Leslie Haywood's rise from stay-at-home mom entrepreneur to reality TV business sensation started with a dinner-party glitch.
Her husband, Jason, unable to tell the difference, had served her spicy jerk chicken instead of a milder flavor at their West Ashley home one evening in 2006. Then he mentioned that someone should come up with a way for him to tell the difference.
A frequent wine-charm user, 37-year-old Haywood dreamed up dime-sized stainless-steel labels that, when placed on food before grilling, would indicate temperature or spice.
She developed a business plan, found a factory in Taiwan to produce the charms for her $19.95 price point and, on national television last week, persuaded venture capitalist to buy into her concept.
"Everyone's still in shock," she said by phone this week as she pulled through the car loop to ferry one of her daughters from school to ballet. "It's been a whirlwind of attention and support."
Haywood speaks exuberantly about her company, even though she launched Grill Charms and then appeared on ABC's "Shark Tank" while suffering from personal heartbreak.
Just two months after the dinner party, Haywood learned that she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She remembers spending her recovery time carefully building strength walking on a gym treadmill and reading everything she could about launching a business.
She also created a "Pink Collection" of charms and donates 10 percent of those sales to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
After reconstructive surgery and a clean health report, she pitched herself to the CNBC cable show "The Big Idea" and watched Grill Charms take off. Then, while she was in Los Angeles to tape "Shark Tank" in July, her 62-year-old father had an aneurysm and died.
Haywood flew home but agreed to a second try at taping a month later, resolved that she would not let the "sharks" in on her pain.
"I wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet," she said. "It was very important to me that they didn't feel sorry for me."
With three offers from the panelists, Haywood went with the one that required her to give up the smallest stake in her company.
Internet and technology mogul Robert Herjavec presented $50,000 in exchange for 25 percent equity.
Following the show, Haywood said, "I can't get my inbox below 100 unread e-mails."
Those writing to her want to know everything from how to reach Herjavec to where she bought her dress, Haywood said, and she tries to answer every one.
She also said the number of stores carrying Grill Charms has jumped in the past week from about 100 to 130 locations in the United States, Canada and Sweden.
Haywood will fly to Toronto today to meet Herjavec and, from there, hopes she can pitch Grill Charms to a mass retailer.