If you’ve ever been to the dealer’s room at an American anime convention, you’ve likely perused the pretty pastel products of Tasty Peach Studios. Their boutique-style booth sells unbearably cute plushies, wigs, enamel pins, and other merchandise based on designs by artist and company founder Ryan Zanfei. Her creations often take the form of adorable animals with food motifs, such as mochi kittens called Meowchi, narwhals topped with ice cream called Nomwhals, and a trio of cake-themed foxes. She’s also well-known for utilizing modern crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon to fund some of her projects.
We sat down with Ryan at Matsuricon in Columbus, Ohio (for which she designed merch featuring a special version of her character Inukii wearing a dragon kigurumi) to learn more about how she runs her business and brings her characters to life. She’s just as cute and bubbly as the characters she creates, so please enjoy!
Interview with Ryan Zanfei from Tasty Peach Studios
So what made you want to create Tasty Peach?
What made me want to create Tasty Peach was that I had a passion for art as a kid and I had always wanted to be an artist. So creating this brand was really just a childhood dream.
Did you see that there weren’t a whole lot of cute products of the kind that you wanted to put on the market?
Not necessarily. If anything, I was inspired by my favorite creators. I fell in love with Sanrio and San-X in Japan and I really fell in love with all of the works from Tokidoki, so really, it was more of an inspiration to create my own version of cute products that made me want to do this.
Okay, cool! So did you come from a business or manufacturing background or did you end up doing that later once you started your business?
It came later. A lot of our products earlier on were all handmade. I did a lot of sculpting because I had individual figurines, my husband [Treavor] and I spent countless hours cutting out Shrinky Dinks for charms...
I could tell you stories for days! So this was about 2009, before I even started doing vendor rooms. Back in Artist’s Alley, I would hand-make clay charms and I would bake them and hand-paint them. And while I’m doing all of that, my husband is... his poor hands... he would be sitting there, watching anime or a TV show, and he would have a pile of Shrinky Dinks and be cutting them out until his poor hand was sore. And then I would start cutting and getting them ready and hole punching them. I would individually bake them in a tiny toaster oven because I did something special with them. I used embossing powder and glitter, and I embossed them so that they would be waterproof. It’s kind of like how you use resin now, but it wasn’t wet, it was dry, and it didn't cause bleeding [of the artwork]. So I would individually do each one of these and hand-assemble everything.
We would even take our toaster oven to conventions. Artist’s Alley would close and I would eat dinner in my hotel room as inexpensively as possible, while he and I are cutting more Shrinky Dinks, prepping more product, and I would be up until 2 or 3 in the morning. I’d finally get a little bit of sleep, wake up early the next day, bring the rest of the product down, and sell! And that was every day; after selling, I was making new product and working on more stuff and then selling it and getting home and doing it all over again.
So everything was 100% handmade, then we moved into small manufacturing, and now it’s big manufacturing because we can’t keep up with the demand without it.
At your plush panel [at Matsuricon], you were talking about getting it done by other people. Did you make some of the plushies to start with?
I never actually hand-sewed any of my own plush, but I helped do the applications for patterns because my grandmother was a seamstress. So pattern drafting is just drawing, but the way that a lot of it works is you have to cut them in sections after you draw them out to see where they fit – it’s a lot of playing. So it's not something I’m really great at. I helped with my first [manufactured plush], and they were a lot better at it than I was. Let’s just leave it at that!
You said that you really enjoyed Sanrio and other things as a kid. Are you really into anime? Did you grow up with it? What’s your status with it now?
I love anime! I actually didn’t start watching it until middle school, so around 13 to 14 years old. A friend of mine tried introducing me to Sailor Moon. I thought that the episode we were watching was really weird, and I didn’t think I would like it. And then I went home and I started being introduced to Toonami and just the different shows after school. They had Reboot on there, Dragon Ball Z was on there, Sailor Moon was on there. And then I started watching it and I fell in love with Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Reboot. But when Gundam Wing came on, oh man! I was all about some Gundam Wing, too.
So with the products, do you think, “I want to make a plush” or do you think, “I want to make this character”? Do you start with a design and then figure out what products to do later, or do you think of the product and then the design?
I always think of the character first because when I go through character development, I want to draw them in as many poses and ideas as possible. And then I’ll go through my sketches and I’ll say, “Oh, this pose would be really good for a t-shirt,” or “Oh, this pose would be really cute for a metal necklace,” or “Overall, this design I have a really good concept, so let’s go ahead and fabricate a plush.”
How do you decide what’s a good pose for a t-shirt?
Something dynamic! I like flowing movement, so something that really jumps out at you. There’s a couple of examples on my website, like I have my Nocturii t-shirt where she’s swooping down and flying and her tail’s curling upwards. And then there’s one of my cake fox where he’s bouncing, and one where they’re going in a circle around each other, the three foxes together. So something dynamic that makes you think, “Oh! This is movement art.” That’s really good for a t-shirt.
Okay. And then something that’s good for a charm would be something that’s a little more rounded?
Something a little more static. Something like a sitting pose or in some cases a jumping pose. Those are fantastic ideas for something that could be in a stationary position. Because t-shirts, you know, you’re wearing them and you’re moving, you’re going around. That dynamic pose... it draws your eye to it. So having something more dynamic that you're wearing while moving draws your eyes to it, while something more static is better suited for an accessory.
