Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
In Chicago, Brian Urlacher is everywhere. The former Bears linebacker towers above highways and busy intersections, from downtown to O'Hare. His stare is steely; his powerful arms spread. On his chest: the iconic No. 54 jersey. On his head: a subdued sweep of soft, brown hair.
"Urlacher Tackles Balding" the billboards proclaim. And in equally prominent type, the name of the sponsoring business: Restore.
In terms of professional sports, Chicago is a best-of-teams, worst-of-teams kind of town. You've got your Blackhawks and, in Michael Jordan's day, your Bulls. Until this glorious season, the Cubs hadn't made it to the World Series for more than 70 years. (A curse placed on the franchise in 1945 by a local tavern owner, who was forced to leave Wrigley Field because he'd brought a goat, hasn't helped.)
In spite of the drama, or maybe because of it, Chicagoans are rabid about their teams. Jake and Jordan Sadoff know that well--they grew up here, in the suburb of Schaumberg. So in 2014, when the identical twin brothers launched a hair-restoration business, they determined that the fastest way to the public's heart was through local athletes' heads.
In addition to Urlacher, the retired Bear whom some call the most beloved Chicago sports figure since Jordan, the Sadoffs have seeded scalps for former Blackhawks Eddie Olczyk and Bryan Bickell, and for former Bear Jason McKie. Other famous Chicago athletes treated by Restore are temporarily incognito. The Sadoffs are fond of "the reveal," in which celebrity clients wait the nine-to-12 months it takes to grow a full head of hair before wowing the world. Tip to Chicagoans wondering which chrome dome is next: Look out for anyone who always wears a hat in public.
Ever since Urlacher's reveal in January, "they are flocking to us," says Jordan Sadoff, Restore's CEO. "We are performing procedures for athletes in every single sport. From the most popular--football, baseball, hockey--to soccer and fishing, and everything in between. We have got some all-stars that are coming up now. Most of them have been happy to endorse our store."
Typically the athletes receive free procedures and, in some cases, financial remuneration. But the Sadoffs' end game is not to become hair-restorer to sports stars. Rather it is to use sports stars to reach average joes who consider hair-restoration less than macho. "This is a subject that has been taboo," says Sadoff. "The athletes are our way of starting the conversation."
That strategy has worked, driving sales of the startup above $5 million, most of that growth since Urlacher's head went viral. Restore's waiting list is months' long. Eight consultation offices across the city serve the 85 percent of clientele that is local. The company's Oak Brook headquarters, where treatments are performed, is 10 minutes from O'Hare, convenient for people coming from as far off as England and Japan.
"Hair restoration--where is that link on the tail of deteriorating characteristics of the human species? Is it like [erectile dysfunction] or going to Depends?" says Jim Cornelison, who sings the national anthem at Blackhawks games and is now a Restore endorser. "So I was a little bit hesitant to get involved in a public way. But when you've got super-studs like Urlacher and Olczyk doing this kind of thing ... putting me in along all those guys makes me look good."
The procedure "builds your self-esteem," Cornelison says. "You look in the mirror and it's, oh, man, my hair looks good. I rolled back the clock a little bit."
From beanies to gold.
The Sadoff twins have been founding companies together since college. While at Northern Illinois University, they discovered a hot secondary market for Beanie Babies when Jake had trouble buying presents for a girlfriend. "On one side of the coin were people with thousands of Beanies in Rubbermaid tubs underneath the kids' beds who wanted to cash in on them," says Jordan Sadoff. "On the other side were new collectors interested in buying."
The twins launched J.J. Bean in 1998 to unite buyers and sellers of Humphrey the Camel, Patti the Platypus, and their floppy friends, operating both online and through mail order. When the craze cooled a few years later, they switched markets, selling the critters in bulk to groceries, toy stores, and boardwalk shops for a buck or two apiece, instead of one at a time for hundreds or thousands of dollars. In 2008, the Sadoffs closed down J.J. Bean, which at its peak did between $2 million and $3 million in revenue, to pursue a new opportunity.
That opportunity was gold. At the start of the recession, "the price of gold had spiked, and people had a large mass of unwanted jewelry from the 1980s and 1990s," says Sadoff. J.J. Bean had proved that buying stuff back from the public could be a winning model, so the brothers used profits from that business to launch GoldMax, a chain of gold-buying outlets. Everything they bought they sold to Johnson Mathey Refining, a British company with a facility in New Jersey. The refinery would melt down the jewelry and turn it into gold bars for sale to institutional investors.
Located in malls, GoldMax stores "were nothing like a pawn shop," says Sadoff. "We were very high-end. It felt more like a banking environment." To banish any stigma, the Sadoffs signed on as their spokesperson Robin Leach, onetime host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. "In our advertisements, Robin Leach would be interviewing our customers so the consumer could understand it was a very friendly, nonthreatening environment," says Sadoff. "It really changed the way the people felt about selling their gold."
The brothers knew from the start that GoldMax "was a business with a shelf life," says Sadoff. They thought the expiration date might be two years; in fact, it was seven, five of which were very good. Starting from a single outlet in the Chicago suburb of Hanover Park, GoldMax expanded to more than 200 locations across the country, reaping revenues of $300 million. When the price of gold began to drop in 2013, they slowly unwound the business, closing the last store in 2015.
As they were closing GoldMax, the Sadoffs saw the next big thing--in their mirrors.
The tress distress.
