Angela and Jim Schumacher knew they were getting themselves into a sticky situation, literally, when they both quit their jobs a few years ago to launch their business, Smoky Lake Maple Products in Hilbert.
But their leap of faith has paid off — the couple’s Calumet County business was named the 2020 Exporter of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration Wisconsin District. Despite their serendipitous beginning, they are already looking at their second expansion in just five years.
Angela Schumacher’s passing interest in maple sugaring led to the creation of the business that manufactures stainless steel evaporators and flue pans as well as tooling and equipment for tapping, filtering, testing and bottling maple syrup.
Her interest was sparked at Maywood Flapjack Days at the Ellwood H. May Environmental Park in Sheboygan in 2008, which led to a weekend tapping trees and the couple starting their first batch of maple syrup.
“I like to try new things,” Angela Schumacher says. “I never imagined in a million years (what would develop). It just started out as us having fun.”
Around 2008, Angela Schumacher, an art director at an advertising agency in Sheboygan, and Jim Schumacher, a licensed plumber in Kaukauna, began visiting their cabin in Upper Michigan between the shores of Big Smoky and Little Smoky lakes on the weekends to make maple syrup. They enjoyed the process, but Jim Schumacher, especially, was obsessed with increasing their efficiency.
“Every year, he took what he learned and improved upon the year before,” Angela Schumacher says.
Using their own savings, they incorporated in 2010 and by 2011, Jim quit his job to focus on the business, where he and a staff of 15 create American-made products with their trademark skillful welding and attention to detail.
“He realized there was a need in the market that big manufacturers were kind of ignoring. My husband has an engineering mind and has always been an incredible craftsman,” says Angela Schumacher, adding that her husband taught himself how to weld and create tooling. “He’s a very good problem solver. He finds out what’s the problem and researches the heck out of it.”
Angela Schumacher says success came swiftly. “We were just really busy from the beginning; there was so much demand.”
Smoky Lake Maple Products has encountered some challenges along the way. The business started in the couple’s garage and semitrucks weren’t allowed in their neighborhood, so materials needed to be dropped off at a local hardware store.
“We took all the stainless steel home, piece by piece … we had to build a wooden support system to hold the wall up so we could lean (the pieces) against it. There were so many little hurdles like that,” Angela Schumacher says.
Today, the business has an 8,000-square-foot shop and an 8,000-square-foot warehouse. Jim Schumacher’s creativity and skills have led to the development of new patents and industry-changing products, which Smoky Lake ships worldwide.
“He was the first one to come up with a steam bottler,” says Angela Schumacher, noting that a major competitor later copied it bolt by bolt.
Smoky Lake also patented the Murphy Compensation Cup, an invention that simplifies density testing. And while their products are designed for the maple syrup industry, Angela Schumacher says they’ve seen some crossover with their stainless-steel filter press used in beer, CBD and pharmaceutical manufacturing, while their evaporators are used in Great Britain’s licorice industry and in Bermuda for sea salt evaporation.
“After we started our business, we gifted some small maple syrup density testing equipment to the Maywood maple (sugaring) program as a thank you for inspiring us to embark on this path,”
says Angela Schumacher. “They were so tickled to hear that they had inspired us to start a business.”
David Kuckuk, environmental park director at Maywood, agrees. “I didn’t realize their business had grown into such an international business,” he says. “They’ve carved out a pretty nice niche for themselves.”
Angela Schumacher says last year, Maywood approached the company to revamp and modernize its entire evaporator setup. “Maywood is now poised to have the most efficient maple season ever,” she says.
In March, it will begin boiling sap for more syrup, and that decision couldn’t make the Schumachers happier.
“Everything kind of went full circle,” Angela Schumacher says.