Jungle Jim, I Presume?

Illustration by Nate Otto

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.


Transcript

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.

Neighborhood Fixture

Illustration by Nate Otto

The Distance is back from our holiday hiatus with new episodes every other Tuesday! Our new story is about a kind of business you might have thought was pretty much extinct: the neighborhood appliance and furniture store.

Kevin Krasney’s grandfather opened Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Co. with a partner on Chicago’s north side in 1946. The business built relationships with landlords and property managers, a customer base that would sustain the store through the rise of big box stores and economic downturns. The Krasneys also put a premium on earning their customers’ loyalty. Kevin has continued this tradition. He’s personally measured a condo to make sure a piece of custom furniture will fit and tracked down a replacement tray for an outdated model of microwave. There is a place for the mom-and-pop appliance store after all, and Cole’s has found it.


Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Kevin Krasney likes antiques. Next to his desk he keeps a vintage seafoam green metal icebox that he found on the side of the road in Michigan during a family trip. He’s thinking of repurposing it as a TV stand. Downstairs, he still uses the same clunky black rotary phone that belonged to his grandfather. It’s hooked up to the fax machine.

KEVIN KRASNEY: I like things that have history. I think that’s what I like about our business. I like that it just has a history and I’m ultimately doing the same thing, and walking the same path, I mean I put the same key in the door that my grandfather used when he opened the store. You know, it was once a silver key that is worn out to be gold.

WAILIN: Kevin Krasney is the third generation owner of Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Company, the neighborhood store his grandfather started with a partner in 1946. And walking that same path means keeping up the level of personal attention that his grandfather established 70 years ago.

KEVIN: I get people who come in here all the time that knew him well. He always built relationships. He always talked. He was genuinely interested into people. He was a good man to own a retail store, you know, he was very kind-hearted.

WAILIN: The neighborhood appliance store has gone extinct in many cities, but on this corner on Chicago’s north side, Cole’s is in the same spot with the same neon sign hanging over the sidewalk. Going the extra mile for customers, and maintaining those relationships over the long-term, is what Kevin believes sets his family business apart from the indifferent big box competitors around him. Like the time three or four years ago, when a customer called late in the day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to say her stove was broken. Kevin was by himself, with no other workers, and about to head home.

KEVIN: I literally pulled up at some lady’s house at 5 o’ clock at night with a range in the back of my car that she bought. Her sons came out, took it out of my car, brought it inside and did it. I went a little out of my way and I did that but this lady was ecstatic. She wanted to tip me and give me money for doing it, but I wasn’t looking to have a hundred dollars to go deliver you a stove. I did it because you just told me you’re cooking for 15 people and your stove is dead and now you’re going to make your turkey on a grill, and I just showed up with a stove and I think there’s the little things that I think my grandfather would have done, and that’s ultimately probably why I did it, having that feeling.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, you’ll learn about the lengths that one small retailer will go to earn its customers’ loyalty, year after year, and why that has meant more than just having the lowest prices. 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.

KEVIN: Clients will come to us: “Well, I can buy it online from this company and no sales tax,” and my response is kind of I get it, but if you buy that fridge online, it shows up damaged, but you signed for it and you’re stuck with it. Or the delivery shows up and they can’t carry it into your house—you don’t have someone you call. You don’t have someone you can deal with, you don’t have someone that can work with you to make things happen and that’s I think ultimately where I think people want to deal with a smaller company, and it’s nice to be able to call and deal with the same person you dealt with when you purchased the appliance. Things happen. Not everything is cut and dried and so easy. And a lot of people get very defensive when someone calls them upset or needs more assistance. And ultimately people want to be listened to, they want you to sit there and listen and come up with a solution that’s realistic.

WAILIN: Like Kevin says, things happen, especially in Chicago, where the doorways and stairwells in vintage apartment buildings often just can’t accommodate the deep couches and restaurant-quality stoves that are popular now. Other times, rickety buildings can thwart what should be a simple delivery. When Kevin was in high school, he worked on the truck and experienced these challenges firsthand.

KEVIN: I remember we had a great truck driver back then, that I used to go on the truck with him, and he used to always take me to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. I remember going up to an old staircase and and I think we were coming down with an appliance and my foot went through the stairs. You know our giant delivery guy up on top, he was just like holding the entire appliance. I think anyone else I would have been crushed by a refrigerator, but he was like holding the entire appliance up there and like slowly got it down. You know, it’s tricky. The city’s always — you never know what you’re walking into.

