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.

Fire Sale

Illustration by Nate Otto

LION’s products can mean the difference between life and death for the customers of this family-owned company, which makes protective clothing and training equipment for firefighters. From its origins in 1898 as a horse-and-wagon operation selling clothing to farmers in Dayton, Ohio, LION turns out everything from Teflon suits worn by medical personnel transporting Ebola patients to mini metropolises spanning 20 acres that can be set on fire to train fire departments. Fun fact: LION also makes the gear worn by the actors on the NBC show “Chicago Fire.”

LION’s business brings together complex logistics, creative thinking and the ability to manage high-pressure situations — not unlike the customers it serves.


Transcript

WAILIN: It’s a Monday morning and 65 Chicago Fire Department candidates are gathered at the city’s fire academy for a crucial part of their training. A few months ago, these men and women were measured for what’s called their turnout gear — their protective coats and pants. Today, they’re trying everything on under the watchful eye of academy instructors.

INSTRUCTOR: You’re gonna wear it up to 10 years before you get a new set, okay? So if something is not right, you’re not being prickly about it right now. We need to know if something is not right. Don’t hesitate to say something. Everybody understand that?

GROUP: Yes sir.

INSTRUCTOR: Trust me, we won’t always be as friendly in the next couple weeks, right? This is the day we need this stuff done right…

WAILIN: The candidates are making sure their names are spelled correctly on the backs of their coats, that their suspenders are the right length and they have enough coverage when they bend over or get down on all fours.

INSTRUCTOR: What I’m looking for is nothing that is too tight or that I’m absolutely swimming in. It’s going to be big. Think about it—unfortunately, a fact of the job is you are going to gain weight. Right? On this job. My point is that a little play room is fine in there because you’re gonna wear a sweatshirt, it’s gonna be 40 below sometimes and you’re not gonna be in a little thin t-shirt, so a little room inside that coat is fine. You just don’t want to swim in it, please.

WAILIN: There’s someone else on hand for the sizing exercise. Mike Kucharski is a representative from LION, the company that manufactured the gear for these firefighter candidates.

MIKE: This is the first time they’ve ever put this stuff on. Some of these guys, this is even kind of new to them, wearing this stuff, so we’re now just gonna check it out, see how it fits, make sure everything’s right, that they can move and do their work with this garments on.

WAILIN: Outfitting fire departments across the country is a big responsibility, and LION’s been doing it for almost a half century, using protective materials first developed for the Apollo space program. The company itself dates back to 1898, when its founder started selling clothing to farmers from a horse-pulled wagon. Today, the great grandson of that itinerant salesman runs a global company that provides firefighting gear, training equipment and logistical support for first responders and the US military. Find out how LION went from farmers to firefighters on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. 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.

STEVE: This is a picture of Version 1.0 of LION. This is my great grandfather right here, standing next to one of his customers in front of a horse and buggy with Dayton Department Store on it.

WAILIN: That’s Steve Schwartz, the CEO of LION. We’re in a conference room at LION’s headquarters in Dayton, Ohio that’s filled with mementoes from the company’s history. The artifacts show LION’s evolution from a horse and wagon operation originally called Dayton Department Store to a bricks and mortar clothing retailer in downtown Dayton to a business specializing in uniforms for service station workers.

STEVE: This is a framed set of catalogs from really I would call Version 2 of LION, which is when my grandfather went into the corporate apparel business and we were selling uniforms to service station attendants. So you see, this is back I think in 1941, he was selling a shirt and trousers for the huge price of three dollars and 95 cents.

WAILIN: Most of the service station uniforms came in blue, and LION’s salespeople started noticing that a lot of firefighters also wore blue uniforms. That epiphany got the company into the fire business, initially making what’s called station wear, or the shirts and pants that firefighters wear when they’re not out responding to a call. Today, LION’s customers include the fire departments in cities like Chicago, Honolulu, Phoenix and Toronto. It also makes the gear you see on the NBC show “Chicago Fire.” The manufacturing process is very complex. Even something that seems simple, like an exterior coat pocket, can be customized thousands of ways at LION’s factories in southeastern Kentucky.

STEVE: We have probably over 10 thousand different types of pockets. We make pockets for putting your hands in to stay warm. We make pockets to store your mask, for holding your radio, so there’s just a really infinite number of potential shapes and sizes that we can make. So we’re really in the mass customization business to that extent, and that is something that makes us more valuable to our customers, which is good, but it adds a lot of complexity to the manufacturing process. The average order size for us, even though we’re making tens of thousands of these a year, the average order size is, I think, between four and six sets of gear.

WAILIN: There are 30,000 fire departments in the US and most of them have 75 people or fewer, so each order is small and different from the next. But all of LION’s products undergo the same rigorous testing. Threads have to stay intact up to 536 degrees Fahrenheit before melting. Helmets, boots, zippers and snaps have to withstand 500 degree heat for five minutes without dripping or igniting. LION uses materials like Kevlar and Nomex, which were developed for spacesuits worn by astronauts in the Apollo program. In the case of its CBRN suits — that’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear — LION is just one of two companies licensed to use a particular kind of Teflon. In 2014, US medical personnel transporting Ebola patients wore LION suits. The company doesn’t make Kevlar or Teflon, so it’s somewhat reliant on its suppliers to keep coming up with technological improvements. That motivates LION to actively seek out the best stuff for its gear.

STEVE: A lot of materials in our products are materials that were developed for other purposes beside firefighting that we have found and have adapted to firefighting. We are the only company in our industry that uses a flame-resistant closed-cell foam for padding that does several things. First, it obviously cushions your knees and elbows because it’s foam. Number two, it doesn’t absorb water in the process like open-cell foam would or just fabric would. And so that was something we found that was being used for aircraft insulation.

WAILIN: There’s a kind of tension in what LION does. It’s constantly looking for the newest and best materials, but it also has to sell that technology to customers who are historically resistant to change.

STEVE: The fire service and first responder business, because they are inherently in a business where conservatism is important, take a long time to adopt new technology, but we really feel like our collection of products with the technology we offer are very, very unique.

WAILIN: This challenge and opportunity are also present in LION’s newest and fastest-growing line of business, which is making firefighting training equipment, called props. One example is a tray of water that’s ignited by propane and equipped with sensors that react to water being sprayed on them. LION can build things like a car or a stove around the tray to simulate real-life fires. Another prop is a portable panel, about the size of a small flat-screen TV, that lights up with digital flames and is linked to a smoke generator. The fake fire can be put out with an extinguisher outfitted with a laser pointer or a weighted hose with a digital nozzle.

STEVE: A firefighter can walk into a room and with our smoke generator in operation in conjunction with this panel, see a fire in a room full of smoke. But the fire’s actually a digital fire, and using microprocessor controls, we can actually have the fire spread to multiple panels, so we can have the fire sort of engulf a whole room and have the appropriate smoke go with it.

Here’s the fire extinguisher. It’s got a pin in it, just like a normal fire extinguisher. And then the instructor would push the button to start and here we have a fire, so I’m gonna pull the pin out…Tells me it took 10.9 seconds to extinguish the fire.

WAILIN: Is that good?

STEVE: That’s pretty good. Yeah, yeah. I’m pretty expert.

WAILIN: The digital props allow firefighters to safely train in environments that are more controlled and reduce their exposure to carcinogens, while only making small sacrifices on the realism side. And the props can be placed within larger and more complex scenarios. Steve shows me a photo of a 20-acre training facility in the Netherlands made up of realistic concrete structures.

STEVE: I call this Disneyland for firefighters. And so we actually create sort of mini cities that have lots of different buildings and structures. The picture you see here, for instance, has a small sort of small petrochemical complex with tanks and piping. We have a rail car simulation where the rail car’s leaking or a flange could catch on fire. We have a ship simulation where we have an engine fire inside the ship. To the far left, you can barely see it there, we have an underground parking garage. We can have the flames go up the wall and over the wall. We can create what’s known as a flash over effect, which is very very dangerous for firefighters. Essentially the air becomes so hot that the air itself kind of explodes.

WAILIN: LION has built these mini cities in places like Shanghai and Melbourne. It doesn’t have any facilities in the U.S., although it’s hoping to. In contrast, LION’s firefighting gear business is heavily concentrated in the U.S. because it’s had some difficulties expanding that division overseas. Steve likes to be diversified, both in terms of geographic markets and the company’s suppliers. LION has also branched out beyond manufacturing, into software that helps the U.S. Marine Corps track equipment for individual soldiers.

STEVE: We’re managing $2.5 billion every day of Marine Corps equipment through a software system that keeps track by individual soldier what they have been issued, and when they return it, and when they return it, what condition it’s in. And that includes everything from body armor to helmets to canteens to backpacks, sleeping bags—and we won that contract.

WAILIN: Part of LION’s contract involves running 20 facilities around the world where Marines shop for what they need.

STEVE: They literally take a grocery shopping cart and they go through the aisles of our grocery store and they, as I say, squeeze the Charmin to see which of the products they want. And this used helmet looks like this and do I want that, and this flak jacket, is that good enough, and they come back to our station with their grocery cart full of products and then they actually sign on a credit card signature pad, I have taken these items out and I’m financially responsible for them and will return them.

WAILIN: LION doesn’t make any of the Marine Corps gear even though it has expertise in making protective clothing for fire departments. Steve believes that when it comes to the military world, he can compete more effectively and make a better profit by tackling the logistical end, rather than the manufacturing side.

STEVE: That’s always a surprise to people because again, they think of us as a manufacturing company, but since I’ve been CEO I’ve always felt that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea that we have to make everything to be successful.

WAILIN: Steve became CEO in 2006, taking over the position from his uncle on his mother’s side. He had joined LION after business school and worked his way through different roles, from client services to factory operations to sales. He’s cognizant that the products his company makes can mean the difference between life and death, or life and severe injury, for his customers. And taking another step back, he sees firefighters as playing an important role in the economic well-being of towns and cities. LION is working with an NGO to collect used gear for fire departments with fewer resources. There’s a financial motivation behind the program, since LION hopes the recipients of the used gear will eventually become buyers of new equipment. But there’s a social responsibility component too.

