Designer    Feature 20 Feb 2018

The fascinating story of Sub-Zero and Wolf – the warm heart at the core of refrigeration

Humble beginnings

It started in Wisconsin, 1943, with a man called Westye Bakke who was beset with problems. While WWII caused strains and shortages, his son Bud suffered from juvenile diabetes. With no reliable home refrigeration, Westye had to periodically fetch insulin from the pharmacy. This lack of refrigeration wasn’t just inconvenient for the Bakke family: it was hazardous. So Westye built a basement lab, and despite the shortages, he worked urgently, and alone.

The prototype

Using salvaged materials, Westye fashioned a prototype that was able to store its contents at stable, exceptionally low temperatures – literally sub-zero. This development was game-changing. Two years later, with WWII ending, Westye founded his own enterprise: the Sub-Zero Freezer Company. Then, in the postwar boom in home technology and design, Westye’s tiny enterprise grew.

The next generation

His son Bud, the instigator of his inventions, eventually took over. An early advocate of the ‘total kitchen’ concept promoted by cabinet companies in the 1950s, Bud recognised refrigeration could be built into not only kitchen cabinets but also credenzas, end tables, and bar counters. Under his leadership, Sub-Zero became synonymous with luxury home design and known as the brand of built-in refrigeration.

The experimental 80’s

With designers asking for products to help them break from conventional kitchen layouts, Bud Bakke introduced integrated refrigeration — refrigerator and freezer drawers and cabinets that could be installed anywhere from a kitchen island to a breakfast nook, cementing Sub-Zero as the go-to brand for designers and architects.

To the future!

In 1992, the company was passed on to another generation, with Bud’s son, Jim Bakke, taking the helm. Now facing far larger competitors, who manufactured comprehensive lines of all the household appliances, Sub-Zero was feeling the squeeze. Jim recognized the need to diversify beyond the products developed to refrigerate his father’s insulin 50 years previously. He reasoned that if the company could be famous for quality food preservation, it could be famous for quality food preparation. Jim began searching for a great cooking brand.

Enter the wolf…

Their search took them 2,000 miles west of Wisconsin, and to the opposite end of the temperature spectrum, where they found Wolf. Also a family business, started by brothers Al and Hyman Wolf, they built ranges for America’s greatest chefs, but were virtually unknown by consumers. Recognising a business of equal quality, Jim Bakke bought Wolf’s consumer line in 2000, and set out to make the Wolf name as famous among designers and homeowners as Sub-Zero.

Less is more

Wolf took the kitchen-design and cooking worlds by storm, winning rave reviews and gobbling up market share. Wolf’s growth and Sub-Zero’s renewed vigour were aided by yet another audacious strategy: reducing, not expanding, the brands’ distribution. “Designers, architects, builders, specialty retailers – those were always our best partners,” Jim Bakke said. “They get who we are and what we stand for.” The company pulled out of mass retail channels, cultivated relationships with trade professionals and specialty stores, and built elaborate showrooms to support the trade.

Tough times don’t last

Then came 2008. As the global recession suppressed consumers’ appetites for new appliances, Jim again led Sub-Zero and Wolf on an aggressive course. Instead of pulling back and pinching pennies, the company invested heavily in innovation. Like his grandfather, who had anticipated demand for refrigeration after the war, Jim anticipated hunger for innovative new appliances in the housing recovery. When the turnaround came, Sub-Zero was ready, launching nearly 100 new products. Meanwhile, Wolf pounced into the market with its most advanced products yet, with major design and performance upgrades.

What now?

Jim Bakke said, “My grandfather said that Sub-Zero would build only the highest-quality products and that as long as we did, we’d always have customers.” This prophecy has proved true yet again, as now Sub-Zero and Wolf are now launching their first small appliances range onto the UK market: Wolf Gourmet.

Find out more about the Wolf Gourmet range, here.

Sub-Zero and Wolf |