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Chicago retailers make a splash in Oscar night gift bags

Michael Frontier Terry Opalek West Loop-based Terry's Toffees.

Michael Frontier and Terry Opalek of West Loop-based Terry's Toffees.

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Updated: February 26, 2014 2:37PM



Only a select few Academy Award nominees take home the gold, but it’s hard to feel bad for the “losers,” who are gifted each year with a lavish consolation prize — the coveted swag bags filled with luxury big-ticket items expensive in worth upwards of $50,000.

Among the dozens of swoon-worthy products set to land on the doorsteps of celebrity nominees the day after the 85th Academy Awards is a gift box filled with couture confections by Chocolatines by Sweet Endeavours, a Schaumburg-based luxury chocolate shop that has been part of the Oscars gift bags for its fourth year in a row.

If freebies like a $12,000 Australian getaway with choice of two fabulous locations and a $5,000 “Vampire Facelift” using Platelet Rich Plasma don’t cure the blues of non-winners, Chocolatines owner Rieko Wada hopes her “koji” sake-infused dark chocolates adorned with a yellow gold or silver sugar diamond will.

Wada, a Japanese-born entrepreneur whose confections have also been included in gift bags at the Granmy Awards, MTV Video Music Awards and the Golden Globes, contributed almost $4,000 in designer chocolates to this year’s bags.

Chocolatines also taps Hollywood’s humanitarian side by supporting the recovery of the 2011 Japan tsunami by using premium sake imported from the northern district of Japan, which was impacted by the tragedy.

For retailers like Chocolatines, landing products in nominee gift bags means penetrating the exclusive celebrity circle, and also is a way to score major marketing points while widening brand recognition.

“[The reaction] has been beyond my expectations,” Wada said. “We are very small and local, but now we are known all over the U.S.”

Jan Lewis Designs bangles, a colorful collection of Fair Trade bracelets, are also on offer.

“I didn’t think it was real,” Lewis said about receiving an email asking her if she wanted her bangles included in the Oscar gift bag. “I was very surprised and when I inquired further and saw it was real I was absolutely thrilled. I’m very new on the scene.”

While she’s new on the jewelry selling scene, she isn’t new on the creative side. Two decades ago, while touring with her husband, jazz musician Ramsey Lewis, Jan Lewis painted the bangles in hotel rooms while her husband performed. A former School of the Art Institute student, Jan Lewis said she wasn’t a trained painter but was intrigued by shapes and patterns. The bangles’ distinctive dot design was born.

“One dot led to another and I ended up with about 50 different and unique designs,” Lewis said.

West Loop confectionery Terry’s Toffee became a staple in the backstage and green room areas of the Oscars nine years ago after founder Terry Opalek called Hollywood production company Paramount on a whim.

He talked to the right person and sent him some toffee. The guy fell in love with it, and the rest is history, said Opalek, who owns Terry’s Toffee with his business and life partner Michael Frontier.

The toffee maker sent 15 pounds of toffee treats (about 120) boxes for Oscar night consumption.

“At this point people in Hollywood are well-addicted to our toffee,” Opalek said. “They seem to anticipate it every year — last year they told me Morgan Freeman couldn’t stop eating it and he had spilled it all over himself.”

Samuel Jackson, Jennifer Garner and Salma Hayek are also known Terry’s Toffee addicts, Opalek said.

But getting backstage or into the Oscars gift bags isn’t always as simple as making a phone call.

Before any product or service makes it into the bags, it must first get through Los Angeles-based marketing firm Distinctive Assets.

For the past 14 years, Distinctive Assets founder Lash Fary and his team weed through offers from hundreds of companies hoping to be a part of the big night before choosing a final selection of what he says are the most interesting and eclectic products.

So it’s not always the items with the highest price tags that are selected.

This year’s bags — valued at $45,000 each — include pricey offerings like a trendy at-home water filtration system for $800 and personal VIP service for life at London’s Heathrow Airport valued at $1,800, but also included is a bottle of $3.99 Windex Touch-Up cleaner.

“Celebrities don’t really live their lives based on what something costs, so we actively seek things that will enhance their lives, simplify their shopping experience or provide a fabulous escape from their hectic schedules,” Fary said.

In addition to the cost of the donated swag, companies are also charged a $4,000 placement fee to be part of the gift bags, a nominal cost compared to the backstage onsite gift lounge, which starts at $25,000.

“There is no better brand ambassador than a celebrity,” Fary said. “The potential press and social media leverage that can be gained by participating in an event like the Grammys or Oscars is huge … it can truly catapult a brand into the limelight and make a huge difference at the retail counter.”

Natalie Hayes is a local free-lance writer. Kara Spak contributed to this story.



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