By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Sep 19, 2022 at 12:01 PM

There was a time in the not-so-distant past that if you wanted a custom T-shirt, you could go to the mall and get a tacky iron-on, or find a screen printer to do it for you.

Neither was an optimal solution; the designs at the mall weren’t really that customized other than maybe some iron-on letters, and screen printing was time-consuming, expensive and not ideal for small runs.

The business has changed, and quickly. The magic of digital fabric printing has opened up an online market for one-off shirts … but it’s still not cheap, and the process is so automated that you’re stuck handling your own artwork and waiting and waiting and waiting.

Big Frog Custom T-Shirts in Mequon has flipped the business on its head, at least locally. While it’s a franchise, it’s the only one in Wisconsin, and it’s also a family business – run by a father, mother and daughter. Located at 10952 North Port Washington Rd., it’s about as hands-on as can be, because not only does Big Frog print T-shirts – and just about anything else – on demand, it assists in the whole process, from idea to design to fulfillment.

For manager Brittany Miller, it was also a chance to work directly with her own father, a former corporate creative director who found his entrepreneurial itch four years ago in the twilight of a successful career.


Miller, a former professional ballet dancer, jumped at the chance to learn how to run a T-shirt printing business that was close to home, but also served the communities nearby. Being in Mequon, it’s perfect for the North Shore clientele that needs swag for local sports teams, but she says her customer base extends both north and south.

“I honestly thought it was going to be more kitschy, one-off shirts all the time, like what you find at the at the Jersey Shore,” said Miller, 31. “But at the end of the day, it was meeting the community and learning the community needs.”

She also didn’t anticipate that Big Frog would evolve into printing larger orders, whether it be for soccer teams or family reunions, or small business or bigger corporate clients that need merch in a hurry.


“We’re a small business helping other small businesses,” says Miller of the shop that’s grown to five employees, including her own parents. She says that 95% of the work is done fully in-house.

Miller notes that technology in this industry is changing so quickly that Big Frog can print products that weren’t possible when they started. The process of “digital to film,” which utilizes their already very high-end garment printer, eliminates the need for pre-treating fabric, speeding up the process and without using extra chemicals. That means if you can think of something you want to get printed, they can probably do it: hoodies, can koozies, blankets, masks, foam signs … you name it.

Big Frog also does more traditional printing, including screen printing and embroidery. But even that has evolved, says Miller, who notes that hoodies are a surprisingly big seller.


“It's no longer the just shiny numbers that used to be on jerseys,” she said. “There's sparkle and puff and all these cool fashion things.”

More interestingly, Big Frog offers free design services within reason. Professional graphic design included as part of the price is practically unheard of in this business.

Says Miller, “A lot of times it's just scribble on a piece of paper. We've had kids bring in their own drawings that we've made digital … and everything in between.”

All this for prices that usually rival ordering a shirt from, say, Red Bubble or Zazzle. For example, if you use Big Frog’s most premium shirts, a one-off order is about $30. They also have no problem with you bringing in your own shirts to get printed. “I like to keep our prices fair,” she says, noting that a more basic shirt will cost less.

And it gets done quickly. Typical turnaround is three days, but it can be faster, and Miller is seeing many repeat customers, because the shop can crank out about 35 shirts an hour.

Still, for Miller, who will go from business partner with her parents to full owner someday, the biggest thrill is getting to spend time with her father, Basil Bearer, who put in so many hours during the rat rate of corporate America. His career meant that she didn’t get to see him on her birthday or the first day of school, and she relishes this chance to work side by side.

“This is more than just a job for me,” she says, tearing up a little. “Getting to be here with him and having those father-daughter moments has been really cool. When COVID hit and I had the ability to actually bring my son to work with me and take care of him – I love it. I have a place to bring him, and the customers love seeing him, which is really cute and sweet, too.”

Bearer agrees, and speaks for his wife, Koretta (who does the embroidery projects), too.

“My past career took me away from home often,” says Bearer. “So it’s a pleasure to now spend time with her and build this business together. Hopefully my business is a legacy I can pass down to my daughter and then she can pass that business on to her family.”

Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More is open 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Monday-Friday, and 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. on Saturdays. You can also get a custom quote on their website.



Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.