Some of the tech industry’s most vaunted companies revel in their origins as mavericks or rule-breakers, having flouted regulations in the name of disruption. That kind of risk-taking is celebrated in Silicon Valley but punished in other places, most notably minority communities.
In this episode of the Rework podcast: A legal advocate for low-income entrepreneurs talks about the hurdles her clients face, and a husband-and-wife team of street food vendors share what they’ve learned making the transition from the informal to the formal economy.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor is New York Chinatown’s oldest dim sum restaurant. For decades, it served Cantonese dumplings and rolls in the traditional way, from trolleys pushed around the restaurant. When Wilson Tang took over Nom Wah in 2011, he switched from trolleys to menus with pictures and started serving dim sum through dinner. He also opened new locations that broadened Nom Wah’s repertoire beyond dim sum. These were big changes for a restaurant that opened in 1920, but Wilson saw them as measures to secure Nom Wah’s future for its next century in business.
(Sound of restaurant)
WAILIN WONG: Wilson Tang is a native New Yorker and a Chinatown kid. On weekend mornings, his family would head to Chinatown in lower Manhattan for dim sum. It’s a Cantonese meal consisting of small dishes traditionally served from trolleys that servers push around the restaurant. There’s dumplings, rolls and buns, some steamed, some fried, all accompanied by a bottomless pot of tea.
WILSON TANG: I hated that growing up. I hated fighting the crowds. When I was a teenager, we lived in Queens and it was this ordeal, you know, like driving out to the city, looking for parking and then waiting in line and getting a number.
WAILIN: Teenage Wilson had no idea then that dim sum would play a much greater role in his life than just a weekend family ritual. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Wilson Tang, who used to dread these weekend outings, ended up running New York’s oldest dim sum parlor and bridging the gap between his family legacy and new generations of diners.
ZACH: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Zach, a programmer at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
WILSON: I am the owner and operator of Nom Wah Tea Parlor. We are actually in four places: New York Chinatown; Philadelphia Chinatown; we’re in Nolita of Manhattan, which is just slightly north of Chinatown; and we have a sister restaurant called Fung Tu in the Lower East Side.
WAILIN: A couple named Ed and May Choy opened the New York Chinatown location as a bakery in 1920. It’s on a small, curved street that earned the nickname The Bloody Angle because neighborhood gangs used to fight each other with hatchets there in the early 1900s. Many years later, Wilson’s uncle Wally Tang got a job there under the Choys. He was 16 years old.
WILSON: He started working there in the 50s as a dishwasher coming from China to America through the Cultural Revolution. He was working there for the Choy family until the 70s, where he purchased the restaurant and the building from them and continued it into the late 2000s.
When you’re a newly immigrant, the thought process is you have to do this, versus for myself, being second generation where my parents were immigrants, it’s something where like, I want to do this.
WAILIN: Wilson had tried his hand at restaurants before, when he left a corporate job to open a small bakery in Chinatown. The daily grind of running a cafe wasn’t right for that stage in his life. His friends were staying out late and partying while he was getting to the bakery at 5:30 in the morning to open up. But the experience of owning the bakery gave Wilson a taste of being a restaurateur, and it stayed with him.
WILSON: I was in my early 20s. A lot of my peers and friends were out having fun, doing what 20 year olds do, and I ended up selling it because it was a business that just kind of got by. I think I was a little too young, like my life wasn’t really balanced out yet, but in my second opportunity with Nom Wah, I saw myself being a little more levelheaded, a little older, a little wiser—basically had the dating stuff out of my system, the having fun out of my system, and I was closer to 30.
My uncle Wally was like, “Hey, I’m getting too old for this. I know you were previously interested in restaurants and foodservice, why don’t you take another stab at it?”
WAILIN: That was in 2010. The year after that, in 2011, Wilson quit the corporate world for the second time and succeeded his uncle at Nom Wah.
WILSON: My parents were questioning me, like why would you want to do this? Because you took a stab at it and it wasn’t really fruitful for you and you ended up losing three years of your life working at this thing that didn’t work out, where you’re educated, you know, you can just get a job in corporate America at some big firm and you have a lot less stressful life.
I was at a point in my life where this was basically what I saw was my last chance. No one else really wanted it and if I didn’t take it, it would have just went down in history as closed and maybe some other proprietor would come in and take the space for whatever business they want to do and it’s gone forever. I feel like I did a good thing for New York. It’s a century old restaurant and I did my part as a native New Yorker to really hold onto old New York.
WAILIN: If you didn’t know Nom Wah’s history, you might think it was one of these new businesses made to look like an old-fashioned one. You might think Wilson hired someone to put in the tin ceiling and hand distress the vinyl booths, that he went to thrift stores to buy the mismatched plates and metal tea canisters. But the vintage patina is real, and Wilson wanted to keep that character.
WILSON: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m able to kind of just stop time for a little bit and people can come in and “Wow, this is what the place looks like when it was the 50s.” And kudos to my uncle Wally for being the kind of gentleman that his whole motto was “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” and the place is that way because of his thought process, you know. I see a lot of new companies or new restaurants or new businesses, they try to replicate this old New York style and it’s very hard to replicate. I literally have something that’s genuine and unique and real.
WAILIN: Wilson preserved the Nom Wah aesthetic but made other changes. He saw an opportunity to update how dim sum was presented and served, so he got rid of the trolleys and extended the restaurant’s hours. His father was skeptical about serving dim sum for dinner, but Wilson was committed to trying the idea.
WILSON: Most dim sum parlors or dim sum halls serve it from like 6 am to 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and that’s the lifespan of a dim sum restaurant. Those are the hours; that’s what culture tells you to do. If I had it my way, I would just do this for breakfast lunch and dinner and I wanted the cuisine to be very approachable as a Chinese American or an American Chinese person. I saw Nom Wah as this kind of Chinese diner—you have booth seating, you have tables, and I’m like, why can’t we just make a menu with all the dim sum items, like put a picture, description, price. As a Chinese person like, oh hey, you drink tea, but as an American person, I want to know what you’re drinking, like what different types you have, and what the meaning behind it is, like what’s this good for, what’s that about, what’s the caffeine level on this.
