The Distance

The Distance

thedistance.com
What’s the hardest thing about business.


Rework - Sell Your By-products
Aug 15, 2017 • 31 min
This is the first episode of our brand new podcast called Rework. If you like it you can subscribe to Rework on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Welcome to the first episode of Rework! This podcast is based on Jason Fried and David…
Business Model
Aug 1, 2017 • 19 min
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,…
Going to the Mattresses
Jul 18, 2017 • 16 min
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…
If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It
Jul 3, 2017 • 17 min
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…
Troy Henikoff
Jun 20, 2017 • 17 min
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…
The Business Cycle, Part 2
Jun 6, 2017 • 19 min
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…
The Business Cycle, Part 1
May 23, 2017 • 19 min
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…
Steeped in History
May 9, 2017 • 15 min
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…
Make It Rain
Apr 25, 2017 • 14 min
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…
You Butter Believe It!
Apr 11, 2017 • 13 min
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…
Jungle Jim, I Presume?
Mar 28, 2017 • 14 min
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…
The Richest Man In Town
Mar 14, 2017 • 14 min
Cullinan’s Stadium Club and Beverly Records sit next door to each other in the Chicago neighborhood of Morgan Park. The owners of the two businesses have been friendly since Dan Cullinan opened his bar and grill in 1989. But even Dan couldn’t imagine how…
All the Art That’s Fit to Print
Feb 28, 2017 • 15 min
In 1989, Deborah Maris Lader had recently moved to Chicago and was looking for a studio where she could make prints and meet other artists. She couldn’t find a place like that, so she opened her own: the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative. Deborah also…
Solo Act
Feb 14, 2017 • 15 min
Bruce Roper never planned to start a business. As a teenager, he wanted to be a Beatle. As an adult, he moved to Chicago after a brief stint running a music store and began fixing guitars. Over the next quarter century, Bruce built up a modest but steady…
Diamonds Are Forever
Jan 31, 2017 • 16 min
Jewelry tells a story. For Kathy, the owner of a 90-year-old jewelry store in Berwyn, Illinois, every piece of her jewelry adds up to a larger, richer history about the business that she joined as a 16-year-old part-time employee and ended up running. A…
Neighborhood Fixture
Jan 17, 2017 • 13 min
The neighborhood appliance store is all but gone from the American retail landscape. But on Chicago’s north side, Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Co. has been selling refrigerators and sofas from the same corner since 1946. The Krasney family, which has…
(rerun) - If These Cubicle Walls Could Talk
Jan 3, 2017 • 16 min
The modern office has gone from private offices to cubicles, and from cube farms to more open spaces with lower partitions. All those changes have been good business for Office Furniture Resources, which is marking 25 years of buying and reselling the…
(rerun) - Homestead for the Holidays
Dec 20, 2016 • 16 min
The Richardson family arrived in Spring Grove, Illinois in 1840, when brothers Robert and Frank each claimed 80 acres of farmland that had become available for homesteading. Successive generations of Richardsons tried their hand at cash crops, dairy cows…
Clothes Call
Dec 6, 2016 • 14 min
When the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Jim Piko Jr. wasn’t just thrilled as a longtime fan of the team. Marathon Sportswear, the screen printing company his father started in the family garage in 1980, began printing tens of thousands of…
Help Wanted
Nov 29, 2016 • 4 min
In 2009, as Chicago manufacturer Wiegel Tool Works was emerging from the recession and wanting to hire again, company president Aaron Wiegel noticed that his job ads for tool and die makers were going unfilled for months. That realization led to his…
Test of Metal
Nov 22, 2016 • 13 min
Otto Wiegel founded Wiegel Tool Works the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. This year, his three grandchildren mark the manufacturing company’s 75th anniversary. The family business, which specializes in precision metal stamping, has…
Party Foul
Nov 15, 2016 • 4 min
The products that AR-EN Party Printers makes—customized items like gift tags and coasters—are a luxury and not a necessity, but that doesn’t make them any less important to the company’s customers. AR-EN can’t afford to misprint a couple’s monogram or get…
