Sub-Zero Freezer Company, the leading manufacturer of luxury residential refrigeration and wine storage units, is marking its 60th anniversary this year. Founded in the summer of 1945 by Westye F. Bakke, the company led the industry by perfecting the storage of frozen foods at below-zero temperatures – “sub-zero” – and by pioneering built-in refrigeration. Today, the third-generation family-owned company offers the ultimate in performance, reliability and design with products that are built by hand in the United States.
"We are thrilled to celebrate this milestone in the history of Sub-Zero," said Jim Bakke, president and CEO of Sub-Zero Freezer Company and Wolf Appliance Company and grandson of company founder Westye F. Bakke. "It’s amazing to realize the growth the company has experienced over the last 60 years and to continue to improve on the tradition of excellence in kitchen appliances my grandfather and father established."
Sub-Zero Through the Decades
During the Depression, Westye F. Bakke worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, creating specially designed refrigeration units that would fit into the Wright-designed projects. Refrigeration also played a crucial role in Bakke’s personal life, as his young son, Bud, needed constant doses of insulin for his juvenile diabetes. The lack of reliable iceboxes meant more frequent trips to the drugstore for insulin and to the grocery store for milk and orange juice. Thus, in 1943, Bakke built the first freestanding freezer prototype out of salvaged scrap metal in the basement of his Madison, Wis., home. A true entrepreneur, Bakke bent the unit’s coils barehanded and improvised whatever materials were lacking, since supplies were scarce during World War II.
Westye F. Bakke founded Sub-Zero Freezer Company, Inc., a mere two years later, choosing the name Sub-Zero because his freezers were the first to meet the strict quality standards for below-zero safety in freezing food. He accurately anticipated post-World War II family needs by perfecting the storage of foods at sub-zero temperatures. One year after its incorporation, the company had completed and sold over 300 units, proving that it was poised to meet the many design and production challenges of the postwar era.
Designs for Domesticity:
The 1950s dawned with great promise for Sub-Zero. Westye Bakke’s son, Bud, completed agriculture and mechanical engineering degrees at the University of Wisconsin and joined the company full-time, where he began to explore cutting-edge sub-zero refrigeration research for the aircraft and rocket industries, the U.S. government and a variety of universities. Bud Bakke also spearheaded the creation of a new, lightweight, all-aluminum freezer, which was an upright model with separate inside doors rather than a top-opening chest freezer. Sub-Zero’s freezers remained the only all-aluminum models on the market in the 1950s and thus were the only units that were completely corrosion-resistant.
In the late 1950s, kitchen designers began to specialize in a “total kitchen concept.” In response to this, Sub-Zero pioneered the built-in refrigeration category by introducing the first-ever cabinet-flush unit and by modifying the built-in design to allow for recessed fronts. This enabled complete customization of each unit to match the kitchen’s overall décor – any wood grain, metal tone or color scheme could now be accommodated. The refrigerator, once considered the ugliest appliance in American kitchens, would now become virtually invisible.
Exploration and Customization:
In the 1960s, the company’s focus continued to be customization. It began designing refrigeration built into furniture, such as a bar counter, office credenza or living room end table, far ahead of the consumer market. All the while, the popularity of built-in kitchen refrigerators continued to grow, and by the late 1960s, built-ins accounted for approximately 70 percent of total sales for the company – clearly the wave of the future.
New Leadership, New Success:
The 1970s proved that sales were steadily increasing – from 1972 to 1979, figures skyrocketed almost tenfold. Under the leadership of Bud Bakke, the engineering team worked to fine-tune the units, improving wiring circuitry and adding better interior lighting packages and pull-out freezer drawers for more convenient access to frozen foods. In addition, Sub-Zero was among the first refrigerator manufacturers to realize that energy consumption was an economic and environmental issue, so the engineering team focused its efforts on increasing energy efficiency.
As Sub-Zero’s network grew, the company never lost its personal touch; the company’s continued commitment to top-quality service earned it many loyal customers over the years. During one trip to California to train service personnel, the heads of engineering made a service call to Beverly Hills and ended up fixing television comedian and talk show host Johnny Carson’s refrigerator/freezer unit. Carson reportedly said that he knew Sub-Zero provided good service but that he had not expected the head of engineering to visit and to entertain him all afternoon as part of the service package!
The Next Generation:
The 1980s proved to be a dynamic decade. Jim Bakke, current president and CEO, joined the company in 1981. Jim represented the third generation of Bakkes to work at Sub-Zero, and he worked in a variety of positions throughout the company for the next 10 years. Additionally, the company constructed a second manufacturing plant inArizona to better serve customers in its largest markets west of the Rocky Mountains. And on the product front, the award-winning 500 Series of refrigerator/freezers was introduced. The new series featured enhanced ergonomics: better lighting, easier door openings, an exterior ice-through-the-door feature on the refrigerator side, vegetable crisper drawers with individual temperature controls, seals for tighter closing and improved handles. Near the end of the decade, the company saw the potential of foreign markets in the Near East, Europe and South America and began to expand overseas.
A Tradition of Innovation:
While the 1980s kept the company on its toes, the 1990s took Sub-Zero to even greater heights. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary and unveiled an entirely new concept of integrated refrigeration, the 700 Series. This new series again underscored Sub-Zero’s position at the forefront of the refrigeration industry. The 700 Series not only included a refrigerator, a freezer and a combo unit but also introduced the brand-new concept of refrigerator and freezer drawer units. The concept transcended the idea that all food must be stored in one place within a single unit; rather, the 700 Series represented “point of use” refrigeration that blended seamlessly into any décor.
Toward the end of the decade, the 500 Series was replaced by the redesigned 600 Series, and the 400 Series of wine storage units was launched. After extensive research, Sub-Zero designed wine storage that set the standard for the industry. Much more than basic wine coolers, Sub-Zero’s wine storage units have two separate refrigeration compartments with independent temperature zones and varying capacity, providing ultimate flexibility to the wine enthusiast.
A New Century and New Kitchen Soul Mates:
The year 2000 marked more than a new era for the company. In January of that year, Sub-Zero acquired Wolf Gourmet to create the ultimate cooking appliances for serious, passionate cooks. Sub-Zero’s launch of the new Wolf product lines was the most ambitious ever in the cooking industry with more than 50 items at once. Wolf’s mission has been to continue Sub-Zero’s legacy of high standards for quality and design, and the company’s awareness and demand have increased rapidly over the last several years. Wolf cooking equipment is highly specialized, putting precise control into the hands of consumers via easy-to-use technology. Refined through more than 70 years of demanding residential and commercial use, Wolf is the ideal kitchen companion to Sub-Zero.
Also in 2000, Sub-Zero built a 350,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for Wolf products. The 60th anniversary marks the opening of Sub-Zero and Wolf’s brand-new 35,000-square-foot training center, named for company founder Westye F. Bakke and a significant investment in the trade and the future of the company and the industry.
"The training center is the highest compliment we could ever pay to my grandfather," Bakke said. "It is a unique epicenter of culinary excellence and cutting-edge technology, and we are truly looking forward to the next 60 years."