WAILIN: It used to be that in the mid afternoon, when Chinatown dim sum restaurants closed, their chefs would head to Nom Wah to smoke and play mah johng or cards. Today, the dining room is busy through dinner with a mix of tourists, Chinatown regulars and nearby office workers. The dim sum chefs don’t hang out there anymore. But that brotherhood isn’t what it used to be. There aren’t new chefs coming in to replace the old guard.
WILSON: This dim sum profession is very hard to get into, either language barrier or it’s just too labor intensive to actually learn and do. They want, the chefs or cooks these days, they want like this instant gratification, oh like I want learn something and just do it and excel, where making this skins for dumpling, it’s not an easy task. You have to have the right formulas, you have to have the right technique and it takes years to learn, so we’re in those crossroads right now and how do we push forward and be creative and push the envelope of what the word dim sum means?
WAILIN: At Nom Wah Chinatown, the menu is the same. It was important for Wilson to keep signature items like the pork bun and shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings. The new locations that he opened, like Nom Wah Nolita, became his playgrounds for trying new things with Chinese cuisine. It’s also a way of addressing the talent gap. He can recruit younger chefs who might not be interested in traditional dim sum but are inspired by those flavors or techniques.
ZHIYU LAI: We offer ho fun beef noodle soup and it’s our shank sliced beef, but obviously a shank can’t be completely all slices so we had the leftovers —
WAILIN: That’s Zhiyu Lai, the co-owner and general manager of Nom Wah Nolita, which is the newest restaurant in Wilson’s portfolio. It opened in 2016 after a brief run as a pop-up location. Zhiyu is explaining the origins of a popular soy-braised beef dish they serve over rice or noodles. It’s called fiery dank shank.
ZHIYU: So we put the leftovers aside. We added some chili oil in there, like Chef Calvin, he just started putting different things in there and that was our staff meal, and I was like, “This was a pretty good staff meal. We should offer it out there.” And when we did, it took off.
WAILIN: Wilson and Zhiyu have been friends for years and they both come from entrepreneurial immigrant families. Zhiyu’s father drove a New York taxi cab for 18 years before opening his own business in the restaurant industry, which made him a little concerned about his son entering the same high-stress world. At the same time, he also wanted his son to enjoy his work. It’s the same kind of second-generation luxury that Wilson talked about earlier. The first generation works to survive and succeed so that the next generation can have a choice of vocation. Zhiyu didn’t have to go into restaurants, but he wanted to.
ZHIYU: My siblings and I we were raised to go into the corporate world, right? We went to high school, college, and then I worked at a desk job for 16 years. It’s funny because throughout those 16 years, my dad was like, “Do you envision yourself sitting here for the rest of your life?”
My dad, he owned a food distribution business. His company was called Yi Pin. He made those soy sauce, hot sauce, duck sauce packets that go out to all the takeout restaurants, right? And just seeing him hustle like that, I’m like I’m younger than when he started, you know? So I know I can do it.
WAILIN: Nom Wah Nolita is a small, self-service place where customers order and pay for their food at touchscreen kiosks. The Nolita location serves a selection of traditional dim sum, which Zhiyu brings over from the Chinatown restaurant in a little smart car. There’s also other dishes that change seasonally, and the data that the staff collects from its modern point of sale system helps shape the menu.
ZHIYU: When it’s winter, it’s cold, we have a lot of noodle soups, right? A lot of spicier things, you know? As it’s getting warmer, I see from the POS system that the orders are going down, so that just proves to me that when spring comes, we have to come up with something more of a cold dish, something more cleansing in a sense. A lot of people like to stay with everything the same and they think it’ll last throughout, and I think that’s why a lot of restaurants fail. There’s no innovation.
WAILIN: In big cities like New York, there are a lot of reasons why restaurants fail. They’re chasing the same food trends: farm to table, small plates, handcrafted artisanal whatever. There’s a labor shortage of cooks, not just in dim sum like Wilson mentioned, but across the industry. And restaurants that don’t own their buildings get priced out as rents go up. Nom Wah’s Chinatown location has some measure of protection: The neighborhood hasn’t gentrified as rapidly as the area around it, and Wilson’s Uncle Wally owns the building. But Wilson doesn’t just have the original location. There’s Nolita, Philadelphia and a sister restaurant called Fung Tu. His expansion of the Nom Wah family of restaurants means that his real test as a business owner isn’t whether he can keep the Chinatown restaurant going, but whether his new ventures have staying power. He’s planning another location on Canal Street in lower Manhattan.
WILSON: You know, on the exterior, like on social media, everything looks great, right? Like I’m always posting positive things and long lines and cool shit, right? But the reality is that I am responsible for feeding the mouths of over a hundred people. People that look at me, they lose track of that burden. If any of these places don’t do well or they fail, it’s a big deal, you know, like this Nolita employs over 10 people. Nom Wah in Chinatown, we have over 30 people. At Fung Tu, it’s over 20 people. In Philadelphia, it’s over 15 people. It all looks glamorous because we’re in a media world but it’s very daunting and there’s a lot of people involved and I have to make sure it’s successful, that we keep the money flowing. It looks good but it’s actually a lot harder than it really looks.
WAILIN: There’s one thing Wilson doesn’t worry about, and that’s whether Nom Wah is authentic. He likes to challenge what that word means, especially in the authenticity-obsessed world of restaurants and foodies. Can you serve dim sum for dinner and be authentic? Can you be a Chinatown restaurant with a dining room full of non-Chinese customers and be authentic? Can you serve a dish called fiery dank shank and be authentic? Wilson just wants you to come into one of his restaurants and have a good meal.
WILSON: I use that word very loosely now, like you know, I kind of don’t care what you think, you know, as long as it’s authentic to me, it’s tasty and it’s affordable, then that’s really what I go for. Like I kind of walk through the noise and as long as it’s well accepted by the masses, it’s okay by me.
WAILIN: Even Wilson’s parents have come around, in their own way. He’s bridged the gap there too.
WILSON: You know, there’s a moment where I first started where it was kind of dark ‘cause like they didn’t understand why I was doing this. I think restaurants really got hot. I think cooking shows and social media has really boosted this career or work into another stratosphere, where restaurateurs or cooks or chefs are celebrities really helped the cause. Today I think just because they’re Chinese and like it’s you know, mum’s the word and not saying much means that they’re happy. I think the fact that I’m not needing their help and I can actually help them proves that I’m doing okay and there’s no question about that.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. There are all different ways you can keep in touch with us. You can email us at tips at the distance dot com. You can tweet at us @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. And you can leave us a rating or review on iTunes. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.
