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Local lunchbox braves dragon's fire

A metal lunchbox was a common accessory for miners and their families in Sudbury. Now these lunchboxes, which have been made in Sudbury for decades, will get national media exposure on CBC television on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.
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Greater Sudbury is known for its metal mines, but also for its metal lunch boxes. Catherine Langin's family business, L. May Metal Fabricators, have over the past 50 years produced one million sturdy lunch boxes for workers across Canada and in some parts of the United States. Photo by Marg Seregelyi.

A metal lunchbox was a common accessory for miners and their families in Sudbury. Now these lunchboxes, which have been made in Sudbury for decades, will get national media exposure on CBC television on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.

Catherine Langin's family business, L. May Metal Fabricators, make lunch boxes.

These unique lunchboxes will be highlighted on CBC TV's Dragons' Den show. The show has entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of business people who have money to invest, and the business connections to help businesses take off. The "Dragons" on the Den include W. Brett Wilson, Kevin O'Leary, Jim Treliving, Robert Herjavec and Arlene Dickenson. If successful, the entrepreneurs can make a deal with the venture capitalists for a share of their business.

L. May Metal Fabricators, located in the Moonlight Avenue area, was started by Langin's late father, Leo, an inventor and Inco miner, in 1957.

“At that time there were no lunchroom facilities underground. My dad wanted a lunch pail strong enough to sit on while he munched on his sandwiches. He had an old black pail that he squashed when he sat on it,” said Langin.

“So he went to work to make a better lunch pail. Fifty years later the business has probably produced a million lunch pails sold all over the country.”

Langin's production is about 3,000 to 5,000 units in the two buildings at her present site. The pails are made with aluminum to keep them light, but have nickel plated hardware such as the handle and latches. She has been a company employee since she was five years old, helping dad scrounge materials from the dump for his equipment with her young friends.

Langin heard about the Dragons' Den show and contacted them about two years ago.

“I always thought my products, lunch pails, belonged on the show. Then I saw an article in the Toronto Star about a woman who appeared on the show with her business, Moxie Trades,” she said.

Langin decided to further investigate.

“I emailed Marissa McTasney owner of Moxie Trades on a Thursday. She said to come to an audition at the CBC building in Toronto on the Saturday. She would introduce me to a producer there. That was early May 2009.”

That lead to her being filmed herself that month. She had help. Brian Vendramin, a Cambrian College professor, was by her side when she pitched the panel.

“Brian was there to answer some of the questions I could not. When you appear in front of the Dragons you have to be able to answer whatever question they ask about your business. They want the hard numbers-number of units sold for example. You have to present yourself well and be articulate.”

Langin is bound by a confidentiality agreement and cannot disclose what happened in her case with the Dragons.

“I hope everyone in Sudbury watches. With so many sold here, I know a lot of people have a lunch box story. After all the latches and handle are nickel plated,” she laughed.

Tough, not pretty

Depending on the size, the lunchboxes range from $40 to $80 for the classic model developed originally by her dad.

“To my dad, they were to be made to be tough, not pretty. But I am changing that now.”

She has developed a new prototype that involves an anodizing process where an electrical charge is applied to the metal.

“It means that various patterns and colours can be embedded into the metal for a distinctive finish. Women who work at blue collar trades could even get a pink lunch box,” she said with a chuckle. Some men have asked for snake skin patterns.

“If you are a fisherman and have caught a very big fish then you could have that embedded into your lunch pail.” Her super sized lunch box could even double as a fishing tackle box, she explained.

Right now the anodizing process adds too much expense to her product. That is why she approached the Dragons to be able to get their capital and connections to ramp up her business from essentially a cottage industry to a full scale operation.

Currently, beside the help of Dan, her husband, she employs three part time people to help assemble the lunch boxes. She is working with the federal IRAP (Industrial Research Assistance Program) to expand her business.

“In my dad's day there was no need to do any marketing. It was all through word of mouth. Now I would like to develop a sales and marketing study.”

L. May lunch boxes are sold at:

  • Soucie Salo, 1300 Lorne Street
  • Superior Safety, 1150 Lorne Street
  • City Surplus, 128 Cedar Street
  • Clarke Phillips, 7 Temperance Street (Copper Cliff)

For more information, phone 524-2721. To learn more about the Dragons Den show visit www.cbc.ca/dragonsden.