Lifestyle

Kusak is region’s best family business

Kris and Chuck Kusak are pictured in the showroom at Kusak Cut Glass Works in the Rainier Valley last week. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Kris and Chuck Kusak are pictured in the showroom at Kusak Cut Glass Works in the Rainier Valley last week.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

When Chuck Kusak answers the phone at his family-owned glass and crystal shop in the Rainier Valley, his first words are, “How can I serve you?”, summing up in just one sentence the philosophy of the Kusak Cut Glass Works, Inc.

The company long known for its fine products and commitment to family and community is being honored once again for those values. The 94-year-old company is the 2008 recipient of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Seattle District Office Family-Owned Small Business of the Year award for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. The award honors a family-owned and operated business that has been passed on from one generation to another.

Kusak Cut Glass Works was established in 1914 by a young glass cutter, Anton C. Kusak Sr., who arrived in the United States with just a few dollars in his pocket. He was a trained freehand glass engraver who learned his trade in Austria during the early 1900s. The business is now run by Kusak’s grandson, former Mercer Island resident, Chuck. The glass works is located in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. Its single facility hosts both retail and manufacturing operations. Their high-end products include crystal stemware and barware, decorative vases and chandeliers, and commercial awards and trophies that are sold throughout the United States and on the Internet.

Since its inception, the company has remained a family-owned business. Many of its employees have worked for the company for decades, their longevity a key part of the success of the business. Chuck Kusak has been involved at the shop since he was five, he said, leaving one to imagine the outgoing man as an exuberant kindergartner in a shop filled with delicate glass.

The business has retained even wider family ties to its suppliers in Czechoslovakia and its ties to the local community. The company has had the same insurance agency for 40 years.

Kusak, a 1965 graduate of Mercer Island High School, is past president of the Rainier Rotary and has been involved with the Boy Scouts of America, the Leukemia Society, Children’s Hospital and other organizations.

The store and factory just off Rainier Avenue South, has seen nearly a century of change. The family business has had to remain nimble to keep up with changing tastes in glassware and the realities of economic booms and busts. Several years ago, the company turned to making glass trophies and corporate awards to boost its income.

There has been a series of challenges over the years, Kusak acknowledges, but “we are proud of the fact that we continue to make a beautiful product at a fair price.”

The goal, he said, is “to keep the product classic, yet always look for ways to re-invent yourself.”

You have to listen and paying attention, he continued.

Finding out what people want and seeing how he and his company can respond has proved to be a good model. A story tells why.

One day, a woman called from Arizona to ask if Kusak made pineapple vases. When he said no, she was amazed. Why would a well-established, reputable family business that made fine objects not have pineapple vases, she wondered? Kusak didn’t know. He did some research and found that the pineapple is an important touchstone in many cultures, signifying home, happiness and good fortune. The Chinese translation of the word is “luck has arrived.” Representations of the giant fruit are often given as wedding gifts. Certainly, they were an excellent metaphor for what Kusak glass represented, he concluded.

The businessman went to bed that evening thinking about a pineapple vase. He decided that his company should make one. He got out of bed, sketched a few designs and sent them off to Kusak’s production partners in Czechoslovakia. The vase was a hit. The company continues to make them in three different sizes.

The addition of light rail has brought in another wave of change to the Rainier Valley, now a center for many immigrant communities. But Chuck Kusak is unfazed. It is his life, it is his neighborhood. A few years ago, Kusak bought back his grandfather’s house in the Mt. Baker neighborhood. He walks to work each day. His mother, now 90, still lives nearby in her home at the North end of the Island. He relishes his life.

When asked what his grandfather would think about the award, Kusak has a ready answer — the family legacy never far from his thoughts.

“I know that he and my father are smiling,” he said. “They are glad that the family name lives on and our integrity is intact.”

And what was the award that the company received for their latest honor? Why, it was a fine Kusak trophy, of course.

Kusak Cut Glass Works is located at 1911 22nd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98144. Their Web site is www.kusak.com.

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