Every year in the weeks leading up to Easter, the four-person staff at Danish Maid Butter Co. starts counting sheep. The Chicago company has made lamb-shaped butter for more than 50 years, moving from wooden molds dropped in cans of ice water to a more modern process. There are other parts of Danish Maid’s business that are larger and growing faster, but the two siblings that run the company remain committed to the butter lambs as an important link to both their family legacy and current generations of customers.
After putting this episode to bed yesterday, I headed off to my first-ever Passover Seder at a friend’s home and was surprised to find a Danish Maid butter lamb on the table. The host explained that his family buys one every year for Passover because they’re fun and this is the only time you can get them. As I spread the butter on matzoh, I wondered whether Danish Maid’s founder ever imagined how the culinary tradition he helped mass produce would take on a unique life outside of the Christian Easter table. Let me know if you have any Danish Maid butter lamb sightings this week!
WAILIN WONG: Every year, for as long as he can remember, Brian Kozack has spent Easter at his aunt and uncle’s house for a late lunch. Brian is my coworker’s husband and he grew up in a southwest suburb of Chicago. His family’s Easter lunch is a big celebration.
BRIAN KOZACK: We’d have three or four different tables because we couldn’t fit everybody at one large table. My family’s kind of large. My cousin—I’m older than her by one day—and it was always an intense fight between me and her to see who got to chop the lamb’s head off.
WAILIN: The lamb Brian’s talking about is a symbol of Jesus — and it’s made of butter. In the Chicago area, lamb-shaped butter is an Easter tradition with Eastern European roots, although the exact origins are kind of vague. The butter lambs are placed in Easter baskets and served at the table.
BRIAN: There were these delicious rolls. My grandma actually still makes them. They’re called monkey bread and we’d throw the butter lamb on there and it was fantastic. It tasted like creamier than normal butters, I don’t know why. It’s super easy to spread. It tasted delicious, it’s kind of that lighter, fluffier butter.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. This week on the show, the story of the small Chicago company behind those butter lambs and the emotional connection it’s formed with generations of customers.
JIM: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Jim, a support programmer at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people, organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
[SOUND OF BUTTER LAMB MACHINE]
WAILIN: If you’ve ever had a storebought butter lamb in the Chicago area, it was probably made on this machine. It squirts butter into a lamb-shaped mold that advances down a conveyor belt. The lambs are three ounces apiece and shaped to look like they’re sitting down with their legs tucked under them.
SUSAN WAGNER: My name is Susan Wagner. I am the office manager at Danish Maid Butter Company here in Chicago. Our mom actually owns the business. My brother Matt and I run it, day-to-day operations. Butter lambs…I always tell people, “They’re my babies.” From the time we start calling people and setting up the prices until the very last lamb is on the truck, to me I’m like, “Ahh. Another season is done.”
[SOUND OF MACHINE]
WAILIN: This is the other big piece of equipment at Danish Maid. It fills little plastic cups with whipped butter, six at a time. These cups actually represent the biggest part of Danish Maid’s business and are found at diners and breakfast restaurants across the country. The founder of Danish Maid, a man named Sievert Kramme, is credited with inventing the whipped butter cup. Here’s Matt Wagner, Susan’s brother and the plant manager.
MATT WAGNER: It was finding a way to have butter spread further by adding air into it and it makes it more spreadable and almost getting more for your money. Any other round cups you see out there are always margarine or a butter blend, which is butter blended with margarine.
SUSAN: Obviously there was never margarine in our house, so I didn’t know what it was, and then when I’d go to other people’s houses and they would have it and they’d call it butter and I’d be like, “That’s definitely not butter.”
WAILIN: Sievert Kramme founded Danish Maid in 1959, but he had been making the butter lambs since the 1940s under a different name. The company doesn’t make its own butter. It buys it, through a broker, from other manufacturers across the country. What Danish Maid does is take the butter, which comes in 25-kilogram boxes, cut it up and spin the pieces around in a machine until it gets to the right whipped texture. To make the lambs, the whipped butter is injected in clamshell molds and then frozen before getting shipped to grocery stores across the Midwest and more recently, into the northeastern U.S.
SUSAN: Where we haven’t hit the market yet is pretty much the south. There are several that call us from Phoenix, Arizona area because a lot of people have retired out that way and the grocers there realize, “Hey, I’ve got a niche market here.”
WAILIN: Danish Maid is a small company. For most of the year, there’s just four people working there: Susan, Matt and two other employees. An additional half dozen workers come in to help make the butter lambs, but Danish Maid doesn’t have delivery trucks or dedicated salespeople. It relies on distributors to get their products into supermarkets. And when people in states like Arkansas and California can’t find the butter lambs at their local grocery stores, they call the number listed on the Danish Maid website. Susan’s the one who answers the phone.
SUSAN: I had somebody call and they had to have them, and they paid the shipping from here to California for five or six individual lambs. I said the shipping’s gonna cost more. “I don’t care, I have to have it.” We’ll go looking for a box somewhere and ship it out to them. We probably do more than what it’s worth, but if it means that somebody’s gonna get the Easter butter lamb and maybe hound their grocer to start getting it, to us it’s worth it.
Usually they’ll ask a lot of questions, like, “Well, do I need to give you my credit card number?” I’m like, “We don’t take credit cards, I’ll just send you an invoice.” “Oh, you trust me?” I’m like well, yeah, whatever. We keep it pretty simple here. I don’t think you can call a big company and just say, “Hey, I just want two of your—whatever it is you make. Can you just mail it to me and I’ll pay you later?”
WAILIN: Everyone is hands on at Danish Maid, whether it’s Susan shipping individual butter lambs to a person in California or her brother Matt repairing equipment that dates back to the 1960s. Both Matt and Susan, who are the youngest of four siblings, grew up watching their father Raymond fixing machines and working on the line. Raymond grew up in Remington, Indiana. His father managed a nearby plant that manufactured milk powder, and he worked at different dairies in central Indiana after high school. It was at one of these jobs where he heard about Danish Maid.
SUSAN: Someone there said was big talk of a guy opening one up in Chicago. My dad had just been married and so he and my mom came up to this area, and he started working here in the late 60s and he moved up pretty quickly. He was running the place for the guy that was semi-retired and moved to Florida and he just always bugged my dad, you know, “When are you gonna buy this place,” right? And finally in the late 80s, he and my mom bought it.
