Made in America: Luke’s Toy Factory
In 2007, when Jim Barber learned that nearly two million Thomas the Tank Engine toys had been recalled because the Chinese factories that made them had used lead paint, he went down to the basement of his Connecticut home to examine some of his children’s old playthings. As a boy, his son Luke had been obsessed with trains. “Sure enough, the ones that my kids had were the ones that were recalled,” he says.
The Thomas the Tank Engine announcement was only one of several high-profile recalls in 2007 by U.S. toy companies manufacturing in China, where standards and oversight can be thin, and sometimes nonexistent. Shocked parents who scrambled to find toys bearing a “Made in USA” label discovered limited choices. Even today, a decade later, China continues to manufacture roughly 85 percent of the toys sold in the United States.
Like many parents, Jim Barber was angry. You’d think, he says, that “on a toy with that amount of sales, someone in the company would have asked, ‘What kind of paint is on these toys?’ Especially because kids put things in their mouths.” He thought, “Let’s see if we can do better.”
A few years later, together with his now adult son Luke, he founded Luke’s Toy Factory, which manufactures and sells trucks for children ages 3 and up. Jim put up some of the money he’d saved for retirement to get the company off the ground, and raised $15,000 on Kickstarter. After two years of research and development, Luke’s Toy Factory went to market in June 2015 with its first truck, a red fire engine.
The trucks are intended for kids who are “outgrowing baby toys but not ready for Legos,” Barber says. Designed to encourage imaginative play and hand-eye coordination, their components can be reconfigured and interchanged with parts from other vehicles. In addition to the fire truck, the company sells a dump truck, a cargo truck, and a tipper truck.
All the components in the trucks are sourced from within the U.S. and painstakingly designed with safety top of mind. Food-grade colors are molded into the material, so there’s no paint to flake off into young mouths. They’re also partially made from recycled wood, specifically a wood-plastic composite that is 30 percent maple sawdust, made by a Michigan company that recovers wood waste from American furniture and window manufacturers. The next frontier is toys that are 100 percent recycled, and the company is currently experimenting with a material made with a flax by-product. “It gives you a selling point,” says Barber of his company’s eco-friendly identity as upcyclers. “And it’s a selling point that we personally agree with.”
Only a handful of American companies manufacture sustainably sourced toy vehicles. But Barber says that as the technology becomes more sophisticated and demand grows, so will companies like his. “We’ve proven you can make toys in the U.S.A., and make them safely and sustainably,” says Barber.
A survey recently conducted by Boston Consulting Group found that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products made in the United States, specifically, up to 63 percent more for a toy stamped “Made in USA” versus an identical one with a “Made in China” label. “Price is still king” when parents shop for toys, says Barber, but survey results like these illustrate a growing awareness of the value of American-made products.
The fact that Luke’s trucks are already carried in more than 200 toy stores nationwide shows there’s a growing demand for toys that come from a trusted source. Kimberly Ramsey, owner of The Toy Room in Bethel, Connecticut—who was one of the first to stock Luke’s trucks—says her customers are young parents interested in toys that are educational, eco-friendly, and safe. “It’s also something different,” she says, “like a little truck puzzle in a box.”
The impact the company has on the local economy reaches beyond the industrial loft the company rents in Danbury, where the Barbers work with another father-son team: Mitch and Evan Achiron, who oversee the company’s graphic design needs and public relations, respectively. The truck components are produced at an injection molding plant in nearby Southington, Connecticut. Barber estimates that 40 people are involved, start to finish, in manufacturing each truck, including everyone handling the design, packaging, and shipping.
It’s a pretty efficient operation. Still, every step of the manufacturing process could be done for less in China. The result is a sticker price on a Luke’s truck that can seem costly. The CAT Tough Tracks dump truck, for instance, which is manufactured for Toy State in Shenzhen, China, retails for $4.99 at Toys “R” Us; a Luke’s truck sells for $22.95.
The challenge for Luke’s? To turn that pride in being high-quality, safe, and eco-friendly into a brand—and to reach others with those same values.