Mr. Peeler

For the better part of two decades — well into his 70s — Joe Ades followed the same routine. He’d get up early, typically before dawn, and get dressed in his $1,000 suit with high-end shirts and ties. He’d leave his Manhattan apartment (and, toward the end of his career, that was a three-bedroom one on Park Avenue) and make his way to work. Like his millionaire neighbors, Ades probably pulled down well north of $100,000 a year. But unlike his neighbors, he wasn’t off to a job on Wall Street or at any other typical six-figure income job. He was off to a street corner to sell $5 potato peelers.

Yep. Potato peelers. To be fair, they could peel carrots, too.

Born in Manchester, England in 1934, Ades was a street vendor at an early age, dropping out of school to earn money selling comic books.  Over the years, he’d sell virtually anything that there was a market for, honing his sales pitches over time. He came to the United States in the late 1980s or early 1990s and by 1993 had settled in Manhattan, focusing his sales acumen on potato peelers he imported from Switzerland. (Amazon sells them for $9.99 if you’re interested. Prices have gone up since Ades got his start!)

Why the peeler? Ades explained his product choice to Vanity Fair in this 2006 profile:

Joe loves the peeler, which he sells for $5. “I love it for several reasons,” he says. “It’s portable; it works; I never get a complaint. Never ever. When people first see it they don’t believe it. They buy it skeptically, cynically. They can’t believe it’s going to do what I say it’ll do, but they take a chance and they buy it. And during the course of the sale, somebody will walk past—always do—and say, ‘I got one of those. They’re great!’ And it’s true—they’re not shills. You don’t need a shill with something like this.”

But the product didn’t sell itself. Ades had a well-rehearsed sales show which drew in a crowd with a comic’s wit: “When you peel a potato, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right-handed, left-handed, or, like a politician, underhanded. All you take off that potato is a thin layer of skin. You’ve got no waste; you do it in record time. When you come to an eye, you scoop it out—there’s the scoop,” he’d say. And with all eyes on him, as seen below, he demonstrated the product with the deft of a surgeon or perhaps a magician. Here’s a video of his whole routine:

He’d repeat this six days a week, a dozen or two times a day, weather and law enforcement permitting — Ades never obtained a license to sell on the sidewalks, and wasn’t allowed to sell within the farmer’s markets he often set up shop near. (That said, most often, police officers turned their heads.) And as you saw above, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to sell around 15 to 20 peelers during his minute pitch. By some estimates, depending on his margins, Ades pulled in $250,000 or so a year, all $5 at a time.

Unfortunately, you can’t see his potato-and-carrot peeling show live anymore. Ades passed away in early 2009, at age 75.

Bonus Fact: What else can you get for $5? If you work in the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program, it can buy you a joke. That’s because the SFTI program is better known as Topgun. (Yes, it’s one word.) According to AMC, staff at Topgun are fined $5 for referencing or quoting the movie Top Gun, so if you’re going to make a “Highway to the Danger Zone” quote, it’s going to cost you the price of one Joe Ades potato peeler.

From the ArchivesInedible Eggs: The science behind hard-boiled eggs, and why they’re often tough to peel.

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RelatedThe $5 potato peeler that you can use right-handed, left-handed, or underhanded.