Our final episode of The Distance

Stay tuned for our new podcast!

Illustration by Nate Otto

Lily Liu was 16 years old when a talent scout approached her at a department store. She started her career as a model, but found her true calling behind the scenes, first representing her three daughters and then opening her own talent agency. For Lily, who’s spent her career working for opportunities for Asian and Asian-American talent, the issue of representation has taken on a special resonance.

https://art19.com/shows/the-distance-podcast/episodes/fd5f4066-d74e-48a2-8486-de3c7808734d

This is our final episode of The Distance! Thank you for following along and sharing our stories these last few years. The episodes will remain online if you’d like to revisit them or share them with a friend who didn’t catch the show’s original run. We also hope you follow us to our new show: The Rework Podcast. Check out the teaser below and make sure to subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or your favorite podcatcher app so you don’t miss our first episode on August 15.


Transcript

WAILIN: When Lily Liu was 16 years old, she was shopping with her mother at a department store when a talent scout approached them. Lily and her mother had recently immigrated to Chicago from Japan, and her mother didn’t speak English.

LILY LIU: The scout handed a business card to my mother and she didn’t know what it was about, so she nodded and said, “Thank you,” and that was it. There no conversation between them. My mom was always supportive with whatever I did. We decided to make a phone call, and immediately the person who gave me the card responded favorably in setting up the appointment. And from there, things changed. It was interesting because there was what was called a round sheet, a list of photographers and their phone numbers, which we don’t do anymore, and we were expected as the model to make the phone call, make the appointment, make our rounds, and introduce ourselves and hoping they would, you know, remember you.

One of the photographers that I remember said to me, “Why do you want to do this? You’re short and you’re Asian.” And it was very disappointing and I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I think it’d be fun, and it’s not something I would do as a career, but I’d like to give it a go.”

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. It’s the fifty-eighth and last episode of The Distance. I’ll have more to say about that at the end of the episode, plus you’ll hear a teaser for the new show we’re working on, but today we have one last story about a long-running business. It’s the story of Lily Liu, a former model who today runs Lily’s Talent Agency in Chicago. She’s devoted the last 35 years to helping other people get noticed, especially people who aren’t well represented in popular culture.

MERISSA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Merissa, a support team lead 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.

WAILIN: So Lily Liu, at 16 years old, had just been asked by a photographer, “Why would you want to be a model if you’re short and Asian?” She said it seemed fun and she wanted to try it.

LILY: It was an honest answer and a couple days later, he actually gave me a phone call and said there was a client of his who was looking for an Asian model for the cover of a hair magazine. Evidently, this client had been looking all over for an Asian woman with a certain face and length of hair that he thought would be perfect. And so I went to the place and he came in and he said, “Oh, you know, your hair is much too long. I want someone with chin-length hair.” And I said, “You want me!” Because that’s exactly what I have.

WAILIN: That’s when Lily took off the wig she was wearing, and her natural length was just right.

LILY: That was actually my first job, and it turned out to be a big job because it was the cover of a magazine. The agency was really pleased with how quickly things started moving for me that she signed me up as an exclusive talent and that was it. They all asked me—I’m too short to be a model. I explained, “I can make everything else around me look larger.” I did a lot of electronic things, like I would sit next to a TV or stand next to a TV or furnitures. I was always the girl for the Sealy mattress. I did a lot of hair magazines, I did a lot of hair products like L’Oreal. When I started modeling, I was the rare Asian model. I was with models who were tall and thin and blonde and blue eyes. To me, they were just gorgeous. I think when I saw them, I started losing confidence with myself. I’m wondering, why did they select me for this role when I’m actually modeling with all these beautiful models? And they were quite successful because they had portfolios and they came even from all over the country.

WAILIN: This was the 1960s, and there weren’t a lot of women that looked like Lily. This created an additional challenge in an industry that could already be pretty cruel, as Lily found out when she competed in a pageant called Miss Photo Flash.

LILY: I was the top ten, but I was also the shortest. And one of the things that we had to go to was doing some interviews, and my language was really poor. It was all broken English and so I couldn’t communicate well. Whatever answer that I responded probably didn’t translate in the correct way so I got that rejection, but it wasn’t just that. Some of the girls in the top ten made a comment to me about my nationality because I’m Chinese and Japanese, so they were calling me names and said something that was very political and that I got it for whatever reasons. And I found that to be very hurtful. Though at the same time, there was one special girl, I think she was also top 10—didn’t make it but, she came to the side and she comforted me. And she said, this girl has a reputation of putting everybody down.

As far as the rejection for me, I think I’ve learned to toughen up because when I came to this country, I was bullied by other kids. I had to stay strong. On the first day of school, I was running to make I wasn’t late and I fell flat on the cement and my face was scraped with all these scratches and when I went home, my mother always believed Vaseline was miracle, like miracle cream, so she put Vaseline all over my scratches and told me I needed to walk to school because education was very important in my culture. So I went the first day of school with Vaseline and scratches all over my face and I think that started the bullying. I think the kids looked at me differently. It’s so hurtful when kids are looking at you, not just because you’re Asian, different, shiny face, scratches, can’t speak the language. They would call me FOBs, fresh off the boat, go back home, go back home. And these were kids that would tell me in school and I would be so sad. And I didn’t even know what FOB meant at the time. I went home and then I was explained why. So it was hurtful. I had two brothers who were always protecting me and making sure when I would go home crying, they would stay after school and they would have a confrontation with those kids who bullied me. I think I grew up feeling like there are people like that, so if they’re mean to you, it could be not a rejection on yourself, but they have the problem. I remember when I started the business, being an Asian and female owner, there were a lot of comments made that I didn’t have the experience to start a talent agency. And I think I used that and said, you know what? I’m gonna make it. I take it as if that I want to show them I’m not gonna give up.

WAILIN: Lily modeled through college and the early years of her marriage. She booked a national commercial for Jovan perfume and used the money from that gig to pay for their honeymoon. But she was realizing that she didn’t want to be in front of the camera anymore.

LILY: There were so many models that I thought, they should do this with their hair, they should do this with makeup. When I started modeling, I was 16. I think by the time i was 23, I wanted to be behind the scenes. I wanted to be an agent. All the pageant people, they would come to me, asking me to teach them to walk, and their makeup, and what dresses they should select. In the pageant world, people talk and they’ll say, “You’ve got to take a little private class from Lily. She doesn’t charge much, she’ll do the best she can to at least place somewhere in the top placement.”

WAILIN: And then Lily had her first child, a daughter. She started modeling at just three months. Then came two more daughters, and Lily started them in the business even earlier, as newborns.

LILY: It got to be a point where they would all get bookings on the same day, and it would be not necessarily all in the same place. The clients were so nice, they got to know me really well enough. They’ll say, “Just leave the kids—your kids are well behaved and just come right back,” so I would leave more the older kids that I knew would be okay, but they were friends with the stylists and the art directors and the photographers. It was like a family. At that time, you could do that. Nowadays, we discourage parents from bringing additional kids unless the clients request for them.

WAILIN: Managing her children’s careers gave Lily enough of a foundation to start her own agency in 1982. And although it had been decades since she booked her first modeling job, there still weren’t that many Asian faces in print ads or television commercials, let alone pop culture like TV and film. Lily saw it as her job to recruit more diverse talent.

LILY: When my kids were born, you still didn’t see a lot of Asian models, so whenever they wanted an Asian model, they knew: Call Lily. And I would be on set and I would meet other models and they would say, “Do you accept other people, other models? And I said yes. That’s how my portfolio grew, starting with my three daughters in the business, and then growing because I was in an environment where I would meet other models and I would end up representing them. Having Asian models in the business was very difficult. And when I started this business, I actually had my mentality focused in saying, “Well, you know what? It was a success for myself and my daughters. I’m going to represent and brand myself as an agency having the most Asian models.” I knew better that I couldn’t just stick with Asian models because you know, obviously they’re not going to be booking Asian models every day, so of course I had others, but I wanted to make sure that all the Asian communities, or at least majority of the Asian communities, knew I had an agency and that my goal was to try and get as many qualified Asians on my roster. And then eventually I developed my agency as the best child agency so I started representing the children and then from there, I started to focus on adults and now, we have about 50/50 adults and kids.

I really I hope that I made a difference because I think when they needed Asian talents, before they couldn’t get it in Chicago, so they would end up flying in models from LA. A lot of that happened, even New York. But now I think I made a difference in that, if there was a Chicago casting or Chicago booking, they can go to Lily’s and book the Asian kids or Asian models because I had so many of them and if I didn’t, I would go to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce or I would contact my friends in the community, they would have a bunch of kids. It’s the resources that you know. You make sure that you have enough for the demand. And that’s what happened. I remember one time I needed senior citizens, so I went to the Chinatown and they had a senior citizen home and they needed about a dozen Chinese ladies for this one booking and they said, “We don’t know how to get a ride there.” So I with my friends, we picked them up at the center and we brought them and we filled out the voucher. And they didn’t understand about the payment schedule, that they get paid after we get paid, so I just went ahead and paid them, you know, minus our agency fee, and they were so happy. And any time they needed Asian senior citizens, they knew they can contact me and I would go straight there to the senior citizen home. And they were all so happy because they would be made up with their makeup and the hair and beautiful. And I would always ask them, “Do you mind getting a little Polaroid snapshots of them? Because you’re making them so happy.” And so they would get this Polaroid picture, and I don’t know if it was really the money or the Polaroid they were really so happy about, but it really made a difference to them.

WAILIN: Lily’s Talent Agency has been around for 35 years now, placing kids and adults in commercials, print ads and voiceover parts. Thanks to an uptick in TV shows being filmed in Chicago, like Empire and Chicago Fire, there are more opportunities now for local actors. Even so, her experience in the industry shows that when it comes to media representation, progress is incremental. Here’s just one data point from Hollywood: The movie The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s novel about four Chinese American women and their mothers, came out in 1993. There has not been a major studio-backed live-action movie with a majority Asian American cast since then. And even when there are parts for actors or models of color, there can be pitfalls. Remember that Jovan perfume commercial that Lily booked when she was a college student? Here’s the part she was cast for.

LILY: I was supposedly the concubine of this man, an Asian man, but when a man at that age wears that musk, Jovan musk for male, they can get this beautiful lady.

WAILIN: It’s less likely that you would see that kind of concubine storyline in a TV commercial now — and if you did, it would probably be met with a barrage of Internet outrage and public shaming, So maybe that’s progress. But every once in a while, Lily’s actors encounter situations where they’re not comfortable, and it’s her job to look out for their interests.

LILY: I had a Japanese actor confirm a booking, but when he realized the script was actually mocking the Asian culture and delivering with the heavy accent—which was not a problem, but when it’s mocking and putting down in a very negative way, even though the money was there, he said, “You know, I’m sorry. I didn’t receive the script before. It was very general. I apologize.” We understood, I mean, you know, and we explained that to the casting agency and I’m sure that it went to somebody else, because it was part of the script, but certainly our actors do tell us, so they will come back and report to us what’s actually happened and if they’re not comfortable. Or if it’s a scene where their child is in and there’s a lot of profanity involved, the parents would say, “You know, I’m sorry, but this is not something that I would be comfortable with my children.” And we have to really respect them because if we don’t, they’re not gonna do a good job and it’s not what the casting director wants anyways.

WAILIN: There’s an old Hollywood cliche, never work with animals or children. Lily took on the challenge of representing children because she believed the industry needed more models that looked like her daughters. Today her agency is so well-established that aspiring talent come to her seeking representation, but Lily still likes to approach strangers while she’s grocery shopping or eating out.

