Unchanging Gears

Illustration by Nate Otto

John Stallworth has been selling hardware and fixing bikes at his shop on Chicago’s South Side for 50 years, helping to anchor a neighborhood that’s struggled with population loss and divestment. John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is the kind of old-fashioned business that’s happy to sell customers two nails instead of a whole box. The store’s motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Today more than ever, the neighborhood needs John Stallworth and his business.

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: A couple months ago, John Stallworth had a customer show up at his hardware store on Chicago’s south side.

JOHN STALLWORTH: He came in and wanted a key made. The key is a dollar seventy five cent. We don’t take a credit card for less than ten dollars, so he says, “I don’t have no cash, I don’t have no cash.” I said, “Take the key and bring me my money back whenever you in the neighborhood.”

WAILIN: John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop has been open since 1952, and it still operates with the mentality of an old-fashioned neighborhood store where the owner trusts his customers to come back with the money they owe him. For John Stallworth, it’s not about nostalgia or charity. It’s good business sense.

JOHN: You got to, you know. If you don’t trust, and mainly for a small amount like that, I mean, it’s a plus on both hands. If I make the key, and if I don’t let him go with the key, there’s nothing I can do with the key. The key’s already made. So my chances of him bringing it back and making him a better customer is let him go ahead with a dollar and seventy five cent and really he came back and he really thanked me for it, so I know he’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, the story of a hardware store that helps keep its neighborhood together — literally, in some cases, and also in less tangible but crucial ways. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

JOHN: This store opened in 1952 under a gentleman by the name of Hank and at that time, of course I was just a little, small kid. But when I started working, my first job was I was working for uh a small, real small hardware store and he was so small that many times he had to send over here to buy inventory to be able to take back and sell. I used to take my bike and come over here and buy different products for him to take back, so one day Mr. Hank asked me did I like to work for him and I started working for him at 17 years old. I told him that, you know, I can fix bikes and he says okay, come on. So we start just doing tube changes and stuff like that. I worked for Hank from that point up until 1969, when Martin Luther King got killed and then his wife and his family said, “We gotta move, we gotta get out of here.”

WAILIN: Hank wanted John to take over the store, but he didn’t offer any financial help. When John applied for a loan through the Small Business Administration, he got turned down because he couldn’t put up enough collateral. That’s when the owner of a nearby grocery store, who had known John since he was a child, stepped in to help.

JOHN: I always felt that I should be in the business. I loved it. It’s something that I wanted to do all the time, but at that point I didn’t realize that I needed money to be able to do inventory and when we finished with the loan and everything, I didn’t even have money to buy my license, so the guy that put the store up for collateral, he loaned me starting-up money, he loaned me, you know, to get my license and all of that.

WAILIN: John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is located in the south side neighborhood of Englewood, where John has spent his entire life. When he took over the store in 1969, Englewood had a vibrant retail district at the intersection of 63rd Street and Halsted, not far from John’s shop. He remembers competing with seven to 10 other hardware stores in the area. John prided himself on having the best selection and service. The store’s long-time motto is: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.

JOHN: We came up with that probably when I first opened, 1969, and uh I had a customer come in, says “You know, every time I come in here, you got what I need. That’s why I say I always go to John. He got it, he got it.” So I said at that point, I need a slogan. So I said, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” and I been using that ever since.

WAILIN: John’s competitors slowly faded away over the decades, leaving him as the lone independent hardware store and bike shop around for several miles.

JOHN: I’m probably the oldest black hardware in the city, period, you know, and at one point I had a lot of competition with hardwares. Not black, but just hardware in general and they all closed down. We had a True Value, we had an Ace, you know, and they all gone and I’m still here.

WAILIN: There were other economic forces at work in Englewood. The development of nearby shopping centers drew traffic away from the retail district around John’s store. The neighborhood, which decades earlier had attracted middle class African American families, started to suffer from foreclosures, population loss, poverty and crime.

JAMAL JULIEN: I grew up in Chicago, on the south side, and, you know, the Chicago that I grew up in, is substantially different than the Chicago that exists today.

WAILIN: That’s Jamal Julien. He went to high school in Englewood and he’s the co-founder of Slow Roll Chicago, an organization that uses the bicycle as a literal vehicle for social change. They organize bike rides through neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides, where infrastructure like bike lanes and access to bikes lags behind the more affluent north side. In Jamal’s view, cycling is closely linked with not just individual health and recreation, but sustainable economic development.

JAMAL: If the community is walkable and bikeable, that means that there’s a local grocery store that I can patronize. There’s a local restaurant that I can patronize. The school is in close proximity and so that’s, that’s a different type of living. You know, if everything is outside the community, that means the community doesn’t have a tax base and the tax base is what drives or funds infrastructure projects. That’s what funds education and so we need a lot of these resources to be in the community so that the communities are healthier and more sustainable.

WAILIN: John knows how important the bike repair services are both to the neighborhood and to the future of his business.

JOHN: Bike is one of the things that keeps me afloat now ‘cause when the first store that came along was a Home Depot and he put a hurt on me, and then the Lowe’s came along and they put a hurt on, and now is Menard’s is all right here in my same little area, so it ended up being more of a bike shop than anything. I was selling bikes at that point but then the Walmart came in and the bikes that they sell was, you know, too cheap and I couldn’t compete because I didn’t believe in selling a real cheap bike, so then I ended up stop selling bikes. Total repair now, service, that’s all I do for bikes, yeah. I had one guy, he brought his bike in and I told him it’d be a couple days before he could get it. He said, “No, that’s my transportation to work. I gotta have my bike.” My son and I, we close at six. We was here until eight o’clock fixing bikes because people said they needed their bikes, so I don’t mind staying over, you know, and fixing them.

JAMAL: If I’m in Englewood or if I’m in Roseland or Chatham or any of these communities that have suffered severe divestment and reallocation of resources and things like that, well, if I’m a kid, where do I go get air in my tires? Even things like that. Like when I was a kid, you’d go to the bike shop or you’d go to the gas station and you’d get air in your tire. And now the air costs a dollar fifty, two dollars and it used to be free, you know, so if I’m low to moderate income, I can’t afford some of these things.

WAILIN: It’s difficult for John to compete with the big hardware chains on price, so he puts his effort into service, whether it’s extending his store hours, letting a customer pay for a key later or spending extra time to troubleshoot a problem in someone’s home.

JOHN: When I said service, I still will sell ’em two nails if they want two nails. Home Depot you gotta buy the whole package. Realistic, you make as much if not more money because for one screw you can sell it for a little bit more. A person willing to pay you 50 cents for a screw, but they don’t need a whole package that they got to pay two dollars for, you know, so it works out. I’m able to tell ’em how to fix what they need fixing and Home Depot can’t do that and the Menards. With these modern cameras and stuff, they bring in a picture and says, “I got this here and I don’t know how you should do it.” And most of the time, I’m able to look at it and determine what they got going on. I had a guy last week, he came in and says, “I got a, uh, leak coming in from this wall, you know, I’m not sure where it’s coming from.” And I looked at the picture and I said, “That’s got to be a foundation leak” because they said it only happens when it rains.

WAILIN: John Stallworth Junior, who goes by Johnny, has put his own spin on his father’s customer service. Johnny attended college in Louisiana and ended up staying down south for 16 years. When he returned to the family business around 2004, he introduced a touch of southern hospitality, something he had observed at Walmart stores in Louisiana.

JOHNNY: When I first came back, you know, I tried to greet everyone when they come in the door, you know, let everybody know “Hey you here, we recognize you, we might be a little minute getting to you but if you just be patient, we’re gonna take care of you.” You know, and the more comfortable they are, the more they’ll shop, you know. A lot of times, customers will say, “Hey look man, let me get up out of here because I’m gonna find something else to buy.” Hey, take your time, you know, buy as much as you like.

WAILIN: Johnny’s been working at the store since he was a child because his father always said when you’re old enough to walk, you’re old enough to work. Today, he handles the retail store while his father oversees a general contracting business, which was started in 1977 after an electrical fire destroyed the shop.

JOHN: The fire department called me. I was at home in the bed and then came down and couldn’t do anything but stand across the street and look at them putting the fire out. It was a sad day. I had insurance but the insurance was not sufficient to put the business back together. So at that point I said, “Well, I can put it together myself,” so I started a contracting business in 1977 and I put my business back together, and from that point when I been doing my own construction also. In a way, it was a blessing because I was able to expand. I went all the way to the alley. I ended up with probably another 600 square feet of space, so it worked out real good.

JOHNNY: He got with some friends that really helped out. Everybody pitched in and they got it back up and running. That situation, even though I was young then, um, that situation there kind of put in my mind that maybe I don’t wanna work for anyone else neither, you know, I wanna do my own thing.

WAILIN: The contracting business does small fix-it jobs all the way up to larger-scale building projects, and John gets a lot of customers and referrals from his church, where he’s a deacon. Between the contracting, the hardware store and the bike repair, the Stallworths run a business that’s essential to the health and future of their neighborhood. Their customers are looking to fix up their homes or businesses, or build new ones. They need bikes to get to work, for exercise, or for their kids. The continued survival of John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is a bulwark against economic blight and a beacon for other Englewood residents working to improve the neighborhood. Here’s Jamal Julien of Slow Roll Chicago.

JAMAL: If we create this perception that it’s crime-filled, it’s dangerous, it’s violent, once the local proprietors close, no one is gonna be attracted to come in. And so if somebody like John were to close, it’s over. It would totally be over. Nobody’s gonna go in there to fill that void, that space that he’s holding down right now. What we would have is John’ll close down and then you know, everybody will have to go to the Lowe’s or the uh, the uh, I call it Homeboy Depot, you know? And, and that money is never gonna return to the community.

WAILIN: Johnny sees encouraging signs in Englewood. A Whole Foods is about to open, and some locally owned businesses are popping up too. If people return to Englewood, reversing decades of population declines, the Stallworths will be there to help them with their homes.

JOHNNY: You’re providing a service to the community that’s like everyday living, they have to deal with it, you know, whether you’re renting, whether you’re at home, there’s always something breaking at the home, whether there’s a flush lever, uh, whether it’s a sink knob and it’s those small inconvenience that if you can provide that product for the customer, then they’re happy. Same way with the bike business, if you can get a child at a young age, bike breaks down, they’re disgruntled, you know, their parents and them come in and look, my bike is in this condition and I want to ride. And when you repair that bike, it makes that child so happy, you know, and a lot of times they don’t forget that. They get older and they know “Hey look, I remember this bike shop when I was a kid, they took care of me so now I’m an adult, they still take care of me.” So it’s just the fact of helping people with everyday living.

WAILIN: John Senior has no plans to retire. After our interview, I was on the expressway going home when I spotted the van for the Stallworths’ contracting business in the next lane. I peeked over and there he was in the driver’s seat, heading to another job.

JOHN: I love what I do. That question was just asked to me the other day by one of my contracting customers and uh she buy a lot of condo units in this building and she uses me to do all of her work and she asks me, she says, “John, how old are you?” I said, “I’m 70.” “How much longer you gonna be working?” I said, “Until the Lord calls me home.” She said, “Be realistic, because we want to buy these condos but no one know nothing, so you fix everything and if something happened to you, we don’t know what we gonna do.” You know, I enjoy what I do, as long as my health let me, I’m gonna keep going.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can listen to all our previous episodes at thedistance.com, on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also love it if you could rate and review our show on iTunes so we can climb those charts and get discovered by new listeners. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Soy You Bought a Tofu Factory

Illustration by Nate Otto

In 1999, Jenny Yang discovered a small tofu company in her Chicago neighborhood that made the fresh soybean curd she remembered from her native Taiwan. Seven years later, when Jenny learned the business was in danger of closing, she impulsively stepped up to buy it. Jenny didn’t just guide Phoenix Bean Tofu through the transition, but opened new markets for her products and today is on the cusp of a major expansion.

Transcript

WAILIN: In 1999, Jenny Yang made an impulse purchase. She and her young daughter were taking a different route home from their neighborhood playground, and they passed a storefront with a sign written in Chinese.

JENNY YANG: I see the Chinese character and it was something with beans, and I smelled the aroma. I said, “What do you do here?” He said “Oh, we make tofu here.” I was like, feel so excited. I hit the jackpot because (laughs) I miss the fresh tofu. I say can I buy? They say yeah sure, so they give me a few package. I loved it. Really tasting good. So that was 17 years ago.

WAILIN: Jenny had discovered a business called Phoenix Bean Tofu, which had been operating from the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s north side since 1981. It was primarily a wholesaler, but the owner was willing to sell Jenny a few packages. She started buying tofu from Phoenix Bean every weekend. After seven years of this, she made another impulse purchase, one that would change her life.

JENNY: One day, just like in normal Saturday, I came over to buy tofu and then the owner was kind of tired, not happy so he says he’s considering selling it and I said, “Well, what a good business, what a good product. Why you want to sell it?” He says the kids doesn’t want to take on so he decided to maybe look for somebody else to do it and then I just like, “Hey! Maybe me.” (laughs)

WAILIN: Jenny was working in corporate finance at the time. She didn’t know the first thing about tofu production. But she found herself volunteering, right then and there, to buy the company. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Jenny Yang didn’t just keep Phoenix Bean Tofu from closing, but gave the business fresh life by finding new customers for a product that’s over two thousand years old. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/the distance.

JENNY: My husband (laughs), he almost have a heart attack. Literally! He has irregular heartbeat.

WAILIN: It seemed like everyone in Jenny’s life wanted her to reconsider.

JENNY: When I first telling my friends here, my friends in Chinatown, my godmother, my kind of auntie figures, they’re more senior than me, they say, “Are you crazy? (Laughs) No, don’t do it!” Now I look back, I know why they say that. I think it’s really a lot of work.

WAILIN: Jenny’s no stranger to hard work. Back in Taiwan, where she grew up, she studied law and worked for an American radio station. She traveled the world as a flight attendant, earned two degrees in the U.S., and spent almost 10 years in corporate finance at United Airlines and Sara Lee. But when she made the spontaneous decision to buy Phoenix Bean Tofu, she entered a very different world. Even the previous owner of the tofu company, an older gentleman named Mr. Louie, had his doubts.

JENNY: He was just like, “I don’t think so; what can you do? Your husband is going to help?” I said, “No, just me, but if you want to continue, you can teach me, I want to learn.” He say, “Yeah, you can come in and watch.” And then (laughs) so eventually when we signed the letter of intent and we set a closing date, I went in about two months. It’s in the middle of the winter, the water is icy cold, we washed bean sprouts. My hands was like popsicles.

