Bridgewater Studio co-founders Eric Cup, left, and Patrick Justice show off their custom fabrication shop in the McKinley Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Custom Fabrication Drives Explosive Growth at Bridgewater Studio

Published October 11, 2019

Business Name: Bridgewater Studio, Inc.
Address: 1719 W. 35th St.
Industry: Custom fabrication, design and installation

A big demand for bespoke fabrication — and the capability to quickly deliver a high-quality end product — has propelled McKinley Park neighborhood-based Bridgewater Studio through 100 percent year-to-year growth and toward a big business expansion, said Bridgewater Studio co-founder Eric Cup.

"We embraced high technology," Cup said. "it's been critical to our growth."

Business Grows Here - Space - Resources - Community

Currently headquartered in the sole commercial property on its stretch of 35th Street, Bridgewater Studio bustles with workers operating fabrication machinery and preparing one-off items for use in things like custom retail store displays and movie sets: Cinespace Chicago Film Studios and the downtown Nike store have been recurring customers, Cup said.

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Bridgewater Studios seven axis robot arm 20190918"It's like a classic car" Eric Cup says of the maintenance required for their seven-axis robotic arm, which Bridgewater Studio uses to carve large custom objects. Fiber and carbon dioxide laser cutters, CNC machines, and a huge seven-axis robot arm crouch in the barrel-vaulted space alongside more standard shop areas like a wood shop, metal shop and a big paint booth. Making investments in equipment means faster turnaround time for customers, who continually demand quicker service, Cup said.

"All profits go back into growth," he said. 

Skilled personnel to run the machines, create and execute bespoke designs, and construct installations on-site are fundamental to their success, said Bridgewater Studio co-founder Patrick Justice. "We wouldn't be where we are without our team of people," he said.

The business employs 52 workers, 48 of whom are full-time employees who enjoy benefits like fully funded health care and a 401(k) program, Justice said.

Growth With Local Support

Bridgewater Studio is poised for a big expansion with the completed purchase and pending rehabilitation of a 45,000-square-foot space in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The mouldering hulk at 4836 S. Oakley Ave. offered a great location and the right size for expanding their business, however, the long-neglected building was in very poor repair, with a leaky roof and other infrastructure issues, Cup said.

The McKinley Park neighborhood's local Small Business Development Center, located at the 36Squared Business Incubator, was a key resource toward propelling this business expansion forward, Justice said. Small Business Development Center Director Andrew Fogaty clued Bridgewater Studio in to Chicago's recently enacted Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which uses downtown development money to finance commercial and cultural projects in neighborhoods lacking private investment.

Although Cup and Justice decided to move forward with the building purchase no matter what — buying the Back of the Yards property on April 17, 2019 — they were happily surprised to later get a call from the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel announcing the approval of their application, Justice said. The $1.8 million grant awarded for the project includes building repair and a redevelopment agreement to support retail, incubator and arts-related business spaces.

"This allows us to have a functional, state-of-the-art facility in 12 to 18 months, instead of 10 to 15 years," Cup said.

Theater Geeks Make Good

Cup and Justice both come from the world of theater stage production and set design, meeting in 2000 when working together at a local production shop. At the time, they were also taking outside jobs and came across a big contract opportunity: one that required them to quit their current jobs.

"We figured we were either going to do this, or it's never going to happen," Justice said.

The two worked from Cup's 3,000-square-foot live-work space in the West Loop, successfully growing their business to seven employees, but rapidly getting squeezed by rising rent and a need for more space. "We couldn't get projects through the door," Justice said.

After renting additional property in the Stockyards area, "we wanted to own our own space," Cup said. "We wanted to stay in the city."

Bridgewater Studio purchased their current building in April 2017 after a lengthy and exhausting search. "Commercial space is very difficult to come by," Cup said. The McKinley Park neighborhood property offered a central location for transportation and great public transit for their workforce.

Since then, the business has rapidly grown to support an international clientele and projects that can bill for over $1 million. Cup pegs their success to creating easy working relationships that quickly result in high-quality work, despite the one-off nature of nearly every item they create. "We're only as good as our last job," he said.

Bridgewater Studios shop workers 20190918
Bridgewater Studio employees work on the base of a huge Christmas tree stand bound for holiday display in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Bridgewater Studio represents the culmination of the duo's two main professional goals, Justice said.  First is having fun at work; second is "creating the last jobs we'd have in our lives," he said. "We're beholden to no one."

Cup noted the local support the business has received, including Tax Increment Financing funding used toward their current McKinley Park facility. "We're grateful for the support and the opportunity we've had from the city, the alderman and the neighborhood," he said.

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Business Grows Here - Space - Resources - Community