STEVE: We figure in our industry there’s probably about a million and a half cubic feet of gear that’s going into a landfill or dumpster that we think much of which could be reused in a country for a fire service either that’s developing or wants to start. What I’m really passionate about is the idea that a fire department is really kind of part of the social safety net of a community. You can’t really have economic development if you’re worried that your building or your business is going to burn down.

WAILIN: And it all comes back to outfitting individual firefighters, like the 65 Chicago Fire Department recruits trying on their turnout gear for the first time. If Steve has his way, LION will be providing their uniforms for their entire career.

INSTRUCTOR: Everybody okay there? So hey, arms up again, move around, feel how it feels in the shoulder. Bend over like I was talking about ’cause I want to see the coverage with your coat on. Perfect, perfect, good, good…

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. 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.

Independent, Literary, Political

Illustration by Nate Otto

The front window of Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood has signs that proclaim: “Opened 1979/Open Today/Open Forever.” If that doesn’t capture the spirit of The Distance, I don’t know what does!

Our latest episode of The Distance about this 37-year-old feminist bookstore has many other elements of a great business survival story: Risk-taking, creativity, adaptability and a sense of purpose. Women & Children First, founded by two women in 1979 and sold in 2014 to two staff members, is a reminder that even as so much of our political and cultural commentary has moved online in the form of essays and hot takes and tweets, there is still an important place for physical spaces where people can connect in person over the ideas and literature that move them.


Transcript

(Sound of children talking)

LINDA BUBON: Yay, good morning, everybody! Good morning. Good morning. Welcome to story time! Good morning!

WAILIN: Once upon a time in Chicago, there were two friends named Ann and Linda. They dreamed of opening a special store filled with all kinds of books written by women and about women.

LINDA: Ann and I thought about creating a feminist bookstore in a neighborhood, street level, with a storefront and programming and a real children’s section and we started envisioning this store, and we spent most of a year going around to every independent bookstore in Chicago studying their shelving, the layouts of their stores, how they bought their books. We would get advice from anybody who would give it.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda called their store Women & Children First. Now in different parts of the country, far away from Chicago, lived two girls named Lynn and Sarah. Lynn grew up in Pennsylvania, where she spent Saturdays driving with her parents to different libraries in search of the next book in their favorite mystery series.

LYNN MOONEY: You know, it wasn’t good enough that they knew in our county which library had the best mystery selection, but no, they had to do inter-library loan, and if they couldn’t wait that long for the book to come, they actually had to drive to that library and borrow the book from there.

WAILIN: Sarah grew up in Ohio, the youngest of four daughters raised by a professional storyteller and an architect. Her favorite book was one that her father read to her, called The Big Orange Splot.

SARAH HOLLENBECK: This book is about how we need to create houses that reflect our dreams, and it’s about a neighborhood where everyone on the street creates a house that shows what they dream about at night. That book sparked my love of reading because it was how my dad and I connected even before I learned to read.

WAILIN: The lives of these four women would come together at Women & Children First, the bookstore that Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon founded in 1979 and sold two years ago to staff members Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. Their story is about risk-taking, friendship and imagination — all elements of a good fairy tale, but you won’t find any damsels in distress here. This is a true story about smart, capable women who created a sustainable independent business. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. 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.

LINDA: We were like two kids. We were 28 and 30, and we were like building the dollhouse, you know, from the ground up, we built all the shelving ourselves with help from our friends.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda had met in graduate school, where they studied English and participated in a feminist discussion group with their professors. At the time they opened their bookstore, Lynn was a teenager, coming of age in a household where her mom subscribed to Ms. magazine. Years later, she attended rallies in support of the National Endowment for the Arts during a tumultuous period in the agency’s history. It was around this time that Sarah Hollenbeck was wearing anti-Bush t-shirts to grade school — that’s George Bush senior — and going with her mother to their local feminist bookstore in Toledo, Ohio.

SARAH: It was called People Called Women. It’s still there and Gina is the owner, and she, you know, sometimes said that my mom was why she was still in business because she sometimes she was the only person to shop there that day.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda hired Lynn part-time eight years ago and eventually promoted her to store manager. Sarah started working at the store in 2013.

SARAH: Ann and Linda graciously hired me and then almost immediately put the store up for sale, and took us all aside and told us they were going to retire.

WAILIN: A year earlier, Ann and Linda had asked Lynn and the store’s publicist at the time about taking over the business, but the timing hadn’t worked out. They were ready to restart their search for new owners. Sarah was only about a month into her new job at the store, but she jumped at the opportunity and asked Lynn if she wanted to team up on a proposal. Ann and Linda entertained about seven bids that they narrowed to three. In the end, they picked Lynn and Sarah.

LINDA: I knew them. I knew their principles. I knew how they interpreted feminism and lived feminism in their lives. I saw how they behaved towards customers.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda were looking for qualities beyond the cold numbers of a business plan.

LYNN: It became not just about the money. Yes, they were selling a business. It had tremendous value and they’ve worked very hard to build it up, so of course they needed to get something out of it, but it also indicated that they weren’t just going to chase whoever had the deepest pockets, that there was a lot of room for the personal, the relationships, and a vision for how to um bring Women & Children First into the future, update its relevance, update its connections to women and women writers in the Chicago area, and I think that’s part of what Sarah and I were able to do, is present a real passion for those things and a real interest in updating the store in a way that young women in Chicago would think of it as their bookstore.

WAILIN: A major component of Lynn and Sarah’s business proposal was continuing to hold events, something that had been part of the store’s mission from its earliest days. Women & Children First has long hosted readings by emerging and established authors, children’s story time, panels and book groups. The programs, which are partially funded by a nonprofit arm Ann and Linda set up years ago, give customers a reason to visit the store instead of buying books online. Even as so much of the conversation around feminism and politics has moved to the digital realm via op-eds and essays and tweets, the bookstore serves as a place where readers can connect face to face with writers they admire.

SARAH: A lot of authors have spent a great deal of time connecting with fans through social media and developing that personality of the author and people love it. They love being able to have a conversation with the author, so independent bookstores take that one step further and have that conversation in real time, in real life and we’ve seen just a huge swell of interest, especially among young feminists who want to actually meet the author that they’ve talked to online, that they you know, had this Twitter relationship.

WAILIN: Lynn and Sarah’s plan called for something bold: a major renovation to make a separate event space in the back of the store, so that other people could still shop in the front during events, thus creating a dual revenue stream. But they had to get the money and close the store for a couple months to overhaul the space. Lynn and Sarah raised over $35,000 in an online campaign, tapping into the same spirit of generosity that had driven friends to build bookshelves for Ann and Linda decades earlier. And speaking of those shelves, many of them had been in the window, displaying books that faced the street.

SARAH: That was wonderful in that it showed what we had in stock right now, but it also meant that you couldn’t see inside. So Lynn and I were both pretty adamant that although it was risky, we needed to take the shelves down so that people could see inside and say “Oh, I can go inside.” You know, some people are a little wary about what a feminist bookstore is, especially one that’s called Women & Children First. And we just wanted you to feel invited, to feel welcome, to look inside and say, “Oh, there’s a man in there and I’m a man, I can walk inside.” That was a risky decision and it turned out really well. I think we have more foot traffic now than we’ve ever had.

LYNN: Those shelves in the windows as well as the front counter, had been built by longtime dedicated customers, so there were people who would come in and say, “I helped build this front counter.” It kind of tipped us off to the fact that every decision we made was important, that we had to think things through really carefully, and that we needed to be very mindful of our longtime legacy customers and their memories and their associations.

WAILIN: Other parts of the renovation left behind remnants of a less inclusive era.

LYNN: There were several LGBTQ sections of the store that had always been in the back room and we wanted them to be on the main floor. There was a time in the store’s history when having those books in a back room provided the customers with a kind of privacy that times may have warranted were desirable—maybe not for every customer, but for some customers, and that made tremendous sense for a very long time. But we’re living in a different time now, so that’s not the case so much. And so we wanted those sections, especially the queer fiction, queer memoir, we want them to get more attention.

WAILIN: From the start, Women & Children First has aspired to lift up the voices of people like women of color and survivors of abuse. The store has also been about women helping each other in different ways. In the early days, when the store was in its previous location, Linda and a staff member shared childcare, with one watching the kids while the other worked. The author Ann Patchett, a bookstore owner herself, once offered to overnight Lynn and Sarah a projector that they needed for an event. And of course, there’s the partnership between the two owners of Women & Children First, now in its second iteration.

LYNN: I think Sarah is the perfect business partner for me here. She has just so much creativity and energy for things like events and programming and how to market the store and I wish I was that person. I am not that person, but I sure know that you can’t run a successful business without that skill set.

SARAH: We’re very lucky and we know a lot of bookstore owners in Chicago who do it on their own and I don’t know—I literally do not know how they do it because we really need one another to do all the many, many things that need to be done in a day.

WAILIN: The number of feminist bookstores in North America has dwindled in the last few decades from a hundred to about a dozen, depending on who’s counting. Back in 1979, it was extremely difficult for a woman to get funding for her own business. It was a radical notion that Ann and Linda could start a venture—and not just any business, but one centered on elevating women’s voices. With all of the harassment that many women face online for expressing their opinion or simply existing, the role of Women & Children First looks as revolutionary as it did 37 years ago.

SARAH: For me as a woman, I think it’s very risky to comment in online platforms and the thing about having an event in real time is we really strive to create a safe space for commenting out loud with your voice and not with your fingers. I think that will never go away because unfortunately the Internet can be very dangerous for women to voice an opinion. This will never be an unsafe place for women to voice an opinion and I think that’s where we’ll always stay relevant.

WAILIN: At Women & Children First, there’s cause for optimism. Linda sees a lot more dads at story time than she used to. And Lynn and Sarah are encouraged by what they see too.

LYNN: It’s completely standard now in a book about fire trucks that some of the fire truck drivers will be women in children’s books, or in a book about outer space, that some of the astronauts shown in the children’s book will be women. So things like that give me hope.

