When she turned 11, Melanie H. Hachten began working alongside her grandfather at his small furniture polish business, Instant Products Co., on Genesee Street in Buffalo.
Primarily a one-person operation, her grandfather did the manufacturing of his lone product, Life O’ Wood, a multisurface polish. The youngster aided by dumping ingredients into metal drums, labeling bottles and boxing orders.
When her grandfather died in 1998, Hachten, the oldest grandchild, was his succession plan. She was only 15.
Life O’ Wood marks its 100th anniversary this year, and its longevity can largely be attributed to a young woman who sacrificed so much to keep her grandfather’s legacy alive.
Over the years, her mother and brothers have chipped in, but Hachten has been the primary manufacturer of the product.
“It’s been Melanie keeping it going, for the most part; it’s been a struggle, a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” said Hachten’s mother, also named Melanie.
In high school, Hachten juggled her studies and activities with time at the facility mixing batches, filling and putting labels on bottles and making deliveries. Even though she went to SUNY Fredonia, she drove home on the weekends and holidays to run the business. Now as a full-time instrumental music teacher in the Allegany-Limestone Central School District, Hachten is still trekking to the small East Side plant, using her summer break to stock up on orders.
While the polish is sold at Wegmans, Tops, Dash’s and smaller retailers, the business, faced with stiff competition from national brands and an aging customer base, hasn’t been profitable in years. Hachten’s last paycheck was seven years ago.
“It’s not about money; it’s about pride and the history of the business,” said Hachten, now 32. “I get gratification when I hear from customers. They love it because it is a quality product that’s made in America. It has a really good reputation.”
With Life O’ Wood reaching the century milestone, Hachten doesn’t want to see it end.
“I’d be interested in talking to anybody willing to provide financial help,” she said. “By no means would I want to sell the business, but I would like production to pick up to where I’d need to hire people. Realistically, I know I won’t be able to make a living with the business. But I would want to expand in stores cross country and not just be known in the Buffalo area.”
Leonard Anthony started Instant Products Co. in 1914 and with his secret recipe for an oil-based cleaner and polish for wood furniture, and he began making and marketing Life O’ Wood. Harold G. McDermid, Hachten’s grandfather, bought the company in 1965 and operated it on Swan Street next door to his printing shop.
At the business’ peak in 1970, when mom-and-pop stores were plentiful and stocked the polish, 46,500 bottles of Life O’ Wood were sold. The company now produces only 7,500 bottles a year, and sales continue to drop. Hachten’s mother, who also worked at the business as a child and continues to wear various hats, including accountant and food broker, said it has always been a part-time business for the family.
In 1991, the company moved to 1948 Genesee St. McDermid, in his 80s, was still at the helm. But Hachten was increasingly his sidekick at the small facility. Ingredients are mixed in a five-hour process in a 180-gallon vat that dates from the start of the company. The polish then has to set overnight. Labels are hand-glued to the glass bottles, which receive their milky contents with the help of nozzle-filling machine.
The polish has proven to be a slow sell for retailers, since only a small amount is needed for each use, and people are not cleaning like they used to – factors that Hachten’s mother believes contribute the business’ decline.
Whether the company survives or eventually closes, Hachten said, her experience has been rewarding. She has had to be chemist, engineer and mechanic throughout the years.
“I’ve learned to be hardworking and reliable,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure put on me, but nobody has my story. … I hope my grandfather is looking down and he’s proud.”