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Young parents invent candy game

Eric and Monica Ash moved to northwest Broward from Alexandria, Va., in May with a newborn, a toddler and no regular paychecks to cover the mortgage or employers to subsidize the health insurance. Eric says they're living a dream.

It's a sweet, if risky, dream that has turned drives to the supermarket into business trips for Monica and the composition of Reese's Pieces into a matter of serious consideration for Eric. (Surprise: There's no chocolate in them.)

The young couple left day jobs with a software company and bet it all on their brainchild, Eat It!, a $24.99 candy and snack-food trivia game that hits Target stores nationwide on Sunday.

"It's a zero-calorie game -- there's nothing edible inside,'' Eric says. "It's a good way to remember your childhood or what you saw in the grocery that day.''

(Question: The Berner is the only non-triangular Toblerone chocolate. Is it round, square or bar shaped? Answer: bar.)

The Ashes met while working on the sales team of a technology company in Virginia. Given their business backgrounds, "We felt like we could bring it up to the table,'' Eric says. "It's always been a dream of ours to run our own business and move to Florida, so here we are.''

They like snacks and sweets well enough (Monica, 36, craves chocolate and, when she was pregnant, Skittles; Eric, 37, won't turn down a mint chocolate chip ice-cream cone), but it was a vacation trip to Florida four years ago that set them on their game-making path.

They were chatting on the beach in Fort Myers with Monica's cousin Christine, who complained that her teenage son always beat her at board games. She joked that if somebody based a game on her area of expertise -- candy -- she could win once in a while.

That got them reminiscing about their favorite candy jingles, Monica says, and laughing over bits of arcana like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. (Answer: 252.)

It also got the wheels turning inside the heads of the enterprising young couple. When they got home to Virginia, they threw themselves into creating the game of Cousin Christine's dreams.

Monica took time off work to get the board-game basics down -- find a graphic designer for artistic input, an attorney for legal counsel and a manufacturer to churn out the product she and Eric were piecing together.

When they set out to write 2,000 questions for the game, the two-member team specialized. Monica went to supermarkets, studying the candy shelves for inspiration. Eric researched the origins of snacks and pop culture references to candies.

(Question: What candy bar was tossed into the swimming pool in Caddyshack? Answer: a Baby Ruth.)

Within a year of their beach brainstorm, the Ashes had a prototype ready for the Toy Fair, a major trade show in New York City. They were so encouraged by its reception that Eric followed Monica's lead, quitting the day job to focus on developing and marketing Eat It! full time.

They used savings to stay afloat at first, but had sold more than 60,000 games through small retailers before signing a distribution deal with Target.

Placing Eat It! with the retail giant is a "huge leg up,'' says Chris Byrne, a toy industry analyst based in New York. Small-time game developers seldom get such a sweet opportunity, Byrne says.

"It's so very, very competitive.''

Video and computer games haven't totally taken over the market, Byrne says. In fact, traditional board games often do well in a poor economy, he says, because they're lighter on a family's wallet than a night out at the movies.

Eric sees board games as a family-building activity that can pull parents and kids "away from their own television programs ... their own worlds and video games.''

There's also a family theme to the Ashes' second venture, a line of T-shirts that "celebrate today's father who gets involved in child-rearing,'' Monica says.

The $19.99 shirts, which she says sold well for Father's Day, sport slogans like "I'm on daddy duty'' and "This dad does diapers.''

Eric and Monica decided they'd rather do diapers in South Florida, and moved to Parkland after son Ryan was born. Daughter Alexis is 2.

"A lot's riding on this for us,'' Eric says. "We have two very young kids. We have a mortgage. We have health insurance.''

Whether Eat It! can cut it in terms of dollars and cents remains to be seen, but the the Ashes say making it even this far has been rewarding.

"Just the whole process of having an idea, coming up with a product, creating a product, marketing it and having it be sold in one of the largest retailers in the world -- it's just a dream come true,'' Eric says.

"If it doesn't work out,'' says Monica, "we'll try something new.''