SARAH: I have had a ton of emails every day from young feminists who want to propose an event to have here, a dialogue of some sort that is really exciting to me because they’re younger and younger. They know what feminism is, they are really upset about the patriarchy. They know it’s a force and they know they have to fight against it. There’s kind of an energy in the air around feminism that I find very exciting.

WAILIN: While Ann has fully retired, Linda still works part-time at the store. You’ll find her leading story time, straightening the shelves, and participating in discussion groups. The work is never quite done.

LINDA: I feel successful now, not because I made a lot of money in my life, but because I learned to live without needing a lot of money and to find my satisfaction and the happiness that comes and goes when you’re living a life of purpose. And that has made all the difference in the world.

(Clapping)

LINDA: All right everybody, that’s it for today! Don’t forget April 9th coming up on a Saturday. We do ask a one dollar donation for story time and I hope you all have a great week. See you next week!

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Tracy Baim of the Windy City Times for her help with this story. 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.

Rainbow Connection

Illustration by Nate Otto

How an ice cream cone has nourished a Chicago family for three generations and 90 years of business.

Opening an ice cream store in Chicago is not for the faint of heart. Factor in a mostly deserted neighborhood and the Great Depression, and the idea of selling ice cream under these circumstances looks utterly harebrained. Yet that’s exactly what the Sapp family did in 1926 when they started Original Rainbow Cone, and their signature treat — five flavors arranged in diagonal slabs — has come to symbolize spring and summer for generations of Chicagoans who grew up on the city’s south side.

Lynn Sapp, the granddaughter of the founders, runs Rainbow Cone today and has ambitions of taking the business national, while staying mindful of her predecessors’ legacy of frugality and resourcefulness that has kept the seasonal business going for 90 years.

You wouldn’t think orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), strawberry and chocolate would all go together, but it’s fantastic. When I visited Rainbow Cone on opening day, I inhaled mine and almost went back for a second one. I wouldn’t have been alone, either. There were people eating rainbow cones in line, waiting to buy more.


Transcript

WAILIN: There are many ways to mark the beginning of spring in Chicago. There’s the day when Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report for spring training. There’s the day when the heat lamps on the city’s elevated train platforms turn off. And there’s the day when Original Rainbow Cone opens its doors.

(Sound of crowd)

WAILIN: It’s grand re-opening day at Rainbow Cone and at least 50 people have lined up outside the shop’s distinctive pink building on Chicago’s south side, bundled up in winter coats and hats and gloves. It’s an overcast day, with temperatures in the upper 30s, and there’s still patches of snow on the ground.

CUSTOMER: Crazy (laughs). I feel crazy. But hopefully it’s worth it!

Everyone here is waiting for their first Rainbow Cone of the year. And what exactly is a rainbow cone?

CUSTOMER: Orange sherbet

CUSTOMER: Pistachio

CUSTOMER: Palmer House

CUSTOMER: Strawberry

CUSTOMER: Chocolate

WAILIN: Starting from the top: orange sherbet as a palate cleanser, pistachio, Palmer House, which is vanilla with cherries and walnuts, finished off with strawberry and then chocolate at the very bottom. Five flavors, sliced instead of scooped, and arranged at a slight diagonal, with the chocolate just peeking out of the cone and the orange sherbet in an almost vertical slab down the back. Joseph Sapp invented the rainbow cone in 1926, when he and his wife, Katherine, opened their ice cream parlor in a part of Chicago that was still farmland and apple orchards. Today, Joseph and Katherine’s granddaughter, Lynn Sapp, owns the business. This year marks her thirtieth at the head of Rainbow Cone, and she starts every season by remembering the previous two generations of Sapps.

LYNN: I always say a prayer, thank you Grandpa, Katherine and Joe, Mom and Dad, thank you for everything that you’ve given me. I do, I’m very grateful because it’s an honor to do this. You pass it down and you’re part of the thing and you’re up on the counter saying hi to people, “Oh my God, good to see you this year,” and you create a lot of family and friends that way, so people know who you are.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show: The story of how an ice cream cone has sustained three generations of a Chicago family. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp 3. Basecamp 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.

LYNN: They got the money to buy the land that the present building is on and then they got the money to build one story of it. Now, imagine opening a business where there’s no loans, no nothing. Everything is cash…

WAILIN: The 9200 block of South Western Avenue was an unlikely place to open an ice cream parlor, or any kind of business, in 1926. Today, Western Avenue is the longest continuous street in Chicago and thick with traffic for its 24 miles. But ninety years ago, the stretch of Western where the Sapps opened Rainbow Cone was just a dirt road, with nothing around except a few cemeteries. The Sapps believed their store would draw families visiting the cemeteries on Sundays, and they were right. But then the economy collapsed.

LYNN: You open in 1926 and you head right into a Depression. Our original prices were 12 cents for a cone. Well, when you think dinner was a dime for a whole plate of food, 12 cents was a lot. Five cents for a small Rainbow was a lot. So it had to be good. They had to feed you, so that’s why our ice cream is fresh fruit and nuts.

WAILIN: Running Rainbow Cone through the Depression left an imprint on the Sapp family and the business that’s still felt today. Joe and Katherine Sapp had to make sure their product represented more than just an indulgence, that it could fill you up and be worth the 12 cents you might have spent on something else. The Sapps also learned to stretch every dollar. They broke down the cardboard boxes that the cones came in to use as floor coverings and cleaned the windows with newspapers. Katherine Sapp washed everything with Borax powder and vinegar. And the store used the same big freezer, made from oak and metal and batted cotton, for 60 years, until the bottom finally fell out.

LYNN: My grandmother was a very tough woman. She was a very smart woman and Joe, my grandpa, created the cone and Katherine was the vehicle behind making sure every penny was used wisely. Just the other day, I was cleaning and found what they call cardboard sheets that my grandpa’s Sunday dress shirt used to come in for cleaning, and they used to take that piece of cardboard that the whole shirt was folded around and then she would write everybody’s hours, their phone numbers—all of the business was done on a single piece of cardboard that came in my grandpa’s Sunday shirt from the cleaners and that was her records and that’s how she paid people and there was no, no waste. They didn’t have it, you know. There was no waste and even when it got, you know, things were better, there was no waste, because that was a sin, to waste food, to waste anything.

WAILIN: As the economy improved, Rainbow Cone became a gathering place for the neighborhood and a place to escape the summer heat in the days before air conditioning. During World War 2, the Sapps posted casualty lists in the back window, and Lynn’s grandfather installed a radio so people could hang out and listen to the news. But only during the warm months. This was Chicago, after all, and it didn’t make sense to stay open in the winter. Lynn’s predecessors had second jobs — her grandfather was a Buick mechanic and her father, Robert, was a building engineer for the Chicago Public School system. After she bought the business in 1986, she expanded Rainbow Cone to venues like the Taste of Chicago, an annual outdoor food festival that draws over a million people a year. But the ice cream parlor is still a seasonal business, and as with previous generations of Sapps, Lynn faces the pressure of making enough money in the summer to cover maintenance of a 90-year-old building and other expenses during the rest of the year.

LYNN: I’ve made it into a full-time job and just like expanding the product, having other people use it, doing different events, trying to maximize the warm months here and get as much money as we can to pay our bills in the winter. So we store everything we can, you know. Everybody’s like oh, you do so well at Taste, you do so well, all that goes in the vault and is you know, used for November, December, January, February, March when it’s, you know, 20 below and you can’t get in here because the snow is so high.

WAILIN: Lynn is the youngest of four children and grew up in the store, hanging out in a playpen in the back with her grandparents. Her grandpa Joe used to make tiny rainbow cones for her and her dolls, but she only wanted chocolate ice cream for the first nine or so years of her life. As she grew up, she and her siblings put themselves through college by working at Rainbow Cone. But it was never assumed that Lynn would simply inherit the business from her parents. She had to come up with the money to buy it.

LYNN: I had a teaching degree and I was teaching up north, and the roof fell in and the damage was so extensive that my dad was overwhelmed and at this point, he was getting older. That’s when I stepped in and said well, if you want me to clean it up, then I want to buy it, and that’s how we started the negotiation and that’s how I purchased the company.

WAILIN: Lynn started making changes that brought Rainbow Cone out of its comfort zone. She got a van and took the ice cream to festivals around the city to introduce it to people who’d never visited the store. She got rid of the white nurses dresses that was the uniform for female employees, and replaced them with t-shirts. She introduced new flavors like butter pecan, cookies and cream and mint flake, and packaged the five rainbow flavors in pints and quarts for customers to take home. But even as Lynn grew the business, she was mindful of her family’s legacy of frugality and resourcefulness. That’s how she started selling rainbow ice cream cakes.

LYNN: When I bought the store from my dad, I didn’t have any money, so I was invited to all of these birthday parties, anniversary, you know, christenings, you know. Well, I had no money. I had to look at what I had, so I literally made the bottom of the cake, put some ice cream on it. I used to make my own buttercream by hand back then. I do not now (laughs). Now it’s whipped topping product, but that’s how I started, and I’d bring the cake to the party and that was my gift because that’s all I had, so it worked, so it was good.

WAILIN: As Lynn kicks off Rainbow Cone’s ninetieth year, she’s looking at national expansion and franchising opportunities. This is a huge deal for a business that has spent almost a century in a single neighborhood location, despite getting requests from the Chicago diaspora to bring Rainbow Cone to other states. She’s tested the waters a bit by licensing Rainbow Cone to a chain of ice cream stores in the southwest Chicago suburbs, where she personally trained the workers in how to serve it, and she feels like now, the business’s ninetieth year, is finally the right time to introduce her Grandpa Joe’s creation to a bigger audience.

LYNN: People say, you know, you should have expanded years ago, why aren’t you expanding? Because it’s a very unique and special ice cream cone, and I guard it very carefully because I want it done right. The other thing you’re guarding is people’s memories, and it’s memories of the product for 90 years and that, you know, person that walks up to the counter has to have a positive experience because they’re remembering their childhood when their grandma and grandpa bought them, they’re bringing their kids, so it’s not just my rainbow cone, it’s their rainbow cone too. That’s people’s memories, you know, and am I controlling about it? You bet ya! That’s why we’re still here for 90 years.

