On shoe-boxing and delivery day at Shooli, a Twin Cities startup that aims to revive the art of shoe care and repair, a cobbler is replacing a worn heel. A marketing and design intern from the University of Minnesota is using sponges and solvents to test the best way to make scuffs on sneakers disappear.
“This is a dying craft and that makes me sad,” said Meghan Flynn, Shooli’s chief operating officer and apprentice cobbler. “We live in a throwaway society.”
Shooli works out of a tiny warehouse in the heart of the Arts District in northeast Minneapolis. The brick-and-mortar operation relies on technology to serve its customers, who can schedule a shoe shine or repair through its app or website including home and office pickup and delivery within two days to a week, depending on the service. A shoe shine costs $10; boot repair and reconditioning starts at $20.
The idea was the brainchild of Hemisphere Cos., a Twin Cities-based investment firm with a broad range of holdings in the Twin Cities and beyond. Flynn was an operations manager for Hemisphere who craved the chance to launch her own startup.
Flynn simultaneously took on the role of chief operating officer and apprentice cobbler, a pair of unlikely titles for a millennial with a pre-med undergraduate degree. She’s undeterred, despite some pretty sobering odds.
The Shoe Service Institute of America (SSIA) said that in the 1930s there were about 100,000 shoe-repair shops, but only about 15,000 by 1997. Today, the Maryland-based group said only about 5,000 cobbler shops remain.
That’s not because people are wearing fewer shoes, walking less or being kinder to their shoes. The demise of such shops has been led by a raft of changes among consumers and manufacturers. Inexpensive, mass-produced throwaway shoes have proliferated. The shoemakers and cobblers who trained the next generation have retired or died. And new technology has enabled shoe companies to assemble shoes with glues and adhesives that make repairing them difficult or impractical.
The SSIA maintains that shoe repair can help save the world, calling shoe repair one of the oldest forms of recycling. Each year, the industry keeps some 62 million pairs of shoes out of landfills and on consumers’ feet.
Flynn is on board with that message.
In preparation for her new role, she decided to learn the art and craft of shoe repair and maintenance. She found a willing mentor, then started practicing. After working her way through the scuffs and worn soles of everyone in her friend group, she dug through bins of shoes that had been donated to a local thrift store, searching for suitable pairs in need of repair.
Though the face of the company is a slick website that’s driven by an app, website and high-tech analytics, the heart of the operation is the warehouse, which houses a collection of well-used leather tools, polishers and stitchers once used by cobblers who had retired or gone out of business.
Flynn hired a lead cobbler who had been running his own shop in a far-flung suburb, and Shooli took its first orders last October.
The concept is fairly simple. Log in to the website, request a pickup day and time and describe what you would like done from a detailed menu. A few days later your shoes appear back at your door in a bright blue box.
The website includes an interactive feature that enables the cobbler to communicate with the customer, eliminating the need for phone calls and frustrating delays in turnaround time.
Many cobblers, Flynn said, are one-person shops with limited hours and capacity. Her shop is capable of polishing and repairing hundreds of pairs a day.
“Turnaround time is huge for us,” she said in her tiny lofted office above the workshop. “Our space is so small, we can’t hold shoes for long.”
Though such on-demand services are now available for everything from groceries to prescription meds, Flynn bristles at the notion that the business was modeled after Uber, Bite Squad or any others.
“We wanted to find our own niche,” she said.
That includes a mail-in service that enables customers to operate on their own schedule and from anywhere in the metro. Currently, Shooli’s service area includes most of Minneapolis, Edina and St. Louis Park.
When the seven-person company launched last fall, Flynn expected the concept to appeal primarily to well-heeled professionals with ultraexpensive shoes à la Louboutin and Balenciaga. Instead, they have attracted a customer base that includes hipster millennials with a fondness for Red Wings and other well-known brands.
“When we launched, all of our preconceived notions were wrong,” she said.
With just about a half-dozen employees, the company is nimble. It’s trying to expand its options for pickup and delivery so is negotiating with stores and dry cleaners to establish drop-off and pickup zones. That includes shoe shine stands in downtown Minneapolis that don’t offer repair services.
Shooli isn’t trying to impinge on other businesses, said Flynn. “We’re not here to take anyone’s customers.”