Article from the HT:
Thank you Kurt for a great article.
Steve Smith, third-generation owner of Smith’s Shoe Center, took a break from liquidizing his inventory Wednesday to remember the beginning and end of the family business.
Businesses from his grandfather’s era had big, artistic signs with personality. Owners spent hours intricately designing window displays. A kid could spin endlessly on the snack bar stools at Southern Sporting Goods or stand beneath the looming stuffed bear at Schmalz’s Department Store. The thing Smith remembers the most about his grandfather’s store, which opened in 1952 in what’s now Malibu Grill’s bar, was the smell of leather in the stockroom.
Now, Smith has taken stock and decided it’s time to move on to something new.
“My crystal ball has never been very good, but we’ve certainly seen a pattern. Part of being a business person is knowing when it feels right and not holding on too long,” Smith said. “It’s like the football player who, instead of retiring when he should, continues and makes it painful to watch.”
Smith’s Shoes, as it was originally called, migrated from the downtown to the College Mall, back to the downtown again before consolidating in its most recent form at 1917 S. Walnut St. It’s a building Smith owns, which has allowed him to create partnerships with the community others might not have been able to accomplish.
That’s exactly the sort of expertise and positioning that’s led Smith to his next adventure. Jack Craig and Jim Wells, co-owners of Wagon Wheel, have been neighbors to Smith’s Shoe Center for a little over three years. They’re looking to expand their catering and butchering business with more diverse restaurant offerings.
“I really feel the south side of Bloomington needs a good place to get an evening meal,” Craig said.
Smith sees his ability to help that expansion as three-fold. First, closing the 4,600 square foot shoe store will allow Wagon Wheel to expand its restaurant seating from 50 to 150. Second, all 13 employees of Smith’s Shoe Center will be offered jobs with Wagon Wheel. Craig said he’s been impressed by the employees he’s already spoken to, but it will be a process training shoe store employees on how to make corned beef.
Third, Smith sees the connections his family has made over the years that will help the transition to a bigger Wagon Wheel go smoother.
Smith believes traditional shoe store formats can live on. In his own experience, orthopedic doctors and podiatrists have referred their patients to the store for their footwear. That’s the sort of recommendation customers can’t get from online reviews, Smith said.
“One of the keys to a successful business is having good people, and with Steve’s success, his people have been trained very well in customer service,” Craig said. “It works out partnering with the guy who has the reputation, the knowledge and the experience of running a business, like Steve. It’s really all about creating good partners and having good people.”
As a self-described serial entrepreneur, Smith is taking on the new partnership while also working in real estate. Steve is an agent broker with FC Tucker Bloomington.
“The one thing that has always been a constant in my life is footwear. This will be the first time in my life that it hasn’t been,” Smith said. “Wagon Wheel presented a great opportunity. They’re bursting at the seams right now.”
Though he said the thing he’ll miss the most is the people, he still views all of his new responsibilities as centered around the same thing.
“It’s people and it’s customer service. It’s about taking care of the people who walk in your door,” Smith said.
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