Athena Uslander is the Cyrano de Bergerac of brownies. The company she co-founded in 1983, Silverland Bakery, makes sweet treats that are sold under the names of grocery stores and restaurants across the U.S. and even internationally. Silverland Bakery may not have the consumer name recognition of a Mrs. Fields or Betty Crocker, but Athena Uslander has the sustainable business and entrepreneurial career she always wanted.
When Abdul Qaiyum, a young Pakistani immigrant, discovered Merz Apothecary in 1972, the Swiss German drugstore was on the verge of closing permanently after nearly a century in business. Qaiyum bought the store from the founding family and has run it ever since, transforming a modest purveyor of homeopathic remedies into a retailer that combines modern business savvy with old-world nostalgia.
The Peter Troost Monument Company has been making grave markers, headstones and mausoleums in the Chicago area since 1889. The issue of longevity has a particular resonance for fifth-generation president Lisa Troost, who knows that the product she sells is a one-time purchase that is meant to last forever.
The Bales Girls
Stacey Bales has worked in almost every department at her family manufacturing business, from the front office to the shop floor. But when it came to running the entire company, she expected her father, Steve, to do that for at least another decade. That all changed with Steve Bales' sudden passing in 2009. Stacey and her sister, Sara, found themselves in charge of the business without their father, boss and mentor. Today, they're building on Steve Bales' legacy while crafting their own vision for the company.
Ancient History, Modern Family
As students of history, Harlan Berk and his three children know that circumstances around them can change rapidly. They've learned to adapt the family business through 51 years of buying and selling ancient coins, as well as antiquities and maps. From rare artifacts to a mystery involving long-lost valuables and the FBI, there's no telling what might turn up next at Harlan J. Berk Limited.
Farming Like the Joneses
The Jones family has been farming in Iowa for generations. They have weathered tough winters, the consolidation of small family farms and the farm crisis of the 1980s. Today, 29-year-old Will Jones is in charge, and he's melding his own vision for the family business with the collective wisdom of predecessors like his father.
The World's Largest Laundromat (Redux)
There's been a laundromat on this corner of Berwyn, Illinois for more than a half century. But it was the current owner, Tom Benson, who made the World's Largest Laundromat into the family-friendly destination it is today. This is an edited and improved version of an episode we originally aired in February.
The warehouse at Carma Labs in Franklin, Wisconsin is filled with boxes of the 78-year-old company's signature product, Carmex lip balm. But there's something else going on in this concrete storage facility. Carma Labs President Paul Woelbing, the grandson of the company's founder, is on year eight of a personal mission to construct a massive pipe organ at the warehouse that will be open to the community. Woelbing wants to spur interest in organ music among a new generation of listeners and players—building a musical legacy alongside his business one.
It Soothes, It Heals, It Tingles
Alfred Woelbing made the first batch of Carmex at his kitchen stovetop in 1937. He was looking for a cold sore treatment and came up with a hit lip balm instead. Nearly 80 years later, Carma Labs is still independent and running under family ownership. Find out what goes into the Carmex formula—both for making lip balm and building a company that takes care of its customers and employees over the long term.
Cheesecake, the Chicago Way
The list of classic Chicago foods includes pizza, hot dogs, Italian beef—and Eli's Cheesecake, a creamy confection with a hint of sour cream and a butter shortbread cookie crust. The dessert was first served at Eli's The Place For Steak, a restaurant owned by lifelong Chicagoan Eli Schulman that served guests from local politicians to visiting celebrities like Frank Sinatra. Today Eli's son, Marc, oversees the family dessert business, which makes cheesecakes and other sweet items for restaurants and grocery stores worldwide. The Distance takes you inside a real-life cheesecake factory.
Some of the audio world's most revered headphones come out of a narrow, graffiti-covered house in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. Grado Labs has been handcrafting phono cartridges and headphones at this location for six decades and remains under family ownership. Both vinyl and high-end headphones are having a moment right now, and that's keeping this long-running business as busy as ever.
Chicago's Fulton Market district is the city's last remaining food market, a hub for meatpackers and wholesalers of agricultural products. But a wave of new development, including high-end restaurants and luxury condos, is transforming Fulton Market and prompting many long-time business owners to question whether the neighborhood can continue to sustain their livelihoods. We talk to two Fulton Market businesses about how they're navigating this transition.
Bonus Episode: Jason Fried
Jason Fried co-founded Basecamp in 1999 and in 2014 launched The Distance. Shaun Hildner sat down with Jason to talk about The Distance and the kinds of business stories that interest him.
Ashland Addison Florist Co.
In 1932, an orphan named Roy Sheffield started Ashland Addison Florist Co. by selling bouquets of flowers at a busy Chicago intersection. Eight decades later, the fourth generation of Sheffields is still delivering flowers to customers. The Sheffields have learned how to manage a business that requires a highly delicate touch, both in handling a perishable product and in brokering what can be a very emotional transaction. A flower order—choosing the right arrangement, writing the card—can offer a brief but revealing glimpse into someone’s personal life, and a florist is privy to these moments.
Richard Bennett Custom Tailors
Albert Karoll started his custom menswear business from his Chicago apartment with just a phone, a legal pad and a book of fabric swatches that he took to customers' homes and offices. In the early 1990s, he combined his fledging business with five local bespoke tailor shops whose owners had either died or were retiring without successors. In doing so, Karoll kept the old-fashioned craft of bespoke tailoring—one that had been practiced by Italian and Eastern European immigrants for decades—from obsolescence. Today, his tailors still make men's and now women's clothing from paper patterns customized for individual customers.
Victory Auto Wreckers
Chicagoans of a certain age can recall growing up with the Victory Auto Wreckers television commercial, a low-budget ad that seemed to run endlessly on afternoons and late nights. It turns out that 30-second spot, featuring a shaggy haired guy whose car door falls off, wasn't just a childhood fever dream. Victory Auto Wreckers, an auto salvage yard founded in 1945, ran the same commercial on local airwaves for 30 years. But the business is ready for a new ad to accompany a bigger image transformation, from dirty junkyard to modern recycling center.
Ideal Box Co.
When Al Capone needed crates to smuggle liquor to his speakeasies, he bought boxes from a Chicago manufacturer called Ideal Box Co. Today, the company is run the Eisen brothers, whose great-grandfather started the business in 1924, and the Eisens are shaping a future that goes way beyond corrugated boxes. Ideal makes the point-of-purchase displays that dot the ends of supermarket aisles and beckon consumers into making impulse purchases. The Eisens believe that specializing in displays is the way out of the commoditized brown box.
In the early days of fast food, restaurants like McDonald's and Burger King made their burgers onsite, and they relied on Harry Holly's patty-molding machine to get the job done. The patty press helped standardize the fast food hamburger by ensuring that patty sizes and weights were consistent. The fast food giants eventually changed their supply chains and stopped using the patty press, but the meat-processing equipment company that Harry Holly founded in 1937 is still carrying on the inventor's legacy.
World’s Largest Laundromat
Yes, that's the actual name of this business, and there's more to it than just its 13,500 square feet. The World's Largest Laundromat serves free food, provides children's entertainment and offers workshops to customers on subjects like immigration reform and healthcare. All of these amenities have made the store a de facto community center and a destination—all unusual distinctions for a self-service, coin-operated laundromat.