Sensis: A new condom for drunks
Two male students sitting on stools are watching the Heat play the Lakers on a flat-screen at Coconut Grove's Sandbar Grill when a middle-aged man with boyishly parted hair and cherubic cheeks walks up. He's wearing a tight-fitting blue T-shirt that reads, "Sensis," and totes a full plastic shopping bag.
"Hi! I'm Beau, and I manufacture condoms!" he says eagerly. The pair stiffens and stares straight ahead. The stranger asks the young men where they're from.
He tries again: "No, really, I invented a new kind of condom."
"Good for you," hisses one of the duo.
"Oh," exhales Robert "Beau" Thompson, a 45-year-old Grove native. He appears momentarily wounded. Then he's suddenly a table over, where two guys and a girl appear just tipsy enough for his presentation. "You guys want to laugh?" he says, reaching into his plastic bag and bringing out a handful of condom packets. Then he produces a long blue plastic rod set into a wooden base. It looks like a target for horseshoes.
Beau rips open a wrapper. Two strange, stirrup-looking appendages dangle from the rubber. "They're handles!" he explains. He yanks the condom over the demo rod, pulling the tabs away from each other as if exercising with the world's smallest Bowflex. And he asks everybody at the table to fondle the handles. "One side has ribs," he says proudly, "and one side is smooth. You feel that? That's so you can figure it out in the dark."
Sometimes the Coral Gables High-educated genius explicitly explains his product's draw, but usually he doesn't have to: A little more than a decade ago, he invented a condom so simple a wasted guy could put it on. The table in front of him is now covered in wrappers, and the rod is sheathed many times over. "I hate to say it, but it's the truth," ruminates scruffy Mike Tenant, the only member of the trio who isn't bent over laughing. "When you got a chick in your bed and you're drunk and it's dark..." He pauses as if to let the gravity of the scenario sink in and then starts stuffing his pockets. "I just broke up with my girlfriend, and I'm back on Craigslist. I might need these."
Beau has spent much of his adult life working out of a woodshed, building a better rubber. Now his product — called Sensis, with handles branded as QuikStrips — is carried at pharmacy chains, including Walgreens and Navarro, across the nation. He estimates 2 million condoms have been sold at about a buck a pop.
It will take a lot more than icy Norwegian schoolboys to deter him. "I spent ten years trying to get people to believe in me," he explains as he gulps a beer between demonstrations. "I'm very persistent."
This night began at the Coral Reef Yacht Club, where he drank red wine and recounted the epiphany that led him to this point. The tale sounds like it was lifted from a movie. In the late '90s, he showed up at a party wearing only a bow tie and a black Speedo. "I was still doing construction then, so I was ripped," he says.
Soon he hit it off with the hot bad-girl daughter of an oil tycoon, who promptly drove her Mercedes S500 off the road and into an embankment. After a few similar misadventures, she ended up in his bedroom. He was "absolutely hammered," he says. In the darkness, he couldn't figure out which side of the condom was up. So he poked his member toward the open window and sheathed himself by the glow of a streetlight.
If the wrong person had walked by, he could have ended up a sex criminal. Instead, he had a thought that still propels him today: "There has to be a better way."
After inventing the handled condom, he told the same story to then-girlfriend and now-wife of five years, Cristina Gonzalez Thompson. Her response: "Is that all you think about? Your pecker?"
Beau's true craft involves harnessing wood of a different type: He's a master carpenter. He grew up poor in the pre-Johnny Rockets Grove and recalls receiving two presents from his contractor father, Bob: At age 10, there was a lawn mower, and after high school graduation, it was a chain saw. Some advice came with the latter: "If you ever find yourself in trouble, go chop down some trees. Don't come to me."
Bob Thompson died during his son's freshman year in college, but the old man still haunts Beau. Or so says Art Miller, Beau's business partner in the condom enterprise. "I don't think he got any accolades at all," Miller says. "In his own mind, he had to take on a very difficult task and succeed, to prove himself to his dad."
After graduating from the University of Miami with a degree in architecture, Beau lacked the connections to score a job. So he set to sweaty work building houses and furniture, repairing boats, and even paneling the walls at the Coral Reef Yacht Club, where he's now a member.
In the early days of his quest for a better condom, Beau bought Trojans by the case. He "sliced and diced" the handles from Hefty garbage bags and attached them by hand. At one point, he disappeared into the shed behind his mother's Coconut Grove house for four days and nights, he says, taking naps on a shabby couch and subsisting on beer and sandwiches. He emerged with a wood-and-metal production prototype. He had mined a '67 Mustang engine and a dot matrix printer for parts.
By the early '00s, he was making good money building rich people's houses. He claims he spent a year's income applying for patents around the world. In 2005, he led a group that founded Grove Medical LLC, which began producing the condoms at a factory in Georgia. The latex sheets come from Malaysia.
A year later, 2,000 students, mainly from the University of San Diego, became Sensis's first major, um, focus group. One student — a very tall Cosmo Kramer doppelganger — reported back, "This is great, because even drunk in the dark, I can get it on!" It became a Sensis marketing pitch.
Online reviewers were also converted. "A blind blindfolded retard would have no trouble using" it, opined the luminary behind the Nayshun blog.
This year, Sensis took a step toward the big time, landing on Walgreens shelves. Beau says he accomplished that partly by calling the right bigwig at the pharmacy chain: "I kind of had a number I wasn't supposed to have. I wriggled in."
But, he says, "We still consider ourselves a startup." And because he insists on matching larger condom companies' prices — usually $13 for a 12-pack box — profit margins are slim. He's certainly not living the life of a tycoon: Beau's family dwells in a $250,000 house on SW 83rd Street.
His next target: CVS, which has thus far resisted stocking Sensis in its stores. "We're hoping this is our year," he says earnestly.
Back at Sandbar, Beau's presentations get more successful as patrons drink more. Members of a sailing team — who happen to be sucking on candies from a tin of "mint nipples" — point out that the condoms look like wounded jellyfish. Cries of "Genius!" are heard almost every time Beau shows off the handles. Across the bar, a server with orange hair wraps a condom around a customer's Corona bottle. A bosomy Bacardi girl handing out free shots says excitedly: "Condoms! I need some of those!"
As the night continues, Beau drinks wine, a few beers, and a rum shot from the Bacardi lass. These days, he's usually at home with his 5-year-old son by the early evening. About 11 p.m., he's rosy-cheeked and a bit ragged, slouching forward on a stool.
Then a thin patron politely interrupts. "Do you know what the score was?" he asks about the basketball game, which the Heat won.
Beau's hazel eyes suddenly light up again. "Do you want to see a cool new condom?"
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