History of Sub-Zero

In the Beginning

In 1943, Westye F. Bakke built the first freestanding freezer in the basement of his Madison, WI. home. A businessman with a keen ability to anticipate post-World War II refrigeration trends, he founded Sub-Zero Freezer Company just two years later in an old two-car garage. From its modest beginnings, Sub-Zero has become what it is today: the recognized leading manufacturer of premium built-in home refrigerators.

Since its founding, Sub-Zero has pioneered quality products that meet its customers needs. In the mid-1950s, for example, the company developed the built-in refrigerator – a unit that changed the future of kitchen design by fitting within surrounding counter and cabinet space. Over time, the company has refined its early concept and has brought to market a comprehensive line of built-in models, including the 200 Series of undercounter models, its award-winning 500 Series, the design-flexible 600 Series, the integrated 700 Series, and, most recently, the state-of-the-art 400 Series of wine storage.

Indicative of the company’s innovative engineering is its dual refrigeration system, which relies on two separate, self-contained cooling systems to keep fresh food fresher and preserve frozen food longer.

For 60 years, Sub-Zero has offered innovative, aesthetically appealing and technologically advanced solutions to meet virtually any home refrigeration need. Through foresight and responsiveness, the company has earned its position as an industry leader – a position Sub-Zero intends to maintain well into the new millennium.

Photo Tour
  • Westye Bakke on his Harley-Davidson Motorcycle with his wife Mary and two children “Bud” and Elaine on their way to start a new life in Madison, WI (1926). During the depression, Westye worked as a refrigerator consultant for Frank Lloyd Wright, creating specially designed refrigeration units that would fit into the Wright-designed projects, including the Johnson Wax Building and Wingspread.

  • In the summer of 1945, the Second World War was drawing to a close. Consumer goods would soon replace wartime materials, and returning veterans were eager to establish homes and begin family life.

    With the war’s end, Westye prepared to begin a new venture. On August 20, 1945, he created and incorporated the Sub-Zero Freezer Company, Inc. as a registered Wisconsin corporation, empowered to “manufacture and assemble refrigerator equipment and parts.”

    Originally capitalized at $25,000, the Sub-Zero Freezer Company was the culmination of many years of work by Westye in the field of refrigeration. The business was founded on his ability to innovate and to anticipate postwar trends in refrigeration.

    At right: Walk-in Cooler (1946)

  • The name, Sub-Zero, came from the new standard for the safe freezing of food. No longer was the common standard of zero to ten degrees Fahrenheit acceptable. Freezers had to be able to keep food at a constant temperature below zero. Westye’s newly designed freezers, unlike many others, could do just that.

    Working with aluminum as well as steel by 1947, Westye began to build many of these new upright freezers, becoming the first in the industry to create all-aluminum appliances with separate inside doors. The upright models became so successful that, by 1950, the plant ended

  • Sub-Zero milk coolers came in several varieties and sizes, and were valuable because they kept the milk at a dependably cool temperature. Built to accommodate four, six, eight or even twelve cans, the heavily-insulated coolers opened in front for easy access to the milk cans.

    While in college, Bud Bakke’s work at the University of Wisconsin School of Agriculture also proved helpful in the development and design of these new coolers. He was instrumental in having the Sub-Zero coolers tested to ensure that they met exacting specifications and in using these test result to market the Sub-Zero milk coolers.

    At right: Westye’s son Bud with the eight-can cooler (late 1940’s)

  • Quality and innovation guided Sub-Zero’s operation as they entered the 1950’s and that included the vision of Bud Bakke. Bud spent most of his time researching and exploring the field of industrial refrigeration. Always on the cutting edge, many of Bud’s experiments and tests brought Sub-Zero national recognition. It was an exciting time for Sub-Zero.

    At right: working with the Ray-O-Vac battery company to test battery operation at a temperature of ninety degrees below zero.

  • New ideas in design, as well as engineering, came from the team of Bud Bakke and Bob Kelly. From their work with aluminum molding, and from the success of the first upright models, came the idea of producing an upright freezer with a rounded top, which fit into the decorative ideals of the 1950s kitchen. To implement this new design, new production equipment, including a large metal press, was soon purchased.

    Sub-Zero entered the “design-conscious” era of the 1950s with a new ability to mold its products so they would meet the demands of trends in interior design.

  • In the late 1950s, the leaders in kitchen design at the time were the cabinet companies, which began to specialize in a “total kitchen concept.” Many designers of new or remodeled American kitchens worked to achieve a smooth, streamlined, unified look. The emphasis on horizontal lines was part of an overall architectural trend of the 1950s.

    In keeping with kitchen trends, the new Sub-Zero built-ins would fit the precise dimensions of customized kitchens. The engineering team added another design idea to make the built-in even more appealing to kitchen customizers by developing a new door concept that consisted of a recessed panel with a protruding frame, onto which any number of fronts could be attached. Sub-Zero models could thus be completely customized to match the decor, wood grain, or metal tones of any kitchen color scheme. It would completely blend into the unified kitchen concept.

