Build-A-Bear Workshop has released a documentary about its 25-year journey.

Build-A-Bear Workshop Celebrates 25 Years with a Heartfelt Documentary

Friday October 6, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Do you BEARlieve in magic?

It’s not difficult after visiting Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Founded by Maxine Clark in 1997, the St. Louis-based toy company has become a global brand beloved by people of all ages. Its mission? To add a little more heart to life.

If you’ve ever created your own stuffed animal at Build-A-Bear Workshop, you’re familiar with the heart ceremony, which allows guests to choose a satin heart, make a wish and place the heart inside their new furry friend. The tradition inspired the company’s mission statement.

“We don’t define ‘heart’ as strictly love or happiness or enthusiasm or fun or friendship,” Sharon Price John, president and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, says, “because, of the 225 million bears that we’ve built since we started 25 years ago, each and every one has something different in its heart.”

A young girl interacts with an oversized teddy bear at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

John has been at the helm of Build-A-Bear Workshop for more than a decade, continuing her illustrious career in the toy industry, which features prominent positions at Hasbro and Mattel. Under her leadership, Build-A-Bear Workshop has broadened its appeal.

“Build-A-Bear Workshop began as a shopping mall-based experiential retailer where kids could make stuffed animals,” she says. “That’s very narrow in terms of place, consumer and category. We’re no longer confined to any of those boxes.”

Today, in addition to shopping malls such as Saint Louis Galleria, the brand can be found in tourist attractions such as St. Louis Union Station, hospitality establishments, cruise ships and international airports. It also has its own stores and kiosks – the next time that you’re at a St. Louis Cardinals game, stop by Busch Stadium’s Build-A-Bear Workshop to make your own Fredbird!

In total, the company has approximately 500 locations in 13 countries. “A hug,” Clark says, “is understood in any language.”

Fredbird sees the stuffed animal version of himself at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Fads come and go, but Build-A-Bear Workshop has remained relevant through swiftly changing times. Fans attribute its staying power to the experience, which isn’t only about building a bear; it’s about making memories, creating connections and letting your imagination run wild.

The brand has become so iconic that it’s referenced in pop culture more than you’d expect. Emmy Award-winning TV series such as The Big Bang Theory and South Park as well as talk shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! have all dropped mentions of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

“We’re everywhere,” John says, “and we’re not just for kids. Teens and adults now account for 40 percent of sales.”

As they say at Build-A-Bear Workshop, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” and this is one place where you certainly have permission to be a kid again.

“After 20 years, most toy companies become multigenerational,” John continues. “Suddenly, the first kids that played with your toys are buying your toys for their kids. In the case of Build-A-Bear Workshop, the indelible experience of creating a lifelong furry friend remains a cherished memory for our customers, and it makes sense that they would want to expose their family, their friends, their coworkers, their clients to the same emotional experience. When they do that, though, they often have the urge to make their own Pokémon character, football star or Hello Kitty doll to add to their collection.”

Two boys snuggle their teddy bears at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Build-A-Bear Workshop has seen a positive impact from ‘kidulting,’ a cultural trend in which adults, particularly millennials, engage in activities traditionally considered more appropriate for children, such as playing with toys. To offer a dynamic response to the trend, the company created The Bear Cave, an age-gated microsite filled with unexpected collaborations and unique toys.

In The Bear Cave, you can find everything from bunnies in lederhosen for Oktoberfest to bears that represent the best moments of Friends. How you doin’?

At every location, as well as online, the toys go beyond teddy bears. Playful puppies, cuddly cows, adorable sloths, magical unicorns and ferocious dinosaurs stand shoulder to shoulder with characters from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Disney, PAW Patrol and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Build-A-Bear Workshop has its own intellectual property, as well. Honey Girls, a line of fabulous young musicians, even inspired a movie, released in 2021 and available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Vudu.

“We want to provide options for guests,” John says. “We attract an eclectic group of people, from teenage girls to couples to grandparents, and we aim to delight all of them.”

A young girl builds a bear at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

To keep up with demand, the brand has also expanded into multiple categories, including fashion and entertainment. On Nov. 3, Glisten and The Merry Mission will have a nationwide theatrical release thanks to Build-A-Bear Workshop’s partnership with Cinemark Holdings.

The storyline of the wholesome holiday movie was inspired by Build-A-Bear Workshop’s best-selling Merry Mission plush collection, featuring an enchanted snow deer named Glisten. The animated film will star Chevy Chase, Julia Michaels, Freddie Prinze Jr., Michael Rapaport and Dionne Warwick.

“Can you say PAWsome?” John asks with a laugh. “We launched the Merry Mission collection – with character arcs and all – in 2015, and we dreamed of making a holiday film based on it one day. That day has arrived, and we’re ecstatic!”

Cinemark Holdings doesn’t have theaters in St. Louis, but Build-A-Bear Workshop has partnered with three independent theaters, including Galleria 6 Cinemas, to guarantee that residents and visitors of the Gateway City can see the film where it all began.

A young girl plays with her stuffed animal from Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Continuous innovation coupled with financial oversight has made Build-A-Bear Workshop extremely profitable in recent years.

“When I came on board, the company had undergone eight years of contraction,” John says. “Now, we’re on track for our third record-breaking year in a row.”

Through the recession, retail apocalypse, Brexit and COVID-19 pandemic, Build-A-Bear Workshop has emerged with a tenacious discipline, executing strategies from a financially responsible perspective for consistent growth.

“No one knocks the stuffing out of Build-A-Bear,” John says. “We’ve had to navigate unprecedented situations, but with a little heart, we’ve come out the other side.”

An oversized teddy bear makes a girl laugh at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

The heartfelt – and often tumultuous – journey of Build-A-Bear Workshop inspired another film, Unstuffed: A Build-A-Bear Story. The St. Louis premiere was at the Missouri History Museum on Oct. 4, and you can now watch the documentary on streaming services such as Apple TV and YouTube.

“I think that people are curious about what goes on behind the doors of the workshops,” John says. “At times, it’s challenging to hold a far-flung enterprise with thousands of employees together, but again, heart goes a long way. The documentary gives viewers a sense of how we can operate with unfailing excellence and offer reliably outstanding service with a splash of personalization.

“It shares our story, 25 years in the making, with Maxine Clark’s entrepreneurial spirit and enormous heart at the center,” she continues. “The story is relatable, and it drives home the importance of believing – because, at Build-A-Bear Workshop, we’re all about BEARlieving.”