With his stocky frame, go-go bravado and uncanny resemblance to King of Queens star Kevin James, Creve Coeur resident Bob Kodner is hardly your average crack pusher.
For one thing, Kodner, 35, operates from a corner office on Indian Head Industrial Boulevard in West County. His runners drive matching trucks and must wear hats bearing the slogan "Got Crack?" while on the job.
It's a far cry from the low, low profile most crack dealers -- hellbent on dodging the local fuzz -- try to maintain.
In fact, Kodner -- who inherited his clients from his father, Mike, after the elder Kodner's healthy, indictment-free fifteen-year run in the crack game -- is such a firm believer in the power of crack that he runs billboards and sells apparel to support his business.
"I think it may be genetic," says Kodner, who calls his outfit the Crack Team.
"Crack is in my blood."
It's also in the blood of Kodner's ace runner, mustachioed 30-year-old Jason Bauman, a husky, affable chain-smoker and QuikTrip loyalist who fled the West Coast a few years ago because he felt it was too violent -- an attribute that wouldn't faze most crackheads.
Resplendent in his "Got Crack?" ballcap and "Mr. Happy Crack" T-shirt, Bauman flies down Highway 40 in a black truck done up in Crack Team decals, exchanging quizzical glances with bewildered motorists.
"You'll notice that when you drive by people, they just start laughing," Bauman says.
Bauman's only had one roadside run-in with the law -- startling when you take into account that he travels upwards of 100 miles a day in broad daylight. And even at that, the cop just wanted to inquire about how he could go about obtaining a replica of Bauman's "Mr. Happy Crack" T-shirt.
On a recent soggy February afternoon, Bauman's first stop is at the home of a burly mortgage broker in a white-picket-fence neighborhood in Ballwin.
"My wife said I can do whatever I want down here," says the homeowner to Bauman, who revs up his blowtorch as his client reaches for his wallet.
"Usually it's $200, but since your mom works for Coldwell Banker, we'll only charge you $100," says Bauman while heating up the product, made specially for the Crack Team by a Chicago wholesaler.
A few minutes later, the product is ready to be injected -- into the homeowner's wall, that is.
You see, the product Bauman is heating is an epoxy-based solution -- Kodner, Bauman and the rest of the Crack Team are in the foundation-crack-repair trade, a far cry from the more glamorous world of drug trafficking.
Not that the Crack Team minds the confusion. In fact, customer confusion over the company's bizarre marketing tactics has been a boon for business.
"One time, I began to open this lady's door -- I had the key," Bauman recounts. "She shouts, 'Who is it?' I say, 'It's the Crack Team.' Then the lady shouts, 'I ain't got no crack!'"
In the otherwise mundane industry of foundation repair, the Crack Team's emphasis on linguistic titillation is wholly intentional, highly successful -- and, at times, decidedly anal. An early billboard campaign, featuring a cartoon repairman with saggin' trousers revealing a healthy case of plumber's ass, was deemed too tasteless to be continued. Undaunted, Kodner went back to the drawing board and came up with a new billboard mascot, Mr. Happy Crack, and a company slogan -- "A dry crack is a happy crack!" -- that hardly paid deference to the St. Louis region's pervasive air of social conservatism.
"We're in such a grunty industry; we're not saving lives," Kodner says. "The slogan probably lends itself to a joke or two. It separates us from the herd."
The marketing campaign proved so catchy that a mere three days after debuting the Happy Crack mascot and slogan on billboards and Metro placards county-wide in October 2001, Kodner and his staff were inundated with requests for Crack Team T-shirts and hats.
One problem, though: They didn't have any T-shirts and hats. So the crafty Kodner told his customers the gear was on "back order" and dived into the apparel business. Seven hundred hats and 1,100 T-shirts later, Kodner decided to contract with Vintage Vinyl, the University City record store, to carry Crack Team apparel.
"We knew we were onto something that stuck when we were having students from Wash. U. call," says Kodner.
However, as J.C. Dillon -- a partner in Core, a downtown advertising agency -- notes, university students generally don't fall within the Crack Team's customer base of adult homeowners -- so Kodner may be missing the mark.
"It goes right in the direction of 'crack, crack -- get it?'" says Dillon, whose clients include St. Louis Bread Company/Panera Bread, Monsanto and Epiphone Guitars. "It may get notice, turn into a popular little craze. But I would bet, long-term, it wouldn't be beneficial in terms of 'Do I trust this company?' I wonder if older adults, other than the immediate chuckle of the thing, would really take to the deeper meaning of that slogan."
Still, buzz is buzz.
"Benetton did racial stuff early on, then went to gay-oriented issues," says Dillon, referring to the international clothier's edgy print campaign. "They deliberately developed the campaign with the idea of developing talk value, knowing full well that it'd be controversial, so it'd be written about. Whatever side of the issues you may be on, the publicity was worth it. This [the Crack Team's campaign] is on a more base level."
Kodner maintains that he'd rather shake things up -- for better or for worse -- than not shimmy at all.
"I would rather generate negative response than apathy," says Kodner, who garners more than half of his clients through direct referrals from area real-estate agents. "You look through ads in the Yellow Pages, they all say the same thing. 'Customer service' is an overused, trite comment. We don't even use it. The residential-service business has a horrible reputation. People are thrilled if you just show up on the day you say you're gonna show up."
Although the Crack Team's approach draws chuckles and raised eyebrows from the real-estate agents and contractors Kodner works with, nary a complaint emerges.
"It's not the way I'd advertise," says Rick Heyl, president of ABA Inspection Services, "but for his [Kodner's] business, I thought it was pretty slick. More important, people remember stuff like that. [Appliance and mattress salesman] Steve Mizerany was the father of craziness in St. Louis. He wears a bad toupee, he'd come out and roller-skate on TV -- he'd make an ass out of himself. But he was a true-blue character."
Stafford Manion of the Gladys Manion real-estate firm credits the Crack Team's bulletproof nature to the wink-wink Kodner charm bred by papa Mike.
"His [Kodner's] dad comes into the office and makes a presentation. All the girls like him -- he's a cute old man," Manion says. "These are all women here, and they laugh at it [Mr. Happy Crack]. I wear the 'Dry Crack' T-shirt to play squash in all the time, and it always gets a reaction. They recognize it. A lot of people hear it and don't associate it with a crack in the foundation."
What, then, do they think it might mean?
"Let your mind wander," says Manion.
Lately the Happy Crack campaign has gained international notoriety. Orders for apparel have arrived by the Internet from as far away as England. When Saturday Night Live comic Tracy Morgan swung through town for a Funny Bone gig last summer, he requested Happy Crack gear. And to top things off, Jay Leno introduced Mr. Happy Crack to the late-night nation, featuring Kodner's campaign in the news-clips section of a Tonight Show episode last fall.
But beyond chinging cash registers and mass-media recognition, the question remains: Medically speaking, is a dry crack really a happy crack?
Absolutely, says Dr. Lawrence Mendelow, a St. Louis colon and rectal surgeon.
"If people walk around in the wet all day, a dry crack can be more of a happy crack, to a certain extent," says Mendelow. "You can overdo anything, obviously. But, yes, a drier crack is a happier crack, in general."