In the past, the clientele of companies selling such products was limited to outdoorsmen, back-to-nature advocates and the occasional paranoid survivalist bracing for Armageddon.
Now, as the clock ticks toward 2000, they are stepping into the mainstream via well-attended marketing exhibitions such as the "Y2K Awareness Expo, Countdown to 2000" to be held at the Waukesha County Exposition Center next month.
"With Y2K, our business is pretty much doubling every month," said Paul Munsen, president of Sun Ovens International, of Elburn, Ill., makers of solar-powered ovens.
"We really believe starting in July '99 we're going to see well over 50 million American households taking some kind of Y2K preparedness," he said. "That's a huge market . . ."
And Sun Ovens, makers of the devices invented and once produced in Milwaukee, like other companies, is increasing production to cash in on demand.
Some state and municipal officials are worried that the Y2K glitch could lead to power failures, breakdowns in municipal water or sewage systems and even the failure of security systems at prisons.
Those fears have created an opportunity for business people like Munsen, who plans to be at the Waukesha event.
"The first thing people look at is stockpiling food," he said. "Then they start thinking about how they're going to cook it."
The Waukesha event, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 12 and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 13, is touted as the first of its kind in the Midwest. It will feature 30 to 50 vendors selling food and food storage products, generators, lanterns, flashlights and other gear, said Chuck Ball of Eagle, the organizer of the event.
"I've been studying the Y2K thing for about eight months. The more I studied it, the more I realized there's the potential of a very serious problem," said Ball, a carpenter.
"I'm not out to panic or alarm anyone. I'm out to tell people to be prepared."
He said, "I decided I could not wake up on Jan. 1, 2000, and tell my wife and kids I couldn't heat the house or feed them. I'm putting food away a little each week. I'm getting a generator. I'm putting in a wood stove."
Ball hopes to walk away with a profit from the two-day event, which will feature speakers explaining the millennium bug, how to cook without power and generator use.
The event will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 to stage, Ball said.
Some trade shows at the Expo Center draw 3,000 to 4,000 people a day. If Ball's event draws just 3,000 people over two days, ticket sales at $5 per adult would bring in $15,000.
Even state lawmakers are taking the Y2K problem seriously.
An Assembly committee last week advanced legislation to mobilize the Wisconsin National Guard in case of an emergency caused by year 2000 computer problems.
The Y2K problem is a result of computers recognizing a year by its last two digits only. Unless computers are reprogrammed, many could stumble when their clocks moved from 99 to 00.
Fear of those possible computer glitches is driving people to stockpile food and buy other survival items, Munsen said.
Munsen said his solar-powered ovens were developed for use in Third World countries that were deforested and didn't have wood to cook. Using sunshine, the oven can cook anything a regular oven cooks, he said.
Munsen said demand for the company's small $229 oven has grown from 25 a week a year ago to 250 a week at the end of 1998. By April 1, he expects to sell 1,000 a week, all fueled by Y2K fears.
Ark Enterprises, which sells dehydrated food, generators and wood stoves, said sales are "taking off" because of Y2K concerns.
"It has been good for business," said Kathleen Bess, sales director at Orland Park, Ill.-based Ark, which also will be at the Y2K expo.
For Future Foods of Minneapolis, Y2K concerns have resulted in "absolutely fabulous" business, said its president, Dick Proudfit.
Said Ball: "It only makes sense to prepare for a possible disruption. If nothing happens, you eat the food, drink the water and heat your home during a power outage."