Dan Martino likes to talk to strangers. In elevators, at crosswalks, at grocery checkout counters, his standard opener is, "Hey, pal, how's it going?" He figures that must have been the first sentence he uttered to Arthur Gil a year and a half ago.
It was a routine beginning to a partnership that would prove anything but ordinary. That much was clear to any passer-by, and there must have been many who stopped for a second look at the two men: Gil, who stands 3 1/2 feet tall, and Martino, a six-footer who weighs over 400 pounds.
That first encounter took place on the sidewalk in the downtown Los Angeles garment district, and each realized immediately why the other was there. Gil was looking for bargains on boys' wear. As for Martino, "It isn't easy to find clothes when you need 67-inch-waist pants."
The big man and the little man soon discovered that they had something in common aside from their hard-to-fit frames. Martino had owned a candy store and distributed confections for 11 years. Gil had a powerful sweet tooth, a hankering to learn the business and an idea.
Seemed Oddly Matched
In a world designed to others' specifications, the pair seemed oddly matched. And so they launched a venture that they hope will make the partners a pile of money, and, in the process, offer an example of success to those who let their physical stature set them apart.
The company, which they started along with another friend, Wendy Wagner (who is of average size) is the World's Smallest Candy Co. The diminutive does not describe the operation but the merchandise: miniature jawbreakers, gummi candies, French burnt peanuts and licorice pastels, all about one-quarter the usual size.
"I wanted something I could handle with my small hand," Gil said. "I was tired of big things."
In its first year, which ended in July, the company took in $500,000, selling 5,000 pounds of mini-jawbreakers a month. During the last three months, the products took off.
Their manufacturer said that the company is moving 50,000 to 75,000 pounds of jawbreakers each week. Disneyland is stocking the stuff, as is Macy's in its Texas department stores.
Now Gil has decided to be the pitchman for his little
candies. He goes on tour this month, a living gimmick, at shops and gift shows from coast to coast.
Along with his wispy blond, shoulder-length hair and the discreet hoop hanging from his left ear, he'll wear a set of royal blue tails, a white tuxedo shirt and a purple cummerbund and clip-on bow tie. "I had the outfit custom made," he said.
Gil moved to Lakewood at age 18, after a New Orleans childhood filled with playmates' taunts and, later, rejection from even the shortest girls. He had learned to salve those emotional wounds with chewing gum and jawbreakers, along with the mints and fruit slices set out in abundance at his grandmother's. His sugar habit grew to the point that he regularly washed down M & M's with Coca-Cola. "They taste so good together," he said, even now, at 27.
After stints as a computer operator and a sometime actor ("I had small parts," he said, laughing, pun intended), he desperately wanted to strike out on his own as an entrepreneur.
He was tired of insisting to job interviewers that he would bring a stool to reach items on office shelves. He was tired of explaining to those who didn't know better that, yes, he could talk and, yes, he was smart.
"I wanted to prove that I could do it, even though I'm 3 1/2 feet tall," he said. "You can be a little man and be successful. I use my size for something positive."
When he thought about what field to go into, "candy was my first and only alternative."
His chance meeting with Martino, 35, made the fantasy come true. The big man and Wagner saw potential in Gil's notion of a mini-candy line. They contributed their experience and $25,000 apiece. Then they lined up manufacturers for the products.
At their brick warehouse, surrounded by the concrete and corrugated metal of industrial eastern Los Angeles, Gil dreams up new products (mini-malted milk balls, for example) and tastes the prototypes. Martino manages the flow of candy from manufacturers to retail outlets, while Wagner handles the accounting.
Wants to Offer More
Someday, Gil and Martino would like to hire other people like themselves. "I have a lot of little-people friends," Gil said. "Some of them are doing OK, but I want to offer them more.
"They," he said, meaning most employers, "pay us less."
If the business doesn't meet their expectations, the two men have already reaped a fortune in self-esteem, a commodity that seemed in short supply before they met.
"I was shy before," Gil said. "I'm getting confident."
"It's nice to be around positive people," Martino said, "where it's a positive flow."