So, with repeated trips to that factory, he started making money in bushels. Happily kissed his machinist job goodbye.
Meantime the Pez company — mainly its “Pezident” Scott McWhinnie, the film’s villain — saw what was going on, was infuriated, and tried to thwart Glew. Thus the “Pez Outlaw” monicker. I found the company’s attitude hilariously baffling. Here its products were so loved by collectors they willingly paid extravagant prices. And this was seen as a problem? Couldn’t Pez come up with a strategy to exploit this phenomenon for its own benefit and profit? But no. Pure dog-in-the-mangerism.
What McWhinnie and company did manage to do was to cut off the spigot for Glew’s supply. Ending that lucrative huckle. Indeed, that factory ultimately stopped making Pez altogether.
But Glew, undaunted, came up with an alternate business plan. A personally designed suite of snazzy jazzy new Pez designs, whose manufacture he contracted. Costing him way more than those from Slovenia — five bucks apiece — but he figured to sell them at $25. Investing half a million, almost all he had.
With what Glew was doing before, I had no ethical qualm. If he could source stuff collectors would pay more for, good for him. (That basically describes my own business.) But now he was ripping off Pez’s brand. Very different.
And when he went to his first convention to debut his product line, the Pez company was there waiting for him. They ripped him off — copied his designs — and priced them at only $1.99.
That was the end of the Pez Outlaw. And of Glew the rich guy. A sad scene showed him dumping his now nearly worthless stock into a ditch and setting fire to it.
That was 1995. Since then he’s been a farmer, and been licking his wounds, trying to process what happened. He eventually showed up again on the Pez collector circuit, where he’s still something of a celebrity.
Through it all, his devoted wife stood by him. A real love story.