Founded in 1997, Build-A-Bear Workshop may be the only franchise where you’re encouraged to tell employees to stuff it. The company specializes in customized teddy bears, offering options on everything from eyewear to scents. With more than 400 stores worldwide and 160 million bears sold, it’s a good time to be in the business of cuddles. Check out 12 facts about their bears, the infamous stuffing machine, and how Sean Penn dressed his teddy.
1. Build-A-Bear started with Beanie Babies.
Former Payless Shoe Source president Maxine Clark was shopping with her friend's 10-year-old daughter Katie, when they decided to search for Beanie Babies. Though it was the mid-1990s and Beanie Mania was in full bloom, the tiny collectibles were nowhere in sight. Plucky Katie was undeterred and observed that they would be easy to make. Clark was struck by the idea—a store where customers could make their own stuffed teddy—and opened the first Build-A-Bear storefront just nine months later.
2. The Build-A-Bear concept was often imitated but never successfully duplicated.
Build-A-Bear dominated the retail market (the chain pulled in about $50 million in operating profit in 2003), but the success wasn't all positive. Clark had to contend with both copycats and suggestions that she didn’t get the idea from Katie. According to Forbes, the co-owner of the Basic Brown Bear Factory sued Clark for copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation in 1999, asserting that she had seen his store next to a Minneapolis-area Payless in 1995 and later made an offer to buy him out. Clark told the Chicago Tribune that she proposed a purchase but never did anything illegal. The two settled out of court (confidentially) in 2001. The Tribune also reported that Build-A-Bear sent threatening letters to another plush-build chain, Friends 2B Made, for trademark infringement and for possibly creating consumer confusion.
3. Build-A-Bear executives are known as "the Bears."
The corporate offices of Build-A-Bear are never in danger of running low on bear puns. Their St. Louis offices are known as “bearquarters,” all executive staff are officially listed with titles like chief executive bear, chief human resource bear, and chief operations bear. Only chief financial officer Voin Todorovic is credited without a furry designation. Guy doesn’t seem like much fun.
4. The Build-A-Bear children's advisory board is made up of actual children.
While many youth-oriented retail businesses conduct market research, Build-A-Bear went a step further by enlisting up to 20 children aged 6 to 14 to populate their Cub Advisory Board. The kids critique bear clothes and advertising strategies and helped inform the store’s 2015 redesign. In 2002, Clark said stores “don’t do anything without getting their input.” The company still keeps in contact with advisors who have grown out of the role and says it values their “pawsome” feedback.
5. The Build-A-Bear boxes were inspired by Happy Meals.
In her 2006 autobiography, inevitably titled The Bear Necessities of Business, Clark described how she stumbled upon the distinctive take-home carton that every Build-A-Bear is transported in. “I’ve always liked how McDonald’s packages its Happy Meal,” she wrote, “complete with hamburger, fries, drink, and fun toy—into one cleverly-designed box.” While the bears do not come with fries, Clark was able to wholesale the cartons (dubbed Cub Condos) more cheaply than paper bags would have cost her. They also help advertise the brand when children are seen toting them around in malls.
6. At Build-A-Bear, you can arm your bears.
Thanks in large part to a licensing deal to carry Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Build-A-Bear offers an array of weaponry that can be bought regardless of your particular animal’s pacifism. Nunchucks, katanas, and sais are all offered. Bears can even be fitted for their own Hulk Hands.
7. The Build-A-Bear "Stuffer" is a 7-foot-tall behemoth.
Previously tucked away in the back of stores, the giant contraption that forces polyester stuffing into newborn bears has been promoted: Build-A-Bear unveiled a store redesign in September 2015 to attract more foot traffic with a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience that features a 7-foot-tall filling machine. When the company originally opened its first stores, it had to modify a pillow-stuffing machine.
8. Build-A-Bear made a surrogate mother for a real monkey.
After hearing that a DeBrazza’s monkey in a Kent, England zoo was too ill to care for her newborn offspring, Build-A-Bear’s UK offices donated a stuffed monkey that had a “beating” electronic heart inside of it. The plush was intended to replicate how a baby monkey can feel its mother’s heartbeat.
9. Sean Penn designed a Build-A-Bear teddy.
In November 2014, Operation Bobbi Bear—a charitable organization focused on child welfare—invited a number of celebrities to customize their own Build-A-Bears for an auction fundraiser. Janet Jackson, President Bill Clinton, and Sir Elton John were among those who accepted the offer. But Sean Penn’s was the most terrifying: The bear has been heavily tattooed and appears unapproachable.
10. The Build-A-Bear video on global warming terrified kids.
Eager to increase activity on social media, Build-A-Bear produced and distributed a series of videos in 2009 that depicted Santa Claus fretting about global warming. One polar bear tells him that at the rate the ice is melting, “the North Pole will be gone by Christmas.” Naturally, some kids were put off by the idea of Christmas being canceled. When the company was criticized for introducing a heavy topic to their young demographic and not remaining objective, they agreed to remove the videos.
11. Build-A-Bear inadvertently sells pet clothing.
With an array of fashionable apparel in pet-friendly sizes, it’s little wonder some animal lovers stop into Build-A-Bear to do some non-plush shopping. According to Forbes, the franchise has seen an increase in adults who stop in to buy clothing exclusively for their dogs. The company doesn’t endorse the practice, but says it may consider offering pet threads in the future.
12. The Build-A-Bear Pay Your Age promotion is now tear-proof.
Recent years have seen Build-A-Bear come under fire for running a Pay Your Age promotion that offered discounted bears according to a child's age. If they're 6 years old, their stuffed friend is only $6. Unfortunately, demand was so high that lines were long and many kids were left empty-handed and sobbing. In 2019, the company switched to a lottery system, offering reward program members the opportunity to win a ticket redeemable for the promotion. The company also released a special $6.50 pre-stuffed bear through a partnership with Walmart that was made available in most Walmart locations.
The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart.