The brand of table shim used by most restaurants around the world was inspired by a situation all too familiar to the average diner. Robert Bellows and his wife Terry Mae Cohen were eating out. The table was wobbly. Robert's soup ended up in his lap. The soup was red. But rather than brush off the experience and purchase a new pair of pants, Bellows let this moment change the next 30 years of his life. "Terry said, 'We can solve this problem,'" he recalls. "We started to invent the Wobble Wedge that day."
Wobble Wedges are a bit like the Post-it notes of the restaurant world: a commonplace item that, once invented, no one wanted to imagine life without. Countless restaurants across the country, from fine-dining establishments to fast-casual restaurants, use Wobble Wedges, but no one talks about it much. "Certainly not a single person has ever asked me about a Wobble Wedge, but I believe myself to be among the most experienced human beings with them on earth," says Steve Lynch, the regional manager of Four Peaks Brewing Company in Arizona. "It's one of those little things most people take for granted unless they've been in the trenches."
"It’s one of those little things most people take for granted unless they’ve been in the trenches."
According to Bellows, the resulting "overwhelming" response to the Wobble Wedge "defied all logic." And while he won't give exact sales figures, "it's a big number," he says. "We make a lot of wedges, and we're running our machinery constantly."
How the Wobble Wedge Was Born
A few years before the soup incident, Bellows had quit his job at Celestial Seasonings, the tea company based in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives. He had been casting about for something new, starting a notebook with various ideas for products and inventions he might want to try. As an artist who creates mostly large-scale metal sculptures, Bellows was looking to start a business with a low cost of entry and create a product that solved a universal problem — but the business had to allow for plenty of time to work on his art. Two outta three ain't bad: Over the last 30 years, Bellows hasn't had as much time to work on his sculptures as he would like — he didn't know just how successful Wobble Wedges would be.
Bellows started with the standard wedge, the clear hard plastic model. At two inches long, it's the perfect size to slip under a table leg — which Bellows discovered by simple trial and error. "At two inches in length, they have just enough adjustment to fix almost any table wobble, and are the perfect fit on a keychain," he says. "Finding that perfect length was a simple process of hand-carving a few samples out of modeling clay and trying them out."
Together with John Mancino, a friend and the VP of production at Celestial Seasonings, Bellows designed a ridged wedge, built a mold, and began manufacturing in Longmont, Colorado, where the resulting wedge company still makes Wobble Wedges today. In 1987, he incorporated Focus 12, makers of the Wobble Wedge. Although the name Wobble Wedge has a clear meaning, Focus 12 was chosen precisely because it didn't mean anything, Bellows says.
The Wobble Wedge is deceptively simple, and over the years, Bellows has filed three patents. The patents cover the features of the Wobble Wedge that make it different than a simple piece of tapered plastic. Patented Wobble Wedges feature columns of ridges that allow wedges to lock together and prevent twisting, and the grab bar, an indent on the thicker edge of the wedge, that allows users to place and move the wedge with pliers. If the Wedge is the real thing, it has these patented features, along with a small, barely visible circle on the underside with the words "Wobble Wedge, Boulder, CO."
Over the years, Bellows and Focus 12 have added new models: the soft rubber-like wedge, which sticks well to slick, high-polished floors. The BigGap wedge is designed for outdoor cafes where tables are often placed on cracked or sloping sidewalks. The Mini-Wobble Wedges, one-inch versions of the standard wedge, are used for small wobbles or tabletop items that slant, like lamps. They all work together. The groves lock them in place.
"A lot of people have copied our wedge. They put out a piece of tapered plastic, and they call that a wedge," Bellows says. "We got into this with another intention. Our intention was to create something that is so useful and so packed with features that it's not only a wedge, it's a tool. And it's something that you can use for literally thousands of solutions to things, because they work together."
From Plastic Wedge to Restaurant Staple
Bellows, as an artist, uses Wobble Wedges when constructing his sculptures. Artists, plumbers, and carpenters all use Wobble Wedges today, but the burgeoning inventor went to restaurants first.
