Happy 15th Anniversary Bananagrams!
Unfortunately, I did not have the pleasure of meeting Abe Nathanson, and love that he created Bananagrams when he was 76! I have been fortunate to share conversations over dinner with his daughter Rena about running a business, families, being a mom, life philosophies, our industry, and more. Theirs is a warm and wonderful story and I hope Bananagrams continues to drive people bananas for many more years!
How did you and your family first enter the toy industry?
Rena Nathanson: The original Bananagrams grew from my family’s passion for games. At the time we developed Bananagrams in the mid-2000s, we were a family of three generations, spanning in age from 7 to 75 years, and we loved playing all sorts of word games. However, nothing out there had the speed and fluidity that we craved. We longed for something competitive, but that the family could play together — all ages at the same time. We also wanted something portable with no extraneous packing or pieces.
After marathon sessions experimenting with various permutations of word games (and subjecting our extended family and friends to hours of testing), we finally came up with Bananagrams. The name originated from my dad, Abe, declaring, “This anagram game is driving me bananas!” Hence, Bananagrams! And it was my mother, Sandy, who led us on the design for the now iconic bright yellow pouch.
We started making a few extras to give as gifts, and everyone was hooked. It was fast, fun, and extremely addictive. Eventually, someone suggested the game be shared with the general public.
We launched at London Toy Fair in January 2006 and took home Game of the Year at New York Toy Fair in 2009. The rest is toy and gaming history!
Today, we are still a family-run business that offers a full roster of titles and aspire to help people everywhere rediscover a love for tabletop games.
Who has been involved and who is involved now?
Without a doubt, my father Abe was the driving force behind Bananagrams. His energy and enthusiasm enabled the germ of an idea to grow into an international phenomenon. He was born in 1929, the son of a fruit peddler, and grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A creative soul with a zest for life and fun, throughout his eclectic life, my father not only served in the US Army, but he was also a graphic and industrial designer, an artist, and businessman. He created Bananagrams, Inc. at the ripe age of 76!
Sadly, my father passed away in 2010. But just like when we were in the trenches together figuring out how to launch and grow a game and navigate the industry, his spirit and wisdom are with me always. I now carry the mantle of “Top Banana” — big shoes to fill for sure!
Do you think the next generation will get involved?
My son Aaron and daughter Ava were instrumental in creating Bananagrams, Inc., but right now they are both pursuing their own passions outside the family business. But you never know!
How has business changed over the years?
From my perspective, some aspects of the business have changed a lot, but some have pretty much remained the same.
Manufacturing has not changed that much; our manufacturing partners have been with us since the beginning, and we are lucky to consider that team part of our extended family. Distribution has grown, as we started by doing it all ourselves — me from my kitchen table in London and my father from the garage at our family home. We still self-distribute domestically in the U.S./North America, but have grown internationally and have had to learn a lot about the global distribution world…which has proven challenging at times, but always worth the effort!
The marketing of games is so different than it was 15 years ago when we created Bananagrams. We might have been one of the last games to flourish via word-of-mouth, not word-of-social-media!
What advice do you have for others thinking of joining the family business?
I would always say, “Go for it!” There is nothing to lose and everything to gain — especially if you are passionate about the venture you are considering.
This Q&A appeared in the August 2021 issue of TFE Magazine.