Holiday shopping season traditionally marks its start on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. What’s on your list for your friends and loved ones?
Most of us yearn to find something truly unique ― a memorable gift, whether it’s a food item, clothing or an artisan creation, that is imbued with the spirit of its creator and place.
Creating such products rests on entrepreneurs’ ability to build and maintain a thriving business based on crafting unique products that become leading expressions of their genre. Those whose drive, savvy and creativity bring them success become legendary among their customers and peers.
So as you seek out that special something for someone special this holiday season, consider these nine Des Moines metro Local Legends.
Raygun: Witty T-shirts, other items celebrate quirks of its local markets
Location: 505 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines (and eight more locations around Iowa and the Midwest)
Owner: Mike Draper
Product: Locally made and oriented T-shirts and novelty items
Why it’s a legend: Draper, a Van Meter native, got his start in the funny T-shirt business in 2004 while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, selling shirts with the slogan “Not Penn State.” It was a jab at his private, Ivy League alma mater, known as Penn and for its disdain of the public Pennsylvania State University. By 2005, Draper was back in Iowa, selling T-shirts at his new Raygun store in the East Village.
There are now Raygun stores across Iowa and in Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and Omaha, Nebraska, employing 100 people and selling not just T-shirts but art prints, beer koozies, glassware, books and a myriad of other items, all celebrating the quirks of their local markets or the Midwest in general.
While most of Raygun’s sales are in the brick-and-mortar stores, its online sales now exceed those of any single store. Draper in 2020 moved the company’s screen printing and shipping services from the Des Moines store to a warehouse to keep pace with the demand.
Secret(s) of its success: The success of Raygun lies in capturing the humor ― and sometimes the absurdity ― of its local market, something it does so well that it has a collaborative partnership with national digitial humor publication The Onion.
“The entire company is built on coming up with a mix of products that are topical, geographical and progressive,” Draper said.
It was the success of his now-classic “Des Moines: Hell Yes” T-shirt that convinced Draper there was a market for simple products with witty, locally focused slogans.
“The success with that shirt was affirmational for me. Des Moines was on a creative hot streak in the early 2000s, and the shirt caught on. I learned that humor was more nuanced here than I thought,” he said.
– Kevin Baskins
Sticks: Furniture combines unique ‘quality, design and American folk art’
Location: 400 E. Locust St., Des Moines, with a workshop in West Des Moines. Its products are carried in more than 200 retail outlets nationwide
Owner: Rachel Eubank
Product: 100% locally crafted furniture, accessories and objets d’art
Why it’s a legend: Eubank’s mother, artist Sarah Grant, founded Sticks in 1992 after creating a one-of-a-kind wooden nativity for Better Homes and Gardens magazine that sparked enormous demand for her creations.
“In terms of uniqueness, we’ve been at this for 32 years, and we’ve just kind of dialed in to a unique combination of quality, design and American folk art. That kind of combination of things is a real special sauce that, thank goodness, continues to appeal to people,” said Eubank, president and second-generation owner of the business.
How much appeal? Sticks has its products in retail outlets from Seward, Alaska, to Key West Florida. Even though Sticks is based in Des Moines and “so proud” of its store in the East Village (once home to Raygun), 95 percent of the products created in the metro are sold in other states, Eubank said.
Secret(s) of its success: Offering customers an opportunity to purchase unique, high-quality products as opposed to mass-produced goods.
“In an age of quick-fix Amazon and other online retail where it’s a race to the bottom, there are still consumers out there who are kind of bucking that trend and saying, ‘I would like to have one thing of quality and character and integrity rather than five things that are from unknown origins,'” Eubank said. “I think when you make yourself aware of shopping local and what that impact is, and you really think about it long and hard, it’s really making an investment back into your own community.”
– Kevin Baskins
Quill & Nib: Crafting writing instruments sold with a story
Location: 133 Fifth St., West Des Moines
Owner: Robert Beers
Product: Handcrafted writing instruments, plus a selection of pens and stationery from other suppliers
Why it’s a legend: So you’re a decent home cook. You can fry an egg and broil a pork chop à point. You decide to start a restaurant. And then you discover that preparing and serving a variety of food on demand at that scale is a whole different enterprise.
That’s not unlike the story of Beers, 79, who says he started Quill & Nib in 2006 as “sort of joke” after his elderly mother, for whom he was providing care, complained that she wished the U.S. Navy retiree would get a job. The Des Moines native said he had “messed around” on a small home lathe making pen bodies, so he launched the store in a kiosk at Valley West Mall.
Beers had a lot to learn, and describes it as the hardest job he’s ever taken on. But through what he calls an inborn mixture of determination and innate skill with his hands, he mastered his craft. Now, his store is a Historic Valley Junction fixture, and he creates pens ranging in price from $68 to $500 for a loyal clientele.
His workshop is a humble back room in the store, with a couple of lathes, a sander, polishers and an all-important shelf stacked with materials ranging from acrylic and rubber to wood to stone. On request, he even once made pens from crushed brick, and he experiments constantly with novel ideas. Anyone interested in a pen made with the cremains of their favorite pet?