I never was like, “Oh, my dad owns this butter factory,” you know, because I knew right away my friends would think oh you know, he’s just sitting in an office or whatever. Sometimes I’d bring my friends in here and they always said at the end of the day, “Oh, I never saw your dad sit down.” Well yeah, he’s working and he was always out there right alongside ’em working and never stopped, never sat down.
MATT: If something broke down, he always taught us that if you can, you don’t go and call somebody to always have to come out and fix something. A lot of things you learn to do yourselves, and I remember him telling me Danish Maid had kind of gotten the reputation that from other companies that if you can’t get it to work, send it to Danish Maid, they’ll figure it out. That’s how we came about with the butter cups. That machine was actually meant to package creamer cups and they wanted us to you know try to tinker around with it and see if we can’t try to fill something else. And my dad and the original owner, they played around with it until they could get it to run right.
SUSAN: I think his ability to fix stuff, you know, made it so that this could stay going because like Matt said, if you’re always calling someone to come fix stuff, your money starts disappearing pretty quickly.
WAILIN: The founder of Danish Maid, Sievert Kramme, said he was the first person to mass produce the Easter butter lambs, which people would often make at home by carving sticks of butter or using wooden molds. At Danish Maid, workers used to make the lambs with wooden molds too. The molds were held shut with rubber bands and dropped into a large milk can filled with ice water. Once the lambs were set, the final touch was two peppercorns for the eyes and a ribbon around the neck. The process moved to a machine in the 1970s, and the peppercorns and ribbon went away. That’s shortly before Mary Diaz started working at Danish Maid.
MARY DIAZ: There used to be more people, I think about 11 of us, either 11 or 10, but there was a line of girls. Somebody had to sit in the middle of the machine where the butter would come out and watch it, make sure, you had to squeeze it, and then somebody else you had to put a sticker on it and then you had to pack it in the box.
WAILIN: Mary worked at Danish Maid for 30 years. She watched Susan and Matt grow up and take over daily operations at the company. And she retired three years ago, kind of.
MARY: They were all nice to me, you know, every one of them, so I didn’t mind going back or help out, you know, ‘cause I told her if you ever need help, give me a call, I’ll be there. I go back every year. But next year I don’t know because my granddaughter’s having another grandbaby. Who knows, I’ll probably go back anyhow.
WAILIN: This year, Susan and Matt expect to ship out 4,000 cases of butter lambs. That’s 144,000 lambs. But the number’s been declining, from 7,000 cases several years ago. One major blow came at the end of 2013, when a large supermarket chain closed all 72 of its Chicago-area stores.
SUSAN: So to be down to 4,000, that’s a huge drop and of course every year, we think okay, who else can we hit? It seems like whenever we get somebody new, it’s like somebody else disappears. In the grand scheme of things, When it comes down to it, a lot of your bigger companies that would be distributing for you, you know it’s all about: Is it worth it to them to distribute our product? Because if they’re delivering it to a store that doesn’t get anything else from them, then they’re losing money because they’re just delivering our lambs. Two cases of lambs didn’t pay for the shipment. That’s always been our biggest obstacle, is just the initial getting into a store. We’re such a small company compared with all your big-name brands, that they already have their way into the store. They just have to make a product and shoot it in there. For us, it’s you know we have to claw our way in and hope for the best.
WAILIN: Easter butter lambs are a niche product for sure, but Danish Maid still faces competition from some other companies, including one business in Buffalo, New York that’s been making the lambs for nearly as long.
SUSAN: A lot of times we get people that say, “You know, we’ll go with the other company because it’s cheaper.” And other companies know that: “Hey, if we knock a few cents off this we may lose here, but it doesn’t matter because we own all this other stuff.” But for us, it’s like, this is our baby, this is what we make and, you know, it hits us hard when people say, “Oh, that’s too expensive.” That’s what you get when it’s a small business and a lot of it and it’s all hands on and it’s a family owned business. It is getting harder for smaller businesses to survive.
WAILIN: The biggest seller in Danish Maid’s product line is not its lambs but its cups of whipped butter, which can be found at restaurants as far south as Texas and Florida. Sales of the restaurant cups have been going up. That might seem like the obvious opportunity to grow the business, but the Wagners have been deliberate about staying small enough so they can keep supplying their local customers. Matt says their father once turned down a big fast food chain that wanted to buy the restaurant cups.
MATT: In order to fulfill that, that would have had to have been our sole business for the cups. He didn’t want to leave all the other little distributors that we’d been already selling to and he said, “Thanks but no thanks”. ’Cause a lot of times, you only sign contracts maybe one or two years, and when that’s up, you’ve left all your other customers behind and then the new guy might say, “Well no, we’re gonna go with somebody else,” and then you’re left with nothing.
SUSAN: We’ve had airlines ask us to give them bids for our butter cups and we give them a bid, but we always tell them, “We’re not gonna come in cheaper. If you’re looking for the cheapest avenue, it’s not us.” And they might say, “This is a huge opportunity.” But it’s like well, if we fill your orders, we can’t fill anybody else’s orders. And it’s not what we’re about. We don’t want to leave behind the imprint that we have on Chicago with our product. Sure, we’d be in every airplane, but I feel like it’s very important to our customers that keep carrying our product and it’s important to us.
WAILIN: And if Danish Maid was going to go all in on their cups of whipped butter, that growth might come at the expense of the Easter butter lambs. And it’s important to the Wagners to keep the lamb tradition going.
SUSAN: You know, our restaurant cups are in restaurants all over, but this is our only shot at being in a store. So if I watch every lamb and I see every lamb go by and I feel confident that all right, that’s a quality product, it’s gonna be in a store and this is our name and it’s the only time someone in Connecticut or Maine is gonna see our name, I want it to be a good product.
WAILIN: Danish Maid’s long history with the butter lambs is also why Susan, year after year, will put a few in a box with an ice pack and send them off to Chicago transplants in far-flung states, trusting that the check will show up in the mail eventually.
SUSAN: They just send us a check. Over the years, we almost always with those orders we’ll get a note, like “Thank you, it made my family so happy.” And I think sometimes the reward is just the thank-you note that they send.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can find us on Twitter @distancemag, that’s @distancemag; on iTunes, where we would love it if you left us a rating or review, or at thedistance.com, where you can listen to all our stories and sign up for our newsletter. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.