WAILIN: Another part of Kevin’s job is fielding unusual requests, like a woman who had called him looking for a very specific couch she’d seen online.

KEVIN: It was just a bright pinkish purple fabric on a 25-foot semi-round couch and you know, she was counting off her seats and she was making sure there was enough seats for her cats. It was going to be her and her 18 cats in her home in a giant pink-purple 25-inch piece.

WAILIN: The woman had compiled a list of 20-some furniture stores to call, and Cole’s was the fifth one she had tried. Kevin put her on hold and called the manufacturer’s sales representative to see if anyone in Chicago had the couch in stock. The answer was no, but Kevin had a rounded chair with a similar feel, so he told the woman, come in and try it. If you like it, we’ll order the couch for you. She went ahead with the order and Kevin measured her condo himself to make sure it would fit.

KEVIN: And when I showed up to her house, I was actually kind of like blown away. It was a massive big circle living room that was actually like beautiful and in the end, the piece actually looked really good in the space.

WAILIN: Kevin had only sold that bright pinkish purple fabric one other time before, on a pillow, and it’s since been discontinued.

KEVIN: She had her heart set on it, and I love that, when someone comes in they don’t care what is in style or if everything’s grey or if everything’s this. They want exactly what they want and they get what they want, which I think is what it’s about. I mean, I think that’s why people dress the way they dress or put furniture they way they put it. It makes it who you are.

WAILIN: The line of upholstered furniture that Cole’s carries is manufactured in North Carolina and customers can choose their own configurations and fabrics. The store also does special orders on high end appliances. One time, a family ordered a large, professional refrigerator with custom panels to match the cabinets in their new home.

KEVIN: We went to a house recently that the family with five kids were moving in that night, the builder was behind, but they were coming in from out of state. And we had to install appliances the day they were moving in. Hand carved railings, beautiful wood staircase—the appliances wouldn’t fit up the stairs. My delivery team called me, said “The stuff’s not gonna fit up the stairs.” The customer was freaking out, said “It will,” so they took the box off, showed them how the box wouldn’t even come close to fitting up the stairs, which is a light box, and then I was like, we have to get this done. Stay there, I’ll be over there in a minute. I’m gonna find some way to get it in.

WAILIN: Kevin met his delivery guys at the house and surveyed the scene. The kitchen was on the second floor, and there was no way for the refrigerator and range to go up the stairs. But Kevin had an idea.

KEVIN: I called my stone guy to see. I know he uses cranes a lot and he told me to call his guy and his guy happened to be three blocks from where we were, so I was like, you wanna make some quick money?

WAILIN: Here was Kevin’s idea: Use the crane to hoist the massive fridge up to the third floor, where there was one window that might just be big enough for the appliance to squeeze through. This was their only shot.

KEVIN: It was just a windy day and you had a $12,000 fridge blowing through the sky. I was like watching this thing go over a tree and I was like sweating and then the wind was blowing and I think it like came to the point where I kind of just walked away, walked around the house, looking at their bathroom that got nicely renovated, then went upstairs and was so happy to see us with like a half an inch to spare to pull it through the window. Ultimately I don’t care what you do, just get it into this house and we got everything in with no damage.

WAILIN: And here’s the kicker: Cole’s didn’t charge the customer extra for the delivery. Kevin says it would have cost him more to take the fridge back to the store, since it was a custom-ordered appliance that would have just sat there, unsold, on his showroom floor. And more importantly, Kevin wanted to make some good impressions.

KEVIN: It was a new builder, first time we dealt with him, a new architect, first time we dealt with them. We wanted to show we will make stuff work. I was pretty confident. They price checked that job pretty aggressively, and when I finished I made them aware that no one else would have installed it that day, and they all agreed and they’re very, very loyal customers of ours.

WAILIN: It’s important for Kevin and his father, who still works in the business, to maintain Cole’s reputation as a place that will be there for customers in big and small ways. I learned about Cole’s from a friend who lives nearby and told me she once needed a new tray for her microwave, which she didn’t even buy there. Cole’s doesn’t sell parts, but Kevin helped her out.

KEVIN: I sent my guys over there and they took a quick measurement and we pull out old appliances out of people’s houses a lot, so all they needed was a glass plate that you couldn’t locate anywhere. So my guys just kind of knew: When you find this, pull out this plate, save it for them, so they found one it actually fit perfect. My father has the—I’m trying to think of the word, I’ll probably label it as a disease, where he just doesn’t throw anything away. We just have a lot of stuff, stuff in back rooms, and I go through stuff, and things that we know are usable we’ll keep. Some lady came in the other day and we were able to give her all new burner caps and it was like, we don’t really sell parts, so we just gave them to her. Granted, any other business would be like, “This is in our inventory, let’s put a price on it.” We just don’t necessarily think that way.

