By Sarah Katherine Shearin

The recession this year killed Saluté Wine & Provisions, an upscale Italian restaurant in Charlotte, N.C.Arcovio1

Well-heeled banking executives, the bread-and-butter of the restaurant in the city’s tony stretch of Providence Road, abandoned the pricey wine haven amid the implosion of the financial industry. In February this year alone, the region shed 2,900 financial jobs, by far the sector’s biggest monthly loss ever, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Charlotte is the nation’s second-largest banking center outside New York. As of late summer, the city’s two largest banks, Bank of America and Wachovia, had stemmed the major job hemorrhaging. However, that was too late for Saluté owners Andrew Arcovio and wife Leyla, who sold their restaurant in March after 15 years.

Despite selling some of the best wines in the world to some of the richest people in Charlotte, Andrew Arcovio says of the restaurant, “I’m glad to be done with it.”

Now, at 62, he says he’s been forced to reinvent himself.

Arcovio’s done so by inventing the Whirly, a patent-pending, battery-operated towel spinner for major sporting events.

The hard-core Boston Red Sox fan says he invented an improved “rally towel” to boost crowd enthusiasm and promote loyalty for baseball, football, basketball, soccer and hockey teams.

With eyeglasses perched on the bridge of his Roman nose, Arcovio looks like mad scientist-meets-sommelier. The self-described creative type with “two right brains” began work on the Whirly more than a year before Saluté closed its doors.

He fashioned a prototype from a small towel and items he bought at Home Depot. This year he hired Charlotte product-development firm enventys to help refine, design, engineer and market the Whirly.

Daniel Bizzell, an industrial designer at enventys, says the low-cost product has versatile marketing potential. The device could include blinking LEDs or sound clips. Grips could be made to look like miniature footballs for NFL or college teams, and corporations could emblazon their logos on the removable towels.

The company’s marketing research shows that an outlay of $300,000 to distribute these to fans at a typical NFL game could result in seven million impressions – the number of different people who would see the ad message.

This year the Advertising Specialty Institute released a study showing that among businesspeople over age 21, advertising specialty items such as ball caps, t-shirts and the like beat out all forms of TV, radio and print advertising as the most cost-effective advertising medium.

“You’re looking at maybe a $2 item with huge ad potential,” Bizzell says.

Promotional giveaways could help boost ticket sales and attendance, build brand loyalty and show team appreciation for fans, notes Arcovio.

The product is still in the engineering phase.

Arcovio envisions a two-phase rollout. The Whirly initially would be a promotional item for professional sports franchises, collegiate teams and team sponsors, with all units manufactured to order.

The second phase would entail making the Whirly for local and regional professional and collegiate teams to sell in retail stores.

A glorified rally towel is a far cry from the days when Arcovio used to travel the world with his wife, sipping glasses of the finest wines in Verona cafes.

Although those frequent viticulture voyages may be a thing of the past, Arcovio has no regrets.

“When you realize that things change, you have to change with them,” he says. “It’s time to move on.

“Who knows,” he adds, “maybe we’ll have Sarah Palin’s face with spinning red towels for political rallies. Talk about reinventing. There’s so much potential and so many directions – it’s a limitless market.”