FEW BREEDS OF public figures are as discernible as television commercial pitchmen. 

Garish, loud, and tacky, these pixelated personas occupy local TV airwaves to hawk anything from refrigerators (Jack Roberts Appliance: “We won’t be undersold!”), to automobiles (Cal Worthington and his dog Spot: “Go see Cal! Go see Cal! Go see Cal!”), to automobile insurance (Vern Fonk: “Honk when you drive by Vern Fonk!”).

Included in this mix is Mattress Ranch founder Ted Sadtler, whose bright red buildings are sprinkled throughout nearly a dozen South Sound cities, decorated in hand-painted, cartoon-like farm animals, and visible from afar.

In Mattress Ranch TV commercials, Sadtler — 6 feet, 9 inches tall — wears a cringe-worthy wardrobe of bright shirts, yellow SpongeBob SquarePants neckties, vests, suspenders, thick black glasses, and baseball caps while he waves a fistful of cash and performs a spasmodic jig to a banjo and snare drum soundtrack jingle. (Sadtler’s tagline: “Get more sleep without counting sheep. Save more bucks at the Mattress Ranch.”)

Mattress Ranch commercials goose your television set, jolting it from more anodyne commercials for laundry detergent, dish soap, or breakfast cereal.

“I made The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for having the worst commercial,” Sadtler, 75, marveled during an interview this summer in Poulsbo. “I got calls from all over the place. It was fun. It was my claim to fame.”

Yet, if you think Sadtler is just another tacky TV commercial huckster willing to embrace self-deprecation to make a buck, you are mistaken. That gaudiness is part of a calculated and unconventional business plan aimed to elate customers and — yes, OK — sell lots and lots of mattresses.

Mattress Ranch operates 14 stores (four in Alaska, and 10 in Washington), employs approximately 60 people, and earns about $13 million in annual sales, according to Sadtler. It contracts with Sound Sleep Products to manufacture all of its mattresses and box springs from a 117,000-square-foot factory in Sumner.

Compared to the top three mattress manufacturers — Serta, Simmons, and Sealy, which each posts annual sales that top $1 billion in an industry worth 10 times that — Mattress Ranch still is a small business. But when you consider Mattress Ranch opened its first store just 15 years ago, when Sadtler was the tender age of 60, the company has achieved remarkable results in a short amount of time. 

“I’ve always been lucky,” Sadtler observed. “I think I’m good at business. But I don’t think I really know anything. I’m not smart. I have an eighth-grade education. I did seventh-grade twice. But what I’m good at is picking the right people to work with me to do the job. That’s my forte.”

Photo by Jeff Hobson

LUCK. OPPORTUNITY. WANDERLUST. Risk. All of these things contributed to Sadtler’s business success.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Sadtler spent many summers of his youth selling ice cream and suntan lotion on New Jersey lakeshores. He also had a natural inkling to ramble, hitchhiking at age 7 to locations beyond his hometown. As Sadtler recalled, people were different then, more courteous, and ready to offer food or assistance to a young, wannabe vagabond.

“It was different than it is today,” Sadtler explained. “People didn’t question it.”

He dropped out of middle school and, being unusually tall and lanky for his age, enlisted in the Army at age 14, only to be booted from boot camp when officers learned he was a minor. 

Three years later, when his girlfriend and her family moved from New Jersey to California, Sadtler followed them to San Diego and joined the Navy. “She dropped me the minute I got there,” he said. “I was in the Navy for three years. I never did well. I never got any rank. I was not considered a good sailor.”

Following the Navy, Sadtler returned to New Jersey, where he worked a half-dozen odd jobs — drive-in attendant, factory worker, laborer on an offshore oil rig, front-desk concierge at a hotel casino, and more — over the next four years, taking breaks to hitchhike around the country, and making it as far west as Alaska.

It was at the hotel casino where Sadtler met Susan Snape, an operator for a telephone company. Snape would tally the time and charges of each hotel guest and relay that information to Sadtler, who would apply those charges to their rooms. Over time, the two grew fond of one another, and married in 1968.

The day after their wedding, a friend told Sadtler about a chest of drawers that had been left curbside for the trash collector. Sadtler loaded it into the trunk of his car and sold it hours later for $15 — the equivalent of a day and a half of work at that time. The next day, Sadtler and his wife learned two different trash routes, and followed them every day for weeks.

In 1969, the couple paid $60 per month to rent a New Jersey storefront from which they sold used furniture. In less than two years, the business grew to be as active as Sadtler’s urge to wander and travel. 

Bored and unhappy living in New Jersey, Sadtler and his wife found the Last Frontier’s allure was strong. The couple and their infant son, Max, moved to Alaska in 1971 with $6,000 to their name. 

Sadtler found a job working at First National Bank, while he scoured the local auction houses for furniture to resell in Chugiak — first from a Quonset hut, then from inside a former church building, which housed the first “Sadler’s” Home Furnishings store (he dropped the “T” in his name because he found customers had a difficult time pronouncing it). 

The Sadtlers’ timing was superb. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System opened in 1977, funneling oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and generating jobs and revenue for the state. All that activity meant people were buying homes and needed furniture. In response, the Sadtlers opened additional furniture stores in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Sterling, and Wasilla. At its peak, the company posted $11 million in annual sales, according to Sadtler.

By decade’s end, the Sadtlers were multimillionaires, and Ted was known locally as the “furniture king.” His attention turned from recliners and toward real estate. Sadtler envisioned himself as a land merchant, someone who would build shopping centers throughout Alaska, and took out sizeable loans to finance those dreams. 

