Just as the coronavirus pandemic struck, Ryan Hamilton, head of operations at Plus-Plus USA, was about to move his family to Denmark. Hamilton was looking to reinvent the wheel — or, at least, incorporate new rolling components into toys he designs here as head of product development for the Danish parent company, Plus-Plus, which manufactures the toys there and distributes from Greenville.
But COVID-19 slammed the brakes on Hamilton’s relocation, so instead, he steered help toward a farm-to-market charity working to boost food help during the crisis by offering the company’s 9,000 square feet of unused warehouse space off Rutherford Road to help out.
“They [Plus-Plus] donated the extra space they had to help us feed families,” says Dan Weidenbenner, executive director of Greenville’s Mill Community Ministries and Mill Village Farms. “And it’s more critical than ever because we’ve ramped up operations.”
On a recent Tuesday in the Plus-Plus warehouse, 10 team members from Mill Village Farms packed and distributed 670 boxes of fresh food — some 5 tons — for hard-hit families. Since launching in 2012, Mill Village Farms has delivered 10,000-plus boxes to food-desert communities, Weidenbenner says.
“We’re just super-grateful for Plus-Plus being willing to partner with us,” Weidenbenner says.
Plus-Plus also began contributing toys to the food cartons.
“I think it’s fitting,” Weidenbenner says of the toy donations. “I mean, we’re both here supporting families, especially now. They do amazing toys for kids and keeping kids entertained right now in their homes, and us keeping families fed.”
It’s not just a wheel
Plus-Plus toys have been compared with Legos. The major difference is that the pieces fit together like interlocking parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Children ages 1 and older can fold and bend sheets of them into any 3D shape they can imagine or create simple flat mosaics.
Plus-Plus offers roughly 150 products, some of which include instructions for dinosaurs (of course), a zoo, insects and other themed “builds.” Products are sold primarily in see-through plastic tubes, which can contain up to 240 pieces per tube. Pieces, roughly the size of postage stamps, are shaped like a pair of adjoining plus signs.
As for the new wheels, the company, which continues operations in a country that is beginning to reopen schools, is still planning a June rollout of its latest line, Plus-Plus GO.
“You make merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels and windmills and all kinds of stuff,” Hamilton, the playful toypreneur, says, “but it’s not just a wheel; it’s a whole open-ended building element you can use for all kinds of things.”
Plus-Plus USA has grown more than 400% since starting in 2016. As of February, the company was on pace to record a 35% increase this year, Hamilton says. He’s been traveling to Denmark every two months and he and his wife, Sarah, were planning to look for a new home there for them and their four children in mid-March.
Meantime, Plus-Plus USA, named among South Carolina’s 25 fastest-growing companies, will continue packing and shipping here; most of its 10 employees work remotely now.
One of them, Curtis Potvin, Plus-Plus USA’s creative director, says he wasn’t even aware of Hamilton’s donation to Weidenbenner’s organization.
“I’m not surprised, not surprised at all that Ryan would be doing something like this,” the 23-year-old Bob Jones University graduate says. “He’s an extremely giving man. He’s a family man and he’s always had a giving personality. He doesn’t necessarily always try to portray that at work, but it definitely does shine through.”
Unique toy, unusual retailers
Plus-Plus USA is expanding into such unexpected retailers as Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s (a subsidiary of Bass Pro Shops) and Whole Foods, among others, with Ace Hardware its most recent customer. That’s in part because the small toy is packaged largely in clear-plastic tubes, considerably smaller than the footprint of Legos and other boxed toys.
“A lot of our growth has been in these funny niches in places you don’t think about selling toys,” says Ryan Hamilton, head of operations and product development at Plus-Plus USA and one of Plus-Plus’s owners. “But especially with the evaporation of Toys R Us a couple of years ago, there’s a lot more sort of nontraditional outlets selling toys now.”
Meanwhile, Plus-Plus continues adding product lines, including those designed for STEM education as well as STEAM education, which also comprises science, technology, engineer and math education, but with arts added.
How to help Mill Village Farms
Mill Village Farms seeks to distribute four times more than its usual food donations, adding 500 food boxes each week to “bring urgent relief to our neighbors,” its website says.
“This crisis will require raising an additional $5,000 every week to support those who will find it a challenge to feed their families,” the site says, noting that every $100 donated can fill 10 healthy boxes for a family in need.