Kids' food allergies are fought with fun

  • Article by: ANDREW WYRICH , Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
  • Updated: September 19, 2013 - 10:22 AM

A mother’s concern for her son turns into a big-money business that helps teach kids about allergy awareness.

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Iris Shamus founded AllerMates out of a concern for her son.

Photo: Michael Karas • Record,

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A company created four years ago by an Upper Saddle River, N.J., mother worried about her preschooler’s food allergies has grown into a multimillion-dollar business that is seeing a healthy boost in sales this back-to-school season.

AllerMates, the brainchild of Iris Shamus, sells wristbands, medicine cases, charm bracelets and dog tags emblazoned with cartoon characters as a way of combining food allergy awareness and fun for the 3 million children in the United States affected by food allergies — including her son.

The products are sold at national retailers such as Walgreens, Kmart, CVS, A&P, Stop & Shop and ShopRite, and over the past year, the private company’s sales have exploded from $500,000 to more than $2 million, Shamus said.

Besides having boosted sales in the retail sector, AllerMates has recently made its way into the celebrity spotlight as well. In August, Britney Spears’ son attended the premiere of “Smurfs 2” with an AllerMates wristband on each of his arms, and Jacqueline Laurita from “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” also purchased autism-awareness wristbands from AllerMates for her son, according to AllerMates’ publicist.

Shamus said she originally tapped into her creative spirit and spent late, anxiety-ridden nights thinking of ways to help her son understand his food allergy, but over time the idea began to expand.

“How do you explain to your kid what a food allergy is?” Shamus said. “I wanted to figure out a way to not only protect kids, but educate them. So I thought about different fun characters who represent different allergies and by doing this, it protects them but also makes the kids feel good about themselves.”

Starting with characters such as a baseball cap-wearing peanut named “P. Nutty” and a walking milk carton aptly named “Pint,” Shamus turned Nanuet, N.Y.-based AllerMates from a 16,000-piece manufacturing order in 2009 into a full-time business in 2011 and has watched her late-night passion project become a multimillion-dollar product.

Shamus’ concerns about allergy awareness are not unfounded. Each year, 100 to 200 people die in the United States from severe food allergy-related reactions, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Jennifer Sherman of Allergy & Asthma Consultants based in Saddle River and Riverdale, N.J., said she has recommended AllerMates products to many of her patients. She said her patients’ parents enjoy the peace of mind the products give by alerting those who might care for their kids to any potential food allergies.

“I was blown away, there is nothing like it on the market — and the best thing is, kids want to wear it,” Sherman said. “Food allergies are becoming an epidemic, and any product that keeps kids with food allergies safer is something we should support.”

Today, AllerMates has characters that represent allergies such as peanuts, nuts, gluten and wheat, milk, eggs, shellfish, penicillin, insect stings, latex, pollen, fish, soy, sesame and cat. The wristbands featuring the characters are sold for $6.99 on AllerMates’ website (www.allermates.com).

While AllerMates started as an allergy-awareness product, Shamus said her business has grown to include asthma and epilepsy awareness products as well — part of her plan to expand her company in the future.

AllerMates announced in April the company would roll out EpiPen, Auvi-Q and asthma inhaler carrying cases as part of National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. Shamus said AllerMates has already taken orders on the products and should be shipping out soon.

“We don’t want to just offer allergy products; we want to offer education,” Shamus said. “We want to create videos with the characters that will teach kids about their allergies. We could make books — but what I really want is to have a whole world of characters for children with these kinds of health concerns.”

As part of this plan for a larger brand, Shamus said AllerMates is working with Pearson Education to create an allergy-education DVD that would star AllerMates characters and be donated to schools to help educate teachers and students about different allergic conditions. Shamus said the DVD has been scripted and production is slated to begin next month.

“This wasn’t me just sitting down and writing a business plan — it started from my own desire to find a way to protect my son and it just grew from there,” Shamus said. “All this national exposure is exciting, it keeps me going. It’s exactly what I’d want to be doing with my life right now.”

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