In an industry known for selling commodities at low margins, Jungle Jim’s International Market in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio is something else entirely. It’s a super-sized grocery store that’s also a tourist attraction with animatronic characters, a dedicated events center, and a working monorail. At the center of this unexpected food empire is a businessman known simply as Jungle, who started with a pop-up produce stand and built something closer to a theme park than a grocery store.
WAILIN WONG: I’m at the grocery store. Actually, I’m sitting on a plush seat inside a tiny movie theater that’s tucked between the France and Spain sections of a grocery store about 25 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio.
JUNGLE JIM: In 1988 is when we really started taking a little bit of a gamble with the craziness of Jungle Jim’s and niche marketing. We added palm trees. We built the animal scene out in front. People said, “You’re crazy. Why do you want to put so much money in that?” But I wanted to see what would happen if I could make a store that’s entertaining and fun for shoppers. I want shopping at Jungle Jim’s to be fun because I enjoy myself; I work 80 hours a week over there. There I am playing shopping cart bingo where you pay three or four of a kind on your register tape and you win your groceries free; I love my customers. This lady here, see this lady right here? See that big smile on her face? She just won $350. See my face? I’m not smiling anymore. She’s smiling.
WAILIN: The voice in the movie belongs to a man named Jim Bonaminio, although he’s just known as Jungle. He’s the owner of Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio. And even though he’s still at the store all the time, he can be hard to pin down. So this movie, which plays on a continuous loop at Jungle Jim’s, is the closest we’ll get to hearing from the man himself. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, we explore how Jungle Jim’s made grocery shopping fun, and in the process, pushed the boundaries of what a supermarket can be. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
JUNGLE JIM: The evolution of the Jungle. Here’s how it all got started, folks. 1971 Erie and High Street, our first fruit stand on a vacant used car lot. We put together stands from old camper tops from the junkyard because the city of Hamilton wouldn’t give us a permit for roofs.
JIMMY BONAMINIO: Hi, my name is Jimmy Bonaminio. I work at Jungle Jim’s International Market. I am the director of the creative services department.
WAILIN: And you’re also the son of the founder.
JIMMY: I’m also one of the sons of the founder, yes.
You know, the lore is that he’s 20, he’s 21, he’s hustling, he’s buying produce, he’s running in and out of coolers down at the bottom of the place he used to buy produce in Cincinnati and he’s running in and out and he’s sweating and he’s going in coolers and he comes out and there’s just steam emanating from him, you know, in every direction. And some bystander saw him and said, “Daddy, who’s that?” And the father said, “That’s Jungle Jim.” I don’t know.
JUNGLE JIM: Hey, who’s that good-looking guy? There I am, look at that black hair. Man, those were crazy days back then. I’d get up in the morning about 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d go buy the produce, I’d come back to the stand, I’d do the chalkboards ’cause that was our only form of advertising.
WAILIN: Jungle and his wife, Joanie, moved the business from lot to lot during the early 1970s, at one point converting an old gas station behind the produce stand into their home. In 1975, Jungle opened a permanent location and started to add more categories of groceries as customers requested them.
JIMMY: In the 80s, he, like, just out of the blue created this waterfall jungle scene outside of the store and that’s really when the store took a turn to become more of an attraction, from a cool farmer’s market to this wild place. We had palm trees and sand that they would bring up from Florida every year and they would last for about two years and they would die; then we’d get another load of palm trees. They didn’t grow here but we kind of pretended like they did grow here.
WAILIN: As the exterior of the store took shape, the inside of Jungle Jim’s also started to look radically different from your typical American supermarket.
JARED BOWERS: The cereal bowl band is on a boat. The best part? This is, the boat is also the seafood department’s office.
WAILIN: They’re inside the boat?
JARED: They’re inside the boat.
WAILIN: With, like, the cereal band playing on top?
JARED: Yeah, yeah. I’ll show you the offices, you can see. It’s pretty wild.
WAILIN: That’s Jared Bowers, who handles Jungle Jim’s newsletters and social media. He’s giving me a tour, which includes a stop at the cereal bowl band, featuring a trio of animatronic breakfast cereal mascots playing instruments. Other notable fixtures include a talking Campbell’s soup can on a swing, a lion singing Elvis songs in the candy department and a Marilyn Monroe statue with a little fan behind her skirt over by the wine. The eclectic decor is a reflection of Jungle’s personal aesthetic, but it’s also a major part of what draws shoppers to the store. Visiting Jungle Jim’s is like going to a mini theme park, and because the interior is constantly changing, there’s always a reason to go back. Jared didn’t discover the Marilyn Monroe statue until recently.
JARED: I was a little surprised when I walked down and saw it because everyone was like, “ Hey, did you see Marilyn downstairs?” No idea what you’re talking about. Things just pop up and we say, “Wait, where did that come from?”
I think our toy store — ’cause we have a toy store, obviously — I’m pretty sure that’s moving over here. The pharmacy and all of that is shifting. We have a post office; I think that’s moving somewhere else. I mean like, this whole front section of the store is gonna be a completely different thing. I jokingly say that Jungle Jim’s just kind of happens every day and I don’t think I’m that far off. I don’t even want to go as far as to say it’s organized chaos. ’Cause some of it is very disorganized, but it works somehow and it’s awesome to see it kind of happen day to day. Every department’s kind of its own thing and you feel like you’re walking through different stores as you’re walking through just this one big space, and you don’t really realize until you leave and you’re like, I was just assaulted by so many sights and sounds and things and smells and tastes and you’re either kind of like, Yes! Let’s do that again!” or “I’m good for a little while. We’ll come back in a couple months.”
WAILIN: One thing you have to know about Jungle is that he loves junk. Some of the large-scale fixtures in his store are custom built in a dedicated workshop across the street, but other pieces are things that Jungle picked up for cheap. Outside the store is a real working monorail, which he bought from a safari park in Ohio that was decommissioning the ride.
JIMMY : There was no track, so it was kind of a bear. It was like a couple bucks or something, if you can haul it off, you can have it. He built the track for it—massive amount of work there and we haven’t completed the ring yet. You know, maybe someday, but it’s supposed to ring the property. So that’s kind of an allegory for how the store works, like little by little sometimes. So yes, it goes up and back from our events center to the train station. But then we might change the train station to something else. We have ideas about making it something totally different, so where does the monorail fit into that future? Who knows. It’s sort of like, everything’s constantly in flux.
