Building a brand across multiple locations in multiple communities is often a long and winding road
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch, New North B2B editor
Every journey starts with a single step, and every business starts with a single transaction. Some entrepreneurs know they’ll saunter back to their own neighborhood, and some business owners are propelled to creep into other markets.
Northeast Wisconsin is the stomping grounds of several businesses that started as one and multiplied. We talked with four of these homegrown businesses, from a four-store car wash to a retailer with more than 300 stores in 24 states.
With seven stores across northeast Wisconsin employing around 100 people in total, Matthews Tire keeps the New North region rolling along. It pays to be in more than one locale, especially when it comes to car care.
“In our type of auto business, people like to do business 3 to 5 miles from their work or home,” said Matthews President Trevor Rezner. “In order to grow and attract more business, you have to get more locations and gain more of the marketplace, and that’s what we as a family chose to do.”
Fred Matthews started the company in the 1950s and built it to 11 stores from Antigo to Ripon. By the time Rezner’s parents, Dennis and Sherry, bought it from a second owner in 1985, all but two locations had been sold. The Rezners bought one, in Appleton, and the owner closed the store in Neenah.
“My dad worked for corporate Goodyear at the time and traveled throughout the state,” Rezner said. “He always wanted to own his own business.”
Three years later, the Rezners bought an old Ford dealership building in Waupaca that once sold Model Ts and opened a store there. The following year, 1989, they built a third store, in Menasha. In 1995, they purchased an existing Goodrich Tire store in Fond du Lac, and in 1998, they bought a former Crown Auto building in Green Bay, branching south and north. The years 2001 and 2003 saw Matthews Tire build a new site on Appleton’s east side and start a stand-alone commercial tire store. They now have stores in Green Bay, Menasha, Waupaca, Fond du Lac and three in Appleton.
As with practically every other thing on the planet, technology has changed the automobile business in the 65 years since Fred Matthews launched his first shop.
“Computerization has really taken over, even in the automobile world,” Rezner said. “Everything is controlled or regulated by computer now – engine, fuel monitoring, tires as far as air pressure monitors in the wheel that let you know when your tire is under or overinflated. We have to have all of our people up on the different manufacturers of automobiles and make sure they know how computers work, be able to tap into them, and how that process works.”
His parents have retired, but Rezner still counts on family to keep things moving. His sister Debbie Duesing is the company’s controller, brother-in-law Pat Duesing is a store supervisor, and sister Jennifer Brockman serves as office administrator. But every employee gets treated like relatives, Rezner said.
“It’s a good business, we’re proud of the employees. We really try to treat them like part of our family, and that’s what’s great about it,” he said. “We have second- and third-generation family members – and not just my family, but employee family members – working for us, and that’s really neat to see.”
Matthews Tire continues to look for opportunities to expand. They own a few lots they’ve considered building on, but a few things are holding them back.
“Building costs are very expensive – commercial builders are really busy so they’re holding their prices,” he said. “And people. Finding (more) good quality people is really tough right now. We have great people now, and they’re rare.”
Expanding could mean moving existing employees to the new store, which would create new problems. “We’d still have to replace them,” he said. It’s harder than it sounds, despite good automobile training programs in local technical schools.
“It’s tough to get somebody up to speed and (learning) our company culture and all those types of things,” he said. “Often tech-school students can only work limited hours, so what do you do the rest of the day?”
Business owners in other industries have told him much the same thing, he said. “The service industry, hospitality – they’re all looking for good people.”
Jet Stream Car Wash
It could be said the DNA of Jet Stream Car Wash came into being in 1939, when Walt Tack’s grandfather founded Tack Oil, a Phillips Petroleum Co. distributor dealing in fuel oil, gas and propane. Tack’s father joined the company soon after.
Two decades later, in 1962, two brothers-in-law from Milwaukee pitched the Tacks a business brainstorm requiring a partner with connections to the petroleum industry. Their idea? A full-service automatic car wash called Jet Stream with a gas station attached.
“In those days, the idea of a car wash was to sell gasoline,” said Walt Tack, current owner of Jet Stream Car Wash. “Carwashes were a great enticement to sell gas. If you bought 8 gallons, you got a free carwash.”