WAILIN: The nostalgia is strong for Chicagoans like Bridget Powell, who along with her parents was first in line for the grand re-opening.

BRIDGET: They used to ride us up here on the back of the bikes when we weren’t big enough to ride our own, and then we’d ride up here together as a family and get Rainbow Cone several times in the summer. It was something to do together as a family, get ice cream, you know. It was a nice tradition.

WAILIN: On a cold, windy day like this, summer in Chicago can feel like a distant memory or a mass hallucination dreamt up by a population with cabin fever. The re-opening of Rainbow Cone is a reassuring sign that warm weather will be here soon, and taking that first lick of the rainbow is celebratory and nostalgic all at once. Just ask Bridget and her father, Timothy.

BRIDGET: You know what? It’s the best damn ice cream I’ve ever had. I won’t deny that.

TIMOTHY: It’s as good as it ever was.

WAILIN: The Rainbow Cone ice cream has always been made off-site by other companies following the Sapp family recipes. The business has been around for long enough to outlast suppliers and see dramatic price increases in certain ingredients, like nuts. When the costs of running the store go up, Lynn can’t just jack up the price of a rainbow cone. She has to find savings elsewhere. This year, because of an increase in the minimum wage in Chicago, she’s hiring seven to 10 fewer employees — a tough decision for a business that’s always prided itself on giving local high school students their first job. On the revenue side, the store’s big challenge is weather. The only seating at Rainbow Cone is a cluster of picnic tables in the back yard. So if it’s rainy or unseasonably cool, customers stay away.

LYNN: If you’re making a buck today in the food business, I say God bless you because you don’t understand what you have to go through to keep that dollar. For us it’s the maintenance of the building, it’s the maintenance of equipment, it’s, you know it’s paying the city’s fees, all measured in how many cones do I have to scoop to pay for this, that’s true, what am I slicing today? (Laughs)

WAILIN: But Rainbow Cone is nothing if not steeped in a Depression-era legacy of resourcefulness and sticking to it. Lynn says her grandpa Joe was all about quality product, cleanliness and good service. When she gets bogged down in the minutiae of running the business, she thinks back to when it was just her grandparents and a little shack on a dirt road, serving 12-cent cones to families dressed in their Sunday best.

LYNN: It’s not just Original Rainbow Cone owned by the Sapp family, it’s Original Rainbow Cone owned by the Chicagoans who have come here for generations. I mean, 90 years says a lot about a business, so it’s just staying with the basics that even I have to admit, I’ve gotten sidetracked from. With all of the, we have registers now with POS systems that can tell me per ounce, you just have to stay with the basics. And every time I’m like rechanneling Katherine and Joe, saying okay, we have to have the best product we can have, greatest ingredients, we have to have cleanliness here, and then we have to serve it with a smile and make sure we keep doing that. It’s not easy, but you just gotta keep doing it.

WAILIN: Ninety years later, it’s still about the basics: orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House, strawberry and chocolate. It’s the taste of childhood summers for generations of Chicagoans who grew up on the city’s south side, and Lynn understands her role in preserving that important, ineffable link between taste and memory.

LYNN: As the world gets crazier, people want relief. People want a little bite of it’s gonna be okay, and that’s an Original Rainbow Cone for 90 years, it’s been telling people, this is a great fruit and nut ice cream, it’s sliced, it’s not scooped, it’s completely different, and it’s gonna make everything okay. So (laughs) that’s where we’re at.

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to sdlavergne and Da Chipsta for your recent five star ratings on iTunes. We would love it if you could leave us a review on iTunes too. You can also sign up for our newsletter and find links to episode transcripts at 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.

Inquiring Minds

In 2011, my husband and I went to hear Umberto Eco speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. When they opened up the talk to audience questions, I started cringing in my seat as a kind of preemptive reflex. Sure enough, someone from the audience eagerly grabbed the microphone and asked Eco if he believed in God.

I intensely dislike audience Q&As at these kinds of events. I understand why they exist, and I always take questions from the crowd when moderating panels, but I’ve come to dread the whole enterprise. There’s always the “This is more of a statement…” person; the question asker who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different event; the pedantic blowhard. At the same Chicago Humanities Festival where Eco spoke, I attended a talk about composing television for music and film where during the Q&A, a woman loudly described the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and then sat down without asking a question. I also once went to a book reading by Joshua Ferris, who mentioned he had gotten an idea for his novel while shopping at Home Depot, and a guy in the front row called out, “What’s Home Depot?” (Ferris, without missing a beat, explained that it’s a store like Menards, where you can buy lumber and tools.)

Asking good questions is hard. I make a living from asking people questions, and I’ve had my share of blunders. As a young financial markets reporter, I once lobbed what I thought was a friendly open-ended question at a source, only to have him snap, “Do you know anything about capital markets, madam?” There was also the time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called on me at a press conference and I blankly said, “What?” like an idiot because I was spacing out in the front row.

But it hasn’t been all mishaps! I’ve learned a lot about interviewing and asking questions, and my last two years talking to owners of long-running businesses for The Distance have been particularly instructive in how to do interviews for feature stories. (Breaking news and more adversarial interviews for investigative pieces have their own techniques, as do live or broadcast interviews where the journalist’s end of the conversation is equally visible.)

Come prepared but with an open mind.

Sometimes I write down a list of questions and sometimes I don’t. Even if I do have a list of questions, I review it before leaving for the interview but don’t print it out. I don’t like to be so wedded to my list of questions that I forget to listen. Sometimes the best material comes from a tangent or an offhand reference that the person makes, and it’s important to let the conversation wander down those paths.

I do a lot of research before interviews and usually have some idea of what the story’s underlying thread will be so I can focus my questions, but I’m also willing to ditch that angle if my initial instincts don’t pan out. For my most recent story about Office Furniture Resources, a company that buys and resells used office furniture, I had gone in thinking that the business gets its inventory from corporations that go under. I thought the story might have a twinge of melancholy to it, examining how OFR makes its money from reselling the vestiges of defunct businesses. Instead, I learned that OFR gets used furniture from Fortune 100 corporations that are moving or upgrading their offices. That piece of information took the interview in a different direction, and the final story ended up focusing more on OFR’s years of relationship-building and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the used office furniture business.

Ask the right kinds of questions.

All the stories we do at The Distance attempt to answer the question: “What’s the key to staying in business for so long?” But I don’t pose this question directly to business owners. It’s just too on-the-nose. Most of the people I talk to don’t really think in those terms, and if they do have a response, it’s usually kind of canned. After all, if someone asked you, “What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?” you probably wouldn’t have a pithy answer. What’s worked well for me is to ask a whole bunch of questions about how the business operates and how it’s evolved over time. I might also ask the person to describe how he or she got through a difficult period, or how they made certain important decisions. When I transcribe the tape and review my notes, I’m able to pick out some common themes in the discussion and get closer to answering the overarching question.

Open-ended questions are also really important, especially in the kinds of stories we do at The Distance, where the voice of the business owner is critical. Yes/no questions yield bad quotes, so you don’t want to get in a position where you’re just reciting a bunch of facts at the subject and getting them to confirm those facts. You’ll end up with an hour of you showing off all the research you’ve done, and not very much from the person you’re interviewing.

For feature reporting in particular, you often want subjects to set a specific scene for you—what something looked like, where they were, what they were thinking or feeling or wearing. When someone starts describing a scene you think might make a good anecdote for the story, slow down and walk the person through the scene in detail: “So you were sitting here? Where was the other person? Then what did you do?”

Location, location, location

I do all my primary interviews in person at the business itself. Seeing interview subjects in their natural habitat, so to speak, adds a lot to stories. When possible, ask for a tour or to tag along with someone at an event where you can see the person in action. If I have a choice between the person’s office and a conference room, I always choose the former because people’s office decor—what’s hanging on their wall and sitting on their desks—usually generates interesting material. That’s how I learned the president of Carma Labs (the maker of Carmex lip balm) collects motorcycles and self-playing musical instruments, and how the owner of Merz Apothecary ended up reading a framed letter on his wall that had him, his son and me in tears.

Take your time and over-report.

When you sit down to write, you want to be in a position where you are making tough, practically heartbreaking, decisions about what makes the final story. Also, you don’t know what’s the most important or interesting unless you’ve gathered a lot of material. A typical Distance episode is around 15 minutes, with that split between my narration and the tape I’ve gathered. That usually works out to seven or eight minutes of tape from interviews that take anywhere from one to three hours. It’s never easy to leave out so much material, especially since people take that kind of time to talk to me. But all that information lives in the background of the piece, informing the overall narrative and helping me tell the story with greater confidence and authority.

Perhaps the most important tip I can give is to act with empathy and be grateful for your interview subjects’ time, candor and trust. I am constantly amazed that anyone agrees to talk to journalists. A few months ago, I was on the phone with a potential subject who wanted to know what measurable benefits previous Distance business owners have gotten from being featured on the show. I was honest and said “none.” As far as I know, there have been no uptick in sales or life-changing business deals for any of the businesses profiled on the show. The benefits are more intangible—public relations, the opportunity to share your story with an outlet that will treat it with care. If I’m being truly honest, the show and I are the ones who benefit the most. We’re getting great stories that will hopefully keep building our audience and contribute to a conversation about business models based on long-term vision and staying independent.

By the way, if you’re wondering how Umberto Eco responded to the question about whether he believed in God, he said: “I don’t speak of private questions in public. Anyway, the only thing I am pretty sure—God believes in me!”

So about those TPS reports…

Illustration by Nate Otto

Before joining Basecamp, where everyone can live and work wherever they want (look at our desks!), I commuted to an office where I had a cubicle. I’d always worked in newsrooms, which tend to be livelier than a many other workplaces—TVs blaring, reporters having loud arguments with recalcitrant public officials and corporate spokespeople on the phone. Even so, my last cubicle was a little dreary, so I gave it a makeover with neon pink damask fabric wall coverings and matching accessories that imbued the space with a Laura Ashley fever dream vibe. It improved the quality of my work life immensely.