In 1987, Bellows and Cohen sent out hundreds of samples (this was before the internet, he points out) and started going to restaurant trade shows. Orders came in quickly. The pair discovered "there was a big degree of frustration out there about wobbly tables," Bellows says. "And what we learned was that when a waiter or waitress comes to the table, and they can solve that problem, they become instant heroes. Everything goes well, and their tips go well too," he laughs.
Bellows didn't know it then, but the late '80s was the perfect time to introduce a table shim to the restaurant industry. "Just as we were coming in cigarettes were going out," he says, noting that waiters and hosts had been slipping matchbooks under table legs for years. As the pervasiveness of the restaurant matchbook waned, the Wedge rose.
Vicki Freeman, the New York City-based restaurateur and co-owner of Cookshop, Hundred Acres, Vic's, and Rosie's, was using matchbooks when she first tried a Wobble Wedge. "I thought it was a genius idea. Why hadn't anyone thought of it sooner?" she says. Wobble Wedges are now stored in host stands and server stations throughout her restaurants.
"I can remember a time before Wobble Wedges," says Thomas Brown, the director of operations for the BR Guest Hospitality group, which includes Blue Water Grill, Strip House, and Atlantic Grill restaurants in New York City. "You would have to try and use matchbooks, napkins; the busser would be under the table spinning the adjustable table feet. It was a mess." Now, "[Wobble Wedges] are part of the team's uniform," Brown says. "Level tables are one of those things you don't want to have your guests thinking about. You just need to have them."
Lynch, of the Arizona brewery, says his team at Four Peaks use more Wobble Wedges than most, particularly at the brewery's flagship location. The more than 400-seat restaurant was renovated from a turn-of-the-century creamery originally constructed in 1892. "We left the original concrete floors throughout most of the dining space, creating a cool ambiance, but unknowingly at the time, an extremely difficult work environment," Lynch says. "Any table at our place could sit perfectly level on the floor in one spot and wobble like you'd get seasick if moved a fraction of an inch in any direction."
According to Lynch, "wedges are part of the uniform and in the dress code section of the Four Peaks FOH Company Handbook. As tables get bussed, [wedge checks are] part of the protocol — only after a table is properly 'wedged' will it be flagged and available for customer seating with the hostesses. It's quite common on busy nights to hear someone say 'double wedge on the left' or 'it's a triple wedger' if the table is in a really bad location." Lynch says, "Funny to admit without any intended sarcasm — [but] the wedge has changed my life."
"There’s still so much opportunity out there for a simple product... it’s always the same reaction: ‘Why didn’t I think of that?!’"
Today, "Wobble Wedge" has become something of a generic trademark, like using the word Kleenex for any brand of tissue. "'Wobble Wedge' is all people call them no matter what the brand," Freeman says. The company now mostly sells through distributors, although it still sells directly to a few restauranteurs that have been with the company from the beginning. Predictably, "I think we've lasted longer than some of our earlier restaurants," Cohen says.
The standard wedge is still what Bellows and Cohen bring with them when they go out to eat. "We will go into a restaurant, and we give the waiter or the waitress the jar of wedges, just as a matter of course," Bellows says. "It always turns into a wonderful conversation."
Although he's still giving out his wedges wherever he dines, Bellows has started to hand over the business to his nephew Skip Wehner and Skip's wife, Sherry. "Now, 30 years later, the business is finally doing its mission. It's getting me back to art. So that's really cool," Bellows says.
It's fair to say that Wobble Wedges are in good hands. "One of the first things I learned when I got here was to always keep a 30-pack of wedges in my car," Wehner says. "We usually have some in Sherry's purse or my car when we go out to eat, and invariably if it's a restaurant with a wobbly table, and they don't have any, we always offer them up."
"There is still so much opportunity out there for a simple product that just brings smiles to everyone's faces once you show them," he continues. "And it's always the same reaction: 'Why didn't I think of that?!'"