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Sheboygan: Creative Capital of Wisconsin?
Jake’s Café hopes so.

Photos by Joe Hang

For decades, the labyrinthine campus of Sheboygan advertising firm Jacobson Rost, one of Wisconsin’s pluckiest and most prosperous, was a destination for Badger State businessmen. Officers from companies such as Kohler, Trek and Kimberly-Clark came for mornings of meetings and afternoons of golf.

Founded in 1957 in the garage of Frank “Jake” Jacobson, the firm (originally Jacobson Advertising) later grew to fill an interconnected assemblage of three historic homes and a former Baptist church with about 75 employees who generated some $50 million in annual billings.

“There was a charm these big companies found in coming to Sheboygan, the city with a funny name,” says Frank’s son, Tryg Jacobson, who joined the firm in 1981 after a stint running a glass-etching company in Minneapolis. “And we had a tremendous brain trust of creatives. It was rather unique for a small town.”

Then, the agency departed. In 2010, Jacobson’s partner, Jerry Flemma, moved it to Milwaukee’s Third Ward after buying Jacobson’s few remaining shares in the firm. All that was left was 20,000 square feet of empty office space in Sheboygan. “I knew I didn’t want to break the buildings up and sell them piece by piece,” says Jacobson, who turns 56 in May. But finding a buyer seemed like a long shot. The campus, situated on the edge of downtown Sheboygan, “was really a white elephant.”

First, Jacobson thought of filling the offices with filmmakers. Instead, he broadened the concept to include all creative professionals – inventors, graphic artists, innovation specialists, writers, fashion designers, illustrators, microfinance experts, marketers, filmmakers, etc. – and founded Jake’s Café (named for his father) early last year, hoping to quickly repopulate the deserted campus.

So far, so good. About 25 creative businesses are based at Jake’s, where they pay rent (extra for secretarial and financial services provided by the campus) and commission to the facility when Jacobson lures in a big fish. Like Johnsonville. The brat-maker recently tapped filmmakers and writers at Jake’s for a video the company will use in international sales presentations.

Jake’s, according to Jacobson, is “totally solvent,” has no debt and runs in the black “every single month.” Tenants are responsible for their own bottom lines, but collaboration is common. “Being here allows us to promote ourselves as having on-site video production, on-site public relations, on-site design teams and on-site Web development,” says Jon Rost, the “Rost” in Jacobson Rost. No longer an agency partner, he now runs a product development firm based at Jake’s.

Jacobson hopes such cross-pollination will make Jake’s a problem-solving destination. And Sheboygan officials hope that, under the influence of Jake’s, the city will become the state’s new creative epicenter. “The passion of Jake’s Café is rubbing off on the people of Sheboygan,” says Sheboygan County Administrator Adam Payne, who hopes to attract more young adults to the area. Or, they could choose Milwaukee, where a Wauwatosa native is launching HUDSON, an 11,000-square-foot business lounge with rentable open-concept workspaces.

But Jake’s may have a head start: At 1:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, a quiet energy was swirling through the space, where several young creatives (Jacobson says most are in their mid-30s) were sifting through a communal candy jar in a room that Warhol might have kicked back in. More were chatting over smokes and coffee.

Jacobson feels he’s liberated many of these people from home offices. But, he adds, “We’ve got to earn our stripes.” And that takes time. “It’s like growing a prairie. The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps.” 

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