LILY: I actually had a situation a couple weeks ago, when I was at a restaurant with my family and I saw this really good looking guy with a very nice-looking date or whoever it might have been. But it was the guy that I was interested in so it was awkward, but my daughter and my grandsons, they were saying, “Go ahead, Paw Paw.” Paw Paw is grandma in Chinese, and so I went to the table across and I said hello to the lady first and I said, “Excuse me, I have a talent agency and right now we’re scouting male models with his type of look. Do you mind if I gave my agency card? I’m here with my grandsons and my daughter.” And I pointed to her. She said, no, not a problem, and I gave it to him. But I think it’s always important, when you’re making the introduction, that you respect the person they’re with so that she’s not looking down and thinking, well why didn’t I get the call? Now, I haven’t gotten a call yet. But it’s something I do all the time, is scouting. If I go grocery shopping, if I’m at any activities, I always have my business cards and I’m passing them out because you never know

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. And I like I mentioned earlier, this is the last episode of The Distance. We’re launching a new show called Rework, which will broaden the scope of the stories we tell. On The Distance, we featured businesses that have been running for 25 years or more without taking outside investment like venture capital. A lot of the business owners we profiled also talked about stuff like growing slow and staying small, so we wanted to do a show looking at some of those principles too. We’re going to play a teaser for Rework after this episode, so please check that out, and make sure to subscribe to Rework on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen.

We’ve had an amazing time making The Distance and I wanted to say a big thank you to all the business owners that shared their stories with us. Everyone was so generous with their time and we learned a lot from them. Also thanks to Nate Otto for doing our illustrations and to all of our listeners for your support. I loved reading your emails and tweets and meeting you in person. And to everyone who wrote in with suggestions of businesses to feature on The Distance, I put them all in a Google spreadsheet and I’m sorry I couldn’t get to them all. You might still hear some of them on Rework, so stay tuned. And now, here’s a preview of Rework, the new show from Basecamp.

Going to the Mattresses

Illustration by Nate Otto

Tim Masters describes himself as “just a mattress maker,” but that belies the business acumen he’s gained over decades of building and selling beds. Tim’s store in the Chicago suburbs, Quality Sleep Shop, opened in 1969 and has held its own against the proliferation of private equity-backed mattress corporations and chain stores. As Big Mattress has grown more complex, churning out endless permutations of confusingly named products, Tim has embraced simplicity.

https://art19.com/shows/the-distance-podcast/episodes/572e2254-21b4-4e3d-b1cc-b042072ab428

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Hi everyone, it’s Wailin. We have some news about The Distance that we’ll share at the end of this episode, so please stick around for that. And here’s today’s show.

Think about some of the most miserable experiences you’ve had as a consumer. You might say air travel, or trying to cancel your cable service. And then there’s mattress shopping. Where I live, in the Chicago area, there seem to be mattress stores on every corner, sometimes across the street from each other, and they’re selling products with long names that make it difficult to comparison shop. Like “Simmons Beautyrest Recharge Signature Select,” which is somehow different from the “Serta iComfort Blue Max Touch 3000.”

TIM MASTERS: They’re showing you beds like two, three thousand dollars and it’s like, what makes that bed cost two or three thousand dollars? I don’t know. I look at ’em and I think, that’s not a two or three thousand dollar bed. And then they walk you down from there, but I think it’s by design that they want you to be a little bit confused, overwhelmed or impressed with this lingo that you don’t even know what it stands for.

WAILIN: That’s Tim Masters, the owner of a store in the Chicago suburbs called Quality Sleep Shop. He’s been a mattress maker for over 25 years, and he’s not a fan of the tactics you see from traditional, corporate mattress manufacturers and stores.

TIM: I wouldn’t want to be in the market to buy a mattress today; I’ll tell you that. I’m keeping it simple, like there’s not that much to it. It’s soft, medium, firm. What’s your price point, is it low, medium or high? We try not to confuse you.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Tim Masters has fended off the big mattress companies by staying small, simple and honest.

JASON: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Jason, an iOS designer 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.

TIM: Every year, I buy the best seller of that year and I take them apart and I dissect them, like how was this made, like how far apart are the stitches, what are they doing, how are they securing their cover, what filling material are they using, why is this bed so popular? Is there anything I can make similar or what can I improve on with it? And in 2014, I bought a Tempur-Pedic. I paid $1,630 for this twin size bed but it was a best seller and I’m so excited. I go pick it up and I bring it back to the shop, I’m like, here it is and I get the thing apart and I was so deflated, like it had an nice like one-inch piece of memory foam on top and had three inches of actually really nice quality foam under that, but the supporting foam, the six-inch supporting base, is like a general grade. And I was so, I’m bothered by it because I’m like, why would they have such a good company, you know what I mean? Such a good name, and then fill it with just like average or below average filling material? You’re gonna hurt your brand. And it’s like, I don’t think they get it and I see that a lot with the major brands. It’s like, don’t you get it? It doesn’t have to just look pretty on the outside. It’s got to be the inside of the bed that counts.

WAILIN: So what’s inside a bed? Tim makes both innerspring mattresses and latex ones, and he uses a combination of cotton and foam. Cotton breathes well, lasts a long time and wicks away perspiration. Foam is pressure relieving and more lofty, giving the impression of a thicker mattress. At Tim’s business, all the mattresses are built to order in a suburban factory.

TIM: We’re not a marketing company that has someone else build the beds and ship them out. We have total control over what the customer’s getting and it’s successful for us. We build 400 to 500 beds a month. But that’s a lot for a little company. There’s only six or seven of us that work here full time and it keeps us busy all the time. We do our own maintenance on our equipment, we’re the builders on the beds, we do the packaging, we do local deliveries, so yeah, we’re pretty proud of where we’re at today. We’ve always had like steady, slow growth. We don’t want to have big influxes of business ’cause I worry about production, like I still like to be so hands on with what’s being built, how are things going through.

WAILIN: Tim’s showroom has just a dozen or so models for sale, and they’re named for people: The Scot, after the store’s first employee, or the Leona, after the wife of the man who started the business. Some of these models have been around for decades and they haven’t changed very much.

TIM: We don’t carry products that are real trendy, that we don’t have a lot of experience with, that we don’t know how they’re going to react with customers. But what we do carry and what we produce are mattresses that are really time-tested and well-received.

WAILIN: Tim’s been at this for so long that he’s developed a kind of sixth sense for whether a customer is a side sleeper or stomach sleeper, just by looking at the person.

TIM: A lot of times, we get customers that come in: “I want a firm mattress.” And you look at their body type and you determine, okay, are you a side sleeper? And then I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to build you a firm mattress. I’ll build you something real supportive, but not too hard. Your legs will go numb, your arms will go numb.” I learned that years ago, we would make mattresses and a lot of these older guys come in: “I need a firm bed.” And next thing you know, they’re calling you two weeks after they get the bed, “Can you make it a little softer?” A lot of people, when they ask for a certain product, it’s like, “I’ll show you that, but this is what’s going to be a better fit for you and this is the reason why.” Sometimes, though, I’m not the guy for the customer, like I’ll try, I can always make our beds feel a little firmer, a little softer if the customer wants something a little bit different than what we offer. But there have been times where I tell them, “I’m not the one for ya.” Like it’s—for your needs, and for the softness level that you want, I can’t make that bed because I don’t feel like I can stand behind it the way you want us to make it. Twenty years ago, I kept running myself through the wringer, well I’ll make it firmer, I’ll make it softer, what do you wanna do? I kept changing things and I’m like, it’s not getting any better and I’m getting pretty worn out from this whole thing.

WAILIN: Tim’s store, Quality Sleep Shop, was started in 1969 by a former foam salesman named Robert Brixie, who traded his house for the store’s first building. He and his family lived in an apartment above the shop. Now he lives nearby and still pops in once in a while.

TIM: Mr. Brixie, the original owner, what a great guy. I started with him in 1990 after school. I loved him. He was such a perfectionist. He’s an old Navy guy and just a big man, and he had this big booming voice and he’d always say, “You can’t cheat ‘em! Believe me, these old people would bang down the front door saying give me my money back if you make a mattress that doesn’t hold up!”

WAILIN: Tim had just graduated from high school when he went to work at Quality Sleep Shop.

TIM: One of my sisters actually dated a guy that used to work for Mr. Brixie and I needed a part-time job and he goes, “Go see Mr. Brixie, he’s a good guy to work for.” So I started there and I knew it down to my shoes that this was what I was gonna do, yeah, loved building these beds. The mentoring from Mr. Brixie was great, but I really enjoyed the physical building of the product too. Mr. and Mrs. Brixie lived upstairs and i’d be working in the shop downstairs. We had a showroom in the front of the store, and every day, Leona or Lee, would come down with like pie or hot tea. She’d always make something for ya in the middle of the day. What a nice thing! You’d get to sit down and eat something homemade. Yeah, they really treated you so nice. It was just before the mattress shop on every corner type of environment and we were competing with the Sealys, Stearns and Fosters, and there were some independents. Like there were more independents, but they kept going bankrupt. And I asked Mr. Brixie, the original owner, I’m like, “Mr. Brixie, are you nervous about going out of business?” And he said, “No!” And I’m like, “How can you be so confident?” He goes, “I never cheated. These other mattress companies, if they get short on money, they would start putting in subpar filling materials. I never cheated. If we were low on a certain SKU, whatever that product was, we’d always upgrade it. We never would go down. You always do one better, even if it hurts you a little bit there, it helps you in the long run.” But that’s why he was so confident not to go out of business. So it took out all the guys who weren’t as healthy, but the ones that do a good job stayed.

Mattresses years ago used to have buttons in them. It was called button tufting. We did them inner tufted; we would put rows of buttons on the interior of the bed. A customer, a lady says to me, “How do I know you’re gonna put those buttons in there?” It never crossed my mind not to put a button in, like I couldn’t complete a bed, like if our button tufter would give us trouble, if it was missing one button, it would not get sewn together. When I first started working there, he says, “Never lie to a customer. You never tell anybody anything just because they want to hear it. It’s gotta be the truth.” So when the lady asked about those buttons, I was like, “I don’t know how you would know if the buttons are there are not, but they’re there.”

WAILIN: In 1994, Tim was 24 years old and considering a change.

TIM: And I say to Mr. Brixie, “Mr. Brixie, I gotta get a real job.” And he said, “If you quit, I’m gonna go out of business.” and he goes, “My kids don’t want it; I’m ready to retire. Give me one more year, your same pay rate,” which I was making nine bucks an hour and so I’m like okay. So one more year comes, I’m 25 years old and in September 1st of 1995, I bought the company from Mr. Brixie and I was so scared. I borrowed a third of the money from him, a third of the money from my parents and a third from the bank. And the bank loaned me the money at nine percent interest and Mr. Brixie goes, “I’ll loan you a third at eight percent,” and my mom and dad go, “We’ll do eight percent too.” I remember at the closing at the bank, it was around lunchtime, a little bit after lunch and I go to my dad and my mom, “Wanna get some lunch?” My dad goes, “No, you’ve got a lot of mattresses to make,” so it’s right back to the shop I went. And I never took a day off. All I did was work. I was so scared to fail or not pay anyone back.

WAILIN: Tim moved into the apartment above the shop, where Mr. Brixie had lived, and kept making mattresses the way he’d been taught. But he did make a few changes. He expanded the shop’s delivery radius into the city of Chicago. He made a lot of deliveries himself, and sometimes his girlfriend, Cindy, would tag along. Another big development came along in 2006. By then Tim and Cindy had gotten married and had a daughter, Emily.

TIM: My daughter Emily was born with severe eczema and all kinds of allergy issues, like, I felt so bad for Em when she was born, like her stomach was so distended and her skin was so dry and cracking all the time. And my wife said, “Why don’t you make her an organic crib mattress?” So I was like, “Yeah no problem,” like I would make organic mattresses every now and again, like onesie twosies. Never thought much about them, but it seemed to make sense for our family. After I made that, I’m like, “Cindy, we’re not the only family with these health issues and we should offer these to our consumers.” We would spend like an hour, hour and a half every night, well more like two or three nights a week, for a year, working on a product line one, and then how do you describe it to the people and how do you put a website together. The rabbit hole gets really deep: Okay, where’s the wool sourced from? What’s the wool washed with? Is it treated with anything? t gets pretty complicated and it was a learning curve for sure on our end. Now, all our distributors, everyone that we work with on our end, I physically visit the plants and make sure that what they say is what they’re doing and I follow each product through.