Office workers spend a lot of time at their desks—eight to ten hours a day. And it’s easy to take that furniture for granted. For Office Furniture Resources, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, commercial furniture is its lifeblood. OFR buys desks, chairs and cubicles from Fortune 100 companies that are moving or upgrading and resells that furniture to businesses with smaller budgets. A five-year-old Herman Miller or Steelcase chair has a lot of life left in it, and OFR has built a healthy business on finding new homes for all that gently used office furniture. It’s an industry that operates completely behind the scenes yet touches the lives of office workers everywhere.


Transcript

WAILIN: Twenty-five years ago, Tom Quinlan had just moved to Milwaukee and was looking for a new job after almost 20 years working at a Chicago company that sold office furniture. One day, he ended up on the phone with someone back in Chicago that he knew through his old job.

TOM: Someone asked me, he said: “I’ve got a bunch of furniture here. Would you be interested in taking it?” And I said, “Oh, okay.” So I, I drove to Chicago and they walked me back into this warehouse and I think there was like a hundred chairs, and the guy goes, you know, “Will you take these hundred chairs for me?”

WAILIN: They were red guest chairs, the kind you might find in a reception area or a waiting room, and they were made by Steelcase, a big office furniture manufacturer. Tom’s old job had been managing the warehouse of a Steelcase dealer, and he knew they were well-made chairs.

TOM: And I said: “Okay, I don’t have to pay for these hundred chairs?” “No, just take ’em because it’s gonna cost us more money to throw ’em out than it’s worth. We just want you to take ‘em.” Oh, okay. I think I can probably sell those chairs.

WAILIN: Tom loaded the hundred red chairs into his rental truck and put them all in the basement of the two-flat in Milwaukee that he and his wife, Suzanne, were renting.

TOM: And then, you know, Suzanne, who came home from work and she went down to the basement and she said, “What the hell are you doing with all these damn chairs? What’s gotten into — that’s crazy!”

WAILIN: What Tom did with all those damn chairs was start a business called Office Furniture Resources, or OFR. This year, it celebrates 25 years of buying and selling used office furniture, everything from cubicle panels to credenzas to filling cabinets to carpets. If cubicle walls could talk, what stories would they tell? Well, we’ve got one of those stories today, and you’ll hear it on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. We use Basecamp to run our show, and I should mention that OFR also uses Basecamp. As a general rule, we do not feature Basecamp customers on The Distance. This was an oversight on my part and I apologize for it. We’re still sharing this story because I really like it. So let’s get back to Tom Quinlan and the hundred red chairs in his basement.

TOM: I said, “You know, there’s an opportunity I just couldn’t say no to, and I think I can sell these chairs.” And then, at the same time, I had a friend who lived in Milwaukee. She had some time on her hands, and I said, I think if I taught her what I know about furniture, I bet you she’s gonna be able to go around to local businesses and sell these chairs.

WAILIN: That friend was Nancy Kidd.

NANCY: My name is Nancy Kidd, and I am employee number one.

WAILIN: At the time, Nancy had a bunch of different jobs, like working at the local YMCA and selling ads for a fitness publication. Tom put two of the red chairs in her car and told her if you sell these, you can keep half the proceeds.

NANCY: I went into this print shop and I actually had to get some printing done and I said, “Hmm, you guys don’t have any place to sit down in here while you’re waiting.” And they said, “Oh yeah we know, we should get some chairs.” And I said, “I have a couple in my car.” I said, “These are Steelcase 454 guest chairs. They weigh about 75 pounds each. They are built like a brick shithouse and they’re gonna be 75 bucks each.” And he said, “I’ll take ‘em.” I said great. So, took them out of the car and they gave me 150 bucks. I drove over to Tom and I was just like—that was so much money to me. When he gave me that 75 dollars, I was like oh my God. Whatever. I’ll do whatever.

WAILIN: That was how it all started. Tom and Nancy sat in the basement — Tom on a big leather chair, Nancy on a little green chair that belonged to Tom’s toddler son—and they worked the phone.

NANCY: I would call people and I would say, um, “Hey you know, I was wondering if you had any 30-inch deep cantilevers. Oh, you do?” And Tom would nod and say, “How much?” And he’d write something on a paper and I’d say, “How much are you asking for those? Oh, 5 percent? Five cents on the dollar? The list price? Oh yeah, okay, um.” And he would, like, hand signal and tell me what to say and do and I would say it and do it and buy stuff.

WAILIN: It was just Tom and Nancy in those days, so Tom would drive around picking up furniture himself.

TOM: We would go into a building and we would buy a floor of furniture and at the time, back 25 years ago, we didn’t really have a warehouse or a facility to bring it out, so we would try and flip it. So we would take it out of the building and then try to resell it to another dealer, used furniture company that’s in our business, and that business could be in Chicago or it could be in California, Texas, Ohio. It didn’t really matter.

WAILIN: Eventually, OFR got big enough that Tom needed to rent a warehouse in Milwaukee. Today, the business has locations in Milwaukee, Madison, St. Louis and Chicago. When companies are looking to get rid of their office furniture, usually because they’re upgrading or moving, OFR comes in, takes everything apart and hauls it away. It then resells those used chairs and desks, either to another furniture dealer, to a business that’s looking for office furniture, or to shoppers that walk into an OFR retail store. Whenever big corporations jump on new trends in office furniture, like going from tall cubicles to more open spaces with lower walls, it’s good business for OFR.

TOM : You have the Fortune 100 companies. All this product that they decide it doesn’t work for them, trickles down to the rest of us. And there’s a lot of the rest of us. We don’t sell used furniture to the Fortune 100 companies. We take their furniture, we work with them because they have to get rid of it, and then we basically trickle it down to small, mid-sized firms, 50 to 200 employees, that they don’t have the budget but they have the need. And that’s our typical customer profile. A lot of people think that we get the furniture from companies that are going under or are bankrupt or out of business. That’s not the case at all. Ninety-nine percent of the furniture that we get are from companies that are redoing their space for whatever reason.

WAILIN: The process of removing office furniture is known as liquidation or decommissioning, and it’s intense, physical work. A single workstation — that’s the industry term for a cubicle — can consist of hundreds of individual parts that have to be taken apart.

TOM: So we’re doing a job downtown and it might be like, maybe a floor or two. Square footage is maybe 30, 50 thousand square feet, so you know, an average downtown building floor is anywhere from 25 to 50 or 70 thousand square feet. You can fit about a hundred workstations on an average floor.

WAILIN: The decommissioning is usually done at night. The furniture is loaded onto trucks and transported to a warehouse about 15 minutes from downtown Chicago. OFR might shuttle 15 to 20 truckloads of furniture to the warehouse on any given night. After 25 years in the business, Tom can estimate with uncanny accuracy how many truckloads are needed for a job. Nancy remembers when she and Tom did a walkthrough of a big downtown office.

NANCY: We must have walked 30 floors of the building. I mean, it was just like (sound) crazy. We got to the end and somebody said, “Well Tom, how many trailers do you think are gonna come out of this building?” And Tom said a hundred and five, and I think a hundred and six or a hundred and three came out of the building at the end and I’ll never forget it. His mind is just a trailer load.

WAILIN: The used office furniture business is heavy on logistics and manual labor, but it’s also built on human relationships because Tom and his staff need to know which Fortune 100 corporations are planning to move or redecorate. In the Midwest, OFR is tight with the big commercial real estate firms that manage office buildings. It also has contacts at new furniture dealers and local moving companies and installers, all of which can recommend OFR to their customers. The network that OFR has built is one you only get by being around for many years. And it all started with Nancy and a recipe box.

NANCY: Tom said we need to connect with every installation company in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri. So I would go to to the library and get the Yellow Pages or the microfiche and get on those machines and write down phone numbers and then make phone calls, hey this is what we do, you know, do you ever have a need for this, do you have a garage full of stuff we can buy from old de-installations. I had four-by-six index cards and I had like a recipe box, and I alphabetized it and I would get on an airplane with my recipe box.

WAILIN: The result of all those phone calls and relationship building can be seen in OFR’s warehouse in Des Plaines, Illinois, a few miles from O’Hare International Airport. It’s just one of the company’s warehouses, and it’s packed to the brim.

TOM: This is 50,000 square feet of office furniture. There’s probably easy, a thousand workstations in here. There’s probably 1,500 chairs. There’s probably a couple thousand filing cabinets.

WAILIN: For OFR, the ideal liquidation is one that yields a lot of furniture with a high resale value, like Herman Miller chairs that are just five years old and have probably another 15 years of life left in them. On the other end of the spectrum is furniture that is outdated, like wood laminate surfaces that were designed to hold clunky desktop computers or big filing cabinets from the days when cubicle walls were higher and companies stored a lot of paper. There’s just not demand for that kind of furniture anymore. So the wood laminate goes to a landfill, along with stuff like fabric. Metal gets taken to a scrap yard for recycling, although it’s kind of a bad deal for the company right now.

TOM: The price of metal is really going down. The last time I looked, it was like 15 bucks a ton. A year ago at this time, it was 275 dollars a ton. So that’s a huge deal in our business because people always ask that question: “Am I gonna get any credit back for metal?” Well, at 15 bucks a ton, it costs us more money to put it on a trailer, bring it to the scrapper, than we’re getting back, so it’s a losing proposition for us, so we have to charge for that. When you were getting 275 a ton, you could actually give back to the customer credit for the metal.

WAILIN: OFR has faced other economic pressures, like Chinese imports that sell for the same price, new, as gently used furniture from Steelcase and Herman Miller. Then there was the most recent recession, when Fortune 100 companies kept decommissioning their offices but smaller businesses stopped buying furniture. It was incumbent on OFR to show customers they could create a nice space for a fraction of what it costs to buy new furniture, like $200 for a Steelcase chair versus a list price of $1,000. There’s another, more abstract sales pitch too, one that’s about convincing businesses that a more inviting office space leads to happier workers and increased productivity.