They proposed that Tack Oil buy the land for such an operation, build the buildings, and install the gasoline equipment such as tanks and pumps. The two Milwaukeeans would install the car wash and pay rent to the Tacks. All went smoothly for another decade, until 1976, when one partner from Milwaukee left, and the remaining one asked if Tack Oil wanted to buy the car wash portion of the operation.
Tack’s father did, and he asked Tack, out of college a few years at the time, to manage the car wash operations.
“I said, ‘Well, how hard could it be? You spray a little water around and be on your way,’” he said. “I found out it was a little more complicated than that, but after a time I got the hang of it.”
He even grew to enjoy the car wash side of the business more than the fuel oil, gas and propane side.
In 1985, Tack and two partners built a Jet Stream Car Wash in Stevens Point. “That was our first branch out,” he said. The next year, 1986, they added one in Oshkosh.
Four years later came another location on the south side of Fond du Lac.
“Back in those days, there was very little competition, and for a long time, Jet Stream on Scott Street (in Fond du Lac) was the only game in town,” Tack said. “We’re still the only conveyorized/tunnel car wash in Fond du Lac County, but there are still a lot of standalone, self-service and gas station carwashes.”
A conveyorized car wash propels the car through the car wash on rollers.
In the mid 1990s, Tack added an oil and lube center onto the second Fond du Lac site on Pioneer Road. That made four car washes and a lube center.
“I was pretty young and energetic and naive and thought that if you have one that’s going pretty strong, they’re all going to work like that,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the case.”
By 1996, the trekking over to the Stevens Point site to deal with issues had become too much, so he and his partners sold that store. Dealing with business there often meant staying overnight, and life was hectic enough at the time.
“Our first child was born in 1979 and our last in 1986, so we had four kids and built a house and all this car wash stuff was going on,” Tack said. “It was a very busy and hectic and good time.”
Jet Stream gained a reputation for its full-service treatments, involving a team of peppy employees who clean the car’s inside and towel-dry the outside.
“For the longest time, that’s what the carwash business was,” Tack said.
“You didn’t have to have a full line of equipment because people at the end are towel drying it and spot cleaning.”
But relying on that full-service custom treatment model meant lots of employees. A busy summer Saturday can necessitate upward of 30 people. “Once they’re there, you have to coordinate who does what, when they do it, and in what time frame,” he said.
Ten years after building the second Fond du Lac Jet Stream in hopes of doubling the successful business on the other side of town, Tack closed the first location. “We didn’t gain any new (customers), just split the ones we had. And you have all this overhead.”
The industry has moved toward the express exterior cleaning model. “You load (the sites) up with equipment and you come out and the car is clean, dry and hopefully shiny, and you go on your way,” he said. “You have self-service vacuums off to the side.”
That hands-free model brings down overhead and is easier to manage, but Jet Stream maintains both full-service and express-exterior car washes.
The latest trend, though, is the monthly unlimited car wash pass. Much like a state park sticker, customers pay a fee and get a windshield sticker that entitles them to unlimited visits. The monthly car wash plan costs less than two car washes.
“It pays for itself after two visits,” Tack said. “That’s taken the industry really by storm.”
El Jaripeo/Los Jaripeos
To say El Jaripeo and Los Jaripeos restaurants are colorful understates the obvious. Just walk in, and bright greens, oranges and reds greet you like friends happy to see you again.
Cousins Antonio and Oscar Sandoval are the forces behind the El Jaripeo and Los Jaripeos restaurants that dot the Fox Valley from Green Bay to Oshkosh. What started with a dream and a desire not to work for anyone else has become a reliably authentic Mexican-food firepower in northeast Wisconsin.
Antonio came from Mexico in 2001, first to Chicago, where he worked in restaurants and realized he didn’t want to move his family, who were still in Mexico. In Tennessee, he continued his restaurant immersion, learning the ropes of hospitality life. Eventually, he heard about the Fox Cities.
“We found out that Appleton at the moment was very well placed to have a Mexican restaurant,” said Edgar Sandoval, son of Antonio. “It was a very good place to live and start a family, and there wasn’t a whole lot of competition, other than a few other restaurants. We went from there.”
Antonio and Oscar bought an American-style family restaurant in Little Chute. “They had that for a year, and that didn’t work out,” Edgar said.
Over the course of a few weeks, they switched to what they knew best – Mexican food. “The first year was rough, and after that, it started picking up, little by little,” he said.