WAILIN: Bean sprouts was Phoenix Bean’s first line of business when it was founded in 1981 by a Chinese immigrant named Mr. Lam, and the company still grows and sells a small amount of bean sprouts. Mr. Louie, the second owner of the company, had been Mr. Lam’s head chef. When Jenny took over Phoenix Bean in 2007, Mr. Louie wanted her to buy the business and the building. Jenny hadn’t planned on purchasing the real estate, but Mr. Louie was eager to cash out and retire. Jenny decided to go for it.

JENNY: I split the investment half into the business, half into the real estate, just imagine, if I somehow I screw it up (laughs), and I still have the real estate to hold the value. The expectation I think when I go in was very low expectation. As long as I don’t screw it up, as long as I don’t lose the current client base, I think I will be okay. So that’s our goal at the first year or two, and then we did it.

WAILIN: Under Mr. Louie, Phoenix Bean had sold its tofu to Chinese grocery stores and restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown and in the Argyle neighborhood, a smaller Asian enclave on the city’s north side. Jenny continued those relationships and also kept Mr. Louie as the chef so she could learn how to make tofu. He ended up staying for seven years.

JENNY: All my friends tell me: Six months, he will leave, when I first bought it. They all say six months and I feel that he can do what I cannot do—or maybe I can do it with machinery—but I feel that he is the tofu master. My end result is I want a good tofu, not Jenny’s tofu. I want tofu that’s done right, done well.

WAILIN: Tofu is soybean curd, and it’s believed the Chinese have been making it since the Han Dynasty, which started in 206 BC. It’s also a staple in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Phoenix Bean’s tofu requires just three ingredients and about five steps. First, the soy beans are washed and soaked for almost 24 hours. Then they’re placed in an automated grinder. When Mr. Louie was working at Phoenix Bean after selling the business to Jenny, this is the position he worked, only he was using an older machine. It was the hardest job at the company.

JENNY: You literally dump into the grinder by hand, so if I have at that time maybe 20 bushels a day and that’s how many? That’s 1,200 pounds of dry beans and then soak it in the water, it’s 2,000 pounds minimum a day, so he has to dump it in there. Three years into the role, he said, “Jenny, it’s too hard for me.” He’s getting older so I said, you know, “Let me buy the machine for you,” automation. Even though I don’t have money, I used credit card to buy it. (laughs) So he allowed me to buy the machine, so I start saying the joke to him that you got the easiest job now (laughs).

WAILIN: The ground-up soybeans are put in a high pressure cooker and then into a machine that separates the liquid from a soybean mash, which gets discarded. The liquid is the purest kind of soy milk, just soybeans and water. Some of this soy milk is bottled and sold. To make soy milk into tofu, the liquid is mixed with a coagulant to make it curdle into a gelatin-like form. Then it’s placed in a porous box lined with cheesecloth, and workers manually press water out to get to the right level of firmness. The tofu-making process generates a lot of water, and it seems to be everywhere in Phoenix Bean’s thousand square foot kitchen. Jenny wears rubber clogs to protect her feet as she maneuvers around the tiny space.

JENNY: They will press water out further, so you see all this dripping, a lot of water out. A lot of holes on there, and then the cheesecloths they just wrap it around. So it keeps the shape and the thickness, so if you didn’t press it right, correctly, it will crooked. So one side is bigger than the other, so it takes some skills. This is as fresh as you can get, Illinois soybeans come here to us directly and then we cook it this morning, so this is the freshest tofu you can get in Chicago area.

WAILIN: Phoenix Bean’s 17 employees work almost elbow to elbow in loud, cramped quarters. Jenny has plans to address that, something you’ll hear about a bit later. She’s made a lot of changes to the business, not so much in the basic process of making tofu, but in soybean suppliers, marketing and customer relationships. Mr. Louie had used a broker to buy his soybeans, which would come in from Iowa, Michigan and Canada.

JENNY: It doesn’t work for us that way. Sometimes tofu is golden yellow, beautiful, really beautiful. Sometimes really pale white and people say, “What did you put in there?” And I said, “No, it’s just the beans it came out like this.”

WAILIN: Jenny was also getting inquiries from more entrepreneurial farmers who wanted to sell her organic, Illinois grown soybeans. She started talking with one of them.

JENNY: Could you grow non GMO organically for me? In transitional land, and he’s like not sure, not sure. I think it take two years for me to convince him. And he said “Okay, I will try,” so he basically his back yard, 20 acres (laughs) behind his house, he just put the beans in there. First year’s harvest, it was really fun. The whole family all went to see the farm. And the weeds is taller than the beans, because they, he didn’t use any pesticide or control, but he was able to harvest some, and it was very small amount and he says, “If you want to continue this route, I will partner with you,” so that takes three years for him to come to the quantity I wanted.

WAILIN: That same farmer later bought some additional land, turning the original 20 acres into 175 acres. He’s one of three Illinois farmers that Jenny buys her non-GMO organic soybeans from, and being more discriminating about the source of her beans is a selling point for the customers she wants to reach: people who aren’t familiar with tofu, but are looking for alternative sources of protein or like to eat organic. This was not a market that interested Mr. Louie. He didn’t even want to sell to H Mart, an Asian grocery store chain founded by a Korean businessman. H Mart expanded into the Chicago area in 2006.

JENNY: He is very, I would say this way, very traditional man. So he keep all his Cantonese customers very well taken care of. They all really respect him a lot. With Korean coming, H Mart open, he doesn’t want to do business with them because Korean has your own tofu, why you want to buy Chinese tofu? So we lost that opportunity to grow with H Mart.

WAILIN: Jenny eventually got her tofu into H Mart. But she saw a larger opportunity in the positive way her non-Asian friends and family reacted to the tofu dishes she brought to potlucks. She started selling her products at local farmers markets.

JENNY: So the first year was really tough. People question is: Is this made in China? Where the soybean grown? And where is your shop? I put it on the table, nobody will come and try it, so I put sauces on the table and then they start tasting a little bit and they still doesn’t want to buy because they don’t know what to do with it.

WAILIN: Jenny realized that tofu newbies had no idea how to cook it. That gave her the idea to make ready-to-eat tofu. Today, Phoenix Bean produces five spice smoked tofu and other packaged varieties. You can find the company’s tofu at places like Whole Foods and restaurants outside of Chinatown. Jenny even sells to Eli’s Cheesecake, a Chicago company that uses Phoenix Bean silken tofu in its vegan cheesecakes. Jenny says she connected with many of her customers at local farmers markets.

KATHLEEN WILLIAMS: We have shoppers that ask about her every single day because they have great regular tofu that you can buy, but also tofu that’s already mixed with some of the sauces that Jenny makes in her kitchen.

WAILIN: That’s Kathleen Williams, the operations manager at Green City Market, one of Chicago’s largest farmers markets. It runs year round and over a hundred chefs, many from local fine dining restaurants, shop directly from the 63 vendors at the market.

KATHLEEN: She was the only tofu person and she is the only tofu person that we have right now. She really brought a sense of diversity to the market with something new and something different that is not often found at a farmers market in the midwest.

WAILIN: Phoenix Bean has tripled production since 2010. Last year, it made 1.2 million pounds of tofu and tofu products like soy milk and soybean noodles. But there’s so much more Jenny can do with soybeans. There’s something called tofu skin, which is the tissue of cream formed on the top of hot soy milk when it comes in contact with cold air. There’s tofu pudding, a sweet dish often served at Cantonese dim sum. There’s soy sauce and tempeh, a fermented soybean patty eaten as a meat substitute.

JENNY: The red building with the gates, that is our tofu cafe kind of concept. So all the fried tofu you saw, and salads, will be here.

WAILIN: Jenny is doing something Mr. Louie would never have done. She’s opening a tofu cafe in a storefront that used to be a wholesaler of Asian groceries, just steps from Phoenix Bean’s current building. Jenny had been scouting locations to expand the company, and she’d looked as far away as Indiana. But her employees live mostly in the neighborhood, and she does too. When the owners of the wholesaler were retiring and asked Jenny if she wanted to buy the property, she agreed.

JENNY: So we’ll have a new concept that’s a tofu bar so people can scoop whatever kind of tofu they like with all the different flavor, and then we’ll have tofu skin there. We’ll have tofu donuts. We’ll have tofu ice cream, so it’s all soy based, kind of specialty store here.

WAILIN: Further up on the same block is a former taxi garage that’s 10,000 square feet. Jenny bought that building too, and she plans to move Phoenix Bean’s tofu production to that bigger space. When her expansion plans are completed, she’ll have a large-scale production facility, a cafe and her old building, which she’ll keep using for bean sprouts.

JENNY: Here will be a block of making tofu. I didn’t plan it. I think people call this organic growing. (laughs)

WAILIN: Phoenix Bean makes blocks of tofu from organic soybeans, and the company’s organic growth is now helping to create an entire city block of tofu production. Jenny couldn’t have predicted this journey when she impulsively decided to buy Phoenix Bean from Mr. Louie. All she had at that time was a sense that she wanted to take over the business. Jenny had felt that kind of certainty only one other time before.

JENNY: I know it’s very risky and we have to put our house—we have to sign everything, sign our life away to buy this building. But I felt, when I made the decision come to the United States and decided that I wanted to stay in the United States, I have the same feeling that I did the right thing. I said, “This feeling is actually even stronger than that decision that left my parents and family at home in Taiwan and come here by myself.” I said: If I made the right decision to come to the United States, I think the same feeling even stronger that was the tofu. I think we should give it a try.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Marc Schulman of Eli’s Cheesecake for his help with this story. If you’re not already subscribed to The Distance, please go to iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and hit subscribe. And while you’re at it, please rate and review us on iTunes! The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Knife Work If You Can Get It

Illustration by Nate Otto

In 1972, when two cousins opened Northwestern Cutlery, their knife rental and sharpening business, they chose a location in Chicago near the city’s meatpackers. Over the next decades, the dramatic transformation of the neighborhood around the business meant a nearly complete turnover in Northwestern Cutlery’s customer base — from industrial meatpackers to affluent gourmands.

Today, Marty Petlicki, the son-in-law of one of the original owners, runs Northwestern Cutlery. He’s honed his skills at the grindstone over many years while also paying keen attention to how his customers’ needs have changed during that time. The result is a store that calls itself “the candy store for cooks,” and it’s one of the few places you can get your knives hand-sharpened and buy professional grade bakeware or a three-foot-tall pepper mill. (I saw it on the shelf and Marty says it really works, so that’s a tip for anyone who’s opening a restaurant for giants.)

Transcript

WAILIN: Marty Petlicki learned how to sharpen knives 30 years ago while working at his father-in-law’s store, which rented knives to meat packers, butchers and delis around Chicago.

MARTY PETLICKI: There wasn’t a lot of training involved because it’s hard to tell somebody how to do that, because you have to get the feel for the knife on the grindstone. You just have to get used to it, and I kind of figured it out myself, but it took a long time. I didn’t always get to do the best customers with it, you know, I got to do the customers where they didn’t care that much. It was frustrating. There was a lot of holes in the wall where you’d get frustrated and you’d throw the knife and (laughs) yell real loud. There were never any customers in the store, so you didn’t have to worry about that, it was just a shop.

WAILIN: Things are much different these days at Northwestern Cutlery, the business that Marty Petlicki’s father-in-law started with a cousin in 1972. Marty’s now the owner. And the shop has gone from a small knife rental business to a full-fledged retail store that sells cookware and supplies to restaurant workers and home cooks.

MARTY: There’s still companies out there that that’s all they do, is they rent knives. We are getting away from that because the neighborhood is changing so much. As a business, you have to kind of go with the flow and let your customers dictate where the business goes.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Northwestern Cutlery went with the flow of a dramatically changing neighborhood, and ended up with a completely different kind of customer in the process. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small businesses stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

MARTY: It’s an old school shop, it’s not decorated very nice. It’s dusty. You know, the knife sharpening creates a lot of dust, so everything gets like that.

WAILIN: Marty’s father-in-law, Henry Colonna, opened the business with his cousin in 1972. He came from a part of northern Italy where knife sharpening was a specialty, and he practiced the trade in the U.S. before and after serving in the Korean War.

MARTY: Before he went into the army, he was working for somebody and they had a truck and the grindstone was inside the truck, attached to the drive line of the truck, so you’d turn the truck on and the grindstone would go and they would drive around and they would pull up to a butcher shop or a packing house in the stockyards. Everybody would run out.

WAILIN: After Henry got out of the Army, he ran his own shop out of his house on the northwest side of Chicago.

MARTY: He had a big grindstone in his basement. Everybody knows the story of the guy wheeling the grindstone down the alley, and that’s kind of what it was, was a big grindstone. It was just set up on a bench with a motor attached to it instead of pedaling it.

WAILIN: Henry’s cousin had his own knife sharpening business and in 1972, the two men combined their operations. Three years later, they moved the shop to a small brick building under the elevated train track in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood, where Northwestern Cutlery remains to this day. By the time they moved in, the area had already been an industrial food hub for over a century, and Henry and his cousin wanted to be near the meatpackers that populated the neighborhood. For many years, no one visited the store. There was no reason to, because Northwestern Cutlery made deliveries. Marty’s first job when he started working there in 1986 was driving the route.

MARTY: There was no phone, there was no GPS, there was a map and they would give me a stack of cards with the address on it and how much we charged the customer. I had all the knives rolled up in paper in the back of the—it was a station wagon, and all I had were these cards and I had to find the customer, go here you go, okay! (Laughs) So yeah, it took me a lot longer than normally, but I got it done and I would leave real early and come back at the very end of the day and they’d go, “Where were ya?” I’d go, “Where did you think I was?” I don’t know where I was, was what I told them, but I got everything done.

WAILIN: Eventually, Marty came inside and started sharpening knives. As he gained more responsibility at the shop, the area around it started to change. Here’s Michael Roberts, a longtime Northwestern Cutlery customer and fellow business owner in the neighborhood. He owns Prairie Production, a photo studio and event space, and he remembers what the area looked like when he moved there in 1982.

MICHAEL ROBERTS: The sidewalks were cracked up. There were hookers on Lake Street and meatpackers all night long up and down Randolph and Fulton.

WAILIN: For Michael, the neighborhood started changing in 1996, when then-Mayor Richard Daley cleaned up the area to get it ready for the Democratic National Convention. It was also around the late 90s and early 2000s that Marty started getting actual customers at his store.

MARTY: A few restaurants would start moving in onto Randolph Street and they would come in. They had their knives sharpened because they knew we were there, and they would ask for something, whether it would be a certain kind of tool to use in the kitchen and we’re like, “Okay yeah, we’ll get one for ya,” you know, because you never turn anything down, and a lot of times you’d say, “Yeah, we’d get one for ya,” and it’s like, “What is he talking about?” (Laughs) But you’d call somebody and you’d find out and you’d get one. You’d get one for him and we would get one for the store, and we’d put it in the store and if somebody else wanted it? Okay, then we would get more and it’s kind of how the store progressed, just by people asking for things.