That’s interesting that you think about how the t-shirt moves with you and a necklace wouldn’t necessarily do that. That’s really cool!
You sell in different areas, like at conventions and on your store website. Where do you find the most success?
Between online and conventions, I sell more at cons than I do online because we’re at more cons. So that brings in a lot of people that either have seen us before and they didn't get a chance to shop or they have not seen us before and it’s brand new and their friend is dragging them to the booth. And then a lot of online is return customers or people that didn’t get a chance to shop at a convention and they’re not going to be at one for a while. There’s usually a huge jump in online orders right after a show. I want to say it’s about 2/3 conventions and about 1/3 online.
That’s interesting because, normally, that sort of product would sell more online. But since your products are so cute and vibrant and “look at me”, it does make sense that you would sell more in person. We heard that you guys go to over 60 conventions a year!
Yeah, it’s getting to upwards of 70 with our group, so I’m starting to do a few more shows too. But it’s not even necessarily that online isn’t doing as well. Our online store does phenomenal! It’s just that we’re at so many cons that we’re hitting so many markets that aren’t saturated and that’s fantastic.
We love the set-up of the booth itself, too. It looks like a boutique!
Great! We wanted it to look like a little store. When people come to our booth, I want people to know that this is Tasty Peach. This is us, this is our brand, this is our livelihood right here. But we want to make it beautiful, welcoming, something eye-catching. That’s one thing that, from very early on, we wanted to say, “We are a brand,” not just, “Oh, I’m drawing cute things.” No, we are a brand. We are a leading indie company in the industry right now.
And your art makes the brand very cohesive. You can tell that the products are yours – if it’s a dessert and an animal, it’s definitely you guys. Even with the wigs, it’s kind of the same color palette.
If you’re familiar with Purple Plum, we do a lot of collaborations with them. I design the styles and colors [for the wigs] and then they produce them for me.
Oh, so you design the colors, too?
Yep! They gave me a huge color wheel and I’ll go through and grab colors of hair and I’ll put them next to each other and be like, “Okay, I want 30% of this color and 40% of that one, 10% of this white, and let’s blend that all together into a nice color for a wig.”
Cool! So you mix a bunch of fibers to make the wig look like a blend from a distance?
Yep. Some of my color blends have four or five different shades of fibers in them, but they look like you went and got highlights and lowlights in your hair and it looks very realistic. My mother is a hairstylist, so I grew up with hair. For me, I look at [wigs] like real hair.
We know that you’ve used crowdfunding for some of your bigger projects, like the giant plushies a while back. So how have you decided which projects to use Kickstarter for?
Well, Kickstarter honestly can be used for any project. We just did one for metal pins, so it doesn’t matter how big or small your project is. If you need funding, crowdfunding is the best way to go. In many cases, it’s a little bit of a gamble because of whether you use Kickstarter or Indiegogo. [Kickstarter] is an all-or-nothing, and [Indiegogo] has you pay a higher percentage fee, but you can keep anything you make and then you have to fund the rest of it, so there are two different options. But crowdfunding is a great way to get the funds to start a project and get it off the ground. And, in many cases, you sell more units than you would have just putting it out there by yourself.
Especially because you’re building up hype for it.
And you’ll find a lot of people on Kickstarter who want to back projects. These are people that want to see a person succeed. They want your project to hit that 100% funding goal and beyond, and then open up ways for you to sell your product afterwards. There are some Kickstarters that got fully funded because there are angel investors that just literally want to spend thousands of dollars to fund other people. And there are fans of a certain product, like plush collectors or pin collectors. You see a design you want and you want to back it. I do that all the time! I’m on Kickstarter all the time. I back so many projects that it’s not even funny.
What do you think is the most rewarding thing about running Tasty Peach?
The people that smile and the stories that I get. When somebody comes up and they’re smiling and they say, “Oh my gosh, I love your Meowchi!” or “I love this thing that you made!” or “This design made my day,” it just makes me happy! Because at the end of the day, I’m not doing this for money. I’m not doing this because it’s a lifelong dream that has to happen or I’m ruined! I do it because I love people. I want to make the world a little bit of a better place.
Do people come up and say things like, “This plushie has been my best friend”?
Yep! Actually, I had a girl that emailed me. She has sensory problems where it fires off and she gets overwhelmed and feels emotional and she can’t touch things. It overwhelms her to the point where she panics. Well, her Nomwhal is her grounding piece. So she holds it all the time and she wrote me this really long letter and, at the end of it, I’m just gross sobbing tears! I created something that made somebody else’s life better. And that’s why I do what I do.
What do you think is next for Tasty Peach? We saw on your website that home products are coming soon.
There is a Kickstarter that I want to do for some general Meowchi home goods. I have prototypes for shaped character mugs where it’s actually their faces and their little ears are popped out. There are these character headbands that I want to do, tails, all kinds of really adorable accessories, and then of course I want to do some more home goods. Coasters, and then mugs, and then I want to do maybe some hand towels.
And that’s sort of hard to come by. Studio Ghibli has a few of those, but not a whole lot of other merch products are home goods.
It’s because the home goods are a little bit of a gamble. Not a lot of artists go and invest into home goods because when you’re shopping for your house, you want something very specific. Unless you’re a fan of a certain character, you’re not going to go out of your way to buy a towel or a mug or something. So it’s a little hard to break into that unless you are a well-known brand.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today! We hope the rest of your Matsuricon goes well and that you make even more people happy with your adorable products!