I think the boat in the seafood department is really cool and Jungle personally went down to Florida and did some boat shopping and found like a big junker and had it shipped up here. They built one of the additions around that boat because it was so big, so and then realizing all of these — we call them attractions—the large scale decor, those things help the shopper navigate the store. So I see what it is now and I see why they’re there.
WAILIN: That’s the thing about Jungle Jim’s. On one hand, it’s like a protean organism where an impulse junk purchase can reshape the structure of the business and even employees are surprised by what’s happening on a daily basis. On the other hand, there is a bigger sense of purpose underlying the chaos.
JIMMY: There’s nothing coming from the top down saying, “Do this, do this, do this.” It’s sort of like these little pockets of energy and it all kind of swells up and affects everything else, and then we make it through a day and we go on to the next day.
My mom has told us, “When we got married, your father told me, ‘I want to have the biggest grocery store in the world,’” so there was a vision for sure. But we weren’t really privy to that ’til much later.
WAILIN: In 2001, Jungle Jim’s opened an events center for its food festivals, and to rent out for corporate functions and weddings. In 2012, it opened a second supermarket in Cincinnati. Both locations anchor big strip malls, and Jungle Jim’s leases storefronts in those strip malls to tenants like chain restaurants and retailers. This puts Jungle in the real estate business, and the retail complexes he’s created around his stores are part of his bigger vision to keep growing, even if that mission is communicated in far more subtle ways to his employees.
JIMMY: It’s all about energy to him, you know, are we creating the energy. So I think he says if he can make grocery shopping fun by adding all these peripheral thingsand even just in the grocery department it’s fun to shop there. There’s weird and odd things in there and the selection we carry is much more than you’d see anywhere else. On our grocery side, let’s be energetic. On our events side, let’s be energetic. Let’s just make it so people really love coming here.
WAILIN: Jungle Jim’s has a super-sized selection of the kinds of products you’d find at a typical American grocery store. But it’s known for its international section, where over 70 countries are represented. It’s an unexpected oasis of food diversity in a metropolitan area with only a small foreign-born population.
JARED: I think I see it more than anybody else. People from their countries of origin will come in and they’ll see something and be like, “I haven’t had this since I lived at home,” you know, and it’s a big deal to them to be able to find that piece of home. Even if they’ve traveled abroad and had an experience that was really kind of life changing, and food’s a big part of that, they’ll come here and be like, “I didn’t know I needed this as badly as I needed this.” You get this flood of memories, this like flood of nostalgia that’s just kind of built into what we do here every day and it’s just awesome to see.
JIMMY: Looking back, I can see how it happened. You know, he went to college down here. That was how he got down here, from Cleveland. Started a produce stand in kind of the biggest, city-ish area kind of close to the college and started to build from that, and then, you know, had employees as it grew. At one point they said, “Hey Jungle, we have to drive to Chicago to get some products that are not sold around here,” and he said, “Why don’t we try to bring them in, see if they sell?” So the fact that we weren’t in a very diverse area I think is why this store exists here. I think it actually helps the place. We’ve changed the environment. So this store has a way to kind of be transformative, which is cool.
WAILIN: Both Jared and Jimmy are always trying new products, like instant coffee from Colombia or cardamom cream sandwich cookies from India. But Jungle? He actually prefers Banquet pot pies, the kind you heat up in the microwave.
JIMMY: That used to be a big thing, like don’t tell anybody that he’s like that. Um but yeah, that’s very much him and he’s always been like that. He’s a businessman first and foremost. He’ll say that produce is a poor man’s business, you know, at least maybe in the 70s. You could buy produce relatively inexpensive and you could sell it relatively inexpensive and make a little money in the process, so yeah, but he’s a simple guy for sure and I think what he likes is creating energy and people and customers and so it just happens that it’s produce. And that’s part of the reason there’s all this decor around here, ‘cause he really likes collecting all that junk and kind of refurbishing it and just making this place wild. The products and the produce are sort of secondary to him. We expect a lot from our managers and stuff to keep the quality high. There’s a lot of energy that goes into that part of it. But for him personally, yeahpot pies are just great, a little bologna sandwich.
WAILIN: Produce may be a poor man’s business, but for Jungle, it was never really about the fruits and vegetables anyway. It was about making something as mundane as grocery shopping into a form of entertainment. Today, you can visit Jungle Jim’s just for its cigar humidor, for its annual hot sauce festival, for a class at its in-house culinary school, or for a slice of ibérico ham, one of the most expensive hams in the world. The store offers all of that, alongside a traditional produce section where the signs are hand-lettered the way Jungle did his chalkboards back in the 70s.
JIMMY: I think we have a grocery store within this whole experience, so we have a grocery manager that’s buying Tide and trying to buy it at the best price, just like a Safeway or some other store would be doing and that’s all he does, he’s committed to that. And he doesn’t worry about the events and the stuff that are happening. He’s the grocery guy. And then we have, like you said, events—the event center. They’re not worried about grocery, what grocery’s buying, they don’t think of us as a grocery store. They think of this place as an event center. So every department’s doing their own thing and it creates a really interesting mix of attitudes and experiences. I think we do think of ourselves as a grocery store first and foremost, but we’ve layered in all this other stuff and we spend a lot of time on those layers. So what is it? Good question.
JUNGLE JIM: I put this story together to let you know that we’re not a big corporation. We started on the bottom and worked our way up. And if you young people out there have an idea or a dream, don’t be afraid to go for it. If you get knocked down, pick yourself up again and keep on going. If I can do it, you can too. And just believe in yourself and your dreams will come true. Oh, and by the way, make sure you have fun along the way.
See you folks in five minutes for another show.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Malia Jackson for telling me about Jungle Jim’s. It’s been a while since I groveled for ratings and reviews on iTunes, so if you like our show, please leave us a rating and review on iTunes! It just takes a second and it helps us get noticed by more listeners. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.
In 1999, Jenny Yang discovered a small tofu company in her Chicago neighborhood that made the fresh soybean curd she remembered from her native Taiwan. Seven years later, when Jenny learned the business was in danger of closing, she impulsively stepped up to buy it. Jenny didn’t just guide Phoenix Bean Tofu through the transition, but opened new markets for her products and today is on the cusp of a major expansion.