WAILIN: Over at Michael Roberts’ photography studio, he was doing shoots for food clients who would sometimes need a certain kitchen gadget or tool at the last minute. He would send them to Northwestern Cutlery. And culinary schools came calling, needing knife kits for their students.

MARSHALL SHAFKOWITZ: We give them a ten-inch French knife, a twelve-inch slicer, a eight-inch bread knife, a paring knife, boning knife…

WAILIN: That’s Marshall Shafkowitz, the dean and executive director of the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute in Chicago. It’s the city’s oldest culinary school. Washburne students get their knife kit on the very first day of school. The set also includes a curved blade called a tourne knife, as well as some spatulas and spoons. Washburne was one of Northwestern Cutlery’s first cooking school customers, and while it’s since switched suppliers for the knife kits, Marty still gets business from culinary students looking to branch out beyond their school-issued tools.

MARSHALL: As students and as chefs, knives become incredibly personal, so it’s great that students learn on these generic knives that they can carry with them anywhere they go in the world, but as you gain confidence and gain skill, you begin to figure out what feels better in your hand. We give them the basics and then they start to build their additional pieces to their kit as they can afford them.

WAILIN: Culinary students eventually become professional chefs, which is the kind of customer Marty wants because they buy more expensive knives. So do many home cooks, especially ones that watch television and follow celebrity chefs.

MARTY: The biggest thing that has helped are the cooking shows because they have these chefs on there and they see the things that they use, and boy when they see it, they want it, you know, so if you’re watching a show and you see a new item that a chef is using, yeah you want to get it because people are gonna call and ask for it.

WAILIN: The shift in clientele meant Marty had to rethink his inventory, especially his knives. The economics of renting knives demanded relatively cheap ones that got the job done but were inexpensive enough for the store to make its money back on rentals. As Marty’s rental customers were supplanted by individual restaurant workers and home cooks, he needed to stock more high-end merchandise and rethink his sharpening services. A grindstone, which is used to thin out a knife or fix a broken tip, doesn’t have the precision and finesse needed for a high quality blade. For those jobs, you need a belt machine and bench stones of varying coarseness.

MARTY: Here, we’re using our belt machine and all this is for is putting new edges on the knives and we try to duplicate the manufacturer’s edge when we do this, so you’re taking off very little steel of the knife. You’re not trying to wear out the knife.

WAILIN: Knife sharpening is about feel and sound. There are subtle variations in how a knife sounds as it gets thinned out on the spinning disc of a grindstone or polished on a bench stone. Here’s Marty on the grindstone.

MARTY: Listening for consistency, the sound. Once you get a nice even sound, you know that you’ve put a proper bevel on the knife and thinned it out the way it should be.

WAILIN: It’s louder at the beginning because…?

MARTY: It’s louder at the beginning because the edge is uneven. You’re going through highs and lows on the steel of the knife so the pitch changes as you go over that, but as everything smooths out, you can tell that the sound always smooths out also.

WAILIN: On the bench stone, a small abrasive block used for the finest level of sharpening, Marty uses swift but sure hand movements to swipe the blade at an angle, producing just a whisper of a sound.

MARTY: You’re listening to it too, and you’ll notice that every step of the way, it gets a little quieter each time because you’re using a finer stone, less abrasive, so there’s less noise. We’ll start off with a coarse stone to establish the edge on it and put a new edge on there, and from there it’s a polishing process so the coarse stone is going to leave deep scratches in there, so then you want to polish those out, and the more stones you take to do that, the better the polish it’s going to be, the stronger and sharper the knife is going to be. But if you’re buying a knife that’s worth, you know 3, $400, maybe more, you really need to do it that way in order to do it justice to the knife and get the most out of it.

WAILIN: Northwestern Cutlery’s ability to do hand sharpening is what helps distinguish the business from what Marty calls the grinders, or the knife rental shops. He still rents knives to a small group of long-time customers, but he hasn’t taken new rental clients for six or seven years now. Many of his old meatpacking clients in the neighborhood have closed or relocated. His focus is on the premium sharpening and on refining his inventory, which includes not just a huge array of knives, but chef’s uniforms, bakeware, and modernist cooking tools like sodium hydroxide and sous vide equipment. The business calls itself the candy store for cooks.

MARTY: Tweezers. I never in my life thought that we would have 20 different types of tweezers on display but we do and we sell ’em all.

WAILIN: Marty tries to maintain the feel of a neighborhood store, something that resonates with locals like Michael Roberts, the photography studio owner.

MICHAEL: When I was a young child, my grandmother had a corner grocery store so you know, from the time I was a tiny child, that was what I found familiar and comfortable. So why would I go out of the neighborhood if I could get what I want here?

WAILIN: Marty’s owned the store since 2011, when his father-in-law, Henry Colonna, passed away. Northwestern Cutlery is serving a very different kind of customer now than when Henry ran the business, but Marty says he’s still putting into practice what he learned from his father-in-law about customer relationships.

MARTY: We’re in the service business, so you complete your service no matter what. So even today, somebody wants something special ordered, you do everything you can to help the customer and that’s from the beginning of the company. It’s always been that way, so it’s really locked into our company, whereas some companies don’t always do that. You know, they’re not service-orientated companies. They’re sales-orientated companies.

WAILIN: If you walk through Fulton Market today, the ongoing neighborhood transformation seems dramatic and relentless. The area is filling up with luxury condos, office buildings and restaurants. But for Marty, the way he’s adapted Northwestern Cutlery in the last couple decades has been a quieter, more gradual process. And that suits him just fine.

MARTY: We don’t need to grow, we don’t need to double business in six months. We hope to do better this year than we did last year, and we usually do that and it just kind of plods along but people, they hear about us and they come in. We don’t want to get too busy or too slow. That’s the way we’ve always worked it, really, we don’t look to move to a bigger building or anything like that. I’ve seen businesses do that and they end up just collapsing under their own weight. So we own the building, we own the parking lot next door and it works. We’ve got a good group of employees. Everybody’s been here for a long time. I try to take care of ’em the best I can and they take care of me, they’re all very good, I think, they’re happy working here, and that’s enough, you know, that makes for a happy existence.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Russ Maki for the introduction to Northwestern Cutlery. We featured Russ’ business, Graphic Conservation Company, on The Distance back in February. You can find that story, along with all other episodes, at thedistance.com, where you can also sign up for our newsletter. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

The Rubbish Boy

Illustration by Nate Otto

Brian Scudamore was 19 when he set up his junk-hauling business with a used pick-up truck and a stack of business cards. But his ambitions were always greater than being a one-man junk operation. Brian Scudamore wanted his company to have a brand as polished as FedEx or Starbucks, and he wanted it to be big. Today, 1–800-GOT-JUNK is in three countries, and Brian is using what he learned about franchising to take other unglamorous home services—moving, painting, gutter cleaning—and make them into big businesses.

This story is a bit of a departure for The Distance, even though it’s still about a business that’s at least 25 years old. Most of the business owners you hear from on the show are focused on slow growth or staying small. Brian Scudamore is all about scale and branding. He sells franchises, which is a model we haven’t explored on the show before. And he found a way to put a professional gloss on the dingy business of hauling away the industrialized world’s garbage—not bad for a former junk man.

P.S. Psssst! Have you rated and reviewed us on iTunes yet? We would love it if you did!


Transcript

WAILIN: Brian Scudamore is a minimalist. He drives a tiny Fiat 500 and he doesn’t have a desk at his office, or a computer. He does all his work on his iPhone. This would not be that remarkable if it weren’t for his job. Brian Scudamore is the founder of 1–800-GOT-JUNK. Maybe you’ve seen the company on Oprah or on the TV show Hoarders. Maybe you’ve seen his blue trucks driving around. They’re the ones that say 1–800-GOT-JUNK? in big white letters. Brian built a multinational company by asking people that one question. And, for hundreds of thousands of households across Canada, the U.S. and Australia, the answer is yes.

BRIAN SCUDAMORE: There’s a lot of junk out there. I’ve thought before of the number of trucks we have out there, about 2,000 trucks, and if I think of the billions of dollars worth of junk removal we’ve removed and how much space that takes—I think on a bigger level too just how wasteful the whole planet is. You know, it surprises me sometimes. If you think of how often we tear down homes and build new ones, and where does all this stuff go?

WAILIN: If there is any excess in Brian’s life, it’s been channeled into his business and the relentless way he’s marketed both his company and his own arc as a high school and college drop-out turned successful entrepreneur. Because for Brian, he may have started out as a junk man, but this is not a story about junk. Brian’s ambition is to take unglamorous home services — ones typically done by small, mom and pop operations, and make them into worldwide franchises.

BRIAN: We can find something like gutter cleaning, and gutter cleaning isn’t a sexy industry, but we can bring a fun, friendly brand and face to it that makes people go, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, a master class in branding and empire building from a junk man. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

BRIAN: I think most people that go start a home service business like windows and gutters or moving, they’re technicians. They’re people who, “Hey, I worked for a moving company, I can go do this myself.” Well, that’s not what we’re doing. We are coming in saying, “Let’s build and scale something as a national brand,” and it’s a different approach.

WAILIN: Remember Brian’s tiny car? It’s emblazoned on all sides with the logos of his brands. There’s 1–800-GOT-JUNK, of course, but there’s also three other businesses: Wow One Day Painting, You Move Me and Shack Shine. Wow One Day Painting is just what it sounds like, a service that finishes a paint job in a single day. You Move Me is a moving company, and Shack Shine cleans windows and gutters. The four businesses bring in more than $200 million in combined revenue and fall under a corporation Brian named O2E Brands. The O2E stands for ordinary to exceptional.

VANESSA WOZNOW: Here on the floor, you can see, um, we have a threshold. It says, are you ready to be exceptional? Because everything that we do…

WAILIN: That’s Vanessa Woznow, the national public relations manager at O2E Brands. She’s showing me around the company headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s called the Junktion with a K, and touring the office feels a bit like taking an intensive motivational seminar based on Brian’s career and the history of the company. The conference rooms are named after acronyms like IAAP, a Brian catchphrase that means “It’s All About People.” That same quote is on the wall, along with an illustrated timeline of the company and images from Brian’s life. One conference room has a blown-up version of a self-portrait he made at age four.

VANESSA: It’s him, thinking about what he’s going to be when he grows up, and you can see he’s got a little broom and he’s cleaning up some papers, one of which has his name on it, and, you know, call it serendipity, call it fate, maybe he always understood that he was going to be a junk man in his life.

WAILIN: Brian’s story starts in 1989, when he was 19 years old and sitting in the drive-through of a Vancouver McDonald’s, staring at the pick-up truck in front of him. He had dropped out of high school and talked his way into college, but needed a way to pay for it. The pick-up truck was filled with junk and had a sign that said Mark’s Hauling. Brian thought to himself, maybe I can do something like that. He spent $700 on his own truck and started knocking on doors. His first job involved picking up some concrete.

BRIAN: It was me looking it up in the phone book where the dump was, and took the concrete off to be disposed of and realized okay, pretty simple business model. Knock on someone’s door, haul away their junk, take it to a landfill or a transfer station and dispose of it and rinse, repeat, you know, it was great. We were called the Rubbish Boys and I put an ad in the local newspaper. It was a classified ad and it said that I’d haul your junk away, and my slogan was “We’ll stash your trash in a flash.” And I got calls, and within one day, I had business. Within two weeks, my company paid for itself.

WAILIN: There are many ways to make money from junk. You could go through people’s garbage, looking for stuff to sell. You could be the junkyard that sells scavenged metal to a larger scrap processor, all the way up the chain to a Chinese factory making appliances from recycled metal to sell back to the US. Brian chose to be in the junk removal business. People pay him to take away the stuff that their local waste services won’t take, or that they just don’t know what to do with.

BRIAN: My method of making money, I realized early on, was being that service-based business, taking the junk away. I could have sold some of the stuff that I hauled away and over the years, I’ve tried to do a bit of that, but I realized that there wasn’t as much money to be made. In fact, it’s very cost prohibitive to try and sort out all the junk and all the materials to be recycled. Often, the easiest way is to be the transport company that takes it to one big warehouse, what we call a transfer station, and let them sort and recycle. We’re just the hauling business.

WAILIN: Brian also wanted his junk removal business to have a polished image: Clean trucks, professional drivers in uniforms, white glove service. He took his inspiration from companies like FedEx and Starbucks that are ubiquitous and standardized across all their locations. And Brian discovered, completely by accident, that people were willing to pay for a premium junk hauling service.

BRIAN: I looked in the local newspapers where we advertised and found out what the competitors were charging, and picked a rate similar. I remember we were about $80 a pick-up truck load and then a few years later, we got an article in the local newspaper, the Vancouver Province. We were on the front page of the newspaper, and somehow they misquoted our price and the reporter wrote that we charged $138 a load. I don’t know where she got that number from, but what happened was our rates effectively went way up, and we realized people were paying that fee and we realized that as we were professionalizing the business, that cost money, and so that extra rate made that possible.

WAILIN: That was 1992, and Brian’s business was still The Rubbish Boys. It wasn’t until 1998 that he renamed the company 1–800-GOT-JUNK, partially to capitalize on the popularity of the Got Milk advertising campaign. The toll-free number belonged to the Idaho Department of Transportation, which — according to company lore — gave Brian the number after he called them 59 times. Now he had a catchy name that was also the business phone number and made his trucks into big, mobile billboards. Here’s Zara Calvo, who’s worked at O2E Brands since 2004. Her first job was answering phones at the company’s call center, which today handles 9,000 calls a day.

ZARA CALVO: They would just see the truck going down the street so when you’d answer the call, most likely it was people asking what you are and what you do. What I remember from being on the phones is how often they would mention the truck, and “Oh, I just saw your truck, you know, driving down the road and what do you do? I have stuff, can you come pick it up right away?”

WAILIN: By 1997, Brian was ready to expand beyond Vancouver. This is the part where McDonald’s comes back into the story, about eight years after he spotted the junk truck in a Vancouver drive-through.

BRIAN: I’d always loved Ray Kroc’s model of franchising. And I loved the fact that he was able to grow something quite quickly around the world through a franchise model, so I wanted to do this with other people.

WAILIN: That’s Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s into a global behemoth. Brian wanted to do for junk removal what Ray Kroc did for Big Macs. He just had to figure out how to do it.

BRIAN: When I started advertising franchises for sale, 1–800-GOT-JUNK, nobody understood why they would buy a junk removal franchise. They thought, “Why wouldn’t I just get out and buy my own truck and start hauling junk just like you did, Brian Scudamore?” And I realized that I had to have something added to my business that really made it franchise-able, something that was a barrier, that prevented others from from getting into the business without us.