“I learn something new all the time,” Beers says.
Secret(s) of its success: Beers says his store is the only one in Iowa and one of a relative few around the country devoted to making artisan writing instruments, so he can succeed with a niche product. But he still works at building his business, one customer at a time.
“You never sell to a stranger,” says Beers, who tried but eventually ditched online marketing. “You try to learn about them, become a friend with them. You don’t really sell a product. You sell a story.”
– Bill Steiden
Berkwood Farms: Raising flavorful pork based on strict protocols
Location: 6615 N.E. 14th St., Des Moines, with international distribution
Owner: Farmer-owned cooperative
Product: Family farm-grown premium pork products from Berkshire pigs
Why it’s a legend: Berkwood Farms says its 100% certified pure heirloom Berkshire pork is distinctive for its rich, ruby color, marbling, tenderness and depth of flavor.
It’s owned by a network of small family farmers in six Midwestern states. Most are in Iowa, the nation’s leading pork producer. But unlike the hogs that are the source of the commodity pork commonly found in supermarkets, Berkwood’s are raised with a firm set of protocols aimed at being practical, humane and sustainable. They include:
- No use of antibiotics or hormones to promote unnatural growth.
- No use of confinement pens.
- An all-vegetarian, grain-based diet.
- Minimizing stress on the animals.
The company offers “all of the traditional cuts,” with pork bellies and tomahawk chops being among the favorites, said Jake Mooers, key account manager and marketing specialist. It also assembles gift boxes such as the Breakfast Package and Party Pack, and offers gold-foil-wrapped, honey-glazed, applewood-smoked hams for the holidays, both spiral cut and ready for carving at the table.
“The cool thing about our business is that if you call us, we can tailor a Christmas package to your exact needs,” Mooers said.
Secret(s) of its success: Berkwood’s strict protocols are costly to comply with and require a real commitment from its farmers. But the result is a reputation for quality so strong that Berkwood’s products are offered by name on restaurant menus from Texas to Tokyo.
Berkwood Farms’ products can be purchased at its store or at betterpork.com.
– Kevin Baskins
Lola’s Fine Hot Sauce: Prepared with fresh ingredients, ‘Iowa nice’ values
Location: Made in West Des Moines, with nationwide distribution
Owners: Taufeek and Carmelita “Lola” Shah
Product: Hot sauces, salsas, seasonings and biscuit cookies
Why it’s a legend: Taufeek Shah and his retired physician mom, Lola, launched Lola’s Fine Hot Sauces together in 2015. Now, more than 10,000 U.S. retailers carry the company’s products. They’re available at Walgreens, Walmart, Hy-Vee and Target locations as well as local merchants.
Lola Shah, who until 2022 operated an eponymous Filipino restaurant in Ankeny with daughter Hannah Elliott, developed the recipe. Her son has said he realized it had commercial potential after it got rave reviews from his colleagues at Principal Financial when he took it to work for a taco day.
“My mom is the heart and soul of the brand. I’m just the sales guy,” Taufeek Shah jokingly told the Des Moines Register.
Shah, who was raised in the northeast Iowa town of Winthrop before moving to Waterloo, has turned his West Des Moines-based company into a corporate heavyweight, with new product rollouts like Lola-Racha, the family’s homespun rendition of a classic Sriracha sauce. All of the company’s creations are handmade, which Taufeek said is “exactly” what his mom would want.
The Shah family story is a realization of the American Dream. Lola Shah immigrated to the United States from the Philippines before meeting her son’s dad, who served for 20 years in the U.S. Army.
“She came to Iowa of all places with no money in her pocket,” said Taufeek Shah, who was named one of the Des Moines Register’s people to watch for 2023.
Secret(s) of its success: Flavor, derived from the company’s fresh ingredients such as lime juice and garlic, as well as a helping of small-town Iowa values.
During his childhood, Shah was often the only person of color in his class after the Shah family moved to Winthrop. There, he befriended the children of farmers, which helped him realize a greater appreciation for food and agriculture, as well as “Iowa nice.”
“Those are things that bring our community together. I got to experience where our food comes from,” Shah said.
– Jay Stahl
Fontenelle Supply Co.: Leather goods, candles, clothing made ‘the best that we could’
Location: 524 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines
Owners: Erich Bockman, Adam Tweedy and Asher Connelly
Product: Custom-made leather goods, candles and clothing
Why it’s a legend: Fontenelle is a hip, urban menswear and accessories shop that opened in the East Village in 2016. What customers perusing its casual-cool collection of clothing, caps, belts and wallets may not realize is that Fontenelle also is the maker of a significant proportion of the products it sells.
That means that, while Fontenelle offers ready-made items, it’s also able to custom-make creations for customers who, for instance, want leather goods with distinctive or individualized features. Recently, the company made more than 200 leather menu covers for Oak Park, one of the most anticipated restaurants to open in Des Moines in several years.
“That was a really fun project. We found the perfect leather for them, perfect construction,” Tweedy said.