TOM: When you sell your house, the day of the open house, you always have a fire going in the fireplace, right? You’re trying to make people feel like this could be my space. Wouldn’t it be nice to be sitting there on Sunday with a nice fire? You’re just trying to give them that warm and fuzzy. Commercial furniture is the same feeling. You want people, when they get off the elevator, to feel like, I can spend the next eight to ten hours here.

WAILIN: OFR doesn’t just extol the virtues of used office furniture to potential customers. It furnishes its own corporate headquarters with chairs and workstations from liquidations. Last year, it decommissioned Google’s former office space in downtown Chicago. Google took all its chairs when it moved further west, but the company left behind some very nice Herman Miller workstations that convert from regular to standing desks.

TOM: Those are really hip. Everybody wants those; those are great.

WAILIN: Tom’s wife, Suzanne, who’s in charge of OFR’s finances, uses one of those sit-to-stand desks. Nancy Kidd has a special piece of furniture in her office too — the little green plastic chair that she used to sit on in Tom’s basement. The green chair originally belonged to Tom and Suzanne’s son, Jack, who was just a toddler when the business was founded and is now 26 and works in the Milwaukee warehouse.

TOM: You know, actually, in the last few years, he’s really probably the one that really makes it all work for us. He’s autistic, so for Suzanne and I to watch him grow and have a social environment at work, it brings tears to your eyes.

WAILIN: Tom has watched other long-time employees grow up and raise families of their own while working at OFR, and those are relationships he takes seriously. He believes in promoting from within and having everyone try each other’s jobs. Like if someone gets hired as an accountant, they might spend some time offloading furniture from trucks, just so employees understand every facet of the business.

TOM: Suzanne and I, we’re there all the time and there’s nothing that is above us. You have to maintain those relationships and be willing to do whatever you’re asking someone else to do. You should be willing to do and that is true when you’re 21 and that’s true when you’re 65. People have to understand that you’ve done that and you know what you’re talking about. They’ll respect that.

I would say 80 percent of my day is communicating to employees. The other 20 percent, I’m getting coffee. The interaction with your employees is like what makes me come to work every day. That’s the fun part. You’re watching them grow and you’re giving them the ability to grow.

WAILIN: As a used furniture guy, Tom never gets to see what the new spaces look like after a customer moves. But he always tells them, it’s okay. I’ll see the stuff in 10 years. And he knows better than most people that there’s still a lot of value in old furniture.

TOM: The reason why we’re successful and we started this business was the fact that I walked in that warehouse 25 years ago and I saw an opportunity to sell those chairs. I want everybody that works for me to feel the same way. They have to be able to recognize and see opportunity and then jump on it, and then live with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you don’t do it at all, you’re dead.

WAILIN: Nancy saw an opportunity, too, when she walked into the print shop and asked if they wanted to buy the two red chairs in her car. Those chairs are still at the print shop. Tom’s thinking of paying them a follow-up visit.

TOM: For our 25-year anniversary, we thought maybe we should go back and see if we can buy those chairs back and replace them with something a little bit nicer. I’d make it worth his while. And I’d bring him nicer chairs, too. I’d replace ’em. Wanna make sure that he’s happy.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can find us online at thedistance.com, where we have links to episode transcripts, and on Twitter at distancemag, that’s @distancemag. 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.

Bootstrapped and Proud

Illustration by Nate Otto

I first learned about boot jacks a couple weeks ago, when I reported this story about Alcala’s Western Wear, a 41-year-old retailer in Chicago. Illinois is not a place where you see a lot of cowboy boots — not like, say, Texas or Montana, where airport security checkpoints come with boot jacks to help flyers take off their boots.

Yet even in this urban metropolis, Alcala’s Western Wear has flourished, offering a massive selection of cowboy hats, boots, shirts, belt buckles and more. Western wear has been far more than a fashion fad for the Alcala family, now in its second generation of ownership. The Alcalas know what it’s like to bootstrap a business in every sense of the word.


Transcript

WAILIN: Richard Alcala has been selling clothing for a long time, long enough that you can track his career by the width of men’s pants. When Richard was starting out, bell bottoms were all the rage, thanks to Saturday Night Fever.

RICHARD: They were really tight in the thigh and they were really wide as soon as it got to the knee. From the knee down, they were like a big, big V. And they covered — they were so wide that they covered your shoes. Everybody wanted to be like that guy in the movie.

WAILIN: That guy, of course, being John Travolta. Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977. And men’s pants have gotten a lot slimmer since then, surprising even Richard, who’s been in the retail business for more than four decades.

RICHARD: Guys’ skinny jeans. I never saw that coming. And it’s still coming strong, my gosh. I don’t think those tapered jeans are going anywhere. I think people really really love them and they love the way they fit.

WAILIN: Richard’s business isn’t going anywhere either. He’s the president of Alcala’s Western Wear, a Chicago store that sells cowboy hats, boots, shirts, belt buckles, and more. Here, east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find more apartment dwellers with cats and dogs than grizzled ranchers with cows and horses. And yet Alcala’s Western Wear has endured, outlasting disco and many other fashion fads. You’ll hear the story of this urban cowboy outfitter on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp 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.

RICHARD: I’m wearing some brown alligator boots by Old Gringo and I’m wearing a Stetson hat and it’s a white color because good guys wear white, supposedly, from the movies, okay, and I’m wearing a bolo tie. It’s made out of stone. And this is how I dress every day. You know, it’s who I am.

WAILIN: Richard Alcala is the fifth of ten children who were born into a family of salesmen. His great-grandfather sold cars at one of Ford’s first dealerships in Mexico, and he was also the first taxi cab driver in the city of Durango.

RICHARD: He had the first license for a taxi and he would go up and down the boulevard giving people rides. And my father said there were so many people they would stand on the outside of the car on the running boards and just hold on because they couldn’t fit into this car because they could only fit so many people in this car, right? And he loved selling cars. My great-grandfather loved selling cars, and so I think it’s just in our blood.

WAILIN: Richard’s father, Luis, came to the US and landed in Chicago, where among other jobs, he had a table at the Maxwell Street market. This was an open-air bazaar on the city’s near west side that was known as a bargain hunters’ paradise for over a hundred years, until the mid nineties. It was where Richard learned how to make a sale from watching his father.

RICHARD: He would go to Maxwell Street every Sunday and set up his own little booth there on the street and he would sell things. He would sell clothing. He did brooms. He sold lawn mowers. Basically whatever he could get, he would sell. And since we had a large family, you know, the sons would go with him and help.

We weren’t allowed to keep our hands in our pockets. That was a big no-no. Never put your hands in your pocket because you’re telling the customer that you really don’t care. So you could never put—even if it was below zero, you could not put your hands in your pocket.

It was neat to sell something. That was like the pat on the back. When you sold something, you felt like, “Wow, I did this. I did this and I did this on my own.”

WAILIN: Luis Alcala eventually opened a brick and mortar store on the south side of Chicago, selling men’s clothing. Many of his customers worked at a nearby US Steel plant, and business declined when that factory closed. So he opened a second menswear store in 1975, this time further north, in a neighborhood populated with Polish, Mexican and Puerto Rican residents. Five years later, another John Travolta movie — Urban Cowboy — sparked interest in western wear.

RICHARD: They wanted to wear his hat. They wanted the same shirt that he wore in the movie. All of a sudden, every guy in Chicago wanted a big pickup truck. Now, was it practical to have a pickup truck in Chicago? Probably not. Did anybody care? No. Nobody cared that they didn’t need a pickup truck, but they wanted a pickup truck because that’s what he drove in this movie and they wanted the hat that he wore and it really really brought western wear, like—it made the whole industry, like, really really popular.

WAILIN: At Alcala’s, customers were coming in asking for shirts with snaps, and boots, and hats. Richard, who had worked at the store since the eighth grade, thought the family business could distinguish itself from other menswear stores in the neighborhood by focusing on western wear. But his father took some convincing.

RICHARD: He wasn’t very fond of the idea because we had been carrying menswear for a long time, and to all of a sudden stop carrying it and switching over to something new was like a real big change. It was a real big change but I told him, I says, “Dad, we have to do this. We can’t be — we can’t be both. You know, we can’t be western wear and we can’t be menswear. We have to be one or the other because we don’t want to confuse customers.”

WAILIN: Not only did Alcala’s make the switch, but it grew into an enormous one-stop shop for everything western, and expanded to women and children’s apparel. The store is 10,000 square feet and carries 8,000 pairs of boots, 3,000 pairs of jeans, three thousand shirts and 4,000 hats. There’s also belt buckles, bootstraps, leather duster jackets, bolo ties, blankets and jewelry.

RICHARD: We’ve always believed that the customers should get a good selection. Customers don’t want to come in and look at a shirt and have ten shirts to decide from. I think it’s better if they can look at 200 shirts and decide from 200 which ones they like.

WAILIN: Alcala’s prides itself on its large inventory and customer service. There’s a tailor on staff who will alter jeans and shirts for free, usually while you wait. There’s also a specialist in the hat department.

ENRIQUE,: Hi, my name is Enrique Mendoza and I’m working at Alcala’s, shaping and cleaning hats for a very very long time.

WAILIN: How long? Since 1988, when Enrique came to the US from Mexico. His brother-in-law worked at Alcala’s as a tailor and got him a job in the hat department, where he’s been ever since. If you want the brim on your Stetson to frame your face just so, Enrique’s your man. He uses a foot-operated steamer and his hand to mold hats into the right shape. Enrique estimates he works on 200 hats a week. Sometimes it’s a quick spot clean, other times it’s trimming a brim and shaping the crown. You can get the cattleman crease, which has three creases, or the pinch front crease, which creates a triangular shape, or the telescope, which is a circular crown with a crease that goes all the way around. There are a lot of choices — straw, felt, leather, different colors and band styles and brim sizes — and Enrique has 27 years of experience helping customers make sense of it all.

ENRIQUE: I’m asking, “Okay, where are you going?” If you going to a wedding, you need a nice and elegant hat, right? If you go to a rodeo on an open field, you need a different hat, so it depends on where you going, is the hat you have to buy.