WAILIN: To belabor this McDonald’s analogy, you might say that Brian was looking for that special sauce. The brand recognition that he was building with his new 1–800-GOT-JUNK name was an important ingredient. Then he did what successful franchisors do — he created a playbook that he could hand to a potential franchisee and say, “Look, here’s how you set up and run a junk hauling operation.”

BRIAN: I took everything in my business and figured out how to put every best practice down to one page: How do you price jobs, how do you market the business when things are slow, how do you find great people, how do you train your people, how do you answer phones in the call center, what’s the script?

WAILIN: Toronto was the first official 1–800-GOT-JUNK franchise. A year later, in 2000, the first US franchise opened in Portland. Today, 1–800-GOT-JUNK has about 200 franchises in three countries. Brian’s model of a premium junk removal service works best in densely populated areas with a certain level of affluence. Simply put: The richer you are, the more stuff you’ll throw away, and the more likely you are to toss something rather than reuse it. This is true of both households and companies. 1–800-GOT-JUNK works with corporations like Victoria’s Secret, CVS and J Crew, which use its services across locations nationwide to haul away unwanted store fixtures and mannequins.

SCOTT PARRY: My record is 150 trucks at a single department store in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and that job took most of a month to complete…

WAILIN: That’s Scott Parry, a national account manager.

SCOTT: In one job we did at an Arby’s in Florida, we were removing just a whole pile of trash that was outside and we found a gun in there, so we had to stop and call the authorities at that point. It was mostly expired roast beef that had been out in the sun for a week, so not a pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination. They also found some pornography in the same pile of trash, so it was just like a little slice of America right there.

WAILIN: Not only did franchising 1–800-GOT-JUNK allow Brian to blanket Canada and the US with his trucks, but he also realized that the systems he built for junk removal — from the call center to sales and marketing strategies — could be easily adapted to other home services. He acquired Wow One Day Painting after he hired the business to do a job at his house and was impressed with the work. You Move Me was started in-house at O2E Brands after Brian had a miserable experience moving. And the newest brand, Shack Shine, came from an entrepreneur who approached Brian about a partnership. O2E is selling franchises for all of its businesses. For Brian, it’s an alternative to other ways of growing his company.

BRIAN: I didn’t have to get out there and raise venture capital. I didn’t take the company public. I went out there and found other people that wanted to build this with me, and that’s what franchising is. They pay a franchise fee for my expertise and knowhow. And then we scale it together. You bring on more franchise partners and more investment, and off you grow again.

WAILIN: The strategy of expanding via a network of franchisees is also an answer to some of Brian’s early setbacks with The Rubbish Boys. He had tried partnerships twice before — once at the start of his business with a roommate in Montreal, where he briefly attended college, and a year after that with a friend from French immersion camp. Neither arrangement worked out. But recruiting franchise owners has paid off.

BRIAN: We have all these entry-preneurs, people that find their entry point into the world of entrepreneurship with us, and so I can relate to that loneliness of starting a business from scratch on your own. We take that pain away for entrepreneurs and have them welcomed into the O2E Brands family so we can build something together.

WAILIN: There was also a failed attempt in 2005 to expand 1–800-GOT-JUNK into the United Kingdom. Brian says they hired the wrong guy to oversee that market and had to pull out after nine months. Today, O2E franchisees undergo a rigorous screening process.

BRIAN: We help them create a budget and we walk them through the cash needs and the requirements and it’s almost an entrance exam, if you will, of just really make sure that this person has their ducks in a row and they know what they’re getting into, ‘cause building a business isn’t easy. While we might make it easier, it still is a risk and it’s tough, but we’re careful. And by the time we’ve brought that person on board, we believe that their chances of success are quite strong.

WAILIN: When you hear Brian talk about his different brands, including 1–800-GOT-JUNK, you realize that the actual mechanics of these businesses — how to load a truck or paint a wall — are almost incidental to the system that Brian figured out for branding, franchising and getting big. He wants O2E Brands to encompass 10 different home service businesses by the end of 2021.

BRIAN: It’s amazing how similar moving is, painting, junk removal, gutters and windows. I mean, they’re home services. They require friendly, happy people who have an attention to detail and do a great job, who follow up, great communication. They’re different in their execution of putting paint on walls or putting junk in the back of a truck, but really, you can teach anyone how to do any of those businesses. They’re not crafts. They’re customer service-based businesses.

WAILIN: It’s not so much about the physical labor for Brian as much as the emotional labor — being able to provide friendly, professional service when you’re fielding a phone call from a stressed-out customer or walking into the home of a hoarder. As Brian is fond of saying: It’s all about people.

BRIAN: Sometimes you’re moving and you’re hauling away junk and someone’s going through a divorce. You’ve got to be careful what you’re getting involved in and how to talk to people. So we try, with any of our businesses, have a level of empathy. It’s one of our core values and paying attention to how someone feels and what they might be going through, and people can be grumpy on moving day ‘cause moving makes you grumpy. And if we can come in and make it almost fun at times, that’s where I think we can treat someone like a friend and be a little empathetic and crack some jokes, have some fun, and make their day a little bit easier.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Please tune in next week, when I ride along on a 1–800-GOT-JUNK truck in Vancouver. The easiest way to get that episode when it’s released is to subscribe to The Distance on iTunes, Google Play Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Ice, ice baby

Illustration by Nate Otto

In the 1970s, ice carving was the province of chefs at high-end hotels that made the sculptures part of their decor for Sunday brunch. (It was a lot of swans.) Jim Nadeau came out of this tradition, having been trained by an imposing German chef who delivered his feedback in the form of kicking Jim’s sculptures off the hotel’s loading dock.

In 1980, Jim got the idea to start his own ice carving business in the Chicago area. Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures was among the first specialty carving shops to open and helped take the craft out of upscale hotel kitchens and into the mass market.

Word to your mother!

Transcript

WAILIN: Entrepreneurs who are just starting out dream of getting their first big break, a life-changing opportunity that will launch their career. For Jim Nadeau, his lucky moment came out of what he thought was a total catastrophe. It was February 1982, and Jim was two years into his Chicago ice sculpture business, which was still struggling to find customers.

JIM NADEAU: Without a clientele, it’s not like I had a lot to do, you know, other than to try to market myself. In 1982, Jane Byrne was the mayor and she had an event called Loop Alive, and it was to stimulate business in downtown. You’d get people in town and spend money and have fun. So I contacted their office of special events to donate an ice carving, and they were reluctant at first but you know what? What harm?

WAILIN: Jim decided he would carve all the instruments of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Eighty-eight instruments in all plus a life-size statue of legendary conductor Sir Georg Solti holding his baton. The project took two months and looked great.

JIM: The bad news is it was very warm that week and it was melting pretty quickly. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I did all this work and it’s gonna be gone.”

WAILIN: Jim was horrified, watching poor Sir George Solti’s arms melt off his body. But then the local news stations saw what was happening.

JIM: The newscasters would contact me every night on all three networks and use it as a weather front. They’d stand in front, would interview me as the weather story in front of this thing, and we’re now taking requests for “You Are My Sunshine.” So everybody saw it on TV and immediately the phones started ringing and never stopped, so it was really a fluke thing that I thought was like, “Oh, it’s the biggest disaster of my life.” You know, I spent a lot of money and a lot of time developing, and it turned out to be one of the best things ever in my business.

WAILIN: Thirty-four years later, the phones are still ringing at Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures in Forest Park, Illinois. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Jim Nadeau took ice carving out of the world of upscale hotel kitchens and into the mass market. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

JIM: I love this argument, when people say, “It’s water, it’s gonna melt.” That’s true. But you know what? You’re having an event for these six, eight hours, whatever it is. Your band is gonna walk away. The flowers are gonna die. You’re gonna eat the meal. They’re gonna turn the lights off the banquet hall. Everything’s done. Does it really matter that the ice eventually is gonna melt? Everything’s going to disappear, so it’s art for the moment. It’s a very temporary — but it’s yours.

WAILIN: No matter what that piece of art is — a city skyline, a pair of intertwined swans, a human skull that you can pour vodka through so it emerges from the mouth perfectly cold — all of Jim’s sculptures start as 40 by 20 by 10-inch blocks of ice weighing 300 pounds apiece. Ice carving is subtractive, meaning you take ice away until you get the shape you want. In the early days of Jim’s career, before he started using chainsaws and other power tools, he did this all by hand with a pronged chipper.

JIM: So I’d hit it and I’d know I’d be five inches in on a 10-inch block because my fingers would start to bleed, and then you’d go to the other side and make the connection and then take a chisel in, really fine tune that. Believe me, back in the day, it was really hard to do our jobs.

WAILIN: There’s nothing easy about the way Jim got his start. Back in the early 70s, he was working as a line cook in the kitchen of a Marriott hotel in Boston. At this time, decorative sculptures made out of ingredients like chocolate, tallow, butter or ice were a common feature of Sunday brunches at high-end hotels, and the pieces were done by chefs. The ice sculptures were usually swans, clamshells or baskets, and sometimes they held fruit or shrimp cocktail. Jim came to work one day in 1975 and saw a chef on the hotel’s loading dock, carving a 440-pound block of ice.

JIM: I was like, “Wow, this is really neat,” and I says, “Chef, can I learn?” And his name was Horst. There you go, that tells it all. “Nadeau, come in on your own time.” That was never my name, but that’s what he called me, Nadeau. So every time I knew he was going to carve, I’d stop and watch him. The guy ended up being a marshmallow but you’d never know it. He had such a rough exterior. I learned a great deal from this man. And so he’s carving and one day I come to work, and there’s a block of ice on the dock and he hands me the tools. He came back four and a half hours later and it was so bad he kicked it off the loading dock—never uttered a word, just kicked it off the dock, turned around, went back in the chef’s office. Now I’m standing there and I’m a kid and I’m devastated, I’m thinking, “Oh my God.” A week later, there’s another block of ice, he hands me the tools. And he did it again and he did it again and he did it again. Not a minute of instruction, and then maybe seven, eight weeks go by. Finally, he walks over with just the most beautiful words I ever heard: “It’ll do.” (Laughs) I’m telling you, I was on cloud nine for “It’ll do.” ‘Cause he had very high standards.

WAILIN: From then on, Jim carved a swan every Sunday for brunch service. By 1980, he had been promoted and was working for Marriott in Chicago. That’s when he got the idea to start his own ice carving business.

JIM: Every single time that I would carve, people would drop by and stop, or when I’d set it up in the room or I’d be walking through the room, people were just, “Wow.” There was a really great attraction to the ice. There’s just something about an ice carving that gets your attention and I thought, “Well geez, if we could do this at a hotel and people respond to it, why can’t we just do it in general?”

WAILIN: Jim had a hunch that there would be people out there willing to buy ice sculptures for special occasions. But customers didn’t just start showing up. And he didn’t have many resources at the beginning. He worked out of the local ice company where he bought his raw materials and made all the deliveries himself in an old Dodge van. He painted houses and bartended at a downtown Chicago hotel to make ends meet. Then, in 1982, Jim’s melting Chicago Symphony Orchestra made him a local celebrity, and word started to get around.

JIM: I had the market to myself for many, many, many years so it would not be unusual for me to take my product and go other places like for example, we did a train in New Jersey for Nabisco world headquarters, and the train was 100 feet long, 13 and a half feet tall, weighed 84 tons and they filled it full of Oreo cookies for an employee Christmas party. Today, they could call five different ice carving companies in that market to do it. Back then, it was just me.

WAILIN: Jim marketed his ice carvings to banquet halls, restaurants and hotels — places that held upscale events but didn’t have chefs on staff that knew how to carve ice. And then even the high-end hotels, the industry where Jim got his training, took notice. Here’s Chef Chris Koetke, vice president of the school of culinary arts at Kendall College in Chicago. He used to work at Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures and Jim also taught ice carving at Kendall College for several years.

CHRIS KOETKE: People in the hotels start to say, well, why do we want people who carve ice, you know? It’s messy to do in a hotel. The results aren’t always so great. There’s a liability of power tools and chainsaws and why do we want that when we can go buy this ice that people like Jim make, which are just spectacular. They’re beautiful. Everybody outsources it now. So that’s been in the space of 40 years, a huge transformation in the world of ice carving.

WAILIN: Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures was among the first standalone ice carving shops to open, and Jim helped catalyze this shift away from hotel and country club kitchens and toward specialty businesses like his. By 1988, Jim was doing well enough to get his own building and start making ice in house.

JIM: We’re like ice farmers here, and this is only a portion of it. This is 15 tanks and we have more in the back. I don’t know where we are with this. Let’s just open up this tank just for the heck of it and see where we are. All right, here’s an example where we have product frozen inside…

WAILIN: In Jim’s business, the ice has to be absolutely transparent — so crystal clear that when he freezes paper currency inside a block of ice, you can read the serial numbers on the bills. That burbling water sound is produced by something called a Clinebell machine, which uses a pump to keep the water in the tank circulating and allows air to escape so there’s no cloudiness. The ice freezes slowly from the bottom up, taking four days to make a 300-pound block.

Sound of power saw

HAWK: My name’s Ermond Hawk Ramirez. I’m called Hawk throughout the industry, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Today we’ll be working on some cranes for, uh, upcoming delivery on Saturday and um, just cutting the blocks down right now so we can get prepared, ready to go.

WAILIN: When Hawk said he was making cranes, I was picturing birds. But he’s talking about heavy machinery. He’s making 70-inch cranes for a construction industry event that will also feature a liquor luge in the shape of a tractor — that’s an ice sculpture that you can pour liquor through. Elsewhere in the shop, another one of Jim’s employees is preparing plain blocks of ice for sushi restaurants or cocktail bars, the kind where the bartender chisels the ice for your drink in front of you. Those regular restaurant orders are on the simple end of things. From there, Jim’s repertoire really takes off. A standard ice carving, something like a monogram for a wedding, for example, will run between five and six hundred dollars, which includes delivery. Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures also does live carving demonstrations at community festivals and special events.

JIM: It’s all freehand. You look at a picture and you carve it out, you know, and I’m one of the lucky guys, although I never took an art course in my life, neither has Hawk. We’re definitely the older generation of ice carvers, um, it’s in our heads.

WAILIN: About 15 years ago, Jim bought his first computer-programmed CNC machine, which carves flat panels of ice and is used mostly for corporate jobs where a company’s logo has to be perfectly duplicated over and over. This kind of work — etching the names of banks and law firms into slabs of ice — isn’t the most glamorous, but it’s important to Jim’s business. Here’s Chris Koetke again.

