Tom DeFrancia filed his first patent on a cooler back in 2006 but abandoned finalizing it due to red tape with the patent office. It was the same year YETI launched its premium roto-molded coolers to the world, instantly creating a new, multimillion dollar market. DeFrancia watched from the sidelines and kept talking about his idea for a camping-centric cooler to whomever would listen.
Fast forward nearly a decade and DeFrancia is a co-owner of the Alamo Drafthouse, a dine-in theater franchise known for special programming, movie-specific menus, and a strictly enforced no-talking, no-texting policy. The franchise, started in Austin, Texas, has a devoted following, which is what attracted him to invest. In 2015, he successfully wrapped up a year-long project to open a new theater location in Denver and was inspired—after years of schlepping camping gear around with his family—to return to his idea of a hauling cooler.
With his four kids in mind, he began designing an 85-quart cooler; large enough and rugged enough to carry everything—not just food and drinks—that his family needed on a camping trip. He looked at the top of a large cooler and saw a sturdy platform that was just begging to be used to carry stuff. “I thought, if I could minimize my time from the car to the campsite from three trips to one with a RovR, then that in itself is worth it,” he says. “And that’s what I did.”
After a year of 3-D modeling concepts in a computer program, he hit print on a real-life sample in early 2016. “I was anxious, because the mold was not cheap, and I had never seen this cooler in anything but a 3-D model,” DeFrancia says. “Then I finally saw it and thought, ‘Wow, it’s huge!'”
Call it a cooler and you miss the point
Much more than a rolling cooler, a Rovr is a mobile basecamp that can haul camping gear and a lawn chair in a fold-away bin secured to the lid, as well as the food and beverages organized in dry bins next to the ice.
His first small production run was a successful proof of concept and he quickly sold out to his early backers, but its handle revealed a flaw. “Here I am pulling this monster 85-quart cooler and it’s clipping my heels,” DeFrancia recalls. He re-designed the handle into a T-bar shaped handle, with a motocross-style grip, that allows people to pull it from the corner of the cooler rather than directly in front. He then sent replacement handles to the early buyers.
The T-bar also works like a wheelbarrow for pushing the coolers downhill. “If you have an 80-quart cooler with a loaded bin on top, you definitely want to push it; otherwise it’s going to run you over.”
Since March 2017, the brand has grown from 11 retailers to roughly 30 retailers in 100 doors. Those numbers were from before the Outdoor Retailer Summer trade show, where the brand debuted its weekend-sized RollR 45 to great retailer support.
A fully-loaded mobile basecamp
Back in 1986, DeFrancia was among the first wave of kids learning to snowboard in Aspen, thanks to Burton ambassador-instructors. That’s where he met Bob Klein, who is now the sales manager at RovR.
In the years since they first met, Klein worked as an agent representing snowboarders and owned an action sports shop, and the two stayed in touch at different snowboarding events or vacations. He came to RovR to help out, and enjoy a change of pace in a new industry.
Compared to the dwindling landscape of snowboard endorsement deals, the premium cooler category is wide open, Klein says. “The (premium cooler) market is a bit saturated, but we have a completely different product that stands out through a variety of features that we offer.”
“Most of our competitors say ‘We have similar ice retention and roto-molding to the YETI but we’re cheaper,’ and that’s all they have to say,” says Klein. “With RovR, we have a lot more to talk about.”
First off, there are the wheels. They’re not your average plastic molded cooler wheels. They’re chunky and huge (9 inches in diameter), puncture resistant with 5-spoke aluminum hubs and a stainless steel thru axel. The tires have a staggered tread so they easily crawl over sand and a center ridge makes them streamline enough to tow behind a bike (using RovR’s add-on hitch mount).
The modular system on the outside allows for a custom layout with attachment options like a dual can holder, cutting board, and a cylinder for holding a sun umbrella or fishing pole.
But it’s the organization of the internal dry bins that people comment most on, DeFrancia says. Inside the RollR, you can store fresh produce in one bin, meats in another, and in the third, an open wine bottle is easily stored upright without having to wedge it back into the ice. The cooler’s uneven floor lets meltwater run off the higher side with ice and surround the base of the dry bins for better surface cooling. “Everything is down deep, it’s dry, and near freezing cold. People really appreciate that, especially after a long trip.”
“There are a lot of components with this cooler; it’s almost like a car,” DeFrancia says. And like selling a car, he has found that educating retailers on all the features has helped them show off the cooler to customers and had a positive impact on sales, regardless of the other brands they carry.