He’s so GQ: dark jacket over an open-collared shirt, thin beard framing a razor jawline, the mustache above his mouth rarely arcing into a smile. He’s pleasant but serious, much more executive than overgrown man-cub.
But Steve Kuebler is sitting on a buffalo. A stuffed, mechanical, soft-eyed, buffalo. There’s also a bear, a lion, a giraffe, a ram, a moose (or “reindeer, for this time of year,” Kuebler said) and a … ?
“Officially, this is a blue cat,” Kuebler said, pointing to a cartoonish creature. “Officially. But it’s a blue dog sometimes. It’s a gerbil. It’s a Smurf dog sometimes. That one is kind of left up to your imagination.”
This whole flock is rooted in Kuebler’s imagination. With his friend Jason Kobza, the 31-year-old Elma native is the co-founder of Animal Express LLC, which rents motorized animals in shopping malls. They have kiosks locally at Boulevard Mall in Amherst, Eastern Hills Mall in Williamsville and McKinley Mall in Blasdell. (Another company, Animal Riders, offers the same service at the Fashion Outlets in Niagara Falls.) Animal Express also has locations in Massachusetts and Florida.
The company is young. The local operations opened in August at Eastern Hills, October at McKinley and November at the Boulevard, where Kuebler is today. It’s a Wednesday around 3:30 p.m. and things are quiet. The animals are at a standstill – quiet and attentive, as if awaiting instructions from the leader of their, uh, pack. Preston Cofta, a shaggy-haired 20-year-old who is one of Animal Express’ 16 local employees, has been sitting at the kiosk reading a dog-eared copy of the autobiography of Slash from Guns N’ Roses.
But the quiet won’t last. School and work are just letting out. Soon the pack will break up. People will plunk down $7 for 10 minutes, or $12 for 20 minutes. And if they appreciate the how-to-ride coaching they receive from Cofta, they may leave him a tip, too.
“When I got my job, my sister was dying: ‘Oh my God, you’re a loser,’” said Cofta, who was working for $8.85 an hour in a McKinley Mall retail store when Kuebler and Kobza recruited him. Now he earns $10 an hour plus those tips.
“Me and my mom got in a huge fight: ‘You need to grow up and get a real job,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘It is a real job.’ Now she doesn’t say anything because she sees how much money I’m making.”
The audience for riding motorized stuffed animals isn’t as young as you would think. Yes, little kids ride them. (That’s in part why the animals are rigged only to move forward. “Reverse sounds like a good idea, to park it,” Kuebler said. “But a little kid going in reverse in a mall … ”) Still, the 3-foot-tall animals have a 300-pound weight limit, and adult riders are common. Recently at the Eastern Hills location, three members of the Buffalo Bills – Charles Clay, Aaron Williams and Robert Wood – took them for a ride through the retail jungle.
The animals travel at walking speed, but that doesn’t deter riders from trying to race. “It’s really funny too, because they don’t go that fast,” said Cofta, whose forearm is tattooed with an hourglass and the words “Slow Down,” a reference to a song written by his rock band.
A pair of women wearing Sprint uniforms walk up.
“How’s it going ladies?” Kuebler asks.
They giggle. Both are account executives for the phone company; they’re about to do something very un-account-executive-like. That morning, one of them, Terry Piccolo, had called the other, Beth Karolewski.
“I have an idea,” Piccolo said.
Karolewski’s response: “Uh oh … ”
The idea – which they are about to play out – was to rent a couple of animals, ride around the mall to visit their colleagues at Best Buy and hand out fliers for a sale.
Still laughing, they take off. Kuebler can relate to making that laugh-inducing animal call. He and Kobza are the same age and have known each other since they were 15. They were colleagues at Verizon Wireless for seven years, had long batted about business concepts. A couple of years ago, Kuebler called Kobza with what he thought would be that magical idea: “I want giant stuffed animals to be able to ride around the malls, and we’re going to rent them out,” Kuebler said, recalling the conversation.
Kuebler remembers Kobza’s reply: “You’re insane.”
“I know,” Kuebler said. “Just think about it. Call me back.”
Kobza’s recollection is slightly different. “I probably just hung up the phone,” he said. “We’ve kicked around so many ideas over the years of industries we could try to break into and ways we could get out of a cubicle or the day-to-day. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, come on, have we hit that point in life? Is this a real phone call?’”
It was. On a trip to Chile, Kuebler had seen people riding small mechanical cars. That harks back to his childhood, when his family owned a vending business. They had quarter machines where a kid could step into a horse, a whale or a race car and rock back and forth, but not actually go anywhere.
He wanted machines that would move. Kuebler did some research and found that mechanical animals were popular in parts of Asia.
“When you’re a kid, your imagination is going wild and you’re imagining that it’s actually moving,” he said. “Now that you’re an adult, you can actually do it.”
After thinking about the idea for a couple of hours after that initial phone call, Kobza saw the potential too. A native of Lancaster, he remembered going to the mall as a boy and entertaining himself by jumping from tile to tile: “This is land, this is water.”
“There’s nothing to do for a small kid,” Kobza said. “I took a step back and thought about things that way. I saw an idea that could potentially be big, and it has been.”
Kuebler and Kobza, both of whom live in Florida, are adamant about keeping private the details of their burgeoning mechanical-animal empire. They funded the business themselves, but won’t say what they invested. They have plans for “taking it beyond shopping malls,” Kobza said, but won’t get specific. They won’t reveal how many locations they have in northern Florida (where the business is legally based) and Massachusetts, for fear that another company will try to move into malls where they’re not located.
“There are a lot of entrepreneurs in malls. They’ll travel and they’re constantly looking for another concept,” Kuebler said. “It has become extremely competitive. We’re starting to see them pop up all over the place now.”
As Kuebler speaks, a young family with two small children is standing a few feet away. Cofta is running the parents through a liability waiver and teaching the kids how to ride. A few minutes later, a mother and her preschool daughter walk up. At first, the blond-haired little girl is going to ride. But then Mom pauses, thinks about it, and decides to ride, too.
The animals are gone. Kuebler smiles.