CHRIS: Jim doesn’t always get a lot of national attention in the ice world because what people always talk about with ice carvings are people who compete. Jim built a business out of ice. I remember him telling me that he made a conscious decision not to compete. He realized that you can’t make a living, you can’t build a business around competition. And the kind of carvings one does for competition have really no business value. For a couple getting married, do they want an ice carving of you know, the tiger leaping out of the cave about to devour the unsuspecting antelope? You know, what they want to see is a bride and groom dancing, a couple interlocking hearts, you know, with their names etched in them. Now those will never win a competition because they’re not avant garde enough, they’re not daring. So that was his decision and I think that was correct, I mean, he has kept a lot of people with a steady income for many, many years.

WAILIN: Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures has eight full-time employees and another 12 part-timers, mostly weekend drivers for wedding deliveries. The business used to have a staff of 35, but it’s still recovering from the latest recession.

JIM: We really took a hit in 2008, I mean, huge. Corporate America stopped dead. Weddings that were already booked, they meandered for another year, year and a half but trickled because Mom and Dad aren’t working, they’re not gonna do frills, and it’s never recovered. We’re meaner and leaner, but um, it’s very different now.

WAILIN: The business started offering ways for customers to save money, like instead of paying for delivery, they could pick up their sculptures themselves. And Jim and his wife, who was the office manager and passed away in 2014, made sacrifices to ensure the business’ survival during those lean years.

JIM: We reinvested our personal savings, $400,000, to keep the place going, and did not take a salary for four years, just to keep this place alive or it would’ve been gone.

WAILIN: The ice carving industry looks much different than it did when Jim was almost singlehandedly creating it back in 1980. There are hundreds of companies like Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures across the country now, with several in the Chicago area alone. What hasn’t changed is how people react to ice: The way they’ll watch, mesmerized, during live carving demonstrations, or how they want to touch the finished sculpture. Jim believes that once someone orders their first ice carving for that wedding or birthday or baptism, they’ll be hooked.

JIM: We call it ice for life and really, you could go through your entire life and have memories of the ice carving that you’ve had over the years. I’m just glad that people recognize the value in what we do because they come back and say God, they don’t remember anything other than the ice carving from that event.

WAILIN: One carving that Jim still remembers, 34 years later, is Sir Georg Solti and the 88 instruments of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There’s someone else that took notice of that sculpture too.

JIM: Horst, the guy who trained me seven years earlier in Boston, recently had just gotten transferred to the O’Hare Marriott. So I meet him, you know, on his day off. And he’s standing there, and remember he’s seven foot tall and I’m short, and he’s just—he’s like in awe. He’s seeing all the instruments and the human figure of Georg Solti and he looks down at me: “Nadeau, you come a long way since the swans.” It was so fricking wonderful to get that affirmation from him.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Jonna Peterson and Ann Goliak for their help with this story. If we have any listeners who will be at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago this week, I will be speaking on a panel about branded podcasts. Please check out the session and say hello! I’d love to meet you in person. That’s Friday at 10:15 am. Speaking of branded podcasts, did you know The Distance is a production of Basecamp? It’s the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Did you read all the way down to the bottom? Good job! Here is a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best lines from Batman & Robin.

Humble Adobe

Illustration by Nate Otto

Santa Fe, New Mexico is home to around 200 art galleries. Even in this thriving art scene, Nedra Matteucci’s gallery stands out. The 44-year-old gallery, which she bought in 1988, is housed in an adobe compound spanning two acres, and the business takes a grounded approach to fine art. If visiting the Nedra Matteucci Galleries feels like you’re stepping into someone’s home, it’s because Nedra, a New Mexico native who got her start selling paintings on the road, has made approachability part of the overall experience.

Transcript

WAILIN: Three decades ago, when Nedra Matteucci and her husband bought their first-ever piece of art, it was a big step. They had been visiting galleries together since they were dating, but this was their first purchase.

NEDRA: It was a lithograph for $125 and we asked if it came framed, so we have come quite a ways from that. I didn’t grow up with paintings in my home. I grew up in southeastern New Mexico, uh, small farming town south of Roswell. We raised cotton and alfalfa and since then, it’s become a dairy community. And that southeastern part of the state is oil and gas too so yes, we had a little Texas twang, but it was New Mexico twang (laughs).

WAILIN: Today Nedra is an established art collector, dealer and gallery owner, but she’s kept that New Mexico twang. It’s an important part of the business she runs in Santa Fe, one of the country’s biggest art markets. A century ago, artists came to this town, drawn by the beautiful light, rugged landscape and unique cultural mix of the American southwest. They helped establish an artistic tradition that’s distinctive from the coasts. And the Nedra Matteucci Galleries, which first opened in 1972 and is housed in a historic adobe compound on two acres, stands out even among Santa Fe’s two hundred some galleries, thanks to its history, size and the way it makes fine art accessible. Here’s Dustin Belyeu, who’s been the director at Nedra Matteucci Galleries for 12 years.

DUSTIN: We don’t want people to be intimidated at the gallery. We want them to come in here and really have a good time. We encourage our sales staff and people to stand up and say “Hi, how can I help you? Where are you visiting from?” The other thing is we like anybody to be able to walk away with something from their experience here. Not everybody can afford a $100,000 piece of art, not everybody can afford a $1,000 piece of art, but most people can maybe afford a bracelet that’s $250 or a little piece of pottery that’s $75. And it’s important for Nedra, especially from her background and how she started in this business, for anybody to be able to have that experience and walk away with a nice piece of art from an institution, a place like this.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses and the people behind them. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Nedra Matteucci has maintained her down-to-earth approach to fine art over a career spanning more than 30 years. The Distance is brought to you by Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

NEDRA: It’s a different world, you know. Bankers don’t understand it. It’s not like any other business there is. There’s not a set mark-up. There’s not set prices, you know, each object is a piece of art and it’s handled differently, sold differently. So it’s really a complicated business to explain, I’d say, but you learn every day.

WAILIN: In the early eighties, Nedra was a collector. Her first purchases were works on paper because they were affordable. Then she and her husband got interested in pieces by contemporary Native American artists and later on, historic works by artists who came to New Mexico in the late 1800s. Within a few years, their walls began to fill up. And that’s how she shifted to the other side of the transaction.

NEDRA: I had wall-to-ceiling paintings and then I’d find something I liked better, so I’d have to sell something else, started selling to girls I played tennis with and I’d gone to a boarding school in El Paso and I’d go to El Paso and sell and met people and sell on the road and worked with a small museum in El Paso exhibiting paintings, and that’s how I started representing some of the living artists, by taking their paintings to this show in El Paso, a museum show.

WAILIN: It’s easy to think of selling art as an ultra-rarefied line of work, a gallery owner meeting with clients in pristine, museum-like spaces. And there’s certainly an element of that at Nedra’s gallery. On the day we talked, she was wearing a tailored tweed skirt suit and we sat at a table adorned with a Fernando Botero sculpture selling for six figures. The front room has a small Georgia O’Keeffe painting of plums in a dish priced at $850,000. But in those early, scrappier days, Nedra was loading her car with paintings and sculptures and driving the four hours from Albuquerque to El Paso.

NEDRA: I was taking a bunch down one time and one was a stone sculpture and my husband says — he had to put in the car — and he says, “Geez, do you have to sell stone?” (Laughs)

WAILIN: Nedra’s burgeoning career as an itinerant art dealer eventually brought her to Santa Fe and its thriving art scene — and one gallery in particular, owned by a well-known art dealer named Forrest Fenn, who in 1972 had taken a run-down property and built it into a large compound.

NEDRA: I drove up here and the first time the gallery was very intimidating, so I drove back to Albuquerque. My husband said no you go back out there, and so I tried to sell him a painting and he said, “Well, why don’t you sell some of mine?”

WAILIN: That was a big break for Nedra. Forrest Fenn consigned paintings to her and she would sell them, and that turned into a part-time job at the gallery where she studied auction records and immersed herself in the art business. She eventually opened her own small gallery in 1986. And then, two years later, Nedra got a life-changing surprise.

NEDRA: My husband came home and said he bought this gallery (laughs). So he bought me a very big job. I cried every day for a month, but fortunately if I hadn’t worked here, I wouldn’t know how it operated, and I had that advantage for this.

WAILIN: The Forrest Fenn gallery had been on the market for a few years, and Nedra and her husband were longtime admirers of the building and the grounds. The space couldn’t be more different than the austere, modern white-walled boxes you might associate with art galleries. Here, at what’s now called the Nedra Matteucci Galleries, you ramble through different rooms of a sprawling adobe estate and make your way to a backyard garden with a goldfish pond and large sculptures, like an elephant on its hind legs spraying real water into the air. There’s an extensive research library, a courtyard built around a gnarly old tree, and guest quarters with a sauna and hot tub. As a teenager, Dustin Belyeu lived in an apartment above the gallery when his mother, Nedra’s sister, moved to Santa Fe to run the gallery’s finances.

NEDRA: This building, parts are over 200 years old, some of it’s 50 years old, some 70. The back room at one time had even been a foundry. It’s adobe. It’s more like I bought an institution. We have two guest houses for clients, friends. The artists stay there. It’s not just a gallery. You have a big operation.

WAILIN: Overnight visitors stay on the site for free, and the gallery staff can hang specific works in the guest house so that potential buyers get a feel for what it’s like to live with those pieces. This same idea flows throughout the gallery, parts of which have an informal, lived-in quality to it. It’s a kind of studied casualness, and part of the subtle salesmanship the gallery uses to put the art in its best light. Dustin, who worked at the New York auction house Sotheby’s for three years before joining his aunt’s gallery, decides which pieces go where, and how they’re displayed. One room used to be part of Forrest Fenn’s family home but is now part of the gallery and dedicated to the work of living artists, with some pieces resting on the floor and leaned up against furniture.

DUSTIN: That’s what Forrest Fenn did when he built this place. Instead of building it to look like every other art gallery, he wanted it to look like a home, so that you could visualize what these pieces of art could look like in your home. And then Nedra’s carried on that tradition a hundred percent and it’s one of the biggest challenges with this space, as big as it is, to hang each room uniquely but to have a feel with the art that they all fit together.

WAILIN: Nedra is especially proud of the sculpture garden. It was Forrest Fenn’s private yard when he owned the gallery, and Nedra wanted a space to display and sell very large pieces. Her interest in representing sculpture artists started when she opened her first, small gallery in 1986. She knew of an artist named Dan Ostermiller, an American known for his large-scale animal sculptures.

NEDRA: He had two big rabbits I saw him making at a big outdoor sculpture show and I called him and I said, “Could I represent you? I’d love to have those two big rabbits in front of my gallery on the corner to draw people in ’cause I’m not in a great location.” He said, “I would love to, but the problem is I can’t afford to cast them.” I said, “How much does that cost?” And he told me and I said, “I’ll find the money, so put them through the foundry,” and so we’ve grown together for over 30 years. He was my first sculptor I had.

WAILIN: Today, the sculpture garden at the Nedra Matteucci Galleries is filled with Dan Ostermiller’s pieces, and visitors are encouraged to touch them. The garden is perhaps where the idea of approachable art, which is present all through the gallery, is truly put into practice.

DUSTIN: We have one artist who lost his vision in Vietnam, a blind sculptor named Michael Naranjo, and he helped us get to the point where we want kids, we want people to engage with this art. Not a hands-off, like “Don’t touch that”, that’s something we try not to say here ever because he talked about when he was a kid, going to museums and galleries, and always being told, “Don’t touch that,” and it discouraged him and it made him not want to be an artist or around art. He wants to do the opposite, help people engage with the art, have a connection to it, beyond something that’s just there to look at. We take that a step further with most of the sculptures. We’re happy to have kids touch ’em, uh especially the big ones outside that can’t, you know, fall off a table or something and I think parents really enjoy it, you know? Because they walk in and start to do that “Don’t touch this” and we’re like “No, go to the garden, let the kids, you know, engage with these things and have fun with them.”

WAILIN: As a gallery owner and art dealer, Nedra serves as a bridge between artists and buyers, and to be successful, it’s important to cultivate long term relationships with both groups. At this point in Nedra’s career, there are more living artists who want the gallery to represent them than there is wall space. She estimates that she turns down about a dozen artists every month. Finding customers, especially new ones who have never bought art before, is a different challenge.

NEDRA: We’ve tried advertising in younger magazines ’cause when we first bought the gallery, it was already an older, established group of collectors and you have to get always find new and younger ones. And when you find someone under 40 buying, you’re just excited. That’s one reason we did more living artists at a price range where everybody can afford something and start collecting. We have living artists that you can buy a painting, you know, for $1,000, to $70,000 for instance, and you know, then you go into the deceased area, you’re looking at starting at the low end $25,000, I would say, you know, up to over a million. There’s not everybody that can do that. But we have such a good variety of paintings.

WAILIN: Nedra’s gallery has other advantages too: its history with Forrest Fenn and its unique space, which makes it a destination for the tourists that visit Santa Fe. But Nedra and her staff can’t just coast on reputation. Every sale counts, and prices can vary dramatically with shifts in the broader art market. Remember that small Georgia O’Keeffe painting selling for $850,000? That might seem high for a piece that’s only 7 by 9 inches, but an O’Keeffe just sold for $12.9 million at a Christie’s auction in May. That kind of milestone helps justify the price tag on the O’Keeffe that Nedra is selling — which, by the way, has an interested buyer. You can tell because there’s an orange dot sticker on the little sign next to the painting.

DUSTIN: It’s totally unpredictable and it’s seasonal. The summer season is when you’re busy, you know, you’re gonna sell more art than in the middle of the winter or the early spring in New Mexico, which isn’t the best time of year to be here. There’s no actual numbers we have out there we try to hit. We try to sell as much art as we can every single month and if you cover the bills that month and make some money, that’s fabulous. Some months you do fall a little short, but, um, it’s just a daily business that we every single day reach out to people, talk to people in the gallery, try to sell art.

NEDRA: Getting good paintings, historical paintings, is the hardest. There’s fewer paintings coming on the market and you have tremendous competition now is your auctions. There’s a lot of small auctions, plus the big auction houses, so we’re all going for the same pie. And you just, uh, do your best and we’re, uh, very honest. We’re very fast payers and we’re frank, and I think that is one quality that we have that stands out and has been carried on through the years.

WAILIN: Today, Nedra is thinking about selling the big compound and scaling down. This is part of a long-term plan she’s been working on. In 2002, she acquired a gallery called Morningstar, which specializes in Native American antiquities. She closed her original gallery in 2010 after a 24-year run. Her goal is to eventually consolidate everything at Morningstar, which is much smaller than the old Forrest Fenn property and happens to be adjacent to her house in Santa Fe.