Party in the Front, Business in the Back
Nov 8, 2016 • 16 min
When Gary Morrison’s mother and her best friend got into the foil-stamped napkin business in 1979, the two women were just looking for a side project that would make them some extra money. Decades later, Gary is running AR-EN Party Printers, a company…
Cremains To Be Seen
Nov 1, 2016 • 8 min
From seagrass caskets to biodegradable urns designed for water burials, there is a growing number of options when it comes to burying the dead. In this mini episode, Claudette Zarzycki of Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a 101-year-old funeral home, talks about…
Home is Where the Hearse Is
Oct 25, 2016 • 15 min
Four generations of the Zarzycki family have lived behind or above their funeral home, starting with founder Agnes Zarzycki, the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago. Today, 101-year-old Zarzycki Manor Chapels is still run by women,…
Stranger Things
Oct 18, 2016 • 4 min
It takes a lot of work to make a dead body appear healthy and lifelike. It also takes a lot of chemicals, like the kind manufactured by 124-year-old Frigid Fluid. In this mini episode, learn more about embalming and some of the strange phone calls that…
Job Preservation
Oct 11, 2016 • 16 min
The modern practice of embalming started in the U.S. during the Civil War, and Brian Yeazel’s family got into the embalming fluid business a few decades later. Frigid Fluid, the company his great great uncle founded in 1892, is also the inventor of the…
Uphill Climb
Oct 4, 2016 • 3 min
R. Russell Builders is still recovering from the worst housing market it’s experienced in its 60-year history. But before “subprime mortgage” was a household term, company founder Ron Russell, Sr. was overcoming his own personal challenges so he could…
The House that Russell Built
Sep 27, 2016 • 16 min
The housing crisis wiped out half of the homebuilders in the U.S. This is the story of one that survived, but emerged from the recession to find both itself and its industry drastically changed. Ron Russell Sr. founded R. Russell Builders in 1956, and the…
The Man on the Wall
Sep 20, 2016 • 3 min
Willie David Langford Senior’s picture is on the wall of Langford’s Barber Shop, the business he founded in Atlanta in 1964. The barber shop has long been a neighborhood haven, not least of all for the many kids who grew up in the area. In this mini…
Grateful Heads
Sep 13, 2016 • 13 min
LaMichael Langford grew up watching his uncle run a barber shop and would sneak in his friends to cut their hair. LaMichael eventually took over the business that his uncle opened in 1964, and Langford’s Barber Shop has been a constant in an Atlanta…
It’s a Hardware Life
Sep 6, 2016 • 5 min
John Stallworth has worked almost non-stop at his hardware store for over 40 years. He’s passed that work ethic down to his son, John Jr., who works alongside his father at the shop on Chicago’s South Side. In this mini episode, find out what it takes to…
Unchanging Gears
Aug 30, 2016 • 15 min
John Stallworth has been selling hardware and fixing bikes at his shop on Chicago’s South Side for 50 years, helping to anchor a neighborhood that’s struggled with population loss and divestment. John’s Hardware and Bicycle Shop is the kind of…
Soy Meets World
Aug 23, 2016 • 5 min
Jenny Yang held many different jobs in Taiwan and the U.S. before discovering her passion: running one of Chicago’s oldest tofu manufacturers. In this mini episode, Jenny talks about her long, winding journey to Phoenix Bean Tofu and how immigrating to…
Soy You Bought a Tofu Factory
Aug 16, 2016 • 16 min
In 1999, Jenny Yang discovered a small tofu company in her Chicago neighborhood that made the fresh soybean curd she remembered from her native Taiwan. Seven years later, when Jenny learned the business was in danger of closing, she impulsively stepped up…
Director’s Cut
Aug 9, 2016 • 5 min
Choosing and taking care of a knife can be an intimidating process for home cooks. In this mini episode, Northwestern Cutlery owner Marty Petlicki and a culinary school director offer some knife tips and dispel a common misconception about what a…
Knife Work If You Can Get It
Aug 2, 2016 • 14 min
In 1972, when two cousins opened Northwestern Cutlery, their knife rental and sharpening business, they chose a location in Chicago near the city’s meatpackers. Over the next decades, the dramatic transformation of the neighborhood around the business…
Junk in the Trunk
Jul 26, 2016 • 12 min
We ride along with a two-man 1-800-GOT-JUNK truck team in Vancouver, British Columbia and learn about what they will and won’t take (no bed bugs or asbestos, please), what kind of personality is required for the job and some of their best finds.
