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Toes in a jam

Flip Flop founders put heart in soles


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For a company with the guiding principle—Live…work…play with your toes exposed — Flip Flops are more than footwear, more than a job. They’re a lifestyle.

If your toes are rebelling against spending all day crammed inside a pair of wingips, or worse yet, high heels, then perhaps it's time to set them free.

Well, not exactly free, because the franchise that will buy your soles has an investment price tag of around $157,000. But with flip flops now outselling athletic shoes, the concept just might have legs.

Brian Curin, a former executive with Cold Stone Creamery and Raving Brands, had worn shoes to work for years when he discovered a retail concept called the Flip Flop Shops. And he, well, flipped.

He called two compadres from his two former gigs, Darin Kraetsch and Alan Woods, and together they invested with the founders of the business to roll it out as a national brand.

Flip Flop Shops

Flip Flop Shops are designed to appeal to the young, hip crowd, as well as those who still can remember when they were called thongs.

Around 2004, Sarah Towne and Todd Giatrelis both worked for The Gates Group, a consulting company based on Giatrelis's experience starting and operating businesses. They were attending a convention in Las Vegas when Sarah's feet rebelled. She blanketed the significant retail area of Vegas and failed to find a single pair of flip flops. From there, the idea of a flip flop-only store was born.

"Our original idea was to do it as a Web site and have the companies drop-ship, but no one was doing that at the time," Towne, who now owns 70 pairs of flip flops, says. "We'd have to have inventory and if we had to have it, we figured we might as well have a store."

Towne and Giatrelis visited a multitude of surf and beach shops in California and discovered that most had to stock so much other merchandise that it limited the number of sizes and styles of flip flops they could carry. They decided a store that only sold flip flops would be filling a niche, along the lines of a Sunglasses Hut. The first store was a 550-square-foot inline space at a mall in Boston.

Flip flops, by the way, are the cool name for what some of us grew up calling thongs. But the name "thongs" was ruined forever by the invention of backless underwear that was brought to public scrutiny by a certain White House intern. Today's flip flops are an upgrade from the rubber sandals that were utilitarian beach or shower shoes. After health concerns that the flat soles didn't give enough arch support, companies began engineering the fit and the comfort to rival athletic shoes. The only constant is the inverted "Y" between the big toe and the second toe.

Towne isn't the only flip-flop fanatic in the bunch. Curin, who grew up wake boarding and skiing in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, not only liked exposing his toes, his father was a foot doctor. Kraetsch hung out at the beach, occasionally skipping school to surf in Ventura, California, and Woods was a wanna-be golf pro in Arizona, where, we're guessing, he changed out of his golf shoes into flip flops on the 19th or 37th hole.

By the time the three Cold Stone and Raving Brands alumni stumbled upon the concept, Towne and Giatrelis had opened five additional stores and were thinking about franchising.

"We liked their experience in franchising," she says. "We had opened some stores and it was a good time to grow the brand."

Pedicures and spray tans

Flip Flop Shop franchisees should be willing to put their money where their feet are—pedicures and spray tans.

A foot in the door

It used to be that everyone aspired to become the next McDonald's of franchising. But hot, young entrepreneurs are more likely to want to position their brands a la Starbucks.

When Curin, Kraetsch and Woods became investors, they built on what the founders were doing right. For instance, it's not enough to just have selection, the sales staff needs to know the pros and cons of every shoe they sell, says Woods, who is COO.

They want  a Starbucks' barista-like focus, where the salespeople have phenomenal product knowledge and can tell customers where the shoes are manufactured, the return policy, warranty and unique features versus the competition, he says. And in some cases, they also need to know if there are endorsements from celebrity surfers.

As CEO, Kraetsch says he's always been part of start-up, entrepreneurial companies. "I don't just want to talk about doing the right thing, but to execute it," he says. "I want a sustainable system, not just a quick hit."

Curin's role is president, but he's also drawing upon his extensive marketing background. He's taken a fun concept and made it more fun by adding their own sunscreen oil scent that wafts through the stores and edgy "So-Cal music" – that's Southern California –  such as Avril Lavigne.

Kraetsch says he works well with Curin, because "Brian can get passionate about the sun rising." A good trait to have in the words and vision role.

It didn't take long to sell the veterans on the viability of the concept. Kraetsch says that nine days after meeting the founders, he purchased the Chandler, Arizona, store from them sight unseen. "When I walked into the Chandler store it was second only to the birth of a child," he says. "I thought it was important to put my money where my mouth was."

The retail stores will work in both warm and cold climates, the trio claim, because flip flops are universal. To date there are two franchisees, including Kraetsch. Curin says he expects to sign deals in five different regions at any time – some in cold weather places.

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