Mary Pfund cringes when she thinks of all the queen conch, the mascot mollusk long synonymous with her island home, that were removed from Keys waters before environmental protections were put in place to salvage the last of their local population.
But instead of dwelling on what's done, Pfund and her partner, Bill Schult, came up with a replacement of sorts. An inedible but shockingly realistic and practical version of the creamy, pink conch shell that has come, like the palm tree, to symbolize the tropical lifestyle.
Enter the Conch Cuzzy, a lifelike reproduction of a queen conch shell, complete with the swirls and intricate coloring, made of lightweight, closed-cell foam with a cylindrical opening down the middle that allows a beverage bottle or can to slip perfectly inside.
"It's really more than a drink cooler," Pfund said. "It's functional art. People can take a conch shell home without having to remove a real conch from the water."
The name Conch Cuzzy also gives a wry nod to the unofficial moniker by which Keys natives - also known as Conchs with a capital "c" - refer to each other.
"We couldn't call it a 'coozie' or 'coolie' because those are trademarked names for drink holders," Schult said. "So Cuzzy works out well."
The Conch Cuzzy has been five years in the making, Pfund said.
Schult had the idea and designed the first prototype. Then the pair had to find a manufacturer to create a mold, produce the drink holders and paint them to look exactly like the real thing.
"And our business plan emphasized a Made in the U.S. approach," Pfund said. "My cousin in Wisconsin was able to put us in touch with a company - the same ones who make the foam Cheese Head hats for Green Bay Packers fans."
"They come to us completely white," said Schult, who spent months testing various colors and products to re-create the subtle shades of pink, cream and orange that make each conch shell perfectly unique.
"I needed something that wouldn't peel or crack when the Conch Cuzzy was bent, or got wet from the condensation of a drink," Schult said. "So I went downtown and talked with some of the body paint artists, who can't have their paint peeling off the people wearing their artwork during Fantasy Fest."
Schult found that the airbrushed make-up used in body painting worked perfectly on the Conch Cuzzy, so he started painting - and painting, and painting - until he perfected the coloring.
"Each one is still handpainted here in Key West," Pfund said. "So, no two are the same. They're each one of a kind - just the like the real thing."
The first shipment was ready for sale around Fantasy Fest, and Pfund and Schult introduced their new product at the Key West Seafood Festival in Bayview Park, where they sold the Conch Cuzzy and then donated a generous portion of their proceeds to the event sponsors, the Monroe County Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"With this product, we really want to be able to give back to the community and support organizations like youth groups and ocean conservation groups," Pfund said, emphasizing that she and Schult are not retailers of the Conch Cuzzy, which is currently available at The Little Red general store on Caroline Street and at We Cycle on Stock Island, with more sales outlets to come.
"We're also hoping to wholesale them to youth groups, so kids can sell them for fundraisers and keep the profits," she added. "We had two molds created, so we have the ability to have them mass produced here in the states."
The Conch Cuzzy also will make an appearance on March 1 at Conch Fest, sponsored by the Rotary, in Bayview Park.
The Cuzzies retail for $20, which Pfund acknowledges is a lot for a mere beverage cooler.
"But when you see the detail of it, and recognize the fact that it's functional, decorative art and is helping keep real queen conch in the ocean, then it becomes a small price to pay."
In keeping with the realism of the conch shell, the Conch Cuzzy comes in a burlap sack adorned with the company's Key West logo.
"The conch fishermen kept their catch in giant burlap bags, just like these," Pfund said while Schult held up his project's prototype - a Conch Stein. The ceramic beer mug will be another replica of a conch shell. And there are more ideas percolating in his head.
Schult has been coming to Key West since the '60s and has lived here permanently for more than a decade. Pfund arrived here when she was just three months old and never returned to the cold Wisconsin winters that her parents fled when she was a baby.
Pfund adores her hometown, and speaks passionately about its protection. She's hoping that every Conch Cuzzy sold helps keep one real one in the ocean.
For information, go to luckyconch.com and find them on Facebook.