Every year in the weeks leading up to Easter, the four-person staff at Danish Maid Butter Co. starts counting sheep. The Chicago company has made lamb-shaped butter for more than 50 years, moving from wooden molds dropped in cans of ice water to a more modern process. There are other parts of Danish Maid’s business that are larger and growing faster, but the two siblings that run the company remain committed to the butter lambs as an important link to both their family legacy and current generations of customers.
After putting this episode to bed yesterday, I headed off to my first-ever Passover Seder at a friend’s home and was surprised to find a Danish Maid butter lamb on the table. The host explained that his family buys one every year for Passover because they’re fun and this is the only time you can get them. As I spread the butter on matzoh, I wondered whether Danish Maid’s founder ever imagined how the culinary tradition he helped mass produce would take on a unique life outside of the Christian Easter table. Let me know if you have any Danish Maid butter lamb sightings this week!
WAILIN WONG: Every year, for as long as he can remember, Brian Kozack has spent Easter at his aunt and uncle’s house for a late lunch. Brian is my coworker’s husband and he grew up in a southwest suburb of Chicago. His family’s Easter lunch is a big celebration.
BRIAN KOZACK: We’d have three or four different tables because we couldn’t fit everybody at one large table. My family’s kind of large. My cousin—I’m older than her by one day—and it was always an intense fight between me and her to see who got to chop the lamb’s head off.
WAILIN: The lamb Brian’s talking about is a symbol of Jesus — and it’s made of butter. In the Chicago area, lamb-shaped butter is an Easter tradition with Eastern European roots, although the exact origins are kind of vague. The butter lambs are placed in Easter baskets and served at the table.
BRIAN: There were these delicious rolls. My grandma actually still makes them. They’re called monkey bread and we’d throw the butter lamb on there and it was fantastic. It tasted like creamier than normal butters, I don’t know why. It’s super easy to spread. It tasted delicious, it’s kind of that lighter, fluffier butter.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. This week on the show, the story of the small Chicago company behind those butter lambs and the emotional connection it’s formed with generations of customers.
JIM: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Jim, a support programmer at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people, organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
[SOUND OF BUTTER LAMB MACHINE]
WAILIN: If you’ve ever had a storebought butter lamb in the Chicago area, it was probably made on this machine. It squirts butter into a lamb-shaped mold that advances down a conveyor belt. The lambs are three ounces apiece and shaped to look like they’re sitting down with their legs tucked under them.
SUSAN WAGNER: My name is Susan Wagner. I am the office manager at Danish Maid Butter Company here in Chicago. Our mom actually owns the business. My brother Matt and I run it, day-to-day operations. Butter lambs…I always tell people, “They’re my babies.” From the time we start calling people and setting up the prices until the very last lamb is on the truck, to me I’m like, “Ahh. Another season is done.”
[SOUND OF MACHINE]
WAILIN: This is the other big piece of equipment at Danish Maid. It fills little plastic cups with whipped butter, six at a time. These cups actually represent the biggest part of Danish Maid’s business and are found at diners and breakfast restaurants across the country. The founder of Danish Maid, a man named Sievert Kramme, is credited with inventing the whipped butter cup. Here’s Matt Wagner, Susan’s brother and the plant manager.
MATT WAGNER: It was finding a way to have butter spread further by adding air into it and it makes it more spreadable and almost getting more for your money. Any other round cups you see out there are always margarine or a butter blend, which is butter blended with margarine.
SUSAN: Obviously there was never margarine in our house, so I didn’t know what it was, and then when I’d go to other people’s houses and they would have it and they’d call it butter and I’d be like, “That’s definitely not butter.”
WAILIN: Sievert Kramme founded Danish Maid in 1959, but he had been making the butter lambs since the 1940s under a different name. The company doesn’t make its own butter. It buys it, through a broker, from other manufacturers across the country. What Danish Maid does is take the butter, which comes in 25-kilogram boxes, cut it up and spin the pieces around in a machine until it gets to the right whipped texture. To make the lambs, the whipped butter is injected in clamshell molds and then frozen before getting shipped to grocery stores across the Midwest and more recently, into the northeastern U.S.
SUSAN: Where we haven’t hit the market yet is pretty much the south. There are several that call us from Phoenix, Arizona area because a lot of people have retired out that way and the grocers there realize, “Hey, I’ve got a niche market here.”
