Directed by Bryan and Amy Storkel, “The Pez Outlaw” (2022) is a documentary about the ever-so-colorful life of Steve Glew, the man known for illegally smuggling rare variations of the wildly coveted Pez candy dispensers into America in the early 1990s. It is a fun and in-depth exploration of Steve’s life and his experiences in trying to build a legitimate business of his own from being just a smuggler of illegally acquired goods. In a time when the Austrian ‘Pez’ candy had taken the world by storm and only one company had a monopoly over the booming Pez industry, Steve’s escapades do set up a true Cinderella story. Taking a page out of his treasured Tom Clancy novels, Steve sets out on a journey through Eastern Europe to seek out the rarest samples of Pez dispensers that were unavailable in the US market and sell them back home at a higher profit margin, creating the myth of “The Pez Outlaw.”
‘The Pez Outlaw’ Story
Michigan machinist Steve Glew was a simple man with limited means, but his inner ambitions led him to discover unconventional methods to make money for a better way of life. Suffering from severe depression and paranoia, Steve is driven to hate his daily job as a machinist in a local factory. He finally started exploring his creative side when he figured out that he could work the system of mail-order premiums by selling the toys and other items that came with cereal boxes, generating a considerable amount of revenue from both individual orders and toy shows. While he was at one such toy show, Steve caught a glimpse of a Pez dispenser that a woman was selling, and it immediately captured his fancy. The woman informs him that if Pez dispensers were his calling, he should visit the Kolinska factory in Austria, which was a large distributor of Pez-related items in Europe. Thus, taking a loan from the credit union, Steve and his son Josh embark on a mission to Eastern Europe in search of their treasure.
After two days of driving around the city, they finally find the Kolinska factory, and they get in by playing the ‘dumb American,’ as Josh puts it. Once inside the factory, they are met with Marcos, a local designer of Pez dispensers, who shows them around the factory, and according to Steve, it is exactly like being a kid in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The designs that they saw at Kolinska had all been rejected by Pez USA, the daughter company of Pez International, centered in Austria. During this time, Pez USA, headed by Scott McWhinnie, had a written agreement with the parent company stating that they would have full autonomy over the American market when it came to Pez-related products, depriving American collectors of some truly unique designs of Pez dispensers found in Europe. Overwhelmed by the immense collection of dispensers at their disposal, Steve and Josh decide to pack in as much product as could possibly fit in their bags and return home. The most serious challenge that they were yet to face was the challenge of getting through US Customs, which Steve had masterfully handled, again playing a foolish character, to avoid any suspicion of malice. Once they get home, they are awestruck by the overwhelming interest that collectors show in their product, sometimes paying thousands of dollars to buy a single 4-inch dispenser made out of plastic. Having found overnight success in his audacious venture, Steve left his job to sell the dispensers full-time, repeatedly visiting European Pez factories to improve his inventory. Word spread quickly about someone selling illegal Pez dispensers in the American black market, and this enraged Scott McWhinnie, who was nicknamed ‘The Pezident,’ as he presided over the American Pez Company. To battle the repeated attempts of McWhinnie to derail his operation, Steve created the persona of ‘The Pez Outlaw,’ sort of as a symbol of resistance towards corporate aggression, becoming Robin Hood to McWhinnie’s Sheriff of Nottingham.
‘The Pez Outlaw’ Ending
As his fame grew, so did his paranoia, and Steve began suspecting that he was under surveillance whenever he was abroad on a trip to Europe. And later on in the documentary, it was revealed that Steve’s suspicions were, in fact, true, as Scott McWhinnie had hired a private agent to follow him across Austria and Hungary to keep a close eye on his movements. The European factories had all been installed with cameras to monitor the actions of the employees, as the management had heard rumors that someone from inside the company was selling dispensers to Steve under the table, but Steve continued to import products into the US for a little while longer. Before long, employees had stopped all contact with Steve in fear of losing their jobs, and the company shut down two of its factories in Austria and Hungary for being involved in Steve’s business. This turned the tide in favor of McWhinnie, who had successfully thwarted the outlaw’s operation. But Steve was not going to yield, as he decided to build his own Pez dispenser business, designing his own dispensers and mortgaging his house to get the money for production. His designs were a massive success on the market, as they provided the variety that collectors coveted but the Pez Company could not provide.
In no time, Steve’s initial half-million dollar investment had turned a profit of another five hundred thousand, making his net income over a million dollars in total sales, but the dream was short-lived. Pez USA had devised a masterful plan to destroy Steve’s venture once, and for all, and at the 1995 Pez Convention, they launched a new line of Pez dispensers called the ‘Misfits’, which were exact copies of all of Steve’s designs. They would sell the duplicate products at only a fraction of the price that Steve’s designs were worth, potentially destroying their exclusivity and ruining Steve’s business. Unable to drive his prices down to compete with Pez USA, Steve’s dreams of being a successful entrepreneur were shattered, and he slipped into debt, burning down all the inventory he had produced. The documentary takes up after twenty years of Steve’s exit from the Pez business, portraying him in a new light, and he appears to have found something more important than money or fame: a new perspective on life. Feeling the need to get his story out to the world, Steve started writing a blog called “The Pez Outlaw Diary,” creating a legacy for himself. And even though Steve had lost the biggest battle of his life, he had perhaps won the war, as he himself states that Scott McWhinnie and the Pez Company would just be plot points in the grand narrative of “The Pez Outlaw,” who would go down in Pez history as the little midwestern hillbilly man who gave the multi-national Pez company a run for their money.