The Rubbish Boy
Jul 19, 2016 • 16 min
Brian Scudamore was 19 when he set up his junk-hauling business with a used pick-up truck and a stack of business cards. But his ambitions were always greater than being a one-man junk operation. Brian Scudamore wanted his company to have a brand as…
Swan Song
Jul 12, 2016 • 5 min
In the ice sculpture world of the 70s and 80s, swans ruled the roost. Jim Nadeau carved a swan every Sunday for the brunch service of the hotel where he worked. He doesn’t make too many swans anymore, but the shape is still taught in culinary schools. In…
Mr. Freeze
Jul 5, 2016 • 15 min
In the 1970s, ice carving was the province of chefs at high-end hotels that made the sculptures part of their decor for Sunday brunch. Jim Nadeau came out of this tradition. Then, in 1980, he got the idea to start his own ice carving business in the…
Code TH
Jun 28, 2016 • 5 min
The Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico draws many visitors looking to admire or buy fine artwork. Then there are the treasure hunters, who come to the gallery looking for clues about a chest of valuables reportedly buried in the Rocky…
Humble Adobe
Jun 21, 2016 • 15 min
Santa Fe, New Mexico is home to around 200 art galleries. Even in this thriving art scene, Nedra Matteucci’s gallery stands out. The 44-year-old gallery, which she bought in 1988, is housed in an adobe compound spanning two acres, and the business takes a…
A Lively Conversation, Part 2
Jun 14, 2016 • 12 min
In the second half of the conversation between Paul McKenna of Starship restaurant and Anne Pezalla and Kate Pezalla Marlin of Lively Athletics, the business owners talk social media, the dark side of coupons and what’s next.
A Lively Conversation, Part 1
Jun 7, 2016 • 15 min
We’re trying something new with this episode. It’s a conversation between business owners on different ends of the experience spectrum. Sisters Anne Pezalla and Kate Pezalla Marlin opened their women’s athletic apparel and running shoe boutique, Lively…
Resurrection Mary
May 31, 2016 • 7 min
With 95 years of history behind it, the Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs, Ill. has seen many generations of dancers come and go. One dancer in particular has stuck around: Resurrection Mary, the ghost of a young woman who’s reputed to haunt the…
Save the Last Dance
May 24, 2016 • 13 min
When Birute and Gediminas Jodwalis bought the Willowbrook Ballroom from the business’ founding family nearly 20 years ago, they inherited an intensely loyal but shrinking customer base of Sunday afternoon dancers. The 95-year-old Willowbrook is one of the…
Children of the Corn
May 17, 2016 • 3 min
The primary business at the Funk family farm is maple syrup production. But the farm also grows corn and soybeans to supplement the income from maple syrup. Mike and Debby Funk, the fifth generation to farm on the family land in central Illinois, met…
Funk Yeah!
May 10, 2016 • 12 min
Central Illinois is a long way from Vermont or Canada, but that hasn’t stopped the Funk family of Funks Grove, Ill., from building a multi-generational maple syrup business. Every year, the Funks collect sap from thousands of trees that have been passed…
(rerun) - High Fidelity
Apr 26, 2016 • 12 min
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…
Keeping Those Refrigerators Running
Apr 19, 2016 • 2 min
In the early 80s, long before he became the CEO of LION, his family-owned manufacturing company, Steve Schwartz ran his college fraternity’s refrigerator rental business. Fridges are a far cry from LION’s core business of making protective gear for…
Fire Sale
Apr 12, 2016 • 14 min
LION’s products can mean the difference between life and death for the customers of this family-owned company, which makes protective clothing and training equipment for firefighters. From its origins in 1898 as a horse-and-wagon operation selling…
Closure
Apr 5, 2016 • 4 min
The 2014 ownership transition at Women & Children First was an emotional process, as the founders of the feminist bookstore sold their business to two staff members after 35 years at the helm. In this mini episode, the past and present owners of Women &…
Independent Women
Mar 29, 2016 • 15 min
Throw your hands up at me! In 1979, Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon opened a store in Chicago to sell books by and about women. Their business, Women & Children First, became a place where emerging writers could be discovered, a safe space for women to…
Cold Storage
Mar 22, 2016 • 4 min
The Great Depression hit shortly after Joe and Katherine Sapp opened their Chicago ice cream shop, Original Rainbow Cone, and subsequent generations of Sapps haven’t forgotten what it meant to almost lose everything. In this mini episode, current Rainbow…
Rainbow Connection
Mar 15, 2016 • 14 min
Opening an ice cream store in Chicago is not for the faint of heart. Factor in a mostly deserted neighborhood and the Great Depression, and the idea of selling ice cream looks utterly harebrained. Yet that’s exactly what the Sapp family did in 1926 when…
If These Cubicle Walls Could Talk
Mar 1, 2016 • 16 min
The modern office has gone from private offices to cubicles, and from cube farms to more open spaces with lower partitions. All those changes have been good business for Office Furniture Resources, which is marking 25 years of buying and reselling the…
Getting the Boot
Feb 23, 2016 • 4 min
Shaun Hildner, co-producer of The Distance, goes shopping for cowboy boots at Alcala’s Western Wear and learns “an old cowboy trick” from business owner Richard Alcala.