Identical twins can't escape their physical flaws. Even if they avoid mirrors, they can't not see that other self sitting across the breakfast table or approaching on the sidewalk. Starting at age 25, both Jake and Jordan Sadoff started losing their hair. During weekly lunches, their mother gently ribbed them about who was balding faster.
"My hairline went from being thick and full, like a young man, to being very thin and broken and brittle," says Sadoff. "The look of my face aged 10 to 15 years over the two-year span, as did my brother's."
In 2006 a friend of Sadoff's recommended he consult with Art Katona, a local doctor working for a national company called Medical Hair Restoration. Katona specialized in a process called follicular unit transplantation (FUT) that removes a few hairs at a time with a minimum of tissue from the back of the head, where the hair tends to be bushier, and relocates them to the front. After speaking with Katona, the brothers booked appointments at the same time in adjacent rooms. (Teams of technicians perform the procedure; the doctor moves between them.)
"We were nervous as hell," says Sadoff. "Many people think the hair restoration process is highly invasive, painful. This really wasn't." More important, "the hair grew back in, full and thick," says Sadoff.
The Sadoffs continued to see Katona once or twice a year to renew subscriptions for Propecia, a drug that treats male pattern hair loss. They became friendly and Katona, impressed by their entrepreneurial adventures, began asking the brothers for business advice. Then in 2010, Medical Hair Restoration sold the company and began closing locations. Katona moved to London, "where I was the only American doctor who was licensed to perform hair surgery," he says. "However, my heart remained in Chicago." Katona returned and started feeling out the Sadoffs about a partnership.
In 2013, Katona and the Sadoffs launched Restore, in Katona's original offices in the upscale Oak Brook Center mall. Instead of FUT, the business would offer a more advanced procedure called follicular unit extraction (FUE) that removes virtually no skin. The founders put in "seven figures" of their own money, says Sadoff. They used the funds to custom-build equipment that leaves only a miniscule extraction mark so as to eliminate scarring. They also upgraded the furnishings and lighting, having learned from GoldMax the importance of elevating mundane activities with a classy environment.
The challenge for Restore was to make folks as comfortable with hair restoration as they are with Lasik and Botox. "People think only strange people get [hair restoration] done or only old people or it's not macho," says Sadoff. He recalled how Robin Leach had helped remove the stigma from the gold-buying business. "I said, 'Who could have this procedure done that could speak out on our behalf, and that people would be interested in and excited about?'"
Hair of the Bear.
Brian Urlacher played linebacker for the Bears for 13 years before retiring in 2012. During that time, he won the NFL's Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. He was voted into eight Pro Bowls, and for many years his jersey was among the top sellers nationally. He was famously big, famously fast, and famously bald.
"He is the most-famous Chicago Bear since Walter Payton," says Sadoff.
For Sadoff, signing up Urlacher became job number one. He contacted the athlete's agent, who was skeptical but also--providentially--follicly challenged. Restore gave the agent a free procedure. After an FUE, it takes nine months to a year for hair to grow in fully, so the agent saw just the initial sprouts. But he was happy enough with the experience to recommend it to Urlacher.
Urlacher had reservations. "I wanted the option to be bald because I have a good bald head," he says. "So I didn't want to have a scar on the back." When he saw his agent's procedure left no mark, "I was like, hey, that looks pretty good! I should be able to look OK with that too."
"Before we knew it, we had a deal on the table for him to have a hair procedure and endorse Restore," says Sadoff. (Sadoff would not disclose the specifics of the deal with Urlacher or with other celebrity endorsers. He says only that Urlacher has "financial involvement with the company.")
After the procedure, Urlacher wore a baseball cap for nine months, in the interest of keeping his gradual transformation under wraps. "We wanted to show a guy who, last time everyone looked, he was bald," says Sadoff. "And now they blink their eyes and he has a full head of hair."
By January, the Sadoffs deemed Urlacher sufficiently hirsute to go public. They reached out to television and radio stations with interview offers. Only five of them bit. "We had thought that every station in town would be interested," says Sadoff. Urlacher made his first appearance on local station WGN at 6:50 a.m. on January 5. "Our phones started to blow up," says Sadoff. "By noon that day we had every station in the city pounding down our door begging for an interview."
Urlacher's hair went viral: It was the number one trending story on Twitter and Facebook for much of the day. In the end, it produced 650 media placements for the nascent business and more than a thousand queries.
"I didn't realize me having hair was such a big deal," says Urlacher. "It was mostly good reactions. There were some people who didn't like it, mostly bald guys. I was really surprised how many people actually cared."
Hair there and everywhere.
Beanie Babies and gold-buying are businesses that can scale quickly. As a medical procedure, hair restoration requires a more deliberate pace.
Currently, Restore employs 40 people, 25 of them technicians who work in teams on five patients at once, with Katona overseeing. Procedures typically cost between $6,000 and $12,000 and take about a day. "You can go in in the morning, watch movies on your iPad, and by the late afternoon you are done," says Sadoff.
The Sadoffs expect Restore will expand to other cities, likely starting with New York. They have not yet determined the optimal model for doing so and are weighing their options. However they roll out, their marketing strategy will remain the same: transform local sports stars and other celebrities into shaggy brand ambassadors.
Restore will likely expand in Chicago, as well. "It is going to be a hairier city," says Sadoff. "When you see a bald guy, they are going to be like a dinosaur. I am sure that shampoo sales have gone up."