WAILIN: Danish Maid is a small company. For most of the year, there’s just four people working there: Susan, Matt and two other employees. An additional half dozen workers come in to help make the butter lambs, but Danish Maid doesn’t have delivery trucks or dedicated salespeople. It relies on distributors to get their products into supermarkets. And when people in states like Arkansas and California can’t find the butter lambs at their local grocery stores, they call the number listed on the Danish Maid website. Susan’s the one who answers the phone.
SUSAN: I had somebody call and they had to have them, and they paid the shipping from here to California for five or six individual lambs. I said the shipping’s gonna cost more. “I don’t care, I have to have it.” We’ll go looking for a box somewhere and ship it out to them. We probably do more than what it’s worth, but if it means that somebody’s gonna get the Easter butter lamb and maybe hound their grocer to start getting it, to us it’s worth it.
Usually they’ll ask a lot of questions, like, “Well, do I need to give you my credit card number?” I’m like, “We don’t take credit cards, I’ll just send you an invoice.” “Oh, you trust me?” I’m like well, yeah, whatever. We keep it pretty simple here. I don’t think you can call a big company and just say, “Hey, I just want two of your—whatever it is you make. Can you just mail it to me and I’ll pay you later?”
WAILIN: Everyone is hands on at Danish Maid, whether it’s Susan shipping individual butter lambs to a person in California or her brother Matt repairing equipment that dates back to the 1960s. Both Matt and Susan, who are the youngest of four siblings, grew up watching their father Raymond fixing machines and working on the line. Raymond grew up in Remington, Indiana. His father managed a nearby plant that manufactured milk powder, and he worked at different dairies in central Indiana after high school. It was at one of these jobs where he heard about Danish Maid.
SUSAN: Someone there said was big talk of a guy opening one up in Chicago. My dad had just been married and so he and my mom came up to this area, and he started working here in the late 60s and he moved up pretty quickly. He was running the place for the guy that was semi-retired and moved to Florida and he just always bugged my dad, you know, “When are you gonna buy this place,” right? And finally in the late 80s, he and my mom bought it.
I never was like, “Oh, my dad owns this butter factory,” you know, because I knew right away my friends would think oh you know, he’s just sitting in an office or whatever. Sometimes I’d bring my friends in here and they always said at the end of the day, “Oh, I never saw your dad sit down.” Well yeah, he’s working and he was always out there right alongside ’em working and never stopped, never sat down.
MATT: If something broke down, he always taught us that if you can, you don’t go and call somebody to always have to come out and fix something. A lot of things you learn to do yourselves, and I remember him telling me Danish Maid had kind of gotten the reputation that from other companies that if you can’t get it to work, send it to Danish Maid, they’ll figure it out. That’s how we came about with the butter cups. That machine was actually meant to package creamer cups and they wanted us to you know try to tinker around with it and see if we can’t try to fill something else. And my dad and the original owner, they played around with it until they could get it to run right.
SUSAN: I think his ability to fix stuff, you know, made it so that this could stay going because like Matt said, if you’re always calling someone to come fix stuff, your money starts disappearing pretty quickly.
WAILIN: The founder of Danish Maid, Sievert Kramme, said he was the first person to mass produce the Easter butter lambs, which people would often make at home by carving sticks of butter or using wooden molds. At Danish Maid, workers used to make the lambs with wooden molds too. The molds were held shut with rubber bands and dropped into a large milk can filled with ice water. Once the lambs were set, the final touch was two peppercorns for the eyes and a ribbon around the neck. The process moved to a machine in the 1970s, and the peppercorns and ribbon went away. That’s shortly before Mary Diaz started working at Danish Maid.
MARY DIAZ: There used to be more people, I think about 11 of us, either 11 or 10, but there was a line of girls. Somebody had to sit in the middle of the machine where the butter would come out and watch it, make sure, you had to squeeze it, and then somebody else you had to put a sticker on it and then you had to pack it in the box.
WAILIN: Mary worked at Danish Maid for 30 years. She watched Susan and Matt grow up and take over daily operations at the company. And she retired three years ago, kind of.