NEDRA: I’m already excited about the plans I have for it and to go forward that way. So I feel like it’s not giving up something, I’m gaining another phase of my life. I know exactly what I want to do with it. And we’ll still have room for outdoor sculpture because I have property behind me and I have about an acre of my own house I can break off for the gallery to use too. I have this all planned, so I’m not worried about it in the least. The part I’m worried about is how long it’ll take us to get this all out of here (laughs). And where we’re gonna put everything.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Nat Chakeres for his help with this story. You can find our show at thedistance.com, on iTunes, where we would love it if you rated and reviewed us, and on Google Play Music. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

2 Sisters 2 Sandwich

Part Two of a conversation between small business owners

Last week, we tried a new format with The Distance. We had the owners of Lively Athletics, a women’s apparel and running shoe store in Oak Park, Illinois, interview the owner of Starship, a long-time sandwich shop in the neighboring suburb of Forest Park. The first half of their conversation covered topics like growth, competition and burnout. In the second installment, which you can listen to below, they talk about social media, the dark side of couponing and what’s next for all of them.

Transcript

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. We’re taking a break from our usual format and trying something new: a conversation between small business owners, one with decades of experience and another who’s starting out. Today, part two of a chat between Paul McKenna and sisters Anne Pezalla and Kate Pezalla Marlin. If you missed part one last week, be sure to go back and check it out. Paul is the owner of Starship, a 39-year-old sandwich shop in Forest Park, Illinois that’s expanded into catering and events. Anne and Kate are the owners of Lively Athletics, a women’s apparel and running shoe boutique that they opened two years ago in the neighboring village of Oak Park. Here’s Anne.

ANNE: Starship opened long before everyone had a smartphone and Internet at their fingertips. How have sites like Yelp and Facebook changed your business? As small business owners, we’re constantly told we need to be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and now there’s Periscope, Vine, Snapchat. How do you approach social media?

PAUL: We opened up probably about almost 10 years before we accepted credit cards, okay? Just to give you a focus of how freaky old we are. The thing with social media, it’s a certain learning process and always a work in progress. I think the scary part for a small business owner is that it’s changing so quickly, so fast. This is the first time I’ve heard of Periscope. We did quite a bit of Yelp work over the last year because Yelp is a restaurant-based review thing. In order to post on these sites, you need to take some of your personal time or your work time and do these kind of neat quips and those are great impressions and they’re free. But measuring is the key. Are you getting any return back on your time, which is money, and your energy in terms of what you’re doing on social media? I think that’s my key. So I finally hired what I would call somewhat of a PR guy, and his job is to just tell us what’s working and what’s effective.

KATE: Do you have any examples of some post or anything on social media that has worked really well for you?

PAUL: Yeah, you know, I have a perfect example. We just opened up an outdoor dining area in front of the restaurant, a little bump-out there by a fire hydrant. We put out some tables and planters. We went out there and there was a snowstorm in January. My partner and I went out there in t-shirts, sat on the patio with snow around us, but like we were having a few sandwiches and a glass of wine, and we put that on Facebook and I got so much response to that, so my point being that the quirkiness, they would call it guerrilla marketing. Where do you do something wacky, for instance, we sell rabbit stew over Easter and our quip is that we cook the Easter bunny. That gets a lot of mileage. That gets a lot of points.

KATE: So you mentioned Yelp and I think small business owners have like mixed feelings about Yelp. It can be like terrifying for some, a great tool for others. Overall, has the advent of Yelp been helpful for you? Do you get new customers from it? We worry so much about getting negative reviews because it, people do look at stores on there too.

PAUL: My feelings are very positive because I have very positive reviews. I have a couple negatives there, but they’re few and far between. People in general get it now, that there’s always gonna be some negative reviews. You know, Some people have bad days and you just can’t make them happy. I do think it’s one of those things that you have to respond to and reply to, be actively engaged. That’s another marketing tool, trying to keep the customer in somewhat of a family mentality. Like we do birthday clubs and you say thank you in general on a regular basis, I think that goes a long way.

KATE: How do you track things like with your birthday club? This is something we’ve been thinking about, like we just want to show more how much we love and appreciate our customers, and we specifically were talking about the idea of like sending out birthday cards.

PAUL: The birthday club is really just a wonderful way to capture email data, so that I can send out seasonal offers and weekly offers to my database, which I’m not sure the number that we’re at now, but in addition to that, we’ll do monthly raffles with the same purpose in mind of getting more emails. If they like your place, they’re happy to give you their email. You know when you go into Home Depot or something and it says, “Would you like your receipt emailed to you?” I don’t do that because I don’t want to give them my email, and I think people are a little more guarded with it now, but if they like you and they like your place, they’ll be happy to do it.

KATE: You just mentioned your raffle. We go back and forth about the effectiveness of coupons and giveaways and things of that nature. And um we know Starship doesn’t do coupons. Can you tell us a little bit about what you made that decision and why it works for you?

PAUL: Absolutely. Groupon. When they opened up, that was a craze. Everybody did Groupon and we did Groupon. And it was ridiculous. I mean, the way it worked back then was if I sold a $20 Groupon, Starship got five because the customer paid 10, Groupon took five and we got five. So it was an incredibly bad coupon. In general you’ve got restaurant.com, you’ve got Loonie Coupons. You’re inundated with people who are providing just services to get your name out there and basically give away your stuff. We did not want to be stigmatized as a coupon place. It’s very old-fashioned, I guess, but we try to provide value every day for what we offer. We believe in what we sell and we’re confident that we’re charging the right price so we don’t really feel the need to discount.

KATE: I think that makes a lot of sense. And our fear too is just the concept of maybe getting our customers spoiled, like if they get too used to discounts, it becomes very hard to pay for things full price. Yeah, like when the value is there in the product, like it’s a good product.

PAUL: And let me comment on what we really do in terms of advertising. We do probably a gift certificate a day to a nonprofit. There are probably over a thousand nonprofits registered in Oak Park and they’re constantly doing fundraisers, silent auctions, anything to make money because they’re on budgets. I was the president of the board of Village Players Theater on Madison Street for quite a while so I got the other side of it. So by giving away these gift certificates, what happens is: I can give you a $50 gift certificate but it doesn’t cost me $50, right? It just cost my food costs. That gift certificate then goes to the silent auction. Someone buys it. They invite 10 friends over to use it. I’m not sure how you would do that—a dance party in the studio or something, because otherwise you’re giving away a pair of gym shoes or something and they can’t like share those with their friends. In my case, food is fellowship. They can have a party and have 10 people over and they can all eat Starship and feel good about it and get to try my food.

ANNE: I want to say, you probably saw my sister Kate in a production of Bye Bye Birdie at Village Players? Kate is definitely the theater geek of the two of us. But I was really shocked when we opened, at how many donation requests we get. We actually have a file on the wall that’s just donation requests, and it—wow. Every day, someone asks and I go back and forth on the effectiveness of that because for us, it is just giving away apparel. But we have started moving towards like, we’ll donate a party where we’ll do a free yoga class and like a shopping experience for women. So I’m glad to hear that works for you because we’d love to support all these nonprofits, but it’s hard.

So what’s in the future for Starship restaurant? Do you have more locations planned, more catering, retirement?

PAUL: Retirement. Um, I’m 59 and I was planning on selling about a year ago and I got this great opportunity. Goldman Sachs did a program. They have a really cool program called the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business initiative. It’s wonderful. It’s completely reinvigorated my business approach to everything and it’s got this growth thing on my mind. So in terms of where I’m going, I figure I’ve got about five years. In terms of where I want to go, I’d like to double the gross sales in the restaurant over the next um five years and then unload it and sell it to somebody. Maybe they’re a chain or something, but uh you know, somebody who wants to take it and can afford it, frankly, because I’m, you know, hoping to get as much money as I can out of it. No plans to pass it on to a relative or anything like that. You know, sometimes you’ll see somebody sell their business to their kid or whatever. I don’t have any plans to do that, so my my ambition is to double it through events. I told you we just got a liquor license, so we’re all positioned to do a nice fundraiser with bar and food. We’ve done the food for a long time. Hopefully, if we start picking up some bar jobs, we’ll uh get a significant increase there.

So um, we won’t get too personal but oh — Kate, do you have any children?

KATE: Not yet. I’m about five months pregnant, so very soon.

PAUL: Well that’s gonna change things for you quite considerably. I’m sure that little kid is going to be in a carseat behind the register at times. Good for you! Congratulations. The balance—what concerns me, I guess, when I look at you two and how you’re gonna do, number one I’d love to see you develop that um maybe that financial base in terms of owning your own property. I would love to see that. I think you could certainly balance the family, as long as the two of you —you know, I think that’s important to mention. I’m sure you have issues and there’s times when the two of you butt heads. At the end of the day, you have to kiss and make up and still be sisters. I think that’s really important. If this whole thing made you millions of dollars and you hated each other at the end of the process, then it’s not worth it. So my advice is to really keep that sister bond thing above and beyond what happens here and then after that, it should take care of itself. But it’s gonna be tricky, especially with new babies. That’s going to be very hard on Anne when you have the baby, and I’m sure you know this, but you know it’s coming. How old are your daughters?

ANNE: I have a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, and I get frustrated right now with the work life balance because it skews a little more towards life, like I have to leave Lively at around 2:45 every single day to pick my daughter up from school. We just don’t have enough money to pay for more day care, and so right now I’m not working at Lively nearly as much as I want, but maybe that’s good, maybe it keeps me a little more fresh when I am here, but it’s frustrating and really hard.

PAUL: When my kids were little, it was really a great babysitting mechanism because I could bring them into the store at five years old and say, “Okay, peel these potatoes.” And I could put a bag of 50 pounds of potatoes in front of them and they would look at me funny and they would start peeling. It was a playhouse for them. Then eventually as they were teenagers, they were able to work at the restaurant. They were 16 and they were waiting on customers, which I would encourage them to — they’ll get incredible business acumen from being exposed to what you two are doing. So that’s a wonderful training tool. So I would probably get them a little involved. Maybe you can convince them to run a little yoga class for kids. In Oak Park they would love that kind of thing, you know. I’m just kinda getting into, trying to tie the family thing so it doesn’t eat you up. Kate, you’re certainly going to appreciate Anne more when or understand the fact that she can’t be here as much once you have this little darling, so the fact that you’re partners is good. If you were doing it on your own, Anne, would you be able to do it? If it was just yours?

ANNE: There is no way I would be able to run Lively on my own. It’s so nice that I can leave and I know the store is in good hands every day at 2:45. Also, I really don’t have Kate’s eye for fashion and Kate makes fun of me. She’s like, this would be the black pants and gray t-shirt store if you were in charge of doing the buying, so there’s a couple senses I could never do this job.

PAUL: If it was the black pants and uh gray t-shirt shop, I would shop here more probably, but that’s going to be a trick. So I guess at the end of the day, you’re sisters first and that’s all I’d suggest there.

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Let us know what you think about the show at tips@thedistance.com or on Twitter at @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. As always, The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app that helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Two sisters and a sandwich entrepreneur

Illustration by Nate Otto

I ask questions for a living and I love it. But sometimes it’s fun to have someone else do the interviews, especially when that person brings a unique perspective to the conversation. To that end, we tried something new for the latest episode of The Distance. We wanted to host a conversation between entrepreneurs on different ends of the experience spectrum so they could discuss the issues that matter most to them.

Paul McKenna opened Starship, a submarine sandwich shop in suburban Chicago, in 1977. He’s since expanded his business to include catering and events. About a mile and a half away is Lively Athletics, a boutique that carries women’s athletic apparel and running shoes. Sisters Anne Pezalla and Kate Pezalla Marlin opened the store in 2014 and have big plans for their business.

We’re bringing you Paul, Anne and Kate’s conversation in two installments. The first part covers growth, competition, burnout and more. Listen to the episode or read the transcript below. Then tune in next week for the second half of their interview!

Transcript

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. We’re trying something a little different for the next two weeks. You’ll still hear the story of an independent business that’s at least 25 years old, but someone else is asking the questions this time: the founders of a newer small business. The result is a conversation between entrepreneurs on different ends of the experience spectrum.

PAUL MCKENNA: My name is Paul McKenna. I am the owner of Starship Restaurant, Catering and Events, started in 1977 as a little soup and sandwich place, and then we’ve evolved over all that time to carry full line of buffet items, appetizers, deliver all throughout the Chicago area and doing quite well. Events is our new focus, so trying to do more fundraisers, any kind of event that people would need food for and liquor, because we just got a liquor license.

WAILIN: Starship’s dining room is decorated with Star Wars and Star Trek memorabilia, and the restaurant is located in Forest Park, a suburb of Chicago. A mile and a half away, in the neighboring village of Oak Park, is Lively Athletics, a store run by Kate Pezalla Marlin and Anne Pezalla.

KATE PEZALLA MARLIN: Hi, my name is Kate. I’m one of the owners of Lively Athletics in Oak Park. The other owner is my sister.

ANNE PEZALLA: Hi, my name is Anne. Um, we’ve been in business for almost two years now. We sell athletic apparel and running shoes for women.

WAILIN: Before the two sisters opened Lively, Kate was an editor for a medical journal and Anne worked at a different running store. Here’s Anne.

ANNE: We kind of looked around at what was out there and we were really shocked that there was no athletic store for women that had a more Anthropologie-like vibe to it, you know, independent artists, pretty to walk into and female-focused again, that’s really important to us.

WAILIN: Today on The Distance, we’re bringing you Kate, Anne and Paul’s conversation in two parts. Today, on the first installment: How Paul founded his restaurant and how he’s managed growth, competition, burnout and getting sued by the studio behind Star Trek. The Distance is brought to you by Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

KATE: Paul, I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about how you got started.

PAUL: I used to party with some friends of mine in a little apartment across the street from where our restaurant is, and they were trying to find themselves. I was an economics major at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and my one friend said “No, we should do this. We should try something new.” So we went ahead and gave it a shot, and I dropped out of college and, um, made 50 bucks a week for the first six months and then we got to 75 and then a hundred and eventually we started to make what was a decent wage. The good news is I didn’t have children at the time. I wasn’t married. I had a nice living situation where it didn’t cost me too much to subsist and I um, was able to get established before I really needed money, so that was a real grassroots type of thing.

KATE: Where did the name Starship come from?

PAUL: There was a sub shop you might know in Evanston called Captain Nemo’s and it had a wonderful theme to it—submarines, their party sub was called the Nautilus and it was, everything was based on under the sea. My other business partner who started it with me came up with the idea of doing more of a space theme and, uh, taking that same concept of spaceships or submarines but putting them in the sky and building around that. We also opened the year that Star Wars was released. And then the Star Trek thing.

ANNE: Do you want to tell us the story of Paramount suing you? Because it’s a great story.