WAILIN: Enrique’s secret weapon is a spray bottle of Windex. He discovered by accident many years ago that it’s a good cleaner for hats and dries faster than water.

ENRIQUE: You gotta do the brush, you see? The clock go this way; you have to do the other way. That’s the way that finish the hat, look.

(Sound of brushing)

And the Windex, it helps you clean it, look. See?

(Sound of brushing)

WAILIN: The kind of personal attention that Enrique and other staff members provide is more important than ever, now that Alcala’s is facing so much competition — both from online-only retailers and its own suppliers like Levi’s, who have started selling directly to consumers. The store sells merchandise online, but Richard thinks of the website as more of a big, Google-friendly business card than a source of revenue.

RICHARD: I don’t understand how people can buy boots and shirts and jeans online without trying them on. I guess you gotta order them and return them if they don’t fit, and do it all over again, you know, I think it’s easier if you just come to a store and try them on.

WAILIN: And if you come to Alcala’s in person, you can try on merchandise while your kids ride one of the store’s two mechanical ponies. You can feel the difference between rattlesnake and eel skin and stingray boots, or ask Enrique Mendoza how your hat should look.

RICHARD: If we close our store tomorrow and we depended online business, we would be closed in 30 days. There’s so much competition out there. There’s so many non stores. There’s so many people out there selling the same product that we do who don’t have a store. They have a garage. They’re working out of their basement. They don’t have 30 employees. We have 30 employees here.

WAILIN: A lot of those employees are family members. Remember when I told you Richard is the fifth of ten kids? Five of his siblings work at the store too, along with other relatives.

RICHARD: My brother Robert, he’s the accounting. I have a sister, Lupi, she’s accounts payable. I have a brother John who is in charge of shipping and receiving. And I have another brother Louie, who’s a cashier. My wife Elia, she’s a cashier. And then we have nieces and nephews working here and I’ve got a brother-in-law working here, so there’s a lot of family members working here.

Everybody has their own responsibility. You don’t have two or three people doing the same job, so I think it’s important that everybody kind of like has their own position. They have their own responsibilities, and I think that really helps when you’re in a family business. So this way, not everybody’s meddling into everybody else’s job.

WAILIN: Richard’s job is president, a position he’s had since 1982, when his father picked him as his successor after a year of observing him and his siblings.

RICHARD: Since I was number five out of ten, I thought I would never be able to run this company because I have four brothers who are older than me. And so one day, my dad had a family meeting and he called us over and he says, “I want someone to run this company. One of you’s are going to run this company and I’m not gonna base it on age.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s great, I’m so happy, wow. So now I have a chance.” And so I really really worked hard and I proved to my father that I wanna be the one who runs this company. He picked me and he told my brothers — he told my older brothers, he said, “Look, even though he’s younger than you, you have to respect his decisions. You can’t look at him like he’s your little brother and now your little brother is bossing you around.” He said, “Everybody had the same opportunity that he did, but none of you’s showed the same interest that he did. So now this is how it’s gonna be. Your brother’s going to be in charge and if he says go right, we’re gonna have to go right.”

WAILIN: Richard’s father, Luis, passed away in 2014 at the age of 92. Portraits of Luis Alcala and his wife of more than 60 years, Carmen, hang side by side at the front of the store. Hand-lettered signs above each painting say “El Rey” — the king — and “La Reina” — the queen. In Luis’ portrait, he’s wearing tinted aviator glasses and looks every bit the patriarch, watching over the business he founded. Richard is 57 and starting to think about stepping back in a few years. He plans to search for a successor the same way his father did, by finding someone who really loves the business and will take care of it, someone who’s a natural salesperson.

RICHARD: I’m a real firm believer that you have to wear what you sell. I would feel ridiculous if I’m helping a customer, showing him cowboy boots, and I’m wearing gym shoes. It’s important that you wear what you sell and that you love what you sell. You have to believe in it.

WAILIN: Over four decades in the business, Richard’s tastes have evolved a bit. But he’s still very much a believer in the appeal of a sharp-looking pair of boots and a hat — in white, of course, because he’s one of the good guys.

RICHARD: I used to wear, like, real loud fancy shirts with a lot of embroidery in them, and I’ve noticed that I really don’t anymore. So yeah, you know, your tastebuds kind of change. Your tastebuds kind of change over the years, but you know, I still love what I’m doing and it’s been 43 years and I’m still here.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. We’ll be back next week with a mini episode where Shaun shops for a pair of cowboy boots at Alcala’s, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if you could leave us a review on iTunes, we would be so grateful. It helps our show gets discovered by new listeners. 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.

Pulp Fixing

Piecing together a page of newsprint. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

Human history comes with a long paper trail, and there’s a company in Chicago whose mission is to preserve and restore that physical record. Graphic Conservation Company is a 95-year-old lab that specializes in repairing works on paper—anything from illuminated medieval manuscripts to personal family documents. It has undertaken some incredibly complex projects over the years, including restoring the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th Amendment. Graphic Conservation can smooth wrinkles, remove ancient adhesive residue and even create new paper from scratch to patch holes in damaged items. Listen to our episode on the business or scroll down to read the transcript.

While reporting this story, I discovered a small personal connection to Graphic Conservation Co. The business started as a specialty book-binding department within RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 commercial printing company. It’s where my dad, who immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in the 1960’s to attend college, worked as an electrical engineer for his entire career. He started at Donnelley during the period that the company sold its Graphic Conservation Department to its then-managers, who made the lab into a private business. Donnelley’s legacy lives on at Graphic Conservation Co., which still uses equipment from the 1930’s. You can see some of those machines in the photo below, taken in 1935.

Graphic Conservation Co. started as Donnelley’s Extra Bindery Department, pictured here in 1935. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

The kinds of projects that Graphic Conservation takes on fall into a few general categories. There are works of art, like this 1871 Currier and Ives lithograph of the Great Chicago Fire. The piece arrived at the lab with discoloration from acidic framing materials. The conservators cleaned up the acid stains.

Before (left) and after restoration. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

Much of Graphic Conservation’s recent growth has come from individual clients bringing in personal documents like immigration papers and marriage licenses. The lab has also worked on mementos like old letters, photographs and tickets. Below is a marriage license from 1894. The document was very brittle and was rolled up in fragments. Conservators flattened all the pieces, put them together and filled in the parts where the ink was gone.

Before (right—just kidding! Of course it’s the lefthand image) and after. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

Another personal item that came into the lab was this Holocaust identification card. In this case, Graphic Conservation’s staff used Japanese tissue of a similar tone to patch the holes and stabilize the document. The goal here was repair and preservation, so the conservators did not fill in lost ink as they did for the marriage license above.

Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.

Besides art and personal documents, Graphic Conservation also works on priceless documents. The most notable recent example is the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The vellum document, one of just a handful of commemorative copies signed by Abraham Lincoln and others, had been folded and wrinkled almost to the point of illegibility.

Vellum documents are made from animal hides. (Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.)

Graphic Conservation’s staff re-humidified and pressed the document repeatedly over many weeks to remove the wrinkles and help the ink re-adhere to the vellum. It did this project pro bono for the state.

Photo courtesy Graphic Conservation Co.

Graphic Conservation has more before and after examples on its website. If you have a document you’d like to get repaired, the company will write up a technical condition report and give you a quote for free. (The staff does need to inspect the item in person at their office in Chicago.)


Transcript

WAILIN: In 1864, a year after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a lithographer in Chicago made 52 commemorative copies of the proclamation. These were called broadsides and each one measured 18 by 24 inches, with a portrait of Lincoln in the middle and some additional illustrated vignettes.

TANNER: Visually, I just love kind of the cadence of it, how it’s illustrated on top. Then you read the first part of the proclamation and then it’s illustrated right in the middle and there’s a beautiful picture, a portrait of Lincoln front and center, and then it’s handwritten again at the bottom.

WAILIN: That’s Tanner Woodford. He is the executive director of the Chicago Design Museum and a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Of the 52 known copies of this commemorative broadside, number 28 belonged to Tanner’s grandfather, who kept it on the wall next to his television.

TANNER: I’m not really sure, honestly, how it came into his collection and I asked him several times, and each time I got a different story (laughs), so I think at some point he was just being a grandpa, you know (laughs), just telling me stories, just trying to get me excited about history.

WAILIN: There was the story about how an ancestor rode horseback across the United States burning down towns and stole the document. There was the one about how Tanner’s grandfather found it in the wall of a house he bought. And there was the story about how the family is somehow related to Zachary Taylor or Herbert Hoover or maybe both. Whatever the real story, the broadside of the Emancipation Proclamation passed from Tanner’s grandfather to his mother to him, and by the time it reached him, it was showing its age.

TANNER: There’s a big piece of yellowed tape at the bottom where there was previously a rip and somebody else had tried to tape it and put it back on their wall. There’s a very large stain that takes up, probably, what do you think, that’s an eighth of it or so? And it looks like it was some sort of a water stain at some point in time, and then there are pretty clear rips throughout the entire thing from where it had been rolled and you know, maybe carried on horseback, I have no idea.

WAILIN: Tanner wanted to look into getting the document repaired, but he didn’t know where to go. And then one day, he was giving a friend a tour of his museum and his friend said, hey, you like art history. I know someone you should meet.

RUSS: Hello, my name is Russ Maki. I’m president of Graphic Conservation Company.

WAILIN: Graphic Conservation Company in Chicago is 95 years old and specializes in repairing and protecting works on paper, anything from fine art to historical artifacts to personal documents. On any given day, Russ Maki’s team might be removing decades-old masking tape from a Matisse or piecing together a marriage certificate found in someone’s attic or preserving an illuminated manuscript from the fifteenth century.

RUSS: It’s also, frankly, the only business I’ve ever been in when I’ve delivered a product and everyone in the room has been in tears. There’s a phenomenal connection between paper and the human record and what that means to people, and we think about that a lot here.