MARY: They were all nice to me, you know, every one of them, so I didn’t mind going back or help out, you know, ‘cause I told her if you ever need help, give me a call, I’ll be there. I go back every year. But next year I don’t know because my granddaughter’s having another grandbaby. Who knows, I’ll probably go back anyhow.
WAILIN: This year, Susan and Matt expect to ship out 4,000 cases of butter lambs. That’s 144,000 lambs. But the number’s been declining, from 7,000 cases several years ago. One major blow came at the end of 2013, when a large supermarket chain closed all 72 of its Chicago-area stores.
SUSAN: So to be down to 4,000, that’s a huge drop and of course every year, we think okay, who else can we hit? It seems like whenever we get somebody new, it’s like somebody else disappears. In the grand scheme of things, When it comes down to it, a lot of your bigger companies that would be distributing for you, you know it’s all about: Is it worth it to them to distribute our product? Because if they’re delivering it to a store that doesn’t get anything else from them, then they’re losing money because they’re just delivering our lambs. Two cases of lambs didn’t pay for the shipment. That’s always been our biggest obstacle, is just the initial getting into a store. We’re such a small company compared with all your big-name brands, that they already have their way into the store. They just have to make a product and shoot it in there. For us, it’s you know we have to claw our way in and hope for the best.
WAILIN: Easter butter lambs are a niche product for sure, but Danish Maid still faces competition from some other companies, including one business in Buffalo, New York that’s been making the lambs for nearly as long.
SUSAN: A lot of times we get people that say, “You know, we’ll go with the other company because it’s cheaper.” And other companies know that: “Hey, if we knock a few cents off this we may lose here, but it doesn’t matter because we own all this other stuff.” But for us, it’s like, this is our baby, this is what we make and, you know, it hits us hard when people say, “Oh, that’s too expensive.” That’s what you get when it’s a small business and a lot of it and it’s all hands on and it’s a family owned business. It is getting harder for smaller businesses to survive.
WAILIN: The biggest seller in Danish Maid’s product line is not its lambs but its cups of whipped butter, which can be found at restaurants as far south as Texas and Florida. Sales of the restaurant cups have been going up. That might seem like the obvious opportunity to grow the business, but the Wagners have been deliberate about staying small enough so they can keep supplying their local customers. Matt says their father once turned down a big fast food chain that wanted to buy the restaurant cups.
MATT: In order to fulfill that, that would have had to have been our sole business for the cups. He didn’t want to leave all the other little distributors that we’d been already selling to and he said, “Thanks but no thanks”. ’Cause a lot of times, you only sign contracts maybe one or two years, and when that’s up, you’ve left all your other customers behind and then the new guy might say, “Well no, we’re gonna go with somebody else,” and then you’re left with nothing.
SUSAN: We’ve had airlines ask us to give them bids for our butter cups and we give them a bid, but we always tell them, “We’re not gonna come in cheaper. If you’re looking for the cheapest avenue, it’s not us.” And they might say, “This is a huge opportunity.” But it’s like well, if we fill your orders, we can’t fill anybody else’s orders. And it’s not what we’re about. We don’t want to leave behind the imprint that we have on Chicago with our product. Sure, we’d be in every airplane, but I feel like it’s very important to our customers that keep carrying our product and it’s important to us.
WAILIN: And if Danish Maid was going to go all in on their cups of whipped butter, that growth might come at the expense of the Easter butter lambs. And it’s important to the Wagners to keep the lamb tradition going.
SUSAN: You know, our restaurant cups are in restaurants all over, but this is our only shot at being in a store. So if I watch every lamb and I see every lamb go by and I feel confident that all right, that’s a quality product, it’s gonna be in a store and this is our name and it’s the only time someone in Connecticut or Maine is gonna see our name, I want it to be a good product.
WAILIN: Danish Maid’s long history with the butter lambs is also why Susan, year after year, will put a few in a box with an ice pack and send them off to Chicago transplants in far-flung states, trusting that the check will show up in the mail eventually.
SUSAN: They just send us a check. Over the years, we almost always with those orders we’ll get a note, like “Thank you, it made my family so happy.” And I think sometimes the reward is just the thank-you note that they send.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can find us on Twitter @distancemag, that’s @distancemag; on iTunes, where we would love it if you left us a rating or review, or at thedistance.com, where you can listen to all our stories and sign up for our newsletter. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.