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Humble headquarters: quirky sites where 6 big brands originated

Branson to Stay "Major" Virgin Atlantic Holder as Partner SoughtBranson to Stay "Major" Virgin Atlantic Holder as Partner Sought
Richard BransonPhotograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s common knowledge that Apple (AAPL) was started by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the Jobs family garage.

Other garage-founded titans include Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOGL), Mattel (MAT), Hewlett Packard (HPQ), and Microsoft (MSFT) — which Bill Gates and Paul Allen also developed at the sketchy Sundowner Motel in New Mexico.

Similarly, Facebook’s (FB) origins in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room at Harvard were already pretty well known, then became even more known after the release of the film The Social Network. Another tech company famously starting in a dorm was Dell, founded in Michael Dell’s room at the University of Texas.

But many other companies have started in the unlikeliest of places, from a closet to a crypt. Here’s a look at some sites where a big business was once small — and what’s happening at those spots now.

Pan American World Airways

Pan American World Airways Super-6 plane the Clipper Priscilla Alden (registration number N6520C) flies over the Atlantic Ocean during one of its earliest runs between hemispheres, 1952. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

For much of the 20th century, the iconic office building spanning Park Avenue above Grand Central Terminal in New York, now the MetLife building, was the Pan Am building, home to what was once the largest air carrier in the country.

But the Pan American company’s origins are in Key West, Fla., where beginning in 1927 it provided passenger and delivery service to and from Cuba. That service made it “the first United States international air service in scheduled operation,” according to the historic sign marking the spot. In 1928, Pan Am opened Pan American Field in Miami, on part of the land now occupied by Miami International Airport.

The Key West wood frame structure is now Kelly’s Caribbean Bar Grill and Brewery, owned by Top Gun star Kelly McGillis, with its wing-shaped bar nodding to the spot’s place in aviation history.

Cabela’s

Tourists to Cabela’s pose next to a sculpture of two grizzley bears in Dundee, Mich., Aug. 30, 2000. The 17,000 pound statue was created by Mark Hamby, a former defensive end for the Buffalo Bills. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The outdoor superstore has more than 50 enormous outposts across the country, with the 2013 Waco store opening attracting a line in the rain beginning at 8 a.m. the day before.

But the company got started very humbly in 1961 by Dick Cabela, who died in February 2014.

Cabela first placed a newspaper ad to sell fishing flies in a local paper, but the ad received just one response. He then lowered his price, and more people responded. From there he grew a mailing list. Dick and his wife, Mary, first ran their burgeoning business from their kitchen in Chappell, Neb. When it outgrew the kitchen, Cabela’s (CAB) moved to the basement of Dick’s father’s furniture store in 1964.

After moving to a few other locations, in 1969 their next site began to show signs of the scale we know Cabela’s for today: it was a 50,000 square-foot former John Deere building in Sidney, Neb.

Papa John’s

John Schnatter, founder & Pres. of a chain of Papa John’s pizza restaurants, w. employees at one of his 1,049 outlets, making a surprise quality check on a row of pizzas layed out on counter at restaurant.

The pizza chain now has more than 4,600 locations in 34 countries, but it all started with a broom closet in a bar.

As a young man, John H. Schnatter had worked at a lot of pizzerias. In 1984 after graduating college, he was managing a bar his father co-owned, Mick’s Lounge in Jeffersonville, Ind.

He sold his car to buy out the other owner. Then Schnatter tore down the bar’s broom closet, installed a pizza oven, and got to work. He recalls jumping up and down with excitement the night they did $2,300 worth of business in that broom closet, thinking they were rich. “And then all of a sudden it took off.”

 Mick’s Lounge is still open and serving food, but once Papa John’s (PZZA) became franchised, the original was no longer a Papa John’s — and Schnatter is no longer an owner of the bar.

Paul Mitchell

Hair styling and care products are seen at the Paul Mitchell School July 12, 2013 in McLean, Virginia. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1980, the English stylist Paul Mitchell, and hair care professional John Paul DeJoria, were looking for a career change. The friends and business partners launched John Paul Mitchell Systems with $700, a post office box, and an answering machine, enlisting a female friend to voice the outgoing message.

The first products were Shampoo One, Shampoo Two, and The Conditioner in the black and white packaging they’re still known for, because color was too expensive.

In 1983, they purchased 30 acres in Hawaii, a solar-powered, off-grid farm. There, they learned of the wild ginger (awapuhi) that Hawaiian natives used to soften and condition their hair, which they incorporated into the John Paul Mitchell Systems hair care line.

 The John Paul Mitchell Systems Awapuhi Farm still grows the titular ingredient used in the pair’s hair care products, as well as other organic fruits and vegetables. Today, John Paul’s and Paul’s mini-compounds at the lush retreat are available as accommodations, and guests dine on locally grown food. The farm is also open for tours.

The Virgin Group

British businessman Richard Branson holding a model Boeing 747 at a press conference for the launch of his Virgin Atlantic airline, London, 29th February 1984. Branson has announced his plan for a scheduled service between Gatwick and Newark using a leased 747. The fare is to be 99 pounds. (Photo by Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group (VA), began his first enterprise, Student magazine, with a group of friends. The twist in this tale is that the office was located in a church crypt that the vicar allowed Branson and his team to use.

After that, Branson launched a mail-order low-priced record business under the name Virgin (because they were newcomers to business), which became brick-and-mortar record stores, which became Virgin Records and eventually led to Branson becoming one of the richest men in the U.K.

Krispy Kreme

Doughnuts are glazed on an assembly line at a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. store in Farragut, Tennessee, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2013. The doughnut chain plans to add at least 30 new U.S. stores next year and is opening up new markets for franchising. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 1937, Vernon Rudolph set up a doughnut bakery in Winston-Salem, N.C., using a secret recipe for a yeast doughnut that he bought from a French chef in New Orleans.

Those first Krispy Kremes (KKD) were intended to be sold to grocery stores, but they smelled so good baking that the doughnuts enticed pedestrians to stop inside and ask to buy them.

Although the building was a rental, Rudolph cut a (doughnut) hole in the wall and began selling his sweet wares to passersby, and an empire was born. There are now 925 Krispy Kreme stores internationally.

That first location is still operational today in what’s now called historic Old Salem, with a 24- hour drive-through.

Colleen Kane is a New York-based freelance writer.