WAILIN: Tim sold his new line of organic mattresses in his showroom while he and Cindy worked on the website. In 2007, they launched a new brand called My Green Mattress and started shipping nationwide. Like other mattress-in-a-box companies, Tim’s organic mattresses come rolled up and unfurl when they’re unpacked. The crib mattress is called the Emily, after Tim’s daughter, whose eczema eventually cleared up.

TIM: Our philosophy is let’s build a bed that’s really nice, very durable and that’s so approachable on price, like we’re right there with the major brands with their traditional built beds for the organic, so it’s a really good model. How we stay affordable is every morning I’m at the shop, I’m working on equipment, everybody’s doing their part here, we’re all working really hard on building these beds, but then it all goes direct to the consumer. There’s no middleman.

WAILIN: This business model has helped insulate Quality Sleep Shop from the competitive threat of corner mattress stores. Where Tim has ceded some business is in twin and full beds. He thinks a lot more people are shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco for those smaller mattresses. But Tim still sells a lot of queen- and king-sized beds, and he recently hired a director of marketing to lead a bigger push for My Green Mattress. In selling online, Tim has the potential to reach a much broader audience for his organic beds, but it also puts him in competition with the many mattress-in-a-box startups that have raised venture capital and gotten a lot of press.

TIM: I think those companies are great. They simplified it. It’s a memory foam bed, they all seem to be at the $800 price point, not much variation in those mattresses, but I think it fits a need for the millennials, for the people who don’t want to shop. With My Green Mattress, we’ve shipped mattresses since 2007. What do I know about anything really? I’m just a mattress maker, but it always amazes me that someone would buy a mattress online — I wouldn’t be able to do it, but so many people do.

WAILIN: Tim might describe himself as just a mattress maker, but his principles as a business owner have served him well. Keep it simple, never cheat. It’s a quiet but powerful contrast to Big Mattress, which pumps out hundreds of virtually indistinguishable models, all marked up a hefty amount. It’s a good business for the large mattress companies and their private equity investors, but Tim wants no part of it.

TIM: For whatever reason, we’re doing well. Like even the small independent bookstores, like I feel bad for a lot of those bookstores that have gone under. There’s so much knowledge you get from, you know what I mean? Those little places. I’m starting to think of my company as like a microbrewery. You can get some really good beers from someone, you may never have heard of it, but you can’t wait to have another one of those beers, and it’s kind of like our mattresses. You may not have heard of us, but once you try it, you’re like, “That thing is awesome.”

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner. Say hello.

SHAUN: Hello.

WAILIN: And me, Wailin Wong. Hello. And also good-bye, because this is actually the second-to-last episode of The Distance.

SHAUN: Now this is a super awkward good-bye, like when you say good-bye to someone on the street, but you keep walking the same way.

WAILIN: That’s exactly what this is like.

SHAUN: You’re going to hear us again in two weeks.

WAILIN: You are going to hear us again in two weeks. And we’re working on a new show, so don’t go anywhere. We’re working on a new show, and we’ll bring you more updates in a couple of weeks. Is there anything else we should say?

SHAUN: Yeah, our illustrations are by Nate Otto. And we are a production of Basecamp.

WAILIN: Basecamp is 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.

If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It

Illustration by Nate Otto

Ben and Larry are longtime owners of two different music-related businesses, a payroll service for musicians and an auctioneer of rare classical LPs. They don’t know each other, but they have something in common: They’re both still running their businesses on custom software written in the 1980s by the same developer. This episode features the soothing, nostalgic hum of a dot matrix printer, variations on “Three Blind Mice,” and more!

https://art19.com/shows/the-distance-podcast/episodes/e8a68f16-6ff5-4e41-a532-d0dc26ad5d6a

Transcript

WAILIN: Do you remember your first computer? Ben does. He got his first computer in 1986, when he hired a programmer to write some custom software for his business.

BEN: I was frightened beyond reason and little by little, I got the hang of it. Those computers at that time were just old DOS machines.

TROY HENIKOFF: It was a Compaq desktop, and the reason it was a Compaq was because the IBM PC ran at 4.77 megaherz, but the Compaq ran at 6 megaherz. So it was original Compaq with a 20 MB hard drive in it and an amber monitor. The amber monitors were the best. They were better than the green ones.

WAILIN: That’s Troy Henikoff, the programmer who wrote the software that Ben started using in 1986 — and still uses today. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On the last episode of The Distance, you heard about how Troy ran his software consulting business for six years before selling it to a big corporation. On today’s show, you’ll meet two of Troy’s earliest customers who are running their businesses on 30-year-old software.

TOM: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Tom, 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.

BEN: I’m a musician and 95 percent of my tax clients are musicians: Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera. I’ve worked for local orchestras. They wanted someone who can work on musicians’ tax returns, who knew the types of deductions they would be able to take, and by word of mouth I got another phone call, another phone call, another phone call, and I got all these clients.

WAILIN: Ben, who asked that we not use his last name, has a one-man business in the Chicago area doing payroll and taxes for musicians. He estimates he’s been doing this for around 45 years, but he doesn’t remember the exact year he started his business. It’s called Tempo, which stands for The Equitable Musicians Payroll Organization. When Ben got introduced to Troy via a friend in 1986, he was about a decade in and using a typewriter.

BEN: People kept asking me, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you get a payroll program? Why don’t you get a computer?” I didn’t have anything. I just used a typewriter. They told me that Troy graduated from Brown with an engineering degree and he’s going into IT so I gave him a call.

WAILIN: At the time, Ben also owned a currency exchange in Chicago and Troy went there to meet him. He was Troy’s first customer.

TROY: So I had never been to a currency exchange, and the currency exchange, of course, has bulletproof glass, but you have to be able to get behind the bulletproof glass and they have a thing — I think it’s called a gang door. Apparently, this is to prevent like a gang of people from rushing the back of the, of the currency exchange. There are actually two doors and the space in between the doors is only big enough for one relatively slender human, and the first door has to be closed before the second door is physically able to open. And so he’s trying to explain to me that I’m gonna go into this gang door in order to see him and he’s yelling through the bulletproof glass, “Go over there! Open the first latch!” And then I get in and then the door closes and you’re totally claustrophobic. And then I sat down with him in the back of this currency exchange and he’s helping customers and then he’s interrupted and he’s trying to explain to me about union reports and W2s and 1099s and I knew nothing about any of it. But he just gave me a bunch of sample reports and said, “Look, it has to look like this.” And I asked a lot of questions and if you ask enough questions, you start to understand. I laid out a system for him, gave him a quote, and went back and programmed it.

BEN: He set up a program on DOS, MS-DOS, before you were a gleam in your mom’s eye. That’s when I started to use it and it was marvelous.

WAILIN: Not long after doing the job for Ben, Troy was introduced via a string of connections to another customer with a business called Polyphony.

LARRY JONES: I’m Larry Jones and I sell out-of-print classical recordings. I’ve been doing it since 1978, so in my 40th year now. I think anybody who begins selling things to collectors began as a collector him or herself. I don’t know why else you would do it. I began collecting classical recordings in my mid teens and by my late 20s had a fairly substantial collection.

TROY: Larry had a very interesting business. So most of the businesses that we were writing software for in the early days were businesses that were very unique, where there wasn’t something off the shelf that would help them accomplish what they needed to do.

Larry started Polyphony with just a typewriter and a record collection in a small office. Several times a year, he would print up catalogs and mail them out. Customers mailed back their bids, indicating how much they were willing to pay for the records they wanted. Larry would then figure out who had the highest bid on each item, fill out invoices for the winning bidders, collect payment and mail out the records.

LARRY: It took off very nicely. There was a lot of demand for these things at that point and a lot of responses to advertising in various musical publications and I developed a clientele. Iit was profitable from the start. This was my very first catalog, miserable little thing here. How many items were on this one? 265.

WAILIN: By the time Larry met Troy, around 1987, the Polyphony catalogs had gotten much larger. But Larry was still running his auctions with pen and paper. He showed me a file for the last one he did before getting a computer.

LARRY: 2,600 items on this catalog. This graph paper lists every one of them. At the end of the auction, I have circled the winning bidder and his, his or her, although it’s usually males, also on graph paper, it’s very well organized, you see? This was back in the day when I had 700 people bid on that catalog, nothing like that anymore. But! Then, that’s what I had to do is go back to somebody’s bid sheet. I fill out which ones they were successful on and which ones they were not. Here’s a total, a subtotal, a postage fee and a grand total, I mail that back to them with a return envelope and they send me a check. That is what ended up being computerized a year later, and it was just night and day. It knows who bids what and it figures out who won what for me. I hit a button that says create invoices and there they are! It’s just spectacular compared to what I was just showing you.

WAILIN: The new software meant that Larry no longer had to sit hunched over a piece of graph paper, writing down bids from hundreds of people and scanning the sheet to figure out who won what. The program also digitized his inventory so he could search his collection more easily and spend less time recording information for each new LP that came in. With the time savings, Larry could run six auctions a year instead of four.

LARRY: Well, it was just a matter of volume, really. They asked me at one point, maybe a year or two in, could I quantify how much this had sped up my process. And I think even at that point, I said it had doubled my speed, and that was really before the inventory had kicked into the point where it was recognizing thousands of things.

WAILIN: Ben and Larry were satisfied with their software — so satisfied, in fact, that neither of them wanted to upgrade, even as MS DOS started to become obsolete. They would get new computers over the years, and today Larry runs his program on a virtual machine on his Macbook Pro, where he presses a button and the display switches over to the vintage blue screen of his DOS program. But neither Ben nor Larry were interested in new software. That’s what they told Troy when he called to check in, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s.

LARRY: I heard from Troy saying, “You know, we’re not gonna be writing DOS programs anymore. Windows has taken over, so this is your last chance for any changes or anything you want to do.” I think I asked him at that point, “Does it make any sense for me to go to Windows?” They said, “We can’t retrofit this. You’d have to start from scratch and it’d be very expensive.” I was like well, why would I change something that’s working just fine as it is and getting faster every time there’s a new upgrade with respect to hardware speed?

BEN: He said, “Listen. I can’t run your program anymore because we’re switching up to Windows and DOS is no longer going to be a very popular item. It’s going to be very expensive if you want to switch, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to switch because I know you know the thing inside and out and you’re so comfortable you could do it in your sleep,” and he was right. So I kept doing it and I hadn’t seen him for maybe 15 or 20 years since then until my printer broke down.

WAILIN: In those 15 or 20 years since Ben and Troy last spoke, Ben had kept going with Tempo, his payroll business, while playing clarinet and saxophone on the side. Troy had sold his software consulting firm to Medline, a big manufacturer of medical products, and become a venture capitalist and mentor to tech startups. But earlier this year, Troy got a call from his first customer.

TROY: Ben called me frantic. And he was frantic because his checks weren’t printing right. And he couldn’t really articulate for me what was wrong, but they weren’t printing right and when I tried to ask him, he just got, he got a little bit flustered and he said, “You have to come over.”

BEN: The printer broke down and I couldn’t make a connection and I was out of business for God knows, about a month. So I called him, you’ve got to help me, I’m in terrible shape here, so he came over.

TROY: And it turned out that it was really just a simple hardware problem. He had a combination of a printer that was 30 years old and the tractor feed wasn’t feeding very well, so he needed a new tractor feed and a switchbox — those old mechanical AB switchboxes to switch between printers? Those wear out after time, and so the switchbox wasn’t working. I had an old parallel printer cable that I knew worked and we connected it directly and everything worked. We ordered him a new switchbox, got him all set up. Oh, it was amazing to see it still running. I mean, to see the text screens of the DOS and to hear the printer printing,

WAILIN: Ben actually has two dot matrix printers. I asked to see them in action, so he fired up Troy’s program on his desktop and filled out a sample check, made out to my name.

BEN: 2017 is the year, and then I go to banking. And my password. And there’s today date…and Wong. Save the above check, yes. Press P to print the check. That printer selector is marvelous.

WAILIN: In the bottom right corner of the check, there’s a musical staff with Ben’s signature overlaid on it, a little visual flourish that Troy programmed into the printer itself back in 1986.