WAILIN: It’s those small things that can really multiply goodwill toward a business, and Kevin wants to increase Cole’s presence in the neighborhood. Even though the store has been in the same spot since 1946, a lot of residents don’t know it’s there or don’t know what it sells. When Cole’s recently hosted a neighborhood chamber of commerce event, Kevin ordered food from a restaurant down the street and the delivery guy asked him if he had just opened. And here’s a confession, something that I was too embarrassed to tell Kevin. I lived a couple blocks away from Cole’s for three years and didn’t know it was there.

KEVIN: This neighborhood’s picked up more and more. It’s a really nice neighborhood. We’re having a lot of people that were stopping in to buy a refrigerator and see some of this furniture and were kind of blown away by it and said I’d been passing by for 10 years and I thought everything was used. We like having that corner mom and pop feel. We try to shape ourselves, I guess, of being, like Chicago’s best kept secret.

WAILIN: Even though it seems like Cole’s is hidden in plain sight in its own neighborhood, the store is well-known to people in the housing industry like designers, builders, property managers and landlords. It was a customer base that Kevin’s grandfather established, and during the slow times of the recession, Kevin looked to this group to keep the business going. Landlords weren’t necessarily buying high-end products, but they did need appliances. And Kevin looked for new customers too, getting aggressive on price to draw them in.

KEVIN: Right before the recession, we almost did a massive renovation which would have put us into a lot more money going out, we’re really lucky that we just kept our overhead really low, kept it really lean, like most of that time when business was slow, it was just my father and I in here. If it was a really quiet day, it’s going through old folders from years back to see who are those landlords and property managers and developers we dealt with, and where did they go? Did they go out of business, or did they go somewhere else? And start rebuilding that relationship with a quick phone call. And that’s where I spent a lot more time going after new business and starting a new line with a lot of service companies and, you know, small kitchen rehabbers and people like that, handymen even, and just building those relationships. It was important to us to keep our workers working, you know, it was important to keep our trucks going and things like that as well, so sometimes to cut margin, but still do business to get through. We’ve been very lucky to kind of withstand the test on time in an industry that’s not so common. You don’t see so many corner mom and pop appliance shops. Even if you’re in a small town, you start to see rent-a-centers and you start to see these, you know, Best Buys or things like that jumping in, the big box stores.

WAILIN: It turns out that preserving that mom and pop feel has come pretty naturally to Kevin. Maybe it’s something about putting his grandfather’s key in the door every morning.

KEVIN: It’s surprisingly run not too far different from the way my grandfather ran this business and we have a loyalty in that sense. I think like this business has probably taught me loyalty moreso than anything else. And we’re still using the same print company that’s now a third-generation company that we’ve dealt with forever. We still use the same insurance company that’s third-generation company. You sit there and I get phone calls all day about insurance or anyone trying to sell you things, and it really comes down to the fact that it’s a loyalty thing for us. Even if someone’s going to save me a little bit of money to switch over to them, it’s not the same as doing business with someone that we know, trust, and that ultimately we’re happy to see that their business is still running three generations later.

WAILIN: Kevin thinks a lot of shoppers these days share that mentality and are swinging back back to the old-fashioned way of doing things, seeking out small, local businesses. It’s the way he shops too, as a business owner.

KEVIN: You know, I go to a lot of places because they’re people support us and I want to support their business and watch them stay busy. It’s nice to see that coming back around, you know, seeing people opening up more businesses, seeing young people doing what they want to do. Not try to build a business to sell a business, try to build a business to have something.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can subscribe to our show on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and you can also sign up for our email newsletter at thedistance.com. While you’re at iTunes, if you wanted to leave us a rating or review, we would appreciate it so much. 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.

Best Buy vs. The Apple Store

A recent shopping experience that really surprised me

I was captivated when Apple opened its first set of physical retail stores in 2001. I’ve never owned a retail business, but I worked a variety of retail jobs growing up. What Apple did with retail was different.

I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by retail. Watching people browse, seeing how people choose what to buy, seeing how moving stuff around in a store can have significant effects on purchasing patterns, etc. Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy is one of my favorite books of all time.

