PATERSON, NJ- At first glance, Bacon & Graham may look like just another company nestled in a series of brick warehouses on 25th street, but a closer look shows that there’s much more than meets the eye in their past, present, and hopefully, future. A homegrown business celebrating its 80th anniversary, Bacon & Graham embodies much of the same resilience and innovation that has powered Paterson for the past century.
“It’s been very interesting to see the changes in American society through the eyes of the business,” says Craig Bacon, third generation owner of Bacon & Graham, who took over the business from his father and grandmother before him.
Growing up in the company, Bacon has witnessed the fight for identity and survival in his family’s business and in the city that shelters it, watching as they’ve both persevered, even as the world forces them to undergo massive change.
Bacon & Graham was created in 1939, when local accountant Mary Bacon, Craig’s grandmother, had an idea. She worked for a company that printed textiles. At the time, Paterson was dominated by the silk industry, earning it the nickname “Silk City.”
Traditionally, printing on silk required the use of a fabric backing to stop excess ink from absorbing into the material. This process was slow and costly as it required workers to frequently stop the machines to switch out the fabric. Mary Bacon realized that it would be much easier and cheaper to use a large roll of reusable paper instead. She decided to pitch the idea.
But she ran into a problem when presenting the idea to her company president. The rolls of paper used in this process weighed 2,000 pounds. The owner didn’t believe that Mary, who barely weight a hundred pounds, would be able to unload such massive merchandise. But Mary wasn’t one to give up. She thought quickly, and came up with a solution, or rather, an entirely new person.
Mary wasn’t going to be unloading these rolls alone, she told her boss. She had a male partner, a Mr. Graham, who would help her with the heavy lifting. Thus, her entirely fictitious partner was born, and her company, Bacon & Graham, was able to move forward quickly as demand for her product spread throughout Paterson and the country.
Mr. Graham’s name still hangs on the marquee, and Mary Bacon’s quick thinking and determination live on through her company 80 years after its inception. Still in its original location on 25th St, Bacon & Graham now encompasses five warehouses and employs twenty-four people.
Mary Bacon’s original innovation no longer fuels the company’s business. Changes in textile printing methods rendered in her Silk City died out in the 80s as manufacturing fled the city and eventually the country. Like Paterson, Bacon & Graham had to evolve. So, the Bacon’s morphed their business into a packaging distribution company, selling packing supplies, safety products, and janitorial supplies, as well as selling and servicing the packaging equipment itself.
They now have a fleet of trucks and service almost 1,000 customers throughout the area. “This is a great company, and it’s just getting better,” says General Manager Rob Stern.
The key, according to Craig Bacon, is adaptation. “You have to constantly learn,” says Bacon, who originally trained as an accountant, but wanted to spend time working directly with people. “You can’t say that you know everything.”
Today, Bacon & Graham thrives on the skill and experience of its people. A rare find in today’s fast-paced business climate, many Bacon & Graham employees have been with the company for over twenty years. “I know a lot of the kids and grandkids. It’s really fun watching these kids grow up and have kids of their own,” says Bacon.
Stern, who has only been with the company for five years, thinks he has some idea why Bacon & Graham has been able to retain workers. “It’s not a corporate atmosphere,” he says. “We’ve made it a really nice environment. It’s clean and safe, people come to us and we work with them.”
Both Bacon and Stern credit their maintained success to the collective knowledge of products and customer base they and their employees have built up over the years. “Most people are just rag salesmen,” says Stern. “But we’re trying to keep long-term customers by showing them value.”
Bacon says he was taught by his grandmother to be prepared for anything. “She was a very aggressive person,” says Bacon. He tells a story from early in his career when she took him on a sales call. Craig was writing down an order when his pen ran out of ink. Without thinking, he took a pen from the buyer’s desk. The client didn’t care, but his grandmother was livid.
“She said ‘what kind of salesperson are you to have only one pen?’ The buyer was laughing as she chewed me out,” says Bacon. “I don’t think I’ve ever been caught shorthanded with only one pen since,” he laughs.
Bacon credits the City of Paterson as one of the reasons his family’s company has been able to maintain in the face of an ever-changing business world. “This area was a microcosm of the way the whole United States grew through the industrial revolution,” he says.
In the beginning, it was the manufacturing and production of Silk City that powered Bacon & Graham. But as things shifted, and industry left Paterson, new avenues presented themselves. Now, Craig says Paterson’s central location and proximity to highways makes it “a great place for distributions.”
Today, much like Bacon & Graham, Paterson’s strength lies in its people. According to the US Census, most Patersonians no longer work in manufacturing, but in service, sales, and business. Over 20% of employed residents work in education, health care, and social assistance. They were left with no choice but to evolve, and, with the Sayegh Administration’s continued emphasis on economic development, will likely continue to change.
Craig Bacon says he has tried to give back to the city that “has given us a chance to work and to grow,” trying to hire as many employees from Paterson as they can, and supporting local organizations such as Boys and Girls Club and youth sports leagues. “We try to work with the youth of the city, to help and see them grow,” says Bacon.
Like most business owners, Craig worries about the future, specifically how we communicate. “I think that’s the biggest change I’ve noticed. Communication has gotten a lot more difficult,” he says, fearing that the internet has made it harder for “people to ask questions and carry on a conversation.”
Still, he remains hopeful about Bacon & Graham’s chances of survival. “It really is keeping in touch with innovations and the changes that are going on,” he explains. As an example of the forward thinking he hopes to embody, he talks about the board game Monopoly.
The game was originally sold in a hard, wooden box before the company switched the now ubiquitous cardboard box currently in use. But as online purchases have begun to replace in-store shopping, the company is going back to the old wooden package, “so that box is its own shipping container,” says Craig.
What that means for Bacon & Graham, Craig explains, is that the company should be ready for fewer boxes, and maybe “start working with more films [to cover the new packaging] and the equipment to apply those films.” This simple but game-changing idea is similar to those that has propelled his family’s business for decades, even as others in the industry collapsed.
“I thank my grandparents and my father for doing all that they did and for being so tough on me,” says Bacon. For Bacon & Graham and Paterson both, the past eighty years haven’t been easy, but given how they’ve handled adversity to this point, it might be a safe bet to expect eighty more.
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