TROY: When we wrote the program, he didn’t like having to sign the checks manually. It’s an OkiData printer and it had this graphics mode. I learned about it and I made it so that the printer it actually prints his signature using the dot matrix graphics mode, which I’m sure no other company ever supported, and so if he can’t find a replacement OkiData printer, he’s gonna be out of business. Like you can’t just run that on anything. This is running in MS DOS and so even if his computer dies that he’s running it on, it will be difficult to find a computer that we actually can still run MS DOS on. While it’s great that it’s been running for 30 plus years, it’s a little bit risky at this point.

WAILIN: Ben’s not too worried. He’ll probably retire within the next couple of years, and he’s stocked up on both ribbons and paper for his dot matrix printers. He found the ribbons at Office Depot.

BEN: I bought a whole case of it because I knew that eventually I was going to run out. It’s right down here, take a look. And here’s some ribbons. For example, I have some extra ribbons for the Epson, which is that one there. Here’s some mouthpieces for the saxophone, and I have other ribbons for this one.

WAILIN: Larry is getting ready to retire too. He’s had a good run, continuing with his auctions even though he estimates the market for used classical recordings peaked in the mid 90s. He’s been paring down his inventory, getting rid of the items he knows won’t sell.

LARRY: There was a very famous — famous among the aficionadi, but not well known otherwise — Russian conductor named Nicolai Galavanov who made some very obscure recordings in the early 50s that were available at that time really only on very hard-to-find imports. They were not regularly distributed in this country. And when I began, if I had a collection or someone had managed to get ahold of some of these things, they were very, very valuable, even crummy Russian pressings which were not frequently very good. So I found a group of these in a collection that I acquired, maybe 10 years ago, and I was real excited because I hadn’t seen very many of these things. But then I thought, I wonder if these things have been digitized? My wife has Spotify and I said I’ll type this guy’s name in. They all had been digitized! Unless you really want a poorly pressed Russian record from 1955 because that is exciting to you in and of itself as the object, you’d rather listen to a nice digitization of it on Spotify, you know? So that’s the sort of thing that’s happened in classical music. Subsequently, it got to the point where I was buying a record collection, I was donating or discarding two thirds, three quarters of it because it simply had no value in the current market. And that’s very much the case now. The market is very, very narrow and very quirky. But I still get a huge kick out of it. I still go into somebody’s basement and look at a couple thousand records and it is just very exciting. Maybe I’ll see something I’ve never seen before.

WAILIN: As for Ben, he loves playing music, which is what he wanted to talk about instead of his payroll business. Ben’s father played violin to accompany silent movies, and after the advent of the talkies, switched to playing clarinet and saxophone in an ensemble for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Ben learned clarinet and saxophone too, and found his passion.

BEN: I was drafted into the army. I auditioned for the Army band and played in the Army band for two years in Fort Carson, Colorado. See, this is much more interesting than doing payrolls!

WAILIN: What year were you in the Army?

BEN: ’57 to ‘59 — that’s 1857. So then, one day I was in the band room and there was no one in there and there was a piano in there and I didn’t know anything about piano, so I sat down and I kind of played with the keys and everything and I realized, my God, I found myself playing Three Blind Mice. And then as I was sitting there, I started making variations on it and I’ll play it for you.

TAPE — LARRY — When I was 28 years old or whatever, the notion of doing anything 40 years later was completely so far beyond the horizon that I don’t think I had any concept of it. If you had asked me, is there something else that you want to do? Is there something you would prefer doing, I don’t think I ever felt that way, no. I like what I do. I liked it and I like it.

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Nate Otto does our illustrations. Big thank you for Troy Henikoff. He put me in touch with Ben and Larry, neither of whom he had spoken to in a while, and I’m very appreciative of him making those connections so we could get this fun story done. You can find The Distance on Apple Podcasts, on Google Play Music, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. We’re on Twitter. I’m @VelocityWong, Shaun is @shildner, that’s S H I L D N E R, and The Distance the podcast is @distancemag, that’s at distance M A G. 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.

Enter the dot matrix

Illustration by Nate Otto

Troy Henikoff was a college student in 1984 when he wrote his first program, a piece of software to help his grandfather’s steel warehouse manage their inventory. That summer project led Troy to start his own software consulting business a couple years later. This is an atypical Distance story about beginnings, endings and unexpected legacies.


Transcript

WAILIN: Troy Henikoff describes himself as an unintentional entrepreneur. Today he’s a well-known figure in Chicago’s tech scene, but when he began dabbling in computer programming and setting up his own business, there was no established startup culture for him to absorb. No networking events, no hoodies, no cliches about hustle or crushing it or changing the world. Troy’s story starts in 1984, at his grandfather’s steel warehouse on Chicago’s south side. He had just finished his sophomore year of college.

TROY HENIKOFF: So that summer when I got to Chicago, I was given a bunch of tasks to get done, all the things that they hadn’t gotten around to, so getting quotations to get the roof fixed on the warehouse. The air conditioner in the office wasn’t working well. I had to find someone who could repair this like antique air conditioner. It was 1984 and my uncle actually was the one who said, “You know, these computers, these PCs are getting to be powerful. Maybe we can move our inventory from index cards” — literally three-by-five cards — ”onto a computer.”

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. Today’s episode is a little different from the kinds of stories we usually do. For starters, we’ve never featured a tech entrepreneur on The Distance, mostly because I’m more drawn to things like embalming fluid and tofu. But I really wanted to tell Troy’s story. So stick around, you won’t be disappointed.

ROSA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Rosa, 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.

TROY: There used to be computer stores. There was ComputerLand and Entre, and I went to all these stores and asked, “What software do you have to help me manage inventory?” And it was all software designed for what you’d think of a hardware store. You have a certain type of product—a hammer, a screw—and you’d have a quantity of that product, and when you ran low, you’d order more of that product. The problem was, in my grandfather’s business, every single thing that came in the door, they did a chemical analysis of it to find out exactly how much chromium and zinc and nickel was in the steel. When people needed specialty steel, they’d call them and say, “What do you have that’s high nickel, low chromium?” So they never replaced inventory with something like it. Everything was unique, and so none of these software programs worked. And I was about to give up and I was at a ComputerLand and I saw a guy entering into an inventory system for them and I said, “Well, what program is that?” And he said, “Oh, I wrote that. That’s in DBase.” I said, “Well, what’s DBase?” And he started telling me about it and he’s like, “Let me show you the code.” And he did and it looked really similar to Pascal. And so I went back to my grandfather and my uncle and I said, I don’t think there’s a program out there that’ll do what you need it to do, but I think I can write one.

WAILIN: Troy had taken one computer science class at Brown University, where he was studying mechanical engineering. That class was in Pascal, so he felt like he could figure out Dbase. The next step was to actually buy a computer.

TROY: I just went to the Yellow Pages and started calling and trying to get the best deal I could ’cause I was afraid it was too expensive and my grandfather wouldn’t pay for it. And so finally, I found this place called MPK Computing and this guy named Michael, and he had the best price by about a thousand dollars, really cheaper. It was a PC with a hard drive, an external thing called a Bernoulli box made by Iomega with external hard drives, um, a printer, a monitor and a copy of Dbase.

WAILIN: The guy who sold Troy the computer was named Michael Krasny, and he delivered the system from the trunk of his car. It cost $6,000. Troy studied the Dbase manual and started working on the inventory program. When he got stuck, he called Michael for help. Troy got it done in four weeks.

TROY: I worked really late nights and long hours, but I got it running. And by the time I went back to school, it was working. It was printing out their inventory. It was managing the inventory. They were afraid to go entirely onto the computer, so what they had happen was the secretary — they had secretaries back then — would enter the steel as it came in and it would literally print out three-by-five cards that would go in the card file, which is how the salespeople were used to accessing the data. Except this time, instead of scribbling stuff out and erasing what was on the file when you sold stuff, it would get entered into the computer and a new card would get printed out.

WAILIN: The next summer, after his junior year, Troy got another software job through a connection of his father’s. He wrote a program for a manufacturer of EKG electrodes to track raw materials and finished products, and he bought the computer from the same guy, Michael at MPK Computing. Troy went back to Brown for his last year, and then it was time to graduate. He had a mechanical engineering degree but was unsure what he wanted to do with it.

TROY: You’re a mechanical engineer, what could be cooler than designing submarines and helicopters? So I was interviewing with General Dynamics and Sikorsky Aircraft and actually I got a job offer from General Dynamics and they were so excited. And you walked into this building that was just seven floors of football fields filled with cubes. It was horrible and you know, the manager sat in a little bigger cube at the front of the football field filled with cubes and he proceeded to try to woo me by telling me about this amazing project he had just worked on and how he had spent 18 months working on it and it was amazing. He had designed a hinge for a submarine door for 18 months. I couldn’t run out of there fast enough.

WAILIN: Troy had another offer, from a small software consulting firm in Boston called DesignOptions. He liked the vibe of that company much better than General Dynamics, but he realized he wanted to be in Chicago.

TROY: So I just turned to the only person I knew in the computer industry in Chicago, which was the person I’d bought our PCs from in the last two years, this guy named Michael. I told him the long story, I got this job at DesignOptions but I want to be in Chicago. Is there a DesignOptions in Chicago? And he says, “No, you should start one.” And I laughed out loud on the phone. And he said, “No, no, no, I’m serious. Why wouldn’t do it? You’re 21 years old, you have no mortgage, you have no car payments, no kids. You have the power of zero. The worst thing that could happen is you’d hate it and six months from now, you’d be 22, looking for a job. By the way, my company’s growing. I have four employees. I need a new accounting system. I’ve seen the work you’ve done in the last two summers. I thought I’d get a job cleaning up after this dumb college kid. I’ll be your first customer.”

WAILIN: Troy moved home and into his parents’ suburban basement. He had about a thousand dollars, which was well short of the three thousand dollars he needed to buy a computer. But he figured he would work on his clients’ computers. So he paid a visit to customer number one, MPK Computing.

TROY: I knock on Michael’s door. He says, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I’m here to talk to you about your accounting system.” He said, “You mean my new accounting system? I just bought a Unix based one. It’s right here.” He had totally forgotten and he had gone out and bought an accounting system. So I lost my first customer before I was in business. It was definitely disappointing, but I wasn’t going to do this because I was going to write that one system. I was going to do this because I wanted to have a career in building things. You know, it was a very slow couple of months trying to get that first customer and the first customer came to me through — it was actually a friend of my parents, who we’re talking at dinner and said, “Oh, I have a friend who needs a computer system. You know, maybe Troy can help him.”

WAILIN: Troy’s first customer was a man named Ben, who specialized in doing payrolls for musicians. Troy bought a computer, wrote a custom payroll processing program, and delivered the computer with the software to Ben. Then he got a second job writing a program for an investment firm. That client had a bunch of PCs at their office, including one dedicated to Troy’s project, so he camped out at the investment firm and worked the same hours as the employees there. But it meant he couldn’t take on a second client. So he finally got his own computer. Once again, he went to Michael at MPK Computing.

TROY: January of ’87. I was probably three or four months in and bought what was an original IBM PC with a 20 megabyte hard drive, which seemed huge. Just to put it in perspective, so that would store three photos from my iPhone and it would be full, three photos. And it had a color monitor. I sprung for the color monitor. It was probably around $4,000 for all of that. That was a big leap because it was every dollar that I had made so far and it felt like a commitment. Now it’s not going from something like, oh I’ll do this for a couple of weeks or I’ll do this for a couple of — like, I’m gonna do this.

WAILIN: Troy’s next customer was a man named Larry, who had a business running auctions of rare classical LPs. Troy wrote a software program for Larry to manage his auctions, and from there, his technology consulting firm kept growing. Troy called it Specialized Systems and Software. He brought in a partner, a friend of his from high school and college, and moved out of his parents’ basement into his own office. Meanwhile, his old friend Michael’s business was growing rapidly too, and he renamed it from MPK Computing to Computer Discount Warehouse, or CDW. The company would later go public and hit a billion dollars in sales, and they finally became clients of Troy’s.

TROY: In 1992, so we’re six years into it, had about a dozen professionals, having a ton of fun, had just beat out Andersen Consulting, which became Accenture, for Hyatt’s worldwide purchasing system and we’re doing great. We’re having a ball. We had done probably 10 or 12 projects for CDW. We had done work for Abbott Labs, McDonald’s. And we liked the bigger clients. The bigger clients tended to be bigger projects, more money over a longer period of time, so it was easier to schedule and manage.