When Apple finally opened one in the Chicago area over a decade ago, I rushed over there. I was in awe. What a unique retail experience. Just wonderful.

And for years I enjoyed visiting the stores. Whenever I needed something Apple, I’d go there. I’d rearrange my schedule to shop at an Apple Store.

But in the last few years, the stores have really turned me off. I don’t like stepping into them. They don’t make me feel welcome — rather they make me feel like I need a good reason to be there. Of course I have a reason to be there, but I don’t like the fact that I have to declare it upon entry.

At the door you’re often met by a bouncer who asks you what you need and then directs you here or there. “Please wait by that table over there for a guy with glasses and a blue shirt.” And so you go, awkwardly waiting. Not sure if you can leave your station, lest you miss your opportunity to talk to who you were directed to talk to. Then what?

I find the stores packed with so much Apple staff that you often have to break up a conversation between two staff members in order to ask a question. Now I feel like I’m interrupting someone just to buy something.

Am I being a little dramatic? I’m really trying not to be. This is just how the stores make me feel these days. And it’s not just one store — it’s a handful of stores I’ve visited. Some have been better than others, but there’s a general vibe I get when I walk in that just doesn’t sit well with me. Whenever I go to the Apple Store I feel like I’m on the clock. Like some other customer appointment is pushing up behind me. Hurry up. I can’t explain it beyond that.

Here’s an exaggeration, but not by much: The stores feel more like a deli experience — take a number, wait over there, we’ll call you when it’s your turn.

I recognize Apple is a victim of their success here. Due to unprecedented retail demand, they’ve had to institute protocols to manage the number of people and different kinds of customers. I’m sympathetic to the challenges — it can’t be easy. And they’re probably doing it better than anyone else could. But regardless, I’m just sharing how it makes me feel as a customer.

So just a few days ago my wife asked me to pick up a new iPad for her. She needed it quickly — shipping wasn’t an option. A few years ago I would have hopped in the car and ran down to the local Apple store. This time, I checked Amazon Now first to see if we could get same day delivery. Then I realized Amazon doesn’t really sell Apple stuff so that was out. I could have tried Postmates since they deliver from local Apple Stores, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time.

So I decided to go somewhere I almost never go: Best Buy. There’s one right around the corner from our house. A 10 minute walk, a 3 minute drive.

I walked in. The place was empty. This doesn’t bode well for Best Buy, but as a customer I kinda loved it. I could enter the store without being asked why I was there today. I just walked in and headed towards the dedicated Apple area in the back. When I got there I asked a guy if they had a 128 gig smaller size iPad Pro. He asked what color, I said gold. And he grabbed me one. Done. 5 minutes.

Then I happened to ask the guy if they had the iPhone 7 and if I could switch our service from T-Mobile to Verizon. I figured I’d have to go to an Apple Store to do this (which is why we hadn’t done it yet). Or an Verizon store (which is another reason why we hadn’t done it yet). He said, sure, no problem at all, and he was really helpful throughout the process. So we did that too.

They weren’t happy or unhappy to see me. They weren’t overeager or disinterested. They didn’t stop me before I started shopping. I was there, they were there. It was just a transaction. Smooth, fast, and fair. At Best Buy. In and out in a few minutes.

Again — if you break it down, it’s clear that Apple Stores are doing quite well and Best Buy stores aren’t. So this isn’t commentary on successful business models. It’s just a simple share of a shopping experience I had recently that surprised me. Best Buy feels simple, Apple Stores feels over engineered, too sophisticated. I get why, but why doesn’t matter to the customer experience. It’s either great or it’s not — the why behind the scenes doesn’t matter. Who’s been teaching me that for decades? Apple.

Bootstrapped and Proud

Illustration by Nate Otto

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

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


Transcript

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

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

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

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

WAILIN: Richard’s business isn’t going anywhere either. He’s the president of Alcala’s Western Wear, a Chicago store that sells cowboy hats, boots, shirts, belt buckles, and more. Here, east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find more apartment dwellers with cats and dogs than grizzled ranchers with cows and horses. And yet Alcala’s Western Wear has endured, outlasting disco and many other fashion fads. You’ll hear the story of this urban cowboy outfitter on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sound of brushing)

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

(Sound of brushing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. We’ll be back next week with a mini episode where Shaun shops for a pair of cowboy boots at Alcala’s, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if you could leave us a review on iTunes, we would be so grateful. It helps our show gets discovered by new listeners. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.