Ephi Zlotnitsky landed in Washington as a 22-year-old immigrant from Israel on a July Saturday in 1989.

The next day, the former Israel paratrooper, who barely spoke English, walked into a local kosher deli and got a job. As he recalls it: "The owner said, 'I don't have a job for you.' I said, 'I'm not leaving.' He asked me, what can I do?"

"Whatever you want," Zlotnitsky replied. "Wash dishes. Clean floors."

He did all that - and also made a mean Israeli salad.

Advertisement

Fast forward 28 years. The peripatetic Zlotnitsky, now 50, has started several companies, including a real estate company and a Maryland-based software firm.

But it's his foray into airline travel that got my attention. Zlotnitsky is not only an example of the rich contributions that immigrants bring to America. His is also a tale of the thankless frustrations that go with building a business.

And what with all the horror stories about fights, riots, even scorpions, on the airlines recently, I thought Zlotnitsky's little project to bring peaceful sleep to airline travelers was timely. The entrepreneur has helped invent an airplane pillow with the kitschy name of JetComfy.

JetComfy reminds me of those wacky late-night ads hawking offbeat contraptions like the Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman and Inside the Shell Egg Scrambler.

Like entrepreneur and TV marketer Ron Popeil, Zlotnitsky is always thinking of the next thing. People like Zlotnitsky impress me. I wish I had 2 percent of his energy and resourcefulness. After talking with him for an hour, I called the businessman who recommended him to me and asked, 'Is this guy for real?' "

He assured me he was.

"I wasn't the brightest guy," said Zlotnitsky, who was born and raised 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. "But I've always been this guy who was thinking outside the box. I don't believe in 'no.' "

This anecdote is from when he was a teenager: "We were driving in a car at night in the middle of nowhere in Israel and a belt broke in our car. We couldn't see anything.

"The driver looks at me and said, 'We are stuck here.' I said 'I am breaking the mirror.' I told him to turn on the headlights and shine from one mirror to another. We managed to fix the belt and drove back home. From that day, people came to me to fix stuff."

His latest mission is fixing sleep problems for travelers.

The airspace for plane pillows is as crowded as the skies. The horseshoe pillow has been around for decades. A former Virgin Atlantic flight attendant, a few years back, invented a J-shaped pillow.

"Airlines are cramming you in and there is less space and less everything," he said. "At least you want to sleep normal."

Zlotnitsky and a business partner have invested three years and $350,000 to create the JetComfy. The pillow is the size of a purse and sells for $39.99.

About 10,000 units have been sold since it went on sale in January. Zlotnitsky said he has plans to open the first JetComfy comfort sales center in Dulles International Airport in August and hopes to expand to 25 locations at larger airports in a year.

The pillow is available now on Amazon Prime and at Luggage Plus stores and will be offered online by Walmart later this month.

It weighs less than a pound and measures 9.5-by-5.5 inches. It looks nothing like a pillow - more like a foam headrest attached to a foot-long pole supported by the arm of your seat.

Zlotnitsky is betting that, among the more than 3 billion people who fly every year, there is enough of a market for him to sell millions of JetComfys. "We plan to sell over 350,000 units by mid-2018 in the U.S. alone," he said. "We are working to start distribution is Europe, China, Australia and the Middle East."

After leaving the Israeli Defense Forces, Zlotnitsky started a plastering company. It failed, leaving him $250,000 in debt.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I took loans. I bought machinery. All kinds of crazy stuff."

He eventually paid off the bank loans. Zlotnitsky had better luck in the United States. He and his brother, Chanan, grew a small newspaper distribution route into the region's largest news delivery businesses, known as News One. They sold it to Hudson News in 2008, before print's steepest decline and in time to make some money off the sale.

They invested in iControl. The $150 million company's technology aids communications between retailers and suppliers, and Zlotnitsky owns 22 percent of it. Goldman Sachs owns a chunk, too.

In between, he has invested in real estate that earned enough money to subsidise iControl, JetComfy and a few other endeavours.

"I don't know what I'm worth," he said. "I hope I'm worth a lot."

JetComfy all started on a diving trip with his wife to Bora Bora in 2014. As they were exiting the Air Tahiti jet, he heard a passenger named David Brecht, a battery engineer from San Diego, call it the "worst flight ever."

At the hotel bar later, the two decided to team up to bring restful sleep to those who can't afford to buy spacious first-class seats. Zlotnitsky's idea was to re-create the comfort of your chin resting in the cup of your hand with your elbow resting on the desk or table.

"That's the natural position," he said. "You tell somebody to rest their head, and that's what they are going to do."

They created mock-ups out of cardboard. They drew designs on toilet paper. They bought "selfie sticks" for the pillow stand. They Skyped between Maryland and San Diego. They bought a used 3-D printer for $2,300. They bought used airline seats on eBay to test their designs. They bought foam, aluminum, plastic. They pulled all-nighters.

"Dave is the geek that can take my ideas and make it happen. I am the guy taking it to the business. We spent almost two years building this crazy thing."

They tried out several names: EZ Rest (using Zlotnitsky's initials); EasyComfy. Their wives came up with JetComfy.

The low point came on a factory-hunting trip to China in March 2016. Zlotnitsky arrived in Shenzhen, an industrial city of 12 million, in the middle of the night, meandering for three hours in a cab with a driver who did not understand English.

"'That's it,' I thought," Zlotnitsky said. "I'm not coming back from this one. It was like a movie."

But he did come back after finding a small factory that could build most of the parts for his pillow. By last summer, they had nine test pillows that they asked friends and family to try. They sent samples to the Hallmark Channel and media outlets. They got a write-up on the HuffPost's website and a profile by a San Diego television station.

Zlotnitsky sent me a free sample. My wife, Polly, took it with her on a trip overseas last week to serve as my guinea pig.

"JetComfy is a plus," she reported back from Europe. "Not nirvana, but a definite improvement. It has earned a return ticket."