WAILIN: Every piece of paper that comes into the lab tells a story — not just what’s on it, but the story of its own creation and the journey it’s been on since then. And now you’ll hear the story of Graphic Conservation Company on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with co-workers, 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.

RUSS: There’s no predictability to this business whatsoever. I have no idea what’s going to walk through the front door and that frankly is some of the fun of it. Every day we get something new and sometimes it’s through, you know, a FedEx pack or UPS. Sometimes it’s an armed courier. Sometimes it’s just, someone just knocks on our door and says, “I’m here.”

WAILIN: Graphic Conservation keeps a narrow focus on paper and vellum, which is a material made from animal hide. The company’s clients include institutions like art galleries, auction houses and museums, which might not have in-house paper experts or, in the case of museums, need extra help getting an exhibit ready. Increasingly, the lab has been seeing business from individuals with personal or family documents.

RUSS: Somewhere, tucked into their crawlspace, they have a marriage license that’s their great grandparents’ or an immigration paper from Ellis Island as they came over, and it’s usually in pretty bad shape. It was probably rolled up at one time and then crushed between a book or whatever, and they realize that, “Hey, there’s only one of these, and we’d like to preserve that for our future generations.” And they find us through the Internet, which is the big change in this business. So the average client ranges from an individual who has never done this kind of work before, who doesn’t know what a conservation lab is all about, to a very sophisticated, educated client that has collected art at the highest levels for their entire lifetime.

WAILIN: The work that comes into the lab can have significant financial value, like if they’re collectibles or pieces of fine art. Or they could be items whose value is measured in sentimental or emotional terms. The company once repaired a letter that a client’s father had written to Santa Claus in 1930, during the Great Depression, admitting that he hadn’t been very good that year but asking if Santa could bring him an apple for Christmas.

RUSS: We made facsimile copies of the original for each of the siblings to have in their house, and to remind them that you know, if you ever thought that you had a bad day, you really have not had a bad day.

WAILIN: Then there are those rare jobs that involve priceless works. In 2011, the lab restored the state of Illinois’ copy of the House resolution for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. The vellum document, which was one of just a handful of commemorative copies signed by Abraham Lincoln, needed months of painstaking work, which Graphic Conservation did for free in this case. Russ remembers the day it arrived.

RUSS: When the team, along with the security personnel, left the lab, we all stood around it, the entire team. Not a word was spoken for minutes. You’re looking at a watershed moment in American history and I think the exact word count of the Article 1 of that is 35 words: that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime shall exist within these United States, or something to that effect. In 35 words, slavery was abolished. Today, that would be a 2,000-page document, right? So you’re looking at the utter simplicity of the prose. You’re looking at the magnificent calligraphy on this vellum document and you can just transport yourself back to February 1st, 1865, when it was signed and what Congress must have looked like that day as that was taking place. People risked their lives by signing that document and they knew they were risking their lives, and sure enough, President Lincoln was dead 75 days after he signed that document.

WAILIN: Graphic Conservation Company has a staff of eight people working in an 8,000-square foot lab with an expansive view of a railroad yard, the south branch of the Chicago River and the skyline, all serving as visual reminders of the city’s industrial past and present. The company itself comes out of this legacy. Graphic Conservation started in 1921 as a specialty department within RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 commercial printing company founded in 1864. The department was originally called the Hand Bindery or the Extra Bindery because it focused on restoring fine books and making hand-tooled leather bindings. The group later moved from books to paper and was renamed the Graphic Conservation Department. In 1982, as the economy was in a recession, RR Donnelley sold the department to the managers who were running it, and Graphic Conservation became a private company.

RUSS: So we were part of Donnelley for the better part of 60 years and have been separate and apart from them for the last 34 now, and today our work — we do some work in book, but we’re one of the largest private paper conservation labs in the country.

WAILIN: Graphic Conservation still uses some cast iron book presses and other equipment, including a pencil sharpener, that date back to the 30s. A lot of the paper conservation process itself has also remained unchanged. And even though no two projects are quite alike, the lab sees a lot of the same problems over and over. They deal with rips, creases, water damage, tape residue or the telltale brown stains of acid burn. Maybe the document got so brittle that it flaked off into little fragments that have to be pieced back together like the world’s most tedious jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces that come in are newspaper pages or print advertisements or tickets, things that were never meant to last very long. Other times, something was put in a bad frame and got damaged. Russ, who became owner of Graphic Conservation in 2009 after working at a specialty paper company, doesn’t blink at much anymore.

RUSS: We had a client call us from a high-rise building. They, for some reason, on a windy day, decided to open all their windows and I think they got their art framing supplies from a big-box retailer, and they had one single hook in the wall for each of their four Warhols. Well, the Warhols flew off the walls, and unfortunately they were framed in glass. So glass shattered each one of these, or punctured each one, and we had to repair them. So yeah, we’ve seen it all. (Laughs)

WAILIN: And the lab’s conservators have fixed it all. They’re able to erase acid burns and water stains, to smooth out creases and scrape off ancient residue from adhesives, sometimes spending hours on a single square inch of paper with a microscope and a scalpel. The staff fills in holes by taking antique paper that matches the piece being repaired, reducing that paper to pulp and reconstituting it. If there’s missing artwork, the conservators can even paint in the lost image or text in a completely seamless way. The company has created new paper to fix posters, photographs and even a letter from the Boston Red Sox to Babe Ruth in 1918, agreeing to pay him a thousand dollar bonus for the season and another thousand if the team won the American League pennant that year. Russ has the before and after images of the letter framed in his office.

RUSS: He cashed both checks (laughs). So it was a good year for the Babe. (laughs)

WAILIN: I see a couple little holes, and some tape on the top left corner by the letterhead.

RUSS: Exactly. So we repaired all those areas of loss and as you can see on the right, the image post-restoration was brought back to life.

WAILIN: What are those blobs under the “Yours truly?”

RUSS: Insect damage. So insects had literally eaten away part of the paper. And you’ll see that with old documents that aren’t properly stored, frequently. It’s sad, but there are some bugs out there that really enjoy eating paper. Silverfish, especially.

WAILIN: Every job that comes into Graphic Conservation requires a series of judgment calls on what kind of treatment to use, and how far to go in preserving or repairing something. In the case of a Holocaust identification card, which arrived in extremely fragile condition, the team filled in missing pieces with Japanese tissue of a roughly similar tone, but didn’t recreate any printing because the purpose was to stabilize the document for posterity, not alter it. With the state of Illinois’ copy of the 13th amendment, which had wrinkled almost to the point of illegibility, Russ and his team discussed what to do for months before starting the treatment, which involved re-humidifying the vellum, pressing it, and slowly repeating that process over many weeks.

RUSS: Ours is a business where you get one shot at it to do it right. Again, everything we do here is the original art or the original document and there are no do-overs.

Russ’ staff members have backgrounds in studio art, chemistry and conservation. The company trains from within, hiring interns and developing them into part or full-time employees. Christina Marusich, the head conservator, started as an intern when she was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been working here for over 30 years. It’s amazing to think that interns are allowed to handle the documents that come into the lab. As a visitor, I was terrified of accidentally sneezing on something, like the Albrecht Durer print from the sixteenth century lying on a worktable that Russ pointed out on a tour of the lab. But interns need literal hands-on experience to learn how to do the work. Here’s Christina.

CHRISTIA: We work a lot as a team, so we’re working alongside each other and can — just learning how things should be touched and moved around and examined, so a very conscientious group here, very gentle and quiet, you know, no fast moves (laughs).

WAILIN: At Graphic Conservation, minor treatments cost in the mid to high hundreds of dollars, with more complicated jobs going well above a thousand dollars. But the company doesn’t charge for assessments. When prospective customers bring in something to be examined, the lab provides a complimentary condition report and outlines a proposed treatment. It also gives a quote, with a guarantee that the final price won’t go over that amount. But there’s no requirement to commit to anything. When Tanner Woodford brought in his copy of the Emancipation Proclamation broadside, it turned out that Graphic Conservation had worked on a different copy of that same broadside, and Russ was more excited to see Tanner’s version than anything else.

TANNER: It wasn’t even so much him trying to sell me on the process. It was more of him just being blown away by seeing another one, you know, just geeking out. That’s the thing I love about them, is they care so much about the artifacts that come in and they’re so knowledgable about them and it’s almost like when they fix them, to me, I get this feeling of really giving this thing back to the world. Russ was like, I just want to see it, if you could just bring it by sometime and I can give you a quote if you’d like, but I really just, I want to see another one.

WAILIN: Tanner did get a technical condition report and a quote from Graphic Conservation. He wasn’t ready to get the work done yet, but on Russ’ recommendation, he replaced his grandfather’s old frame with a better one. Tanner is saving for the restoration work. In the meantime, he hangs the document in his apartment near his television, just like his grandfather did.

TANNER: I could take the Emancipation Proclamation and put it in a flat file and keep it safe for much longer than if it’s hanging on a wall, but what’s the point of having the Emancipation Proclamation if you can’t enjoy it? If anybody ever wants to come see it, just shoot me an email (laughs). I might regret saying that, but (laughs).

WAILIN: When the time is right for Tanner to get his copy of the proclamation repaired, he’ll know where to go. And Russ and his staff are patient. They plan to be around for a long time, focusing on what they do best, and not chasing after bigger volumes or faster growth.

RUSS: To be candid, I don’t want this business to grow beyond a certain point. It’s kind of selfish on my part, but I really, I want to know all of our clients. I want to know every job that’s in this lab. I want to maintain our reputation as being absolutely sterling in this business, and if it gets to the point where we have more work than we can handle, the possibility exists that we can disappoint, and we’ll never do that. The element of trust is gigantic in our business because if you’re going to find us to have us do some work for you, more than likely, you’re sending us one of the most important things you own — important either in terms of financial value or in terms of sentimental or emotional value, and we pay a great deal of respect in that process. It’s important. So we’re not gonna overburden ourselves and we’re certainly not going to over promise.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Tanner Woodford for telling me about Graphic Conservation Company. If you want to see before and after images of some of their projects, I’ve included them with the transcript of this episode. Look for a link to the transcript at 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.