WAILIN: One of those bigger companies was Medline, a manufacturer of medical products like bedpans and hospital linens. Around 1992, they wanted to digitize their old paper invoices, so Troy went to the Medline offices in the northern suburbs of Chicago for a meeting.

TROY: It was in the boardroom at Medline, the big boardroom, and there were probably about 10 people around the table and I was up at the front, giving a little presentation to try to build credibility. And as I was doing it, I talked about how we had just completed Hyatt’s worldwide purchasing system. And the CEO of Medline, who was one of the founders, Jim Mills, stopped right then. And he pounded his fist on the table and he said, “You did purchasing for hotels? Well, then you could do purchasing for hospitals. Hospitals are just like hotels, only the people, they don’t feel so good.” And I looked at him and I said, “Well yeah, of course, I’m sure we could.” He said, “Okay, I want to hire you.” And I said, “Well, who do I talk to to write a proposal for the purchasing system?” He said, “No, no, no, you’re not listening to me. I want to hire YOU. I want you to come here, work for me.” And I said, “Well, I can’t. I have partners, I have employees, I have customers.” And he said, “Okay, then I want to buy your company. How much?” And I didn’t know how to respond. I looked at him and I said, “Well, it’s not for sale.” And he got angry. He said, “Everything’s for sale. Everything has a price, how much?” And we hadn’t contemplated any of this and we said, “It’s not for sale.” And so he asked me a couple of questions, how many people we had, how much revenue we had, and he made me an offer right there on the spot and I said, “Well, thank you, but we’re really not interested in selling.” And he stormed out and then his brother who was the president, John Mills, kind of followed him out and then a couple of the other people around the table, and there were two people left — and I wanted the business. I didn’t care if it was the business we came for, doing the invoice scanning system, or if it was doing this new purchasing system, I didn’t even know what was involved but I’m sure we could write it. But literally I was asking people, “Who do I talk to about this proposal?” And they’re like, “I don’t know, we’ll get back to you,” and I clearly had disrupted the entire meeting.

WAILIN: Troy went back to his office. That afternoon, he got a call from John Mills, the president of Medline.

TROY: And John said, ‘You know, my brother was serious. He really wants to buy your business.” And he made another offer and I said, “John, I’m really flattered. That’s really nice, but we’re not for sale.” And we really weren’t. We weren’t thinking about selling. I mean, we weren’t building the company because we wanted to build something and flip it. We were building the company because we were having a lot of fun. And then he called me back again the next day. He said, “You know, you’d be able to play in a much bigger ball field.” And I remember him, he said, “You’re playing in Little League now. I want you to come play in the major leagues.”

WAILIN: That pitch from John Mills caught Troy’s attention and finally, he and his partners decided to sell Specialized Systems and Software to Medline.

TROY: It was about loving what we do. It took a decent price and arrangement for us to decide to sell. So we would not have sold had it been a cash-only deal. Part of the attraction of selling was we got a lot more resources and we felt we’d be able to do more of this fun stuff, and so, you know, we went from 12 people to 55 people over the course of a couple years. John was right. We went from the little leagues to the major leagues in a very real way and that was as attractive, if not more attractive, than the cash.

WAILIN: Troy’s business, Specialized Systems and Software, became Medline’s software division, and he negotiated the deal so that they could retain an entrepreneurial feel. They had their own office, in a separate suburb from Medline’s corporate headquarters, and they got a share of the profits they generated. Troy stayed at Medline for five years. After that, he founded or ran a series of companies. More recently, he’s become an investor and a mentor to other entrepreneurs. He founded an accelerator program that’s like a three-month bootcamp with funding for Chicago tech startups. Today he’s managing director at MATH Venture Partners, a venture capital firm he helped establish in 2015.

TROY: When I started that first business, I had no idea what I was doing. I literally did not know a balance sheet from an income statement. What I was doing was going into businesses and asking lots and lots of questions. And when things didn’t make sense, I asked more questions and I asked more questions because I had to understand how the business worked in order to write a system that would support it. And in hindsight, I probably learned more running that very first business to set me up for what I do today — coaching and helping entrepreneurs, investing in companies — than anything else I could have done. Because I got to look under the covers. I got to see everything about how businesses worked. I saw their accounting, I saw their finances, I understood their processes and it was such an array of different businesses.

WAILIN: I know this isn’t a typical Distance story. We usually feature independent businesses that have been running for over 25 years. Troy’s consulting firm is long gone, having been absorbed into Medline in 1992. But I wanted to tell you his story because some of the software he wrote way back in the 80s lives on in two of his earliest customers. One of these business owners is Ben, his first-ever client, who specializes in doing payrolls for musicians.

TROY: A bandleader would have done a gig at a wedding and then would get a check for $2,000 and would call up Ben and say, “Hey Ben, I did a gig, it was $2,000. I want you to pay Joey $150, Mary $200, and the rest of it, you know, send back to me in a check. And they would send him the check for $2,000. He would do all of the payroll, the withholding, union reports, and whatever was left over, he got his fees out of it and he returned the rest to the band leader. He called it TEMPO and I forgot what TEMPO stands for.

BEN: The Equitable Musicians Payroll Organization.

WAILIN: The other business owner is Larry, who runs auctions of rare classical LPs.

TROY: Larry was a reference from…I don’t remember.

LARRY: I don’t actually know. I had to ask my wife. I knew it was through my wife and it was through an acquaintance of hers who simply heard that I was in need of a computer system for a small business, and he said in effect, “I know a guy,” and the guy he knew was Troy. I sell out of print classical recordings. I’ve been doing it since 1978, so in my 40th year now.

WAILIN: Ben and Larry started their businesses when Troy was a teenager, and they’re still running their companies on the software Troy wrote for them. In the case of Ben, who handles payroll for musicians, he’s even kept the same hardware.

BEN: Dot matrix pin feed, you know what that is?

WAILIN: We’ll be bringing you Ben and Larry’s stories on the next episode of The Distance, coming up in two weeks.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Look for us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. if you have suggestions of businesses we should feature, you can email me at tips@thedistance.com or you can tweet at us @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. 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.

The Business Cycle, Part 2

Illustration by Nate Otto

In 2010, as Worksman Cycles was emerging from the recession and ready to grow again, the maker of heavy-duty cycles saw an exciting opportunity to supply the bikes for New York City’s bike share program. But the city rejected Worksman’s proposal, and that disappointment lay the groundwork for the company to relocate to South Carolina, leaving behind the city it had been in since its founding in 1898.

https://art19.com/shows/the-distance-podcast/episodes/83a087aa-d3fe-477e-9a8b-f8346f524c40

This is the second part of our story on Worksman Cycles. If you missed the first episode, which explores the company’s history and commitment to keep manufacturing bikes in the U.S., be sure to catch up!


Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Hi everyone, it’s Wailin. This is the second episode in our two-parter about Worksman Cycles, so you should go back and listen to the previous episode if you haven’t already. It’s about how Worksman found its niche making industrial cycles and kept its manufacturing in the U.S. even as the rest of the American cycle industry moved overseas. And now here’s the second part.

Worksman Cycles was founded in 1898 in New York. Its first factory stood where the original World Trade Center would later be built. The company’s industrial tricycles and bicycles are used in factories worldwide, but they’re also a constant presence on New York city streets as delivery vehicles. The vending division at Worksman invented the stainless steel hot dog cart. It doesn’t get much more New York than that. Wayne Sosin, the company’s president, grew up in Queens. But in 2015, Worksman decided to migrate south.

WAYNE SOSIN: So how does a company that’s been in New York City for 118 years end up in Conway, South Carolina? Now that’s a good question.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Worksman Cycles’ desire to stay and grow in America meant leaving the only city it’s ever known.

JANICE: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Janice, a customer support rep 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.

WAILIN: We’re in the company’s factory in Ozone Park, Queens, It’s a century-old building that once made hats, and later birthday candles. Worksman has been there since 1979. At the time I visited, in late March, they were still making some wheels at this factory while they gradually shifted those operations to South Carolina. Here’s Bruce Weinreb, who handles sales and marketing at Worksman.

BRUCE WEINREB: We’re making bikes in such a traditional way that if you walked into this building in 1979, or if it was a bicycle factory, 1940, it would have been very much exactly how we’re doing it today. So you can see we’re lacing wheels by hand.

Truing is when you make a wheel so it doesn’t wobble side to side. Every one of our wheels gets trued by hand. We’re talking many, many thousands of wheels every year.

WAILIN: At the new factory in Conway, South Carolina, the work of making wheels and balancing them is done largely on modern equipment.

WAYNE: The first machine places the spoke into the rim so that the nipple of the spoke gets tightened onto the rim to a certain tolerance, such a good tolerance that it can go through this robot over here and this robot will do the balancing of the wheel robotically, so if you watch, you see the wheel is being measured right now for its true-ness.

Once we have the automated system working, it’s probably about 40 percent more efficient, which is a huge amount, I don’t have to tell you that, but we make so many unusual wheels and we do a lot of small runs that sometimes re-setting up a machine to run 20 wheels, it doesn’t pay. The setup time is so lengthy that by the time you set it up, you could have done it by hand. So we’re doing a combination of old and new.

WAILIN: It’s not like Wayne just decided one day to go shopping for a more modern manufacturing facility and decided on Conway. The story of why Worksman left New York actually starts in Dallas, Texas, in 2010. Wayne was in town for the red carpet launch of that year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, the department store’s annual catalog of over-the-top, outrageously expensive holiday gifts. Worksman had a $4,500 adult tricycle in the catalog that year, featuring fabric by fashion designer Tory Burch. While Wayne was in Dallas, he called aerospace company Lockheed Martin, one of his customers, and asked if he could visit their facility.

WAYNE: They put me on the back of a golf cart—not a tricycle, but the back of a golf cart—and they gave me an official tour that took an hour and a half and they were showing me amazing things, the most modern factory I’d ever been in in my life. And the day I was there, the Kuwaiti airforce was being trained and flying F16s and I was outside watching them do touch and gos. It was amazing. So you go through this incredibly ultra-modern robotic plant and we saw our tricycles all over the place and when I’m done, a naval official is waiting for me. He says, “Are you Mr. Sosin? How’d you like the tour?” I said, “Well, to be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting this kind of VIP treatment. I can’t thank you enough.” He goes, “Well, do you want to know why we gave you that VIP tour, as you call it? We couldn’t run this plant as well as we do without Worksman tricycles.” And that reinvigorated me so because over the years, we’ve always been told oh you know, your technology, it’s so old-fashioned, who’s going to use this? There’s all sorts of modern things. Segway came out, oh they’re gonna cook your clock and you’re not gonna have tricycles anymore. And then I have the most modern facility at the time in the country tell me they can’t run the plant without Worksman tricycles? It just got me so motivated, and that’s one of the reasons that we knew we had to take the next step to grow the company.

WAILIN: By then, 2010, Worksman was coming out of the recession and seeing business pick up again. Wayne felt like the company was bumping up against its production capacity and other constraints in New York.

WAYNE: Taxes are high, getting trucks in and out of our facility was never easy, and we said, “Well, maybe we should be looking at something else one day.” But that’s a very big decision to make. Well, at the same time or shortly thereafter, New York City announced that they were looking for a company to run their bike share program. And we said, “Bingo, this is it.”

WAILIN: Worksman had already supplied the cycles for bike sharing programs in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well as on college campuses. Bike share was a good fit for Worksman because it makes industrial strength cycles. One of their bicycles can hold up to 500 pounds. Wayne sells bikes to overweight riders who need something stronger than what other companies make, and upgraded tires on Worksman tricycles can roll over metal debris on factory floors without popping.

