Ice, ice baby

Illustration by Nate Otto

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

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

Word to your mother!

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound of power saw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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