PAUL: So yeah, it is a good story. We opened up in ’77 and we incorporated in ’79 and at the time, Star Trek was a canceled TV show. We loved the name Starship Enterprises because it was a play on the word Enterprise. And then in ’81, we opened up a second venture, which failed eventually, but we called it Starship Enterprises II. Well, between ’79 and ’81, Star Trek the movie came out and the whole franchise of Star Trek, the Next Generation, all the movies came back and it became something. So in ’79, they hadn’t copywritten any of the stuff because it was a canceled TV show and then in ’81, when we went ahead and got our second corporation called Starship Enterprises II, they had their little fence around their name, so we got sued for stealing something that we had already, frankly, and it was a fun experience because we got tons of publicity. We agreed to drop the name “Enterprises” from the checks that we wrote, but never affected the restaurant in any way. It was fun. I got on the radio a couple times. It’s one of those feel-good, David and Goliath stories. So that’s it. I was sued.

ANNE: Uh, this is Anne again. So when Kate and I opened Lively, we honestly thought it’s open seven days a week, and we really thought that between the two of us, we could handle it, and we would hire one employee in our first year. That was ridiculous. We’re now at five employees and it’s still a lot of work. So um was the restaurant a full-time job for you from the beginning, how many employees did you have at the beginning and how many do you have now?

PAUL: Okay, so when we first started, it was myself, my business partner and his wife, and we worked there all the hours. We were closed one day a week. And we were just a retail outlet. We weren’t catering and all that. So we did that for six months and then we hired our first employee because somebody got sick and we realized we can’t just do this anymore, so we started hiring part-time people. Right now we’re probably about 20, 25 if I count all my part timers and delivery guys. It’s still not the level that some caterers in Chicago might have 10 trucks. We have one truck, you know, heh, we’re working on it, but it is still growing. Business is increasing. We’ve only had two downturns over the time. One was, um, the real estate thing and the other was the dot com, uh, bust. Those were the only kind of ones where the graph actually went down.

KATE: How much time do you yourself spend like you know, making sandwiches, ringing up customers, in the front rather than in the back office? Um, we ask because this is something Anne and I have struggled with, like do we need to be on the floor and engaging with customers so they get that family vibe and they get to know us and want to come back? Or do we totally trust our employees to be up there so that we can be in the back office, you know, Anne has to worry about payroll and taxes and I have to worry about, you know, our inventory levels, so we’re just kind of wondering how you manage to strike that balance.

PAUL: You know, It’s a great question because that’s challenging. Your customers like to see you. You’re certainly more engaged and motivated than any employee will ever be. Ninety-five percent of my time is in the back office, uh, quoting catering orders, helping people plan events, which is customer service but I’m not — my face isn’t up front. I do not make sandwiches anymore unless something happens where we screw up and it’s all hands on deck. And I don’t really ring customers too much anymore. My problem with that is, and this is probably true to you too, is you know, you get to know a customer, and I mean I know a lot of them by name, and I know their kids. So if I’m up front on that register, I’m actually a detriment to the process because it’s like “Oh Frank, how are ya? Oh, you lost your ma.” So I get involved in these kind of conversations with them and, uh, so I’m better off not being up front, involved, because I tend to slow the real producing of the food part down, so I come out once or twice a day and see how everybody is, say hello to people and that’s about it.

KATE: So in the 90s—this is Kate speaking—it seems like there was a huge boom in sandwich shops with Quiznos and Subway popping up everywhere, and now there’s Potbelly and Jersey Mike’s. How do you think about your competition then and now, and has your attitude about competition changed?

PAUL: We’ll go back to ’79, and this was even before Quiznos and Potbelly’s and then there was Mr. Submarine and there was Italian U-Boat and there was a headline to the Forest Park Review that said “Three Sub Shops to Open on Madison.” And we were a sub shop on Madison at the time and it just hit me like I got punched. And that was when I realized that had nothing to do with me. It was me taking care of my business and my customers and the focus is on your thing. I mean, McDonald’s and Burger Kings are right next door, Wendy’s are right next door. They all thrive and we, you know, as long as you take care of Lively, you’ll be just fine, frankly.

KATE: We did have like a moment of panic when we found out before we had opened our doors here, when we were still working on a business plan, we hadn’t even signed the lease yet, that a competitor was coming in pretty close and yeah, it was terrifying and for a moment we doubted ourselves. We’re like, maybe we should just pull out now, we don’t have those resources. This is a chain store, you know, with locations nationwide, and a big player in the Chicagoland area as well. But yeah, we tried to focus on what makes us different instead of like how could we ever compete with them, yeah.

PAUL: So I think that’s a great point, what makes you different. I know in the restaurant world, you know, farm to table kind of thing, local uh, is a huge thing. People nowadays, especially in Oak Park, love to come into a small-owned independent shop and they would rather spend more money at your place, frankly, than the chain, and that’s a good vibe. And I would certainly, um, keep that thing going, that concept of “Hey, we’re just two girls trying to make it happen and accomplish our dream,” and people will buy into that. That’s a good marketing tool, I think.

ANNE: Yeah, we’ve found that people really love the fact that we’re two sisters, we grew up in Oak Park and we opened a business together. Little do they know that opening a business with a sister can be a lot of hard work, but fun, overall.

KATE: Sometimes I think people do know, because they get this really specific look on their face when I say I own a business with my sister, and they’re kind of like, “Oh, how is that working out for you?”

ANNE: Work-life balance is a really hot topic right now. It’s hard for Kate and I because we’re always on the clock at Lively. And, you know, I have a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, and if either of them get sick, they have to come to Lively with me, and they’re in the office with a sleeping bag and an iPad. So how do you handle work-life balance?

PAUL: In terms of balance over the years, um, I’m a musician. I went to Columbia College downtown and was a fiction writing major. I still play in a band. It’s such a waste of time if you want to really put a money thing on it or a time thing on it, but boy does it feel good at the end of the day after having played music with people and stuff, so. I’ve always been good about honoring myself because if you get too wrapped up in Lively, you won’t like it anymore. So be fresh, if you can.

ANNE: I just, you know, I love coming to work in the morning. Like, I love walking into the store and opening the doors and it’s so pretty here. My sister Kate does all the merchandising and it always looks beautiful. I’m so happy to come to work. But you know, you’ve been in business longer. There’s the risk of burning out. And other entrepreneurs I’ve talked to seem to think there’s like a three-year mark that you hit and you really question things, or maybe five years, whatever the length of your lease is, is when you’re really like, “Am I gonna sign on again? Is this worth it? Do I want to keep doing this?” So how do you avoid burnout?

PAUL: I don’t think you avoid it as much as you kind of like um, sidetrack it. Because there is burnout. But growth certainly helps, right? You guys have hired five people now, so you’re not hopefully not doing more of the grunt work, so that helps. When you’re growing, it helps immensely. I can get into what I went through about a year ago, which really changed everything for me, because I was ready to sell. I actually had the place on the market and I was burnt out, but what was I doing? I was showing up every day, going through the motions, running my business but not growing it. When your focus switches to growth, it becomes exciting.

ANNE: I love the idea of the growth mindset and it’s something — it’s hard for Kate and I to look at the big picture because we do get so caught up in the day to day, running Lively, we need to clean this up, we need to reorganize this, what are we doing about this inventory. So I, I think that’s really interesting that growth mindset is something you recommend, um, and Kate and I are definitely going to have to talk about that more in our meetings.

PAUL: I want to add one more comment too. One of the things that we did when we signed our first lease in 1977 is we had an option to buy. So if I’m giving advice here, find a location close. Now you’re building a base. You’ve got a customer base, uh, so you will hopefully become a destination rather than just another shop that they’re walking up and down Oak Park and they want to stop in. You really need to buy something because 20 years from now, if you’re still paying rent, you’ll still just have the inventory. So somewhere along the line, this gear has to shift to ownership and I think, uh, in my case, we bought the property on Madison Street for $38,000 in 1979, okay? We bought the property next door for 140, something like that, about 10 years later. Together the two properties are probably worth nine, maybe a million, because Madison Street has done well. My point was somewhere along the line you guys can think about buying a piece of property, that would be a great move for you.

WAILIN: That’s it for Part One of our conversation with Anne Pezalla and Kate Pezalla Marlin of Lively Athletics and Paul McKenna of Starship. We’ll bring you the second part next week, when they discuss social media, whether to offer coupons, and what’s next for their businesses. The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto and our website is thedistance.com. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Saving the last dance

Illustration by Nate Otto

Businesses that have been around for at least a quarter century, like the ones we feature on The Distance, often build relationships with their customers that last decades. But what happens when a business owner’s need to evolve and keep growing threatens to leave behind legacy customers? The newest episode of The Distance looks at how one 95-year-old business has grappled with that question.

When Birute and Gediminas Jodwalis bought the Willowbrook Ballroom from the business’ founding family nearly 20 years ago, they inherited an intensely loyal but shrinking customer base of Sunday afternoon dancers. The Willowbrook is one of the area’s last remaining traditional ballrooms, and while the pastime continues to slowly fade away, the Jodwalis’ commitment to their longstanding customers hasn’t wavered. They have adapted the event space for a modern clientele while honoring a promise they made to the founding family to keep the Sunday dancers on their feet and the big bands on stage.

Transcript

WAILIN: Birute Jodwalis left Poland for the U.S. when she was 19 years old.

BIRUTE: We built everything what we have from nothing. I came with a one suitcase. First job was cleaning the houses. The second job I work at a tobacco farm. Then third job was I start working in a kitchen at a deli.

WAILIN: Birute met her husband, Gediminas, at that third job. He owned a bakery and delivered the bread to the deli where she worked. After they got married, they ran the bakery together and expanded it into a catering business.

BIRUTE: We run that for 13 years. It was very hard because catering business is very hard, so we start looking for do something on a smaller scale, do like a banquet which it will be in one building, everything. And that’s how we came for the Willowbrook Ballroom, and the dance was bonus for us.

Sound of music and applause

LONNY LYNN: Oh, good afternoon and isn’t it nice to be here at the Willowbrook Ballroom…

WAILIN: There aren’t many places left in the U.S. where you can regularly dance the waltz or rumba or foxtrot, gliding across the floor in your Sunday best as a live band plays on stage. The Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs, Illinois, is one of those places, and it’s all because of a promise that Birute Jodwalis and her husband made almost twenty years ago, when they bought the business from its founding family. They agreed to continue the tradition of holding ballroom dances at the Willowbrook, even as the pastime was already becoming obsolete.

BIRUTE: I love my ballroom dancers. They’re older but they’re so cute, you know. Most of them they not couples anymore, they just you know, dance partners, but they so cute. Most are coming dressed up with their long gowns and the guys with the tuxedos. It’s very, very nice affairs.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, you’ll hear the story of a promise made by one business owner to another, and how the Jodwalises meet the needs of a modern clientele while taking care of their loyal but dwindling base of legacy customers. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

RANDY MARTIN: Met a first wife here who died about five years later, met my second wife here about two years later, been married for 10 years to her. Both of my wives were very very good dancers. I am not.

WAILIN: That’s Randy Martin, a Willowbrook Ballroom regular. He first took dancing lessons when he was 19 years old, hoping to meet girls. Many years later, he took up lessons again and was told the Willowbrook Ballroom was the place to practice.

RANDY: I would come frequently for a long time, yeah, because it was a social thing and I was trying to dance and so on and so on and once I got married, my current wife likes to dance a lot and I’m working on this film about ballroom and me and Willowbrook Ballroom. Willowbrook is a much more interesting story than I am, let me tell you.

WAILIN: The Willowbrook opened in 1921 as an outdoor dance pavilion and picnic area called Oh Henry Park, named after the candy bar. Over the next decade, the space was enclosed, expanded, burned down in a fire and rebuilt. In the 1940s, 10 thousand people would visit the ballroom every week. The business was owned by a family called the Verderbars, who changed the name from Oh Henry to Willowbrook in 1959. Three generations of Verderbars ran the ballroom before Birute and her husband learned about it from a friend who worked in real estate. Birute remembers the day she visited the Willowbrook for the first time, taking in the 48,000-square foot building, which has hosted acts like Count Basie and Dolly Parton.

BIRUTE: That was in January and it was very cold outside and actually, you know, when we walked in, it was very scary because I said, I don’t know if we can manage because this building. It’s huge, it’s old and it needs to have lots of repairs and took us actually three months to realize if we wanted to purchase it or not, but then finally we decided, you know, we can do it and we approached them with a contract to buy and took them a year to decide if they want to sell to us.

WAILIN: It took a year of negotiations between the Jodwalises and the Verderbars because the founding family was very firm that their successors would continue the ballroom dancing. Every Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people fill the dance floor at the Willowbrook. Many of them have been coming regularly for decades. When the Jodwalises took over the business, they introduced themselves to the dancers and served free drinks and coffee. And they assured them that the Sunday afternoons would continue unchanged.

BIRUTE: That’s what they did for their whole life. That’s their like second home. You know, we have the people on the Sunday ballroom—we open at one o’clock. They will sit in the car from eleven o’clock in the parking lot to wait til we open the doors.

WAILIN: Birute, who’s known by her staff and customers as Ms. B, says the Willowbrook is the only place left in the United States that still hosts live bands for ballroom dancing on a regular basis. The musicians wear tuxedos and share the stage with a gleaming white grand piano.

TEDDY LEE: Hello, my name’s Teddy Lee as a band leader and as my real self, I’m Ted Lega. I inherited that from my father because he was Teddy Lee. His real name was Henry Theodore, or Henry Ted, Lega. But a lot of band leaders at that time, if they have Kowalski or a long name or whatever, they’d change it and make it different.

WAILIN: Teddy Lee’s father started playing at the Willowbrook around 1960 and the Teddy Lee Orchestra became as much of a fixture as the Sunday dancers, playing there up to five nights a week during the heyday of big band music. After the elder Teddy Lee retired in 1990, his son took over and continued the tradition.

TEDDY: She’s been wonderful, Birute and her husband, in keeping the bands—what started this whole Willowbrook and O’Henry. She’s one rare ballroom in the whole country, period. There are some VFWs or other kinds of places like that and that’s just fine too. But regular ballroom dancing, mmm, not much. But the Willowbrook again is doing a yeoman job. We had people here, as you can see today, came in from Iowa and came in from Nebraska, Southern Illinois. I have people come in from Wisconsin and Michigan and I even had some fly in a few times from California.

WAILIN: Sunday afternoons are a virtually sacred time at the Willowbrook, but there’s no ambiguity about the state of ballroom dancing. It’s not a lucrative activity for the business. The crowds are getting smaller as the ages of the dancers keep advancing, and there aren’t new people coming in to keep the numbers up. Younger visitors to the Willowbrook prefer swing and salsa, which are offered on other nights throughout the month. Birute says not even the popularity of Dancing with the Stars has helped because newcomers often feel intimidated when they turn up on Sundays and see the regulars. All this means that traditional ballroom dancing with big bands continues to slowly fade away.

BIRUTE: I need to say it’s declined, it’s declined. Because the young people, they’re not dance anymore. They will do um occasions only, which our regulars, they are steady but they passing away. That’s the sad part.