WAYNE: We make heavy duty bikes and that’s what bike share is all about. New York City at the time said they were looking to deploy 50,000 bicycles within 6 years, which would just be an incredible growth opportunity for our company and we really wanted it in the worst way. We went ahead and put the proposal together and immediately, within three weeks, got a letter of rejection, which we did not deserve. But it was a huge, huge turnoff to us. The city we’d been in for 114 years at the time really shunned us. We weren’t shy about telling the press it didn’t happen and that we were treated pretty disrespectfully, in our opinion and I came out with a quote, something to the effect of, “Well, I guess New York City doesn’t appreciate our 60 manufacturing jobs. Maybe one day they’ll lose them.” It was sort of just an idle rant, if you will, but it was from the heart. I was, we were really hurt by this. So anyway, we started getting contacted by some states saying, “Gee, we heard you’re not so happy in New York. We’d love to have Worksman Cycles in Virginia, in Tennessee, in Kentucky.” If you can bring jobs to a state, they would do a lot of things to help you to make that happen. Well, we became very open-minded at this point. We looked within New York City. There was— Real estate was unavailable or unaffordable, I should say. And then you start looking at real estate that’s one-tenth the price in these states. In fact, the state of Kentucky literally offered us a building for a dollar. If we employed x amount of people, we could lease the building for a dollar a year and buy it for a dollar at the end. Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development called one day and said, “Gee, we’d love to meet with you guys. We think it’s a great place to manufacture product.” And I’d been to Myrtle Beach so many times on golf trips and vacations and just didn’t see that as being a place that had a manufacturing base, but I was certainly open-minded.

WAILIN: Conway, South Carolina is about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach, in the same county. And if Wayne thought he had gotten the VIP treatment at the Lockheed Martin plant in Dallas back in 2010, he really got courted in Myrtle Beach. There was a technical college in the area and local officials said they would help train welders and machinists for Worksman. They offered tax incentives. And real estate costs were a fraction of what they were in New York. Wayne found a building in Conway that used to be a tobacco drying warehouse and a printing facility for a t-shirt company. It had a concrete floor and high ceilings and the right amount of square footage.

WAYNE: And all the city officials for this little company, Worksman Cycles, came to visit me and wanted to meet with me and invited me to see their operations. And it was the warmest feeling that you ever got of people who really wanted you to come even though, to be honest, we’re a small company. We only promised 40-some odd jobs and they made me feel like we were General Motors trying to come down here. That’s how they treated us. When we were able to locate this building, everything else fell into place. Hey, if it means moving out of New York to lower some of your real estate costs and get some tax incentives, you do what you need to do to keep the company going on the right path.

WAILIN: The Worksman factory in New York is just under 100,000 square feet, but that’s split into three stories with the kind of odd corners and columns that come with a 100-year-old building. In Conway, the building is just one story.

WAYNE: Our analysis is you get about 20 percent more space out of the one story building and you save a lot of time in material movement. We spent an awful lot of time moving things in elevators and it’s very wasteful, especially when you’re dealing with steel, which is very heavy, so always the logistics of doing the manufacturing in a three-story building was challenging, to say the least. For all the years I’ve been in the business, we’ve had a three-story building and we’re telling companies around the world, “You should use our tricycles to get around. It’s more efficient than walking.” Well, in a three-story building, it’s not really practical to ride a tricycle, as you can imagine. But here, we use them constantly. We have five tricycles assigned to different people who have mobile tasks. There are Worksman tricycles for the first time in our own factory. We used to tell companies, “If your building’s about 200,000 square feet, you really need a tricycle. If it’s a million square feet, you need lots of tricycles.” But we never realized that in a 100,000-square foot building, you could really use a tricycle in a much smaller space than we ever really had marketed as such because like I said, the five tricycles we have here, we use constantly. When we tell companies now that they should use trikes, we can say it firsthand.

WAILIN: In Conway, Worksman had the ability to design a factory that would address the shortcomings of the New York space and give the company room to grow. In New York, Worksman made its cycles to order because it had neither excess production capacity nor space to put them. In Conway, the company can actually build up an inventory of finished cycles. And the manufacturing processes got an update, with robotic welding equipment and a new powder coat system for painting the cycles. Many of the workers are also new.

WAYNE: We’re up and running for less than a year, well under a year, as far as what you’re seeing now. We’re probably at this capacity only for about 3 months, the capacity you’re seeing now, and virtually everybody here is new. We’ve had to train an entire staff who had never worked in a bicycle factory before because let’s face it, there are no bicycle factories in the U.S., so we had to train everybody from wheel builders to powder coaters. But it’s been great because in a way, everybody who came here started out “Let’s see what you can do.” And now the person running our powder coat system was the person we first hired to unload trucks and he’s doing a marvelous job at that. The young man who’s running our wheel-building equipment, we got him at a vocational school, didn’t know that he’d have this skill level. We just thought he’d be somebody putting tires onto bicycles, and he’s doing a wonderful job of working our most complicated machine. It’s a really eclectic, interesting mix of people, men and women from all over the country. And not everybody’s southern but the ones that are have taught me that the plural of “y’all” is “all y’all,” and they’ve taught me that “a piece down the road” is a lot further than you might think. They’ve taught me where yonder is, it’s somewhere over there. So we have the Southern influence, but it’s actually interesting because I would not say that it’s a very Southern oriented overall staff, it’s probably 50–50.

WAILIN: Worksman gave all of its employees in New York the opportunity to relocate to South Carolina. Several workers did move to Myrtle Beach, although fewer than Wayne hoped. Other Worksman employees found jobs elsewhere or will be leaving as New York cycle manufacturing operations wind down over the next year. Still others were reassigned to Worksman’s vending division, the part of the business that makes stainless steel hot dog carts and outfits food trucks with professional kitchens. That division will stay in the old building in Queens. But most of the facility will be emptied out, and Wayne didn’t just want to leave an abandoned shell.

WAYNE: We had an opportunity to sell off the building and most of the interest we got was from self storage buildings, and they offered a lot of money to buy the building and when I realized that in a building our size, they would employ approximately five people, it was a huge turnoff to me and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. We didn’t want to be hypocrites.

WAILIN: Wayne found a company that divides old factory buildings into small spaces and rents them to makers of physical stuff.

WAYNE: You have to produce something or you cannot rent from them. I went to visit one of their facilities. It was so cool. You see everything from furniture makers to artists to small welding operations, but every one of these small, let’s say thousand, 2,000-square foot facilities was making something. And I said okay, that’s pretty cool, so actually in our building, there’s going to be more people employed there than we ever employed there and all the people employed there are making something.

WAILIN: Worksman Cycles depends on people making things. A small welding operation in 2,000 square feet isn’t a customer for a Worksman tricycle, but maybe one day it’ll be a big welding operation in a 200,000-square foot factory.

WAYNE: My son went to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Now the last time I’d been in Bethlehem was probably 15 years earlier, when it was the most vibrant steel plant in the country. It was a city within a city and they must have had 200 Worksman Cycles deployed in the facility in Bethlehem and I remember going there, it was just such a cool place to see, molten steel and it was cool. Well, I went back with my son 15 years later to look at the school and I passed this rusted out nothing. Even telling you now, I get tearful because it was so sobering to see that. You could drive for miles by the old Bethlehem steel plant and it was nothing, it was zero. It was rusted-out structures, not a person there, it was horrible, tumbleweed practically growing if they had tumbleweed in Pennsylvania, that’s what it would look like. It was heartbreaking to me. Well, that’s a customer we’re never getting back. Never. You know, it was replaced by a casino and a hotel. It’s not the same. There were 40,000 people at one point who worked in Bethlehem at Bethlehem Steel and all the supporting companies that supported them, all the suppliers, the ripple effect that we’re talking about. We were just a tiny little cog in that, but you know what? That was a good customer for us. We’ll never get it back. If there’s no manufacturing, yeah, we’ll find other places to sell our tricycles or bicycles for bike share. We’ll reach out to consumers, which we hope to become a much bigger part of our business. But the backbone of our business is American manufacturing. And if they’re not manufacturing, we’re not selling bikes.

WAILIN: Worksman’s role as both a manufacturer and a supplier to manufacturers gives it a unique vantage point on the state of American industry. Like other factories, Worksman will be relying more on automation in years to come. That means fewer humans in the plant, and Worksman needs people riding its cycles. These dynamics are constantly in play, and Wayne watches them carefully.

WAYNE: We have to see American factories successful and if that takes more robotics, well, so be it. Robots can’t ride tricycles, but at least there are other people that are working in the plant. So yeah, I don’t think a lot of jobs are ever coming back. I’m realistic enough to know that, but I’d rather take half a pie than none of the pie.

WAILIN: The story of Worksman is about staying and leaving. It’s worked hard to stay in the U.S., even when doing so didn’t seem to make economic sense, but it had to move away from its hometown to make a long-term bet in a new American city. It turns out it is possible to leave New York, even if you’re a century-old company or a guy from Queens who never imagined himself living in the south.

WAYNE: It’s just a whole different feeling that there’s a support system behind you. It’s really more than the incentives—the real estate costs and the cost of living being so reasonable and a nice facility to have and a pleasant place to live, so it all sort of fell into place. So it was never really the written plan to end up in Conway, South Carolina, but I have to tell you, through that whole series of events, I couldn’t be happier with where we ended up. In the last two years, I’ve traveled back and forth to New York 42 times. I wake up in the morning very often, have to open my eyes and remember, am I in South Carolina or New York? But other than that, it’s pretty cool.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can find us all over the Internet. We are on Twitter—actually, we’re not all over the Internet. That’s not true. Because we’re, like, only on Twitter, and we have a website. You can find us on Twitter at @distancemag, that’s @distancemag, and you can also subscribe to our podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. What else am I missing?

SHAUN: We’re a production of Basecamp.

WAILIN: Oh yeah, we are a production of Basecamp. 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.

The Business Cycle, Part 1

Illustration by Nate Otto

Worksman Cycles is the oldest American bicycle manufacturer that still makes its products in the U.S. Founded in New York in 1898, Worksman has outlasted the demise of American cycle manufacturing by focusing on a niche category: heavy duty tricycles that factory workers use for hauling equipment and getting around industrial plants. And Worksman’s president is determined to keep the company in the U.S., even as that commitment has been tested through the years.

https://art19.com/shows/the-distance-podcast/episodes/8b7c4953-3400-4ed4-b974-0fcc863686d2

This is the first of a two-parter about Worksman. The next episode will be out in two weeks, so make sure you’re subscribed to The Distance via Apple Podcasts (nee iTunes Podcasts) or the podcatcher of your choice so you don’t miss it!


Transcript

WAILIN WONG: There are times when a name seems like destiny. Like Thomas Crapper, a famous English plumber from the 19th century, or Usain Bolt, the Olympic sprinter from Jamaica. These names are called aptonyms, and here’s another real-life example, from Queens, New York.

WAYNE SOSIN: The name Worksman is a family name, even though people think we named it because we make work bikes. It’s really a family name.

This is our mover industrial trike. This is the kind of tricycle that you will see in factories like Ford Motor or Michelin Tire, any large, large facility, these are a staple for getting people around. Our industrial trikes and bikes have to be strong. If you’re riding around General Motors carrying a 200-pound tool box on our tricycle, it’s gotta be durable and heavy duty.

Is there a stigma about riding a tricycle? Do you look like grandma? Well, first you can see that a tricycle like this one, that doesn’t look like Grandma’s trike. So in a factory, I think that stigma is going away. It used to be really a negative point that people say I’m not riding that. They want to ride a golf cart or “I’d rather walk than ride a tricycle.” But it’s become more mainstream. So the stigma seems to be disappearing, but it’s been a long uphill battle.

WAILIN: That’s Wayne Sosin, the president of Worksman Cycles, a company that’s faced quite a few uphill battles since it was founded in 1898. It’s the oldest American bicycle manufacturer that’s still making bikes in the U.S. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. We’re going to bring you the story of Worksman Cycles in two parts. On today’s show, how Worksman, a company with deep roots in New York, committed both to a niche product and to the lonely challenge of making that product in America.

TARA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Tara, a designer 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.

BRUCE WEINREB: The original industrial trike was designed to take the place of horse drawn wagons ’cause horses were expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and they left unwanted byproducts. Today, we’re replacing powered carts because they’re expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and leave unwanted byproducts, so it really is circular but the answer is identical — it’s a bicycle, it’s a tricycle.