Bootstrapped and Proud
Feb 16, 2016 • 15 min
As an urban metropolis east of the Mississippi River, Chicago might seem like an unlikely home for a purveyor of cowboy hats, boots and shirts. Yet Alcala’s Western Wear has flourished in the Windy City for over four decades, building a massive selection…
Pulp Fixing
Feb 2, 2016 • 16 min
Human history comes with a long paper trail, and Graphic Conservation Company’s mission is to preserve and restore that record. The 95-year-old lab specializes in repairing works on paper, which range from priceless historical artifacts and artwork to…
Always Glad You Came
Jan 19, 2016 • 13 min
Bill Carlson describes his business as “a little shot and a beer bar,” but the 61-year-old Uptown Tavern has always been more than a dive. It’s a place where third-shift workers can unwind in the early morning and where people without a place to go on…
A 102-Year Winning Streak
Jan 5, 2016 • 16 min
Bowlers Journal International is the longest-running sports monthly in the United States, and it’s a print magazine that’s held on to a remarkably loyal base of subscribers and advertisers since its founding in 1913 by a Chicago shoe salesman. Of all the…
Holiday Bow-nus
Dec 24, 2015 • 1 min
In this mini episode, Carol Richardson of Richardson Farm explains how to tie a perfect bow.
Homestead for the Holidays
Dec 22, 2015 • 16 min
The Richardson family arrived in Spring Grove, Illinois in 1840, when brothers Robert and Frank each claimed 80 acres of farmland that had become available for homesteading. Successive generations of Richardsons tried their hand at cash crops, dairy cows…
Dance Marathon
Dec 8, 2015 • 16 min
Kerry Hubata started dancing at the age of eight and hasn’t stopped. In 1968, she and her mentor opened a classical ballet studio in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. The two women never set out to be entrepreneurs, but they ended up with a sustainable…
Chocoholic Anonymous
Nov 24, 2015 • 16 min
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…
Family Medicine
Nov 10, 2015 • 15 min
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…
Grave Matters
Oct 27, 2015 • 15 min
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…
The Bales Girls
Oct 13, 2015 • 15 min
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…
Ancient History, Modern Family
Sep 29, 2015 • 16 min
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…
Farming Like the Joneses
Sep 15, 2015 • 19 min
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…
(redux) - The World’s Largest Laundromat
Sep 1, 2015 • 12 min
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…
Pipe Dreams
Aug 18, 2015 • 14 min
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…
It Soothes, It Heals, It Tingles
Aug 4, 2015 • 14 min
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.…
Cheesecake, the Chicago Way
Jul 21, 2015 • 14 min
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…
High Fidelity
Jul 7, 2015 • 13 min
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…
Wholesale Changes
Jun 23, 2015 • 15 min
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…
Bonus Episode: Jason Fried
Jun 17, 2015 • 8 min
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.
Jun 9, 2015 • 14 min
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…
Richard Bennett Custom Tailors
May 5, 2015 • 13 min
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…
Victory Auto Wreckers
Apr 7, 2015 • 9 min
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…
Ideal Box Co.
Mar 5, 2015 • 9 min
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…
Hollymatic
Feb 17, 2015 • 8 min
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…
The World’s Largest Laundromat
Feb 3, 2015 • 12 min
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…