WAILIN: In 1999, Jenny Yang made an impulse purchase. She and her young daughter were taking a different route home from their neighborhood playground, and they passed a storefront with a sign written in Chinese.
JENNY YANG: I see the Chinese character and it was something with beans, and I smelled the aroma. I said, “What do you do here?” He said “Oh, we make tofu here.” I was like, feel so excited. I hit the jackpot because (laughs) I miss the fresh tofu. I say can I buy? They say yeah sure, so they give me a few package. I loved it. Really tasting good. So that was 17 years ago.
WAILIN: Jenny had discovered a business called Phoenix Bean Tofu, which had been operating from the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s north side since 1981. It was primarily a wholesaler, but the owner was willing to sell Jenny a few packages. She started buying tofu from Phoenix Bean every weekend. After seven years of this, she made another impulse purchase, one that would change her life.
JENNY: One day, just like in normal Saturday, I came over to buy tofu and then the owner was kind of tired, not happy so he says he’s considering selling it and I said, “Well, what a good business, what a good product. Why you want to sell it?” He says the kids doesn’t want to take on so he decided to maybe look for somebody else to do it and then I just like, “Hey! Maybe me.” (laughs)
WAILIN: Jenny was working in corporate finance at the time. She didn’t know the first thing about tofu production. But she found herself volunteering, right then and there, to buy the company. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Jenny Yang didn’t just keep Phoenix Bean Tofu from closing, but gave the business fresh life by finding new customers for a product that’s over two thousand years old. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/the distance.
JENNY: My husband (laughs), he almost have a heart attack. Literally! He has irregular heartbeat.
WAILIN: It seemed like everyone in Jenny’s life wanted her to reconsider.
JENNY: When I first telling my friends here, my friends in Chinatown, my godmother, my kind of auntie figures, they’re more senior than me, they say, “Are you crazy? (Laughs) No, don’t do it!” Now I look back, I know why they say that. I think it’s really a lot of work.
WAILIN: Jenny’s no stranger to hard work. Back in Taiwan, where she grew up, she studied law and worked for an American radio station. She traveled the world as a flight attendant, earned two degrees in the U.S., and spent almost 10 years in corporate finance at United Airlines and Sara Lee. But when she made the spontaneous decision to buy Phoenix Bean Tofu, she entered a very different world. Even the previous owner of the tofu company, an older gentleman named Mr. Louie, had his doubts.
JENNY: He was just like, “I don’t think so; what can you do? Your husband is going to help?” I said, “No, just me, but if you want to continue, you can teach me, I want to learn.” He say, “Yeah, you can come in and watch.” And then (laughs) so eventually when we signed the letter of intent and we set a closing date, I went in about two months. It’s in the middle of the winter, the water is icy cold, we washed bean sprouts. My hands was like popsicles.
WAILIN: Bean sprouts was Phoenix Bean’s first line of business when it was founded in 1981 by a Chinese immigrant named Mr. Lam, and the company still grows and sells a small amount of bean sprouts. Mr. Louie, the second owner of the company, had been Mr. Lam’s head chef. When Jenny took over Phoenix Bean in 2007, Mr. Louie wanted her to buy the business and the building. Jenny hadn’t planned on purchasing the real estate, but Mr. Louie was eager to cash out and retire. Jenny decided to go for it.
JENNY: I split the investment half into the business, half into the real estate, just imagine, if I somehow I screw it up (laughs), and I still have the real estate to hold the value. The expectation I think when I go in was very low expectation. As long as I don’t screw it up, as long as I don’t lose the current client base, I think I will be okay. So that’s our goal at the first year or two, and then we did it.
WAILIN: Under Mr. Louie, Phoenix Bean had sold its tofu to Chinese grocery stores and restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown and in the Argyle neighborhood, a smaller Asian enclave on the city’s north side. Jenny continued those relationships and also kept Mr. Louie as the chef so she could learn how to make tofu. He ended up staying for seven years.
JENNY: All my friends tell me: Six months, he will leave, when I first bought it. They all say six months and I feel that he can do what I cannot do—or maybe I can do it with machinery—but I feel that he is the tofu master. My end result is I want a good tofu, not Jenny’s tofu. I want tofu that’s done right, done well.
WAILIN: Tofu is soybean curd, and it’s believed the Chinese have been making it since the Han Dynasty, which started in 206 BC. It’s also a staple in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Phoenix Bean’s tofu requires just three ingredients and about five steps. First, the soy beans are washed and soaked for almost 24 hours. Then they’re placed in an automated grinder. When Mr. Louie was working at Phoenix Bean after selling the business to Jenny, this is the position he worked, only he was using an older machine. It was the hardest job at the company.
JENNY: You literally dump into the grinder by hand, so if I have at that time maybe 20 bushels a day and that’s how many? That’s 1,200 pounds of dry beans and then soak it in the water, it’s 2,000 pounds minimum a day, so he has to dump it in there. Three years into the role, he said, “Jenny, it’s too hard for me.” He’s getting older so I said, you know, “Let me buy the machine for you,” automation. Even though I don’t have money, I used credit card to buy it. (laughs) So he allowed me to buy the machine, so I start saying the joke to him that you got the easiest job now (laughs).
WAILIN: The ground-up soybeans are put in a high pressure cooker and then into a machine that separates the liquid from a soybean mash, which gets discarded. The liquid is the purest kind of soy milk, just soybeans and water. Some of this soy milk is bottled and sold. To make soy milk into tofu, the liquid is mixed with a coagulant to make it curdle into a gelatin-like form. Then it’s placed in a porous box lined with cheesecloth, and workers manually press water out to get to the right level of firmness. The tofu-making process generates a lot of water, and it seems to be everywhere in Phoenix Bean’s thousand square foot kitchen. Jenny wears rubber clogs to protect her feet as she maneuvers around the tiny space.
JENNY: They will press water out further, so you see all this dripping, a lot of water out. A lot of holes on there, and then the cheesecloths they just wrap it around. So it keeps the shape and the thickness, so if you didn’t press it right, correctly, it will crooked. So one side is bigger than the other, so it takes some skills. This is as fresh as you can get, Illinois soybeans come here to us directly and then we cook it this morning, so this is the freshest tofu you can get in Chicago area.