WAILIN: That’s Bruce Weinreb, who handles sales and marketing for Worksman Cycles. When the company was started in 1898, opening a factory in Manhattan where the original World Trade Center would later be built, the idea was that the three-wheeled cycle was superior to a horse and wagon. Today, the company’s core business is making tricycles for factory workers to haul equipment and get around large plants. If there’s a golf cart being used somewhere, Worksman wants to replace it with a tricycle.

BRUCE: You can imagine a factory that’s building 747s. McDonnell Douglas has a factory outside of Dallas that’s two miles long, a building. So obviously, it would take you a half an hour to walk from one end to the other.

WAILIN: Wayne’s family is also from Queens and was friendly with the Worksmans. In the 1970s, at the behest of his father, who had spotted a Worksman folding bike in a store and wanted to get one for Wayne’s mother, he visited the factory. By then, Worksman had moved from Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

WAYNE: They seemed to have a nice little business over there and they said, “You know, we’re really good at making these bikes. We’re really bad at selling them, and we understand you’re working in sales, you have a good education. Maybe you want to sell bikes?”

WAILIN: But that’s not what Wayne wanted to do. He already had a job he liked in sales for Memorex, the consumer electronics company, and he was going to business school at night.

WAYNE: At the time, I was very young, I was in my 20s, early 20s and I thought I’m gonna be the next big star at Memorex Corporation. They were Fortune 500 company and they were based out in California, and I’d never even been to California. I really wanted to get in their marketing department because I was studying my MBA in marketing and I thought there was a nice little fit there, so for a year every month I typed a report and sent it to the marketing manager at Memorex of my ideas of things that we can do. And I really worked hard at it to try to make a name for myself in the company.

WAILIN: Shortly after his visit to Worksman, Wayne flew out to California for a business trip. It looked like it was going to be his big break.

WAYNE: I’m going to meet the people in top management and I’d just gotten married and I told my wife, I said, “Get ready because I think we’re gonna end up moving to California because when they meet me, this is all gonna happen.” Anyway, I went to this meeting in California and the marketing manager did not even know my name, had never read one of my reports, and there were probably 75 people like me doing the same job I was throughout the country and I really left there kind of down in the dumps and realizing that this wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, to make a name for myself. And I really thought I had good ideas. And I came back and I started thinking about Worksman Cycles and I said, “Gee, if a big company doesn’t even know who I am, maybe a little company, I could put my ideas to work.” I decided to accept the position at Worksman Cycles and walk away from the Fortune 500 company, and I think most people I know thought I was crazy, but I didn’t. I liked what the company was making, I loved the idea of, you know, tricycles being used in factories. I saw opportunities to take it to the consumer, that there were products that can go to a consumer market, and I saw the fact that they were really willing to give a very young person a lot of rope to work with in terms of ideas.

WAILIN: It wouldn’t be the last time Wayne made a decision that caused others around him to scratch their heads. But his move to Worksman set his career in a new, promising direction. He headed up sales and became a part owner of the company in 1987 alongside the founder’s granddaughter and her husband. And he had early success with his idea to push into the consumer market.

WAYNE: We started making adult recreation tricycles. As a matter of fact, at the time, we were able to get into the Sears catalog and that was a big deal, and so the business was growing, slowly but surely at a very conservative path.

WAILIN: As the company grew through the 1980s, Wayne learned of a factory in Brooklyn that made children’s bicycles, which would be a new market for Worksman. The plant was available to lease and had updated equipment like an automated paint system and robotic welding. Wayne jumped at the opportunity.

WAYNE: We started a brand called Spiral USA and these bicycles were 12 inch, 16 inch and 20 inch children’s bicycles. We’d get into the mass business and it was very exciting because all of a sudden, companies like JC Penney and Sears and Montgomery Ward were really interested in who we were and taking meetings with us. And it was exciting; you’re seeing the buyer from Sears and Roebuck, the biggest bike seller in the world at the time, and they’re interested in what you have. Toys R Us, Child World, we met with all of them.

WAILIN: But after the initial excitement wore off, Wayne got worried. Children’s bikes were a commodity and the big retail chains were interested only in getting the lowest price possible. During a business trip to Chicago, one of Wayne’s sales reps told him a story.

WAYNE: He said, I used to be in the plush business and I was a rep, and I used to rep plush for three factories to all the big guys, and we sold a lot of stuffed animals. I made a comfortable living and I had a good life. And one day, one of the factories told me they were looking to retire and they thought I’d be a good fit to buy the factory and be the whole nine yards: Make it, sell it, box it, ship it, you know, have a real company. It became so tempting I decided to do it. And he goes, to the whole world I was this big shot. I was out there, selling product to Sears and trade shows with big booths and I was this big deal. But my wife knew better. I’d come home at night crying, knowing that I was in financial problems, why did I do this, this is more than I can take on. I was making a good living as a rep. What did I need this responsibility for? He said, I sort of feel, Wayne, that that’s what you’re doing with children’s bikes. Do what you’re good at. You don’t have to be the biggest. And that was a really good piece of advice that I got. I knew in his heart he was right. We closed down the children’s bikes factory and got back to what we’re good at, making industrial grade bikes and trikes, making niche products for consumers. It was one of those things where we had to come to the realization that we’re in a market that’s never going to become huge. We understand that. We’re not gonna become the next Apple or IBM. We’re just Worksman Cycles and in our own little world, we do a great job and we have a great reputation, so we don’t have to be the next great thing.

WAILIN: Here was what Worksman was good at: industrial cycles and certain kinds of consumer cycles, like sturdy two-wheel cruisers for adults and tricycles for riders with balance issues. And there was a third niche category, one that linked Worksman with New York and American food history. Here’s Bruce Weinreb.

BRUCE: In the 1930s, a new ice cream company called Good Humor had an idea that they would sell ice cream from tricycles with an insulated cabinet so they went to Schwinn and they said could you make this? And they said no, not really, but there’s a company in New York that can.

WAILIN: At the time, Worksman was still being run by its founder, Morris Worksman.

BRUCE: And he had a very heavy Russian accent and he was a little—he was a little uneasy in communicating with corporate types, so he brought in his young son, who was in high school, but he put him in a suit and said, “This is my vice president.” And they asked for a lot of tricycles, way more than they could make and the son, who was Irving Worksman, was smart enough not to translate it correctly for his father and he said, “No problem, no problem, just give us the contract and we’ll get it done.” and the father was like, don’t worry about it, and they did and that became an iconic American product, the Good Humor ice cream tricycle.

WAILIN: Worksman made the Good Humor carts for several decades, starting in the 1930s. That primed the company for an important expansion in the 1990s. One of Worksman’s customers was a local company called Admar, another long-running business with deep roots in New York.

WAYNE: Back in the day, they were the original stainless steel hot dog cart manufacturer. Virtually every cart you saw in the street in New York in the 50s and 60s was made by that company. And that company is owned by the Beller family. Mr. Beller, the father, senior Beller, he was looking to retire and his son Jack was taking it over and it was a challenging business and then we were talking more and more with Jack and we decided to buy out that company and bring that in. So we expanded our business by getting into that end of the business in the 1990s, so it kind of made us a more well rounded company and also didn’t put all our eggs in one basket, so we’re not just in the bicycle business.

WAILIN: Unlike Worksman’s foray into kids bikes, food vending carts turned out to be a good business. Buying Admar in 1996 put Worksman in a position, years later, to take advantage of New York’s burgeoning food truck scene.

BRUCE: Still to this day, the guy who comes in just to buy a hot dog cart, is usually a newly arrived immigrant. But he knows how to cook and he has the food from his nation. It used to be hot dogs. Now you go on the streets and you see literally every ethnicity selling from carts and the food, the best food, absolutely the best food. The food truck people come in here and they have a 50-page business plan and they’re Columbia MBAs and they have investors and backing and it’s a totally different type of person.

WAILIN: As the mobile food scene’s evolved from ice cream and hot dog carts to fancy trucks, Worksman has also adapted. It can take a van and build a professional kitchen inside, everything from freezers to grills to deep fryers. And the expertise in making vending carts and food trucks translates into other kinds of mobile businesses.

BRUCE: We also just did a truck that’s a rolling barber shop, and what he wanted to do is have a huge picture window on the side so people could see, and it’s brilliant because he’ll go to a busy spot by a subway in the Bronx and he’ll park his truck at 5:30 and people line up to get haircuts.

WAILIN: The new vending division added diversity to a portfolio that was under threat from global economic forces. Chinese-made bicycles entered the U.S. and brands like Schwinn, Huffy, Murray and Roadmaster couldn’t compete with the cheaper imports. During the 80s and 90s, these iconic American bicycle makers packed up and moved to China. Their suppliers relocated overseas too. In Worksman’s factory in Ozone Park, Queens, where it’s been since 1979, you’ll see a bicycle on display that serves as a reminder of what the domestic industry once was.

BRUCE: We were cleaning up a few years ago and we found these two boxes, three boxes that were buried. And it was new, unused bikes from 1984 and so we decided to keep one. You see there are things here…the famous Hunt Wilde finger grips, they have little grooves for your fingers. The Bendix brake, Bendix Company, so it’s kind of a little museum of things that are no longer available so we decided we’re not gonna sell it, we’re just gonna put it on display.

WAYNE: We had made a decision and it was a hard decision that we believed in making bikes in America. We believed in our workforce, we believed that you could still do it here. We were in a niche market, so it wasn’t a high volume market. We didn’t want our fate controlled in China. And as a result, we made a very difficult and at the time questionable decision that the whole industry kind of laughed at us, and we just said no, we’re staying here, and we’re gonna make it happen here. Well, we did do that, but we had to really expand our import at that point. Otherwise, we’re out of business.

WAILIN: Worksman had a few advantages. Unlike other American cycle companies making commodity products at mass scale, Worksman had found success and sustainability in making a specialty product at a lower volume. But they couldn’t buy all of their components domestically.

WAYNE: The supply chain strategic decisions were difficult. You had to go to Asia to get things. You had no choice. At a certain point, Japan became a real powerhouse in bicycle manufacturing and components. Mr. Worksman, shortly after World War II, started traveling abroad to look for better bicycle parts than he could find in the U.S.

WAILIN: That’s Irving Worksman, the son of the founder.

WAYNE: And he forged a very dear friendship like brothers with a Japanese agent. Now if you think about that, following World War II, and now we’re talking we’re only in the 1960s, so there was not a lot of time separating these events. We were importing certain products pretty early in the game, which helped us down the road because we forged really good relationships in Asia and let’s face it, once the U.S. closed its manufacturing, we needed those relationships.

We do try to support as much domestic as we can, so things like our handlebars, our seat posts we make. Our solid tires are made in the United States. Our cabinets, our platforms are all made here. The frames are welded here. But the tires, the rims, the spokes, the chain, and seats, they’re imported but we hope one day if the American industry does come back, that so will the suppliers that make the product.

WAILIN: Worksman’s stake in the health of American manufacturing goes beyond just bicycles or bicycle parts.

WAYNE: Look, here’s the truth. If there’s no manufacturing in America, we’re out of business. Who are our customers? They’re manufacturers. One of the reasons we didn’t go to China like everybody else is we hoped, and I think it’s come to be true, that the factories that were still here using our tricycles would appreciate the fact that they’re made in America as opposed to being imported from China like every one one of our competitors does, so we felt that that was important. And we’d be hypocritical because we’re counting on the fact that the automotive industry, the steel industry is strong in the U.S. Because the stronger they are, the bigger their factories are. The bigger their factories are, the more tricycles they need. It’s the ripple effect if you’ve ever seen it.

WAILIN: For the last 40 plus years, since Wayne joined Worksman, he’s taken the necessary steps to ensure the company’s growth and stability. He pushed into consumer cycles, got out of making kids bikes and become the supplier of the food cart, a staple of New York life. And in 2015, he made one of his biggest moves yet to secure the future of a company that’s been in New York since its founding in 1898.

WAYNE: So here we are, um, at the Worksman Cycles company in South Carolina.