  • Steady improvements in design were a part of Sub-Zero’s progress during the 1960s, as they experimented with the concept of “refrigerated furniture.” A small-sized refrigerator or freezer unit was built into a piece of furniture, such as a bar counter, an office credenza, or even a living room end table. The exterior wood grain of the appliance matched the consumer’s wooden furniture, creating refrigerated furniture.

    At right: Bud and Westye Bakke

  • Whatever the customer’s taste, the option of choosing one’s own kitchen “look” gradually grew in popularity during the 1960s. By 1967, the built-ins had become Sub-Zero’s largest-selling model, comprising approximately 70 percent of its total sales.

  • The 1970s ushered in the strong leadership team of Bud Bakke and Homer Price. Price’s expertise in sales and his ability to develop a strong new network of distributorships proved to be the company’s long-awaited key to financial growth.

  • While sales volume increased, Bud Bakke and Bob Kelly worked with the engineering team, which now included Al Wilkins, to improve interior design and mechanical functions of Sub-Zero units. The team added a better interior lighting package and a new pull-out freezer drawer for consumer convenience in accessing frozen food.

    Several key improvements were developed in the mid-1970s, including improved wiring circuitry and increased energy efficiency in all models. The new Sub-Zero units, designed by Wilkins, reduced consumption to three kilowatt hours per day. Sub-Zero was among the first refrigerator manufacturers to realize that energy consumption was an economic and environmental issue. In the name of better quality, increased efficiency became a top priority.

  • As a second plant in Arizona was being completed in the spring of 1981, Bud Bakke’s son, James Bakke, joined the company. He began a unique training program designed by his father and Homer Price. In preparation for assuming the presidency of Sub-Zero, James Bakke would spend 10 years learning the product and distributor market by working in various positions within the company.

    To complement the in-house work of the engineering department, industrial designer Jerome Caruso was hired. The first model Caruso worked on was the 532 unit - part of the new 500 series, which featured better ergonomics such as improved lighting, ease of door opening, seals for tighter closing, and improved handles.

  • As Sub-Zero approached its fiftieth anniversary in 1995, the company unveiled an entirely new concept in modular refrigeration planning that kept Sub-Zero at the forefront of the refrigeration industry. The 700 Series concept, known as “integrated refrigeration,” included one twenty-seven-inch refrigerator, one freezer, one combination module and two under-the-counter modules, which were actually refrigerated pull-out drawer units.

    “The 700 Series is the answer to homeowners’ and designers’ search for complete design freedom and convenience in refrigeration,” stated James Bakke, president and CEO of Sub-Zero. With three generations of leadership from the Bakke family, Jim continues the heritage of quality and design innovation with the company that his grandfather had founded almost 50 years earlier.

  • In the late 1990s, the 600 Series replaced the 500 Series. From electronic controls to updated interiors, the units ushered in a new generation of design excellence and exceptional food preservation. Additionally, Wine Storage joined the Sub-Zero family with the 400 Series.

    ‘Our new 400 Series of wine equipment sets the standard for wine storage, much like our refrigerators set the standard for home refrigeration,’ said James Bakke, president and CEO of Sub-Zero. ‘We’re giving designers and consumers what they’ve been asking for, with four innovative units that not only properly store wine but also offer a beautiful way to display it.’

    Sub-Zero’s wine storage units include two separate refrigeration compartments with independent temperature zones and varying capacity. The zones can be set to any temperature between 38 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Such flexibility allows the wine enthusiast to set temperatures based on their individual needs—whether short-term storage in preparation for serving or long-term storage.

  • Sub-Zero Freezer Company acquired Wolf Gourmet in March 2000 to create the ultimate in cooking instruments for serious, passionate cooks. The merger joined Sub-Zero’s heritage and timeless dedication to quality with Wolf’s commitment to superior cooking.

    The same year, Sub-Zero built a 350,000-square-foot state-of-the-art manufacturing facility and began construction on a 30,000-square-foot on-site training center dedicated to education and product development. The company also dedicated a trained staff of consumer scientists, designers and engineers to monitor production and quality assurance. Every new Wolf appliance is tested to exceed industry standards and carries Wolf’s two to five-year warranty, offering greater protection than most competitors.

    Wolf’s dedication to creating superior cooking appliances began in 1933, when Al and Hyman Wolf established Wolf Range Company. A leader in commercial cooking equipment for nearly 70 years, Wolf entered the residential market in 1989 and for those serious about cooking instruments, has come to represent the final word in performance.

    Together, the corporate companions of Sub-Zero and Wolf combine beautiful, flexible design and proprietary, high performance technology to create the ideal uncompromised kitchen.