WAILIN: Phoenix Bean’s 17 employees work almost elbow to elbow in loud, cramped quarters. Jenny has plans to address that, something you’ll hear about a bit later. She’s made a lot of changes to the business, not so much in the basic process of making tofu, but in soybean suppliers, marketing and customer relationships. Mr. Louie had used a broker to buy his soybeans, which would come in from Iowa, Michigan and Canada.
JENNY: It doesn’t work for us that way. Sometimes tofu is golden yellow, beautiful, really beautiful. Sometimes really pale white and people say, “What did you put in there?” And I said, “No, it’s just the beans it came out like this.”
WAILIN: Jenny was also getting inquiries from more entrepreneurial farmers who wanted to sell her organic, Illinois grown soybeans. She started talking with one of them.
JENNY: Could you grow non GMO organically for me? In transitional land, and he’s like not sure, not sure. I think it take two years for me to convince him. And he said “Okay, I will try,” so he basically his back yard, 20 acres (laughs) behind his house, he just put the beans in there. First year’s harvest, it was really fun. The whole family all went to see the farm. And the weeds is taller than the beans, because they, he didn’t use any pesticide or control, but he was able to harvest some, and it was very small amount and he says, “If you want to continue this route, I will partner with you,” so that takes three years for him to come to the quantity I wanted.
WAILIN: That same farmer later bought some additional land, turning the original 20 acres into 175 acres. He’s one of three Illinois farmers that Jenny buys her non-GMO organic soybeans from, and being more discriminating about the source of her beans is a selling point for the customers she wants to reach: people who aren’t familiar with tofu, but are looking for alternative sources of protein or like to eat organic. This was not a market that interested Mr. Louie. He didn’t even want to sell to H Mart, an Asian grocery store chain founded by a Korean businessman. H Mart expanded into the Chicago area in 2006.
JENNY: He is very, I would say this way, very traditional man. So he keep all his Cantonese customers very well taken care of. They all really respect him a lot. With Korean coming, H Mart open, he doesn’t want to do business with them because Korean has your own tofu, why you want to buy Chinese tofu? So we lost that opportunity to grow with H Mart.
WAILIN: Jenny eventually got her tofu into H Mart. But she saw a larger opportunity in the positive way her non-Asian friends and family reacted to the tofu dishes she brought to potlucks. She started selling her products at local farmers markets.
JENNY: So the first year was really tough. People question is: Is this made in China? Where the soybean grown? And where is your shop? I put it on the table, nobody will come and try it, so I put sauces on the table and then they start tasting a little bit and they still doesn’t want to buy because they don’t know what to do with it.
WAILIN: Jenny realized that tofu newbies had no idea how to cook it. That gave her the idea to make ready-to-eat tofu. Today, Phoenix Bean produces five spice smoked tofu and other packaged varieties. You can find the company’s tofu at places like Whole Foods and restaurants outside of Chinatown. Jenny even sells to Eli’s Cheesecake, a Chicago company that uses Phoenix Bean silken tofu in its vegan cheesecakes. Jenny says she connected with many of her customers at local farmers markets.
KATHLEEN WILLIAMS: We have shoppers that ask about her every single day because they have great regular tofu that you can buy, but also tofu that’s already mixed with some of the sauces that Jenny makes in her kitchen.
WAILIN: That’s Kathleen Williams, the operations manager at Green City Market, one of Chicago’s largest farmers markets. It runs year round and over a hundred chefs, many from local fine dining restaurants, shop directly from the 63 vendors at the market.
KATHLEEN: She was the only tofu person and she is the only tofu person that we have right now. She really brought a sense of diversity to the market with something new and something different that is not often found at a farmers market in the midwest.
WAILIN: Phoenix Bean has tripled production since 2010. Last year, it made 1.2 million pounds of tofu and tofu products like soy milk and soybean noodles. But there’s so much more Jenny can do with soybeans. There’s something called tofu skin, which is the tissue of cream formed on the top of hot soy milk when it comes in contact with cold air. There’s tofu pudding, a sweet dish often served at Cantonese dim sum. There’s soy sauce and tempeh, a fermented soybean patty eaten as a meat substitute.
JENNY: The red building with the gates, that is our tofu cafe kind of concept. So all the fried tofu you saw, and salads, will be here.
WAILIN: Jenny is doing something Mr. Louie would never have done. She’s opening a tofu cafe in a storefront that used to be a wholesaler of Asian groceries, just steps from Phoenix Bean’s current building. Jenny had been scouting locations to expand the company, and she’d looked as far away as Indiana. But her employees live mostly in the neighborhood, and she does too. When the owners of the wholesaler were retiring and asked Jenny if she wanted to buy the property, she agreed.
JENNY: So we’ll have a new concept that’s a tofu bar so people can scoop whatever kind of tofu they like with all the different flavor, and then we’ll have tofu skin there. We’ll have tofu donuts. We’ll have tofu ice cream, so it’s all soy based, kind of specialty store here.
WAILIN: Further up on the same block is a former taxi garage that’s 10,000 square feet. Jenny bought that building too, and she plans to move Phoenix Bean’s tofu production to that bigger space. When her expansion plans are completed, she’ll have a large-scale production facility, a cafe and her old building, which she’ll keep using for bean sprouts.
JENNY: Here will be a block of making tofu. I didn’t plan it. I think people call this organic growing. (laughs)
WAILIN: Phoenix Bean makes blocks of tofu from organic soybeans, and the company’s organic growth is now helping to create an entire city block of tofu production. Jenny couldn’t have predicted this journey when she impulsively decided to buy Phoenix Bean from Mr. Louie. All she had at that time was a sense that she wanted to take over the business. Jenny had felt that kind of certainty only one other time before.
JENNY: I know it’s very risky and we have to put our house—we have to sign everything, sign our life away to buy this building. But I felt, when I made the decision come to the United States and decided that I wanted to stay in the United States, I have the same feeling that I did the right thing. I said, “This feeling is actually even stronger than that decision that left my parents and family at home in Taiwan and come here by myself.” I said: If I made the right decision to come to the United States, I think the same feeling even stronger that was the tofu. I think we should give it a try.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Marc Schulman of Eli’s Cheesecake for his help with this story. If you’re not already subscribed to The Distance, please go to iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and hit subscribe. And while you’re at it, please rate and review us on iTunes! The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.
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!
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.
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.
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: Palmer House
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.