WAILIN: Worksman moved to a town called Conway in South Carolina, 650 miles away from Queens. On the next episode of The Distance, you’ll hear about the event that drove a wedge between Worksman and its hometown, and what the new factory means for the company’s future. That’s coming up in two weeks.

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Make sure you are subscribed to The Distance on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don’t miss the second part of our story on Worksman Cycles. And special thanks to listener Jared Chadwick for suggesting Worksman as a subject for The Distance. If you know of a business we should cover on the show, email me at tips@thedistance.com or tweet at me @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. 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.

Steeped in History

Dim sum at Nom Wah

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.


Transcript

(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.

Make It Rain

https://gph.is/1UK1ZFa

Matt Stock is a business owner who loves marketing and has embraced the unglamorous job of selling a pretty mundane service: basement waterproofing. He’s tried everything from Yellow Pages to billboards to Internet advertising at U.S. Waterproofing, his 60-year-old family business. But Matt faced one of his greatest challenges as a business owner and a marketer in 2012, when Illinois was hit with a drought.


Illustration by Nate Otto

Transcript

[SOUND OF RAIN]

MATT STOCK: Music to our ears is when rain occurs. I was hoping on your way over here there’d be a raincloud follow you. My name’s Matthew Stock. I am the president of U.S. Waterproofing.

When there’s water in a basement, unless someone has prior experience, it’s not easy to diagnose it. Even for us when we come there, we’re not there the second it rains, we have to ask a lot of questions, use a certain process to figure out where it’s coming from. But a lot of times, it could be toilet leaking, sewer backup. Believe it or not, we’ve even been called out because the dog peed on the floor.

WAILIN WONG: The business of basement waterproofing — sealing foundation cracks, installing drainage pipes and sump pumps — is necessary but totally unglamorous. That makes the job of selling these services a particular challenge. You’ll hear how U.S. Waterproofing has done it, even through a housing market downturn and a literal dry spell, on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong.

SYLVIA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Sylvia, a customer support rep 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.

MATT: My true passion is marketing. In a business like basement waterproofing, it’s not a really well known business. If you had a leaky faucet, you know you’d call a plumber and if you needed an electrical outlet installed, you know you’d call an electrician. But most people don’t naturally know what to do if you have water seeping into your basement, so we have to get the word out there.

BARRY SCHILLING: I answered an ad in the newspaper for an in-home salesperson and came in, talked to Matt’s father, Jerry, and next thing you know I was working here.

WAILIN: This is Barry Schilling, who joined U.S. Waterproofing 30 years ago, when Matt’s father was president of the company. Today Barry is vice president and the only non family member with an ownership stake. In 1987, he was an eager new salesman with a great idea about how to explain basement waterproofing services to homeowners.

BARRY: I built a model of a basement and I used to take that into people’s homes to show them how our system worked and it allowed me to sell a lot more jobs. It’s in the other room.

WAILIN: Really? Can I see it?

BARRY: Sure.

WAILIN: Okay, can we walk over and see it?

BARRY: Sure, let’s go walk.

WAILIN: Barry and I walk to the conference room next door to Matt’s office. We interrupt a meeting going on inside so he can get the model, which is sitting in the corner under a pile of stuff. It’s made of balsa wood and dark gray, with the approximate dimensions of a bakery cake box.

BARRY: This thing’s been around for 30 years.

WAILIN: Wow!

BARRY: So this is the drain tiles, the sump pumps, the electrical outlet that the sump pump would be next to, the discharge pipe to take it outside. This shows a block wall, how it’s hollow and fills with water.

WAILIN: How’d you get that texture on there?

BARRY: Well, this is sodium bentonite that we use to seal cracks. So I wiped glue on the surface. I sprinkled the sodium bentonite on there and then I sprayed a clear sealer over it, so it looks like cement. People have sat on this thing, people have dropped it, so it needs to get rebuilt. It looks better with age, though! I mean, it doesn’t look like it was made out of balsa wood, does it? I’m telling you, this could outlast me!

WAILIN: Barry is one of the old timers at U.S. Waterproofing. He already had years of experience in sales and marketing by the time Matt was working part-time for the family business and going on his first customer visit at the age of 16.

MATT: So it was about 1991. I drove out to a customer’s house, recommended a repair, maybe around $500 or $1,000. The customer had to think about it and I remember to this day getting a page from my father asking me how it went. He was surprised I didn’t sell it. I had to go back to the customer’s house to convince him why they should buy today. We were probably more on the aggressive side of things, and I still believe that today. There’s nothing wrong with asking for business, but I was probably a little too casual and nonchalant and being only 16 years old, wasn’t used to asking and asking twice for business so it was something that the veterans such as my dad had become accustomed to, so I think it was his way of breaking me into the business.

WAILIN: In 1999, Matt joined the company full time and channeled his energy into marketing.

MATT: We were primarily doing Yellow Page advertising and relied on word of mouth referrals. It’s funny, my Yellow Page rep, who I’m still friends with today, refers to me as the melting ice cube as I’ve really cut back my budget on Yellow Pages. But there are still elder people that choose to use it. We advertise on TV, you may have heard U.S. Waterproofing’s commercials on radio spots, and we also have billboards, a dozen plus throughout Chicagoland, primarily on highways. You can only show so many things on a billboard, they say seven words max, and one of the ones we became well known for is “Basement Leaking Got You Freaking.”

AD VOICEOVER: Leaking got you freaking? For a free consultation…

WAILIN: Matt also hoped that embracing Internet technology would give him an edge over his competitors. U.S. Waterproofing got into pay-per-click advertising so that Google searches like “basement waterproofing” plus a zip code or town name would turn up ads for the company. Another big development, in 2012, was creating a section on the website with hundreds of articles about foundations and waterproofing that show up in Google search results. Matt writes a lot of the posts himself.

MATT: Pretty much anything you would Google on the Internet, you know, “why is my basement leaking in Chicago” or “what is the best sump pump.” We’re not necessarily going to show up number one. I can’t control that, only Google can. But more content is what Google likes. We find many of our customers will visit 10, 15, 20, 30 plus pages before we even go out to their home. It just makes the process that much easier for us. When we arrive at their home, show them our brochure, they’ll pull out all these articles, printed. It takes what could be four hours of questions down to 30 minutes.

WAILIN: But one persistent issue for the company, which Matt didn’t discover until he came onboard full time, was that U.S. Waterproofing didn’t own the URL uswaterproofing.com. That belonged to another company with a similar name on the East Coast. U.S. Waterproofing had to come up with something else.

MATT: A lot of people associate the problem, meaning water leaking into your basement, they call it seepage. And it also happened to be a seven character word. So we said, or they said, shall we say, my forefathers, if we can’t use “U.S. Waterproofing” in our URL, what is another way to accomplish that? So they took out the URL seepage.com, S E E P A G E dot com, and then we were also able to get the phone number, toll free number, 888-SEE-PAGE, again because it was a seven character word.

WAILIN: Seepage is a funny word. It’s kind of awkward to say. Try it! Seepage. Seepage. Also, not everyone knows how to spell it. This was not lost on Matt.

MATT: We actually had a radio spot about it, which I never loved but my old advertising agency did. It was a play on that word where it went something like, “Honey, there’s a note on the fridge? See page?”

MAN IN AD: What’s this note on the fridge?

WOMAN IN AD: Oh, it’s about the basement.

MAN: No, it says “see page.”

WOMAN: That’s seepage, Herb. Seepage in our basement?

MAN: See page. Is there someone named Page I’m supposed to see?

WOMAN: Herb, we have water seeping into our basement…

MATT: We realized after a long time that while people, when they were calling us and describing the problem, they would say “seepage,” but even to this day, if I say to someone else our old website or phone number, they still say “See Page.”

WOMAN IN AD: Okay Herb, I’m gonna call U.S. Waterproofing at 888-SEEPAGE, and they’ll send someone, probably named Page, to give us a free estimate.

MAN IN AD: I’m glad we cleared that up.

WOMAN: I’ll take care of it. Go watch the ball game.

MATT: Over time, we’ve evolved our branding from “your foundation’s enemy is seepage” to “a better basement starts with us,” the U-S being a play on U.S. Waterproofing. We wanted to be known for more than just seepage because we do more than just that. Seepage is described as water oozing through a foundation. U.S. Waterproofing has many other services, amongst them concrete raising, sump pump installation, window well covers, foundation repair, crawl space encapsulation, I could go on much further. During periods of drought, the soil beneath the foundation tends to shrink. When the soil beneath the foundation tends to sink, the house could then sink.

WAILIN: You should get sinking.com.

MATT: That’s funny you mention that. While we had seepage.com, we said well, that doesn’t describe a drought period, so we had sinkinghome.com and I believe even to this day, if you type that in it should still redirect to uswaterproofing.com.

WAILIN: Matt finally reached a deal to buy uswaterproofing.com from the East Coast company about a year ago. By then, U.S. Waterproofing was already several years into its strategy to market a bigger range of services, like structural repairs in dry times. This approach proved to be a smart move in 2012, when Illinois was hit with a drought. The busy period for U.S. Waterproofing typically starts in early spring and runs through late fall. That’s when there’s the most rain, and it’s home buying season. In Illinois, sellers have to disclose if they’re aware of flooding or leakage in their basement or crawlspace, so U.S. Waterproofing gets a lot of business from people fixing up their homes to get ready for a sale. The most recent recession officially ended in 2009, but the company was still seeing the effects of the housing crisis in 2012. Here’s Barry Schilling.

BARRY: So if the real estate market is down, people are not calling you to fix that type of a situation ’cause they’re not motivated to fix it to sell the house. So now when you take a downturn in rainfall, it has a direct effect on the business.

MATT: One missed rain in March or another missed rain in April, nine out of ten years, on average, eight out of 10 years, we’re gonna see some rains. But when we really started to get nervous was the summer…

WAILIN: In August 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated all but five of Illinois’ 102 counties natural disaster areas. The Chicago area fared better than other parts, but even so, by the end of that year, precipitation at O’Hare International Airport was almost 10 inches below normal.

MATT: And that’s when we started to make some small moves, such as pulling back on advertising. But the problem with pulling back on advertising is you could ultimately be cutting off your supply. It was less expensive forms of advertising such as truck graphics, mailings to our customers, email, but one thing that’s hard for U.S. Waterproofing is to spend a lot of money in a drought because our bread is still buttered with rain.

WAILIN: Matt had been through a drought before, in 2005, but that one wasn’t accompanied by a real estate downturn. This dry spell felt different. So Matt had to take other steps besides tweaking his advertising strategy.

MATT: During a period of drought, a basement waterproofing company can only do so many things. It can only cut costs in so many ways. The tone that my great uncle Al founded the company on was taking care of its employees. It just didn’t make sense to let go of people in mass scale because we always knew it would rain again, but it was also not the right thing to do to our employees. We’ve always been a financially healthy company, one that doesn’t really borrow much money. So what we asked our employees to do, the only thing we asked them to do, was take a voluntary day off, one out of 30 days. We asked our employees, hey we’re doing our best to try to get through this, we’re asking you to take a day off on your dime to help us get through that period and we’ll do our best to employ everybody. It’s a hotly debated topic about what would we do if it happened again.

WAILIN: There’s nothing Matt can do to predict or prevent the next drought, and there will inevitably be more droughts in the company’s future. Matt likes to keep a long-term view. He says U.S. Waterproofing has worked on over 300,000 homes over its 60 year history. There are a lot more to go.

MATT: We don’t exactly know when the rains are gonna hit. I do check the weather, but I don’t obsess over it. Obsessing over something you can’t control usually isn’t a good idea. There’s millions of homes throughout Chicagoland and the surrounding suburbs, so I’d rather do a little bit at a time than all at once, let’s just say that. I don’t want to be known as the company that hopes for problems for homeowners, but certainly we’re there to take care of them if they occur.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner, who will be thrilled if he never hears me say “seepage” ever again, and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. If you know of a business we should feature on our show, you can email us at tips@thedistance.com or tweet at us @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. 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.

You Butter Believe It!


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.

https://art19.com/shows/the-distance-podcast/episodes/6bbee269-2561-4d52-85de-b130c29096c9

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!


Transcript

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.

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.