The Little Red Wagon: The man who created Figi’s and the woman beside him
By Kris Leonhardt
John Figi was born in 1916 in the Monroe area. There, he met and married the former, Ann Rauk, who came to Monroe to be a first grade teacher.
John was a young cheese inspector living in the Marshfield area, when he pioneered a direct mail order industry in 1941.
Started as the Wisconsin Cheese Club, John and Ann began with 12 orders, after mailing 1,500 mimeographed order sheets, typed by Ann, to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals in a five-state area. The names were obtained from telephone directory listings.
The Club filled a niche in the days where specialty cheeses were not readily available.
“You couldn’t get your Jarlsberg and Wisconsin cheddar in different parts of the country; it was kind of a novelty to get those things at Christmas,” said John & Ann’s son, Hans Figi. ”But now, I know even in Montana there is a cheese store here that has cheese from all over the world… so, it is a lot more accessible.”
The couple purchased the cheese in bulk and preserved it in wax melted in their Marshfield apartment. With a growing family, the set up was less than ideal in the early days of the business.
“They lived in a one bedroom apartment on West Cleveland,” Hans added, “dipped cheese in wax on the kitchen stove.”
The cheese was then stored in a cooler that the couples’ parents had given them as a wedding gift – a production line, cold storage, and a growing family all in one Marshfield apartment.
“They worked side-by-side for 26 years. They scrimped and saved and lived very frugally. (Ann) never really had the opportunity to experience and sort of have some time to experience the success,” Hans explained.
“I think for them, in reality, the fun was building it and all of the friends they made; all of the adventures they had and all of the struggles were as good as anything.”
The couple began creating gift packs, adding other items along with the cheese.
Orders increased and the business began to grow. The Figis’ first employee hauled packages to the post office in a little red wagon; this became a symbol for the company and the determination that created it.
“John was motivated by a desire to succeed,” Hans said. “He always said he was ‘not smarter than anyone else, just worked harder,’ He also ‘married up’ – meaning I think my mother motivated him. She was well educated and demanding and so on – the old adage ‘behind every successful man is a woman’… though dated was true in this case. She inspired him; pushed him; supported him; and helped him start the business. She never gets enough credit.”
Next edition: Figi’s hits its stride