What he didn’t envision was that Alaska, and much of the United States, would experience a seismic economic recession marked by layoffs and skittish consumer confidence. Suddenly, shopping malls didn’t seem like such a good idea, and Sadtler was in over his head.

“There’s only one person guilty of getting into that,” he confessed. “I had too big of a head and thought that I should own the world, rather than just be happy with what I was doing.”

According to Sadtler, he lost his furniture stores (but paid off his creditors) and left the state of Alaska in 1988 debt-free, but with just $12,000 in his pocket.

“I was a multimillionaire by age 33,” he explained. “I was dead broke by age 45. From 45 to 60, I couldn’t put it together. I couldn’t get it to work. I was on a delivery truck at 60. Then I came up with the Mattress Ranch idea.”

↑ In the 1970s and 1980s, Ted Sadtler operated profitable furniture stores throughout Alaska. Sadtler was a multimillionaire known as the “furniture king” among Alaskan locals. By the end of the 1980s, Sadtler, left Alaska (and the furniture business) and moved to Washington state to found Mattress Ranch. —Photos Courtesy Mattress Ranch

AFTER SETTLING IN Washington state, Sadtler opened two furniture stores, hoping to repeat the success he achieved in Alaska. High-end furniture proved a tough sell. Mattresses, however, were much easier to move — especially if he tapped into a strategy he developed and honed from decades of selling furniture.

First, he needed to control costs. Mattress Ranch doesn’t operate a fleet of delivery trucks or off-site warehouses, nor does it maintain a large payroll with high-paid, high-level executives. The company steers clear of large cities, where land is expensive and rents are high. That’s why you won’t find Mattress Ranch in, say, Seattle or Bellevue. 

Second, he needed to find one manufacturer with which he could build a long-term relationship. Enter Sound Sleep Products in Sumner. Because Mattress Ranch sells a lot of mattresses and box springs, it’s a profitable client for Sound Sleep Products. 

“We have mattresses made by one vendor, and there’s a reason for that — better pricing,” Sadtler explained. “The biggest reason I can sell for less is my relationship with the factory. The factory was built as Mattress Ranch was built. As I grew, they added a machine. As I grew, they added another machine. We do a good portion of their business, and they allow us to do pretty much what we want to. They make it easy for us.”

Third, he needed to retain control of his business. Being a family-owned small business means there’s no pressure on the bottom line. As much as Sadtler’s commercials appeal to advertising gimmicks, Mattress Ranch doesn’t rely on markdowns to move its products. No special holiday sales, haggling skills, or magic words are required to unlock discounts because there are no discounts. The price on the tag is the price of the mattress.

“We don’t mark things up to mark them down,” Sadtler said. “It goes out only with the markup I need to have in order to survive. It’s pretty simple.”

Finally, one could argue the key to Sadtler’s success is his ability to embrace the advertising schtick. Silly dances and brightly colored cartoon farm animals are aimed to capture the attention of a young, but important, demographic.

“It just hit me: Win the child first, and then the adult,” he explained. “Why animals? Why blue cows? It’s strictly to get a child to say, ‘Look, Mom! The animal is blue!’ That’s why. I like to see happy kids. I like to see happy people. If they are smiling, hey, maybe they will buy a mattress. Let’s face it. Sometimes I’m a ham as well as a turkey.”

What about Mattress Ranch’s competition? “I don’t give a damn about what the other guy is doing,” he replied. 

When a large, national mattress retailer opened four new locations around his stores in Alaska, Sadtler confessed to being worried at first. 

“Our business is up 14 percent over last year,” he continued. “Sure, it gave people a new place to shop. But then they came over to my store and paid half the price. I just try to do the best that I can do. I’ve just been doing it my way for so long.”

SADTLER IS RETIRED from Mattress Ranch’s day-to-day operations. He remains the TV pitchman, and films new commercials monthly for the company’s markets in Alaska and Washington. But the company is led by Sadtler’s 49-year-old son, Max, and daughter-in-law, Yvonne. 

Max started to work at Mattress Ranch at age 19, while Yvonne brought retail management experience to Mattress Ranch, having worked at other companies before meeting and marrying Max. 

Sadtler is worth many millions of dollars, but you wouldn’t know it. 

Photos Courtesy Mattress Ranch

He and his wife have a mother-in-law residence at a home in Arizona owned by Max and Yvonne. Three Mattress Ranch stores have apartments above them (two in Washington, one in Alaska), and Sadtler and his wife rotate their time living in each of them throughout the year. 

Sadtler prefers driving instead of flying, and is often on the road visiting Alaska, Arizona, and Nevada for business and pleasure. Until recently, he drove a 20-year-old decommissioned postal service truck during those road trips. 

“I liked driving down the street with both doors open,” he said. “The people I met in that were so much better than the people I would have met in a Mercedes.”

Now, he drives a 5-year-old Ford pickup truck, which was handed down to him when Max bought a new vehicle.

“I just don’t have a desire to own anything,” he said. “My wife gives away all the money we make.”

Instead, Sadtler’s focus is philanthropy. He plugs local charities during Mattress Ranch commercials, donates money, and even delivers free mattresses to more than a half-dozen charitable organizations focused on health, feeding people who are homeless or low-income, and animal protection.

Does he ever worry about losing it all again, like he did in Alaska 25 years ago?

“I don’t worry about anything,” he concluded. “There were too many years of me asking myself, ‘How did I survive last year?’ As long as I have enough to eat and my wife loves me, what difference does it make?”