WAILIN: And yet, Birute and her husband are committed to keeping it going. It’s about the promise they made to the Verderbars two decades ago, but it’s also about the relationship they have with their dancers. These are their most loyal customers, the ones who show up every week and wait in the parking lot for the doors to open. Birute sees herself in a caretaker role, providing enjoyment and a sense of community for the dancers who come on Sundays. She’s seen her dancers and their families through courtships, marriages, second marriages, third marriages, illness and death. One of her customers put in his will that he wanted his ashes spread by a particular tree in the back of the Willowbrook parking lot.

BIRUTE: They getting older and we have incidents. People will slip, people will trip and feel bad. We’ve had even deaths here, so. But that’s the life. That’s the life, you know, after somebody will die, you know, the family will call and say, we really appreciate what you did, and Dad or Mom went in a happy way.

RANDY: It’s kind of the soul of this place, ballroom dancing and the live orchestras. The original owners—I’ve talked to them. They would have cut it out, Sunday afternoons, because sometimes the crowds are very small, but there’s a chance that it might come back if certain stars line up or something, you know, align in the heavens, whatever.

WAILIN: But Birute and her husband can’t wait around to see if ballroom dancing gets a revival. They have a business to run. So they keep a busy schedule of other events — weddings, corporate parties, funeral luncheons and fundraisers. There’s the holiday season and New Year’s, which are busy times for the ballroom. After that, they start fielding inquiries from couples who got engaged over the holidays and want to have their weddings at the Willowbrook. They host an annual tribute to Buddy Holly in January — that’s one of Birute’s favorite events — as well as salsa competitions, country line dancing, and something called a good time Charley’s Singles Dance.

BIRUTE: We’re doing even cage fighting.

WAILIN: You’re doing what?

BIRUTE: Cage fighting.

WAILIN: Yup, there’s cage fighting at the Willowbrook Ballroom, in the same location where the Sunday dancers do their waltzes and tangos. The organizers put down carpet to protect the dance floor.

BIRUTE: We don’t want to damage to the building of course. But income is very important because everything going up, you know, taxes, insurance and that stuff ,and we need to have income so you know, if we have a day open, why not not to try? We’ll not always will agree but if the customer will follow our rules and requests then we will work with them.

WAILIN: The Jodwalises have also updated the Willowbrook and put their own stamp on the business. In a nod to the changing demographics of the area, the chef and kitchen staff at the ballroom can do pretty much any kind of cuisine. Not just your typical London broil and mashed potatoes type banquet food, but also spanakopita and beef fajitas and sauerkraut. And there’s a basement party room that Birute renovated in black and silver. She named it Bunkeris, which means bunker in Lithuanian. It used to be called the Flamingo Room.

BIRUTE: When we took over, there was flamingo. The walls and everything in the pink. Why we did this room and called it Bunkeris because we’re Lithuanian and in the late 90s, when Lithuania got its freedom, there were lots of people coming from Lithuania and they stayed in here but they missed their music, that whole thing, so they start asking why we cannot do something and so we change. We did more like a nightclub type of room, but we still using now for the weddings and parties.

WAILIN: Did it remind you of being young?

BIRUTE: Yeah, night clubs, yes, especially the music, you see they have homesick once in a while and you like what you grew up with.

WAILIN: You like what you grew up with. That’s the same with the Sunday dancers, many of whom came of age in the era of big bands and used to have their pick of Chicago ballrooms. There were legendary places like the Aragon Ballroom on the city’s north side, which is now a concert venue, and the Melody Mill, a dance hall in a nearby suburb that was torn down after more than 50 years in business. The Teddy Lee Orchestra actually got its start at the Melody Mill, back in 1958, when the ballroom’s owners asked Teddy Lee’s father to start his own band. And now Teddy Lee the son is leading the orchestra at the Willowbrook, the last ballroom standing. He’ll play for as long as the dancers keep showing up.

TEDDY: You can count on them. They love to dance and they make all the effort they can to be here and dance and it’s just a life thing. Some other kinds of music can get different ways, you know, and they’re kind of strong on the ears and all that, but the music that we play, a lot of it can be a thing of beauty.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Andy Richardson, as well as Bonnie Classen for her book on the Willowbrook Ballroom. You can find our show at thedistance.com, on iTunes, where we would love it if you rated and reviewed us, and now on Google Play Music. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Funk Yeah!

Illustration by Nate Otto

The Distance is back from our brief hiatus with a new episode that you should listen to while eating a huge stack of pancakes or waffles. The Funk family of Funks Grove, Ill. has been boiling maple tree sap into syrup for nearly 200 years — at first because it was the only readily available sweetener in this newly settled patch of central Illinois, and more recently as a commercial operation. The acres of maple trees in Funks Grove, along with syrup-making expertise and the love of a business that’s unpredictable and laborious, are family assets that have sustained generations of Funks.

Also, the Funks spell syrup with an I—their business is called Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup. You should listen to the episode (or scroll down for the transcript) to find out why. And lest you think “sirup” is a made-up spelling, I did confirm its existence in my husband’s compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes with a little magnifying glass in a drawer and makes me feel like a old-fashioned lady detective. But I digress. On with the story!

Transcript

WAILIN: The first thing you should know about Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup is that syrup is spelled with an I. That’s S-I-R-U-P. It’s an old-fashioned spelling of the word and the one preferred by Hazel Funk Holmes, the woman who built a business in the 1920s selling maple syrup from her family’s trees in central Illinois. According to the Funks, syrup spelled with an I was how Webster’s referred to the stuff that comes from boiling sap, with no added sugar. This spelling was so important to Hazel Holmes that she specifically mentioned it in her trust.

MIKE FUNK: Mrs. Holmes was really a stickler for that, that that was maintained, and we’ve had sign companies repaint our signs sometimes and say “Oh, you misspelled syrup,” so they would spell it with a Y, and we’d have to send it back and say, “No, it’s not gonna work.”

WAILIN: That’s Mike Funk, who is the fifth generation of his family to make maple syrup on the family land in Funks Grove, Illinois, about 150 miles south of Chicago. Mrs. Holmes was Mike’s grandfather’s cousin, and the arcane spelling of syrup isn’t the only thing she enshrined in her trust. She also made sure that the family’s timber and farmland would be preserved for future generations to keep producing maple syrup and making a living from it. In the decades since then, generations of people driving on Route 66 have stopped in for a taste of the Funks’ syrup.

MIKE: We have a business that’s on Route 66 since Route 66 became Route 66, back in the 1920s. Uh, we’ve kind of worked hand in hand. They had a nice four-lane highway between Chicago and St. Louis traveling by our front door, so I don’t know what could be better than that, as far as getting exposure. Once people try the syrup and they feed it to the kids and they get hooked on it, then we get kind of a multi-generational thing going here so it’s been a really, really fortunate thing for us.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, the story of the Funk family and the 400 acres of maple trees that have sustained it. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

MIKE: Maple syrup production is something that you have to really enjoy it to keep doing it because it’s a very, uh, laborious process. You’re real excited when the season first starts and after about four weeks, you’re ready to throw it all in because you’re getting tired from watching the sap boil.

WAILIN: Not only is maple syrup production incredibly labor intensive, but it’s also unpredictable. Mike and his wife, Debby, start each season without knowing exactly when they’ll have syrup to sell. Usually it’s around March, but it depends on what the weather has been like during the winter. If you want Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup, you have to call, check their website or check the sign hanging at the end of the farm’s driveway to see if syrup is on sale yet. Maple syrup is all about good timing, something Mike has learned from a lifetime in the business, starting from when he was eight years old, collecting sap in his own small buckets and pouring it into milk cans by the side of the trail for his parents’ crew to pick up.

MIKE: In January, you’re watching the weather very closely to see when it’s, when the temperature’s gonna start to get above freezing where you can go out and tap, so you’re looking at long-range forecasts. Because sometimes, our season will start in early February. Sometimes it won’t start until early March because we just don’t know when that warmth is gonna come.

WAILIN: Sap is stored in the trees’ roots during the winter. When the temperature gets above freezing during the daytime, sap flows to the branches, carrying sugar and minerals. The sap then recedes at night, when the temperature drops below freezing. Mike and his crew are looking for a consistent cycle of thawing and freezing, with temperatures in the 40s during the day and the 20s at night. When that happens, they can start tapping.

MIKE: In the olden days, as we say—as old people always say—we always thought, or were told by the experts that a cold, cold winter gave you sweeter sap. Well, we find out that that’s not really true. It’s more, uh, a nice growing season for the tree, the more photosynthesis that it can accomplish, the more sugars it makes through that process, so we’re looking for trees that aren’t stressed, trees that have the water they need, have the sunlight they need, and so they’re gonna produce those sugars and they’re gonna be healthy.

WAILIN: Climate change has been an increasing source of concern for maple syrup producers, including Mike and Debby, and now their son Jonathan and nephew Sean, who are partners in the business. Warmer winters are bad for sap production and, over the long term, could make this part of the country inhospitable to maple trees.

MIKE: We’ve thought for years that—and I’ve read articles—that well, in 40 years or 50 years, the opportunity to make maple syrup is going to keep moving north. Well, we haven’t really seen that yet, but so maybe it’s not gonna happen as fast as we think or maybe, you know, in 20 years, we’ll see a big effect. We really, we really don’t know.

Sound of driving

WAILIN: Are we here?

JONATHAN FUNK: We’re here.

WAILIN: That’s Jonathan Funk, Mike and Debby’s son. He’s going out to tap some trees. The Funks own about 3,500 maple trees that get tapped every year. Trees have to be 12 to 16 inches in diameter before they’re ready to be tapped, and it takes about 40 years to get to that size. After that, trees will give sap for their entire lives as long as they stay healthy. The Funks are careful not to overburden their trees. Years ago, they might have put three to four taps in their largest maples, but today, that’s down to one or two.

JONATHAN: You look at the old tap marks and you try and find the best distance from the old tap. We typically move over about 2 inches and then 4 inches up or down from the last tap.

Sound of drilling

WAILIN: Jonathan uses a gas-powered drill to make holes that are about an inch and a half deep. Then it’s time to hammer in the spouts. Here’s Debby.

DEBBY FUNK: At the end of the season we pull the spouts out and those holes will heal in a matter of weeks. And then when they heal, it leaves scar tissue and so the next year, when the sap is moving up, sap moves in the wood right under the the bark of the tree, and so it’ll divert around the scar tissue. So if you tapped into an old tap hole, you wouldn’t get any sap out of that spot, so that’s why each year, you have to tap a different spot on the tree.

WAILIN: With the spouts in place, sap starts dripping into the metal bucket. Temperature, sunlight and barometric pressure all make a difference in how quickly the sap flows.

Sound of dripping

MIKE: I’d say our target is usually about a hundred thousand gallons of sap in a year and then we know we’ll have a really good gallons of syrup made. It’s a 40-to-1 ratio of sap to syrup so our best year recently was about 3,000 gallons of syrup so it took well over a hundred thousand gallons of sap to do that.

WAILIN: The Funks use buckets for half of their trees. For the other half, they’ve installed a more modern tubing system where sap is pulled through plastic lines that ultimately feed into a large tank. In other maple syrup-producing states like Vermont, the trees grow on hillsides so the sap flows on its own through the tubes. Illinois is very flat, so the Funks have to use a pump system to gently suction the sap into the tank. Whether they’re using buckets or tubes, the Funks have to move fast to get the syrup made. They try to boil all of the sap on the day it’s collected because sap spoils easily in warm temperatures.

Sound of evaporator

WAILIN: That’s the sound of the Funks’ 260-gallon evaporator, which sits in their sugar house. It’s a shiny, stainless steel, Canadian-designed machine that the Funks bought secondhand and are using for the first time this season. The sap that comes out of the tree is watery, colorless and only faintly sweet. The key to making pure maple syrup is to boil sap until the sugars caramelize, producing that thick, rich, amber-colored liquid.

MIKE: It developed gradually from, uh, a cauldron over an open fire, just adding sap as it steamed off. Later they found out they could start another smaller pot. They would pour in some of the sap that was more advanced or thicker and then they’d start another pot of just the raw sap. Eventually they went to three pots over three different fires and would move it from one to one until they got to the finishing point and now today’s evaporators basically do the same thing, where it’s a continuous flow from sap at the very beginning and as it flows through it gets thicker and thicker to where you draw off at the end, so you still have the three cauldrons, but they’re connected now.

WAILIN: It takes an hour and a half for the sap to travel from one end of the evaporator to the other. During the process, the liquid goes from about 2 percent sugar to 66 percent sugar. The Funks are looking for a final temperature of 219 degrees Fahrenheit, or 7 degrees higher than the boiling point for water. Nothing is added during the process. In an age of overhyped artisanal comestibles and myths around all-natural food, the Funks’ operation is refreshingly straightforward.

MIKE: Really, how can you beat that? And you don’t have a big long list of ingredients on the label, so it’s a very natural product and, uh, people are very aware of stuff like that nowadays.

WAILIN: The Funks let the syrup cool and bottle it in the back room. That’s usually when Mike tastes his syrup for the first time.

MIKE: Early in the season, you may only have light syrup in the beginning because when the sap is really sweet, the boiling time’s a little less, you get less caramelization and so a lighter flavor. Some people really like that and they’ll come to buy early in the season because they know that’s when it’s made and then people that like the really dark will say, “I’ll wait until the end of the season because I know that’s when the dark is made.”

WAILIN: Debby makes the call on when to open the shop, which is just steps away from the evaporator room where you can breathe in the buttery aroma of caramelizing sugar. It’s usually around March first, and the Funks tend to sell out by the end of August or early September. This year, a quart of Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup costs 18 dollars and a half gallon is $32.

MIKE: Mrs. Holmes always wanted us to at least adhere to what it would cost to have maple syrup shipped from Vermont to here, so as long as we were within, in that range, and we’ve always been able to stay pretty close.

WAILIN: When the season ends, there’s just a few months of cleaning, maintenance and other prep until the weather gets cold again and it’s back to figuring out when the next season will start.

Mike has always been drawn to these woods. He went to college, thinking he would become an accountant, but left school after a few semesters to return to the family farm. He’s continuing an agricultural tradition started by his ancestor, Isaac Funk, who founded Funks Grove in the 1820s and was a farmer, state lawmaker and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s. Today, if you drive through Funks Grove, you’ll find a nature center, museum, historic chapel and a small cemetery. And, of course, you’ll see the family’s famous maple trees.

MIKE: A lot of Funks Grove timber is virgin timber that was never cleared and we thank our ancestors for that—for not clearing all the trees off to farm, so it’s very nice to have a lot of woodland areas that look like they did maybe a couple centuries ago.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can find us at thedistance.com, on iTunes and you can also now subscribe to our show on Google Play Music. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.