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On the air

Retired flight attendant brings Maui to the mainland, one bottle at a time


by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Novel entrepreneur John Farmer shows off three of the products he's launched into the marketplace since the 1990s, including Pure Hawaiian Air, Tonya (Harding) Hot Sauce and Jail Blazer Jam.If you knew you could separate thousands of folks from their hard-earned money by selling air, you’d give it a shot, right?

Beaverton resident John Farmer is living, grinning proof it can be done. But if you want to peddle scented air in a bottle, make sure it doesn’t evoke Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. He’s got that particular breeze covered.

Farmer’s “Pure Hawaiian Air — Paradise Preserved,” takes customers on an olfactory-based virtual tour via tiny, scented beads rattling in the bottom of a 12-ounce-sized blue plastic bottle. For $6 a pop, customers can get seemingly unlimited whiffs of the plumaria flower, a common ingredient in the flowered Hawaiian leis that circle the necks and chests of island tourists.

By selling case quantities of the bottled aroma to travel agents, gift shops and other tourist-oriented businesses, the retired Continental Airlines flight attendant sells — some through bulk discounts — around 10,000 bottles a month.

“People spend 25, 30 bucks on a lei, and (the flowers) are dead by the time they get back to Chicago,” he says. “So I thought, let’s put the scent in a bottle and sell it. It’s paradise preserved.”

Farmer cut his novelty product entrepreneur teeth in the 1990s, while still working for Continental. Trading on the notoriety of disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and the formerly scandal-prone Portland Trail Blazers lineup, Farmer marketed “Tonya Hot Sauce” and “Jail Blazer Jam” to considerable acclaim during the Clinton years.

“I used to read the papers and think, ‘What kind of money can I make off these screw-ups,” he says with a chuckle.

Eventually, he heard from Harding’s attorneys about the sauce, whose bottle featured cartoons of a disheveled Tonya in an unkempt yard outside an Airstream-like trailer.

“Tonya sued me,” he recalls. “They issued a cease-and-desist order. Or, if I wanted to share profits, they wanted 15 to 20 percent. Does that not sound like Tonya? I said, ‘No, I’m pulling it off the market.’”

With Pure Hawaiian Air, Farmer chose to focus on something much closer to his heart — the scents and feeling of Maui, his favorite travel destination. Relaxing on the beach with his wife, Terry, while reading “Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawa’i,” Farmer was inspired by TV marketing mogul Al Masini’s way of thinking.

“He said he wished he could bottle air like Evian does water” and send it home with people.

Terry wasn’t sold on the idea, but upon Farmer’s retirement after 31 years with Continental — prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — he went for it anyway.

Working with a chemist to develop pleasing scents, Farmer set up shop online at purehawaiianair.com and marketed to gift stores in Maui. Within two months, he’d sold more than 2,000 bottles.

The 67-year-old has trafficked in “Heaven In a Bottle,” one of the slogans on the Pure Hawaiian Air container, ever since.

“It’s just a fun job,” he says, likening his idea to the 1970s phenomenon in which people purchased shapely stone “pets” nested in a small cardboard box. “Like the Pet Rock, it’s crazy, but I thought it just might work.”

The bottled scent, he concedes, is really intended to whet a traveler’s appetite for a return trip to Hawaii.

“There’s something about the trade winds and sunshine that makes the air so invigorating and health-producing,” he says, crediting his airline career with showing him the Pacific island chain, and the world at large. “My wife says I’ve never worked a day in my life. I got to travel the world, fly everywhere and serve drinks and meals. It was great.”

Farmer, who turned down an opportunity to battle for business funding on ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank” reality show, comes up with new product ideas all the time. Acting on them, however, is another matter.

“I wake up in the morning and have a new idea. But my wife says, ‘No, those days are over,’” he admits. “To start an idea takes a lot of money. It wasn’t cheap.”

That said, Farmer proves there’s no better way to treat an idea than to put it into action.

“A lot of people have great ideas. They just don’t go for it. They’re scared of the unknown,” he says. “But if you really believe in something, just give it a shot. Just don’t tell your wife about it.”