<strong>Brian Ash showcases The Drain Strainer, a product he developed while working in the restaurant industry. He markets the product line to cafeterias, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools and other commercial food-service establishments.</strong><hr />
Brian Ash showcases The Drain Strainer, a product he developed while working in the restaurant industry. He markets the product line to cafeterias, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools and other commercial food-service establishments.
Most entrepreneurs don’t think of kitchen waste when brainstorming about new business ideas, but for Brian Ash, the messy stuff has proven to be a profitable venture.

Two years ago, Ash developed The Drain Strainer for restaurants and other commercial food-service companies to avoid clogged grease traps.

Ash didn’t start out in the restaurant industry. He began his career writing flight software for the F/A-18 fighter jet at Boeing in St. Louis. In 1994, he moved to Columbia and opened Bambino’s Italian Café with childhood friend Andy Faucett. The café eventually expanded to include locations in Lawrence, Kan., and Springfield.

As owner and general manager of Bambino’s, Ash kept the books, and managed the staff and advertising campaigns. “I did everything except the cooking,” he says. “That I left to Andy.”

Inspiration in a dirty sink
Working in his restaurants spurred Ash’s entrepreneurial creativity. He noticed that food waste routinely washed down the sinks tended to clog up grease traps, resulting in costly plumbing bills. Noticing that the catch tray under his commercial dishwasher acted like a sieve – capturing the solid waste but allowing the water to flow through – Ash thought the concept could be transferred to his sinks. He asked his handyman to build a prototype out of spare dish machine parts for filtering his restaurant’s sinks, and The Drain Strainer was born.

“Our drain system catches all that food, which can either be thrown away or saved for composting,” Ash says. “After installing the prototype, we never had another problem. I joked at the time that someone could make a million dollars selling these kitchen waste trap strainers.”

Soon after coming up with the idea and prototype, Ash sold his restaurant and moved back to his hometown of Springfield to start The Drain Strainer LLC. He figured that restaurants would like to have a sink-waste separator as an alternative to commercial garbage disposals.

Some municipalities, including several in California, already have banned commercial garbage disposals because of ground food jamming up sewer systems.

Commercial garbage disposals run on electricity and use a lot of water. The Drain Strainer doesn’t need either to keep food and other waste out of the water and sewage system.

Ash tried other methods like in-sink mesh strainers before coming up with The Drain Strainer. Those screens are typically placed inside the sink, where they not only capture the food solids, but also unfortunately prevent water from draining out of the sinks. This can frustrate dish-room employees, which can lead to them bypassing those types of systems – thus allowing food waste to potentially clog grease traps.

“Brian has always been kind of a persistent and creative problem-solver,” says Faucett, the owner of Bambino’s in Springfield and son of Nonna’s Italian restaurant founder Mary Faucett. “He couldn’t find what he was looking for, so he kept at it until he figured out a solution on his own.”

Avoiding employee frustration was one of the reasons that drew Alec Sabina, owner of The Hot Suppa! in Portland, Maine, to The Drain Strainer. “Our dishwashers were having to stop and clean off our in-sink strainer all the time,” says Sabina, who installed a Mini Drain Strainer in his soil table sink six months ago. “It’s made the work for our dishwashers much better. If Brian hadn’t come up with The Drain Strainer, I probably would have invented it myself.”

The nuts and bolts
Ash spent around $5,000 to begin promoting his product to other restaurateurs. In spring 2010, he came up with the name and began selling three versions – The Drain Strainer, The Drain Strainer XL and The Mini Drain Strainer. He markets the sink solid separator to cafeterias, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools and other commercial food-service establishments. The Drain Strainer XL has become the company’s bestseller. The patented products retail between $375 and $550.

Ash runs the home-based business through TheDrainStrainer.com, and he is constantly looking for ways to market his products. “I am mostly focused on search engine optimization techniques, so whenever people search online for solutions to the drain problems they are having in their restaurant, my Web site will show up as a potential solution,” he says.

As with many startups, the early days were slow going. Drain Strainer sales netted less than $100,000 in 2011, but operations are profitable, Ash says. “It’s still not where I’d like it to be, because not enough people realize I exist yet. But once they find me, I hear ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for,’” he says, noting he’s targeting six figures in 2012 sales.

Once an order is placed on the Web site, the Drain Strainer product is shipped out of a warehouse in Santa Ana, Calif. Ash says he averages 25 orders per month, and he sells to a couple hundred clients, including Culver’s in St. Charles; Radiant Plumbing in Austin, Texas; Oklahoma University in Norman, Okla.; and The Grill on Broadway in Seattle.

One thing leads to another
Among the things Ash has learned in his journey include how important SEO is to the success of a Web-based business. “I initially just focused on building my Web site and didn’t worry enough about the SEO aspect in the beginning,” he says.

While promoting The Drain Strainer, Ash implemented what he learned into a separate business, Calibrate Marketing, which launched in January. “I’ve learned that SEO isn’t just for the major corporations. The mom-and-pop businesses can and should be focused on their local search marketing results to bring them more customers,” he says. “It isn’t that difficult and doesn’t have to be that expensive. They just need someone who knows what they’re doing to help lead the way.”

With Calibrate Marketing, Ash focuses on core online marketing initiatives that include local search marketing, and Web site and logo development.

“Now that everyone is online, the first thing we do whenever we’re trying to decide where to eat dinner or which plumber to hire is to enter search terms in Google. If your business is not showing up in local search results, then out of sight is out of mind,” he explains. “Google has become our modern day Yellow Pages, and your customers are using their smart-phone or laptop to search online whenever they are ready to buy something or hire someone.”