At Southwest Signs, under the flight path of planes going to and from Midway Airport, expert painters carry on a tradition of handpainted advertising signs for Chicago area supermarkets, grocery stores and hot dog vendors. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Dan Kamba and Chuck Wilmarth are debating how to spell Oscar Mayer wiener.
The "i" should be before the "e," says Kamba, co-owner of Southwest Signs in the Clearing neighborhood, but Wilmarth, the other co-owner and Kamba’s brother-in-law, wants to be sure. Brush in hand and bent over a 4-by-8-foot sign advertising the hot dogs, he has to be.
There are no erasers in the hand-painted sign business. Each mistake is lost money and, sometimes more importantly, lost time.
As the grocery stores and food stands that once relied heavily on the signs for their daily deals have turned to printed signs, businesses that specialized in the craft have shuttered or been forced to diversify.
Sprinkled throughout Chicago, though, the art persists, through nostalgia or necessity. The hand-painted signs, written cleanly but quickly on bright paper, are hung briefly in windows of the city’s hot dog stands, fish shops and grocery stores. The inexpensive signs can be a lifeblood for some small independent shops that still rely on the advertisements.
"Even a little mom-and-pop store that doesn’t have any money can still advertise," says Carol Kamba, front desk manager at Southwest Signs. "And sometimes that little sign will pay for itself 10 times over."
Carol Kamba has just returned from her computer to settle the Oscar Mayer wiener debate. Her husband, Dan, was right.
OSCAR MAYER WIENERS
ORIGINAL OR TURKEY
14-16 OUNCE, 4 FOR $5.00
That deal won’t last long.
Stores order a sign just a day or two before the sale it’s advertising begins.
"They all wait until the last minute to order the signs because they’re all trying to beat each others’ prices," Dan Kamba says. Sometimes they’ll fork out another $30 or $40 for a new sign "just to make it 1 cent less."
So the sign painters must work fast.
Wilmarth is used to the speed. He paints the bold block letters and numbers with a style he learned as a teenager from the shop’s previous owner. With red and purple paint on the pads of his fingers, he paints one sign after the other — one for strawberries, another for lettuce — talking while he works and not missing a stroke.
"When the car’s driving down the street at 30 mph, what do you want to know? My wife always wants to know what’s on sale," Wilmarth says. "We really try to think about the layout of the signs and have the key words pop and the price pop.
"Grocery stores want knee-jerk reaction."
The paper signs start at less than $10 and go up from there, depending on the size and how much the customer wants on it, Carol Kamba says. Today, hand-painted signs comprise about 20 percent of the shop’s business.
They are called knock-out signs, says Ches Perry, lead sign painter and mural artist at Right Way Signs, as he paints three paper advertisements at once for the Fish Keg in the West Rogers Park neighborhood.
For much of his career, Perry owned a sign-painting shop in Evanston. In the 1980s and ’90s, before the computer took over and hand-painted signs were more prevalent, he’d spend a 12-hour day each week painting paper signs for grocery stores. Typically, he says, the stores would call in their sign orders on Wednesday, and he’d paint them Thursday and deliver them Friday morning, when the sales usually started.
"The small stuff is filler, I guess you could say," Perry says.
The sign shop, based in Chicago’s Logan Square community area, did about $1.3 million in revenue in 2016. Small signs and grocery store signs made up 10 to 15 percent of that. Perry spends much of his time painting larger-than-life logos or murals in restaurants or on buildings. His portfolio includes exterior signage for Goose Island Beer Co., mural work at Wrigley Field and the signs rising above the Lincoln Park area on Hotel Lincoln.
The Fish Keg has been using Perry’s hand-painted signs since he owned his Evanston shop, manager Monty Williamson says. Perry also paints the eatery’s menu signs and has done murals on its walls.
The signs are quick and can keep up with the ever-changing fish specials, Williamson says. And in a world where computer-generated signs now dominate, the hand-painted versions are better at catching the eyes of passersby.
"It’s amazing how they draw people in. … It gives you a warmer feeling," he says. "I guess it’s almost like, Do you want a frozen TV dinner, or do you want your ma’s home-baked?"