They called it El Jaripeo, meaning ‘the rodeo.’ It’s just a fun theme, Edgar said. “No one had a restaurant with that name.”
Together, Antonio and Oscar and their families own four El Jaripeo restaurants in Green Bay, Little Chute and Appleton. Antonio owns two Los Jaripeos restaurants in Seymour and a new one set to open in the former Lara’s Tortilla Flats in Oshkosh.
While the restaurants don’t follow a rodeo theme, they do remind one strongly of Mexico and the American southwest. Some have adobe-style arched walls, and most have brightly colored interiors and authentically Mexican booths. The authentic cuisine is mixed, of course, with a few American propensities, such as the colossal 32-ounce margarita usually served with more than one straw.
Not surprisingly, many members of the Sandoval family work for the restaurants. Among them are three of Antonio’s four sons, many cousins, and friends who have become like family along the way.
It hasn’t always been easy. “My dad ran into a whole bunch of bumps along the way, but he’s a very hard working man, and he’s always striving for a better future for his family,” Sandoval said. “He wants what is best for us and best for the business.”
Now in their early 20s, the brothers have worked for their dad since they were 15. Within the last few years they’ve begun playing stronger roles in the business. Brothers Chris and Edgar each manage a Los Jaripeos, and their brother William “jumps around between the two,” Edgar said, filling in wherever anyone might need him. “We help each other out.”
Pharmacist James Ruben opened the first Shopko store on Military Avenue in Green Bay in 1962, deciding that general merchandise belonged alongside the pharmacy. Ruben’s family members worked with the company until the 1970s, when it became a more corporate rather than mom-and-pop operation, according to Jim DePaul, senior vice president of operations for Shopko.
More than a half-century later, the retailer has 127 Shopko big-box stores, 244 Shopko Hometown stores, five Shopko Express stores, seven stand-alone pharmacies and does more than $3 billion in annual sales. More than 60 of those stores are in Wisconsin, DePaul said. In all, the retailer employs some 16,000 people.
Shopko Hometowns are smaller-scale versions of Shopko’s regular stores – between 25,000 to 35,000 square feet versus 70,000 for the regular Shopko store.
“They’re aimed at communities of between 5,000 and 6,000 people,” DePaul said, including stores in Seymour, Brillion and Winneconne.
Founder James Ruben left Shopko in 1972 to become president of SuperValu, the grocery distributor which merged with Shopko in 1971. By 1977, Shopko was doing more than $100 million in sales, and opened its first optical center the following year. A decade later, by 1988, the company had 87 stores and did more than $1 billion in annual sales, according to DePaul.
“That was a huge jump in sales for that time,” he said.
Under the auspices of SuperValu, the company experimented by opening a few supercenters, similar to Walmart stores, in Ohio. Over the years it’s tried various iterations and has gone through several revamps.
“We’ve experimented with some stand-alone optical stores, and we have the drug stores (stand-alone Shopko pharmacies), but the Hometown is the most successful experiment,” DePaul said. “We’ve tried different things to give us a competitive edge.”
Competition for consumers’ wallets is fierce, and retailers are well aware of it. Behemoths like Costco and Walmart have all but devoured Kmart and Sears. But DePaul said Shopko is in a different category of store than Walmart or Costco.
“In some places we’re even in the same shopping complex as Costco,” he said. “Typically we really have no concerns with them competing with us, and we actually prefer to have them close to us because it’s a good traffic driver.”
He said he knows Shopko can’t compete for the lowest price on everything, but it tries to keep key items competitive.
“We try to make sure we have neat and clean, well-organized stores,” he said. “With apparel and other things, we try to make it a step or two above what you’re going to get at Walmart or Costco, or even a lot of times Target.”
The optical and pharmacies are two strengths for Shopko.
“We think we do much better than most of the competition out there on that, so for us it’s always trying to find good value in the merchandise for the customer at a fair price,” DePaul said.
He’s been with the company for 19 years, starting as store manager in Madison before working his way through the organization.
“When you’re competing against someone with the buying power they (the huge chains) have, it’s tough,” he said. “As of late, like every other retailer, the larger competition for us is all the Internet and web sales. We think they’re taking a bigger chunk out of everyone’s business than other brick and mortar stores out there. I think everyone feels that the most-hated (competitor) is Amazon.”