Tweedy and Bockman, who run the Des Moines store while Connelly manages the original location in Omaha, Nebraska, have a discerning eye for the materials they use. Tweedy is enthusiastic when describing the untreated natural leather of Fontenelle’s wallets. Pinkish when new, it develops with use a patina unique to its owner.
“So there’s no harsh oils or chemicals in the tanning process,” Tweedy said. “This is as OG as it gets.”
Fontenelle also screen-prints T-shirts, which during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic became a lifeline as the shop closed its doors for four months. Today, the custom shirt business is booming, Bockman said.
Other product lines include candles and logo caps. And the partners apply their bespoke sensibilities to selecting the clothing they sell from other makers.
“We’re juggling quite a lot,” Bockman said. “Best problem in the world to have.”
Secret(s) of its success: “We found out how to make things the best that we could,” Tweedy said. “Other brands that we bring in for the store we feel like make that category the best that they can, too. If we’re making a leather wallet, we’re doing it the best way that we can. We make sure that all of our vendors that we carry fit the same deal.”
“Do everything the right way, and it holds up, and it’s better and it’s quality,” Bockman said. “We stuck with that. We hold that quality standard through the entire thing.”
– Philip Joens
Ephemera: ‘Bartenders of the card world’ craft customized greetings, invitations
Location: 505 E. Locust St., Des Moines
Owner: Arin Wiebers and Karen Brady
Product: Custom invitations, stationery, greeting cards and gifts
Why it’s a legend: University of Iowa roommates Wiebers and Brady began making invitations for their friends while still at school and continued designing cards on the side after they graduated. They later moved to Boulder, Colorado, working out of their apartments and selling wedding invitations online.
But Wiebers and Brady didn’t see a future for their business in Colorado.
“It’s expensive. We would not have been able to afford retail space there,” Brady said. “So, I was talking to my mom and my sister and they were like, ‘Oh, the East Village is a thing. They’re getting it going.’”
The pair set up shop in the Live/Work Lofts on Fifth Street and, after a short stint there, moved to their East Locust Street storefront in 2008, where they’ve been ever since.
Ephemera looks a bit different than when it first opened 14 years ago. The once-barren shop now offers all kinds of knickknacks, gifts, journals and cards for all occasions. Wiebers and Brady also have brought on two staff members to help with everything from balancing the books to providing hand-lettering services.
For those looking to send personalized invitations, their door is always open.
Secret(s) of its success: Brady and Wiebers rely on people more than anything. After all, human connections — letters, invitations, gifts — are what they specialize in.
Wiebers recalled the early days of Ephemera, when they had little to no retail offerings. Every customer who wandered into their store had to be pitched. The pair explained what they could do and what they hoped to accomplish in their new space.
That personal touch and the relationships Brady and Wiebers formed along the way are one of the reasons Ephemera has survived the rise of online card-printing services like Minted, Shutterfly and Canva. Customers looking for a more personal experience can still plop down in the single blue chair next to Ephemera’s cash register, ready to dish to the pair who call themselves the “bartenders of the card world.”
“Our market is getting (more) niche, but people who have a project and want to have fun with it? Those are the people we get along with,” Wiebers said.
– Addison Lathers
BLK & Bold Specialty Beverages: Coffee roasted with purpose helps support youth
Location: Des Moines-headquartered, with nationwide distribution
Owners: Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar
Product: Hand-roasted premium coffee with a side of social impact
Why it’s a legend: Johnson and Cezar met as kids in Gary, Indiana, where they grew up on the same street.
The company began in Cezar’s garage on Des Moines’ south side in 2018. Cezar, a University of Northern Iowa graduate who had moved to the hometown of his wife, Jessica, when they started a family, ran the coffee blending and roasting operation. Johnson, an Indiana University graduate, managed marketing and social media from his home in California.
Not only is it the country’s only Black-owned, nationally distributed coffee brand, but they imbue it with a sense of purpose: 5% of the company’s profits are donated to supporting youth in need across the country.
“We’re very personalized people in how we shop and consume, and for us to have a brand that is curated by people that are passionate about the purpose that that brand can have, it carries through very deeply and intimately in how we move forward,” Cezar said.
The Des Moines Register named Cezar and Johnson among its People to Watch for 2021 as they and their product quickly drew national attention. The pair appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” with guest host Dwyane Wade, the NBA legend, and have collaborated with Marvel and the NBA while building nationwide retail distribution.
Secret(s) of its success: There isn’t one, Cezar and Johnson say ― just some luck, coffee grounds and a lot of hard work.
“It takes accountability. It takes trial and error. It takes vulnerability. It takes grit,” Johnson said of the will to succeed.
Those values the pair were raised on ― and the protectiveness of the culture and community they grew up around in Indiana’s rust belt ― are implanted in what they do.
“We are domesticated dads that are businessmen that happen to be Black from under-resourced communities like Gary that are predominantly Black. Everything we do is embedded within the community we grew up in,” Cezar said.
“If you’re looking on Instagram and you see all the glitz and glamour, you see the end product. But what you don’t see is all the years of work that it takes to get to that point and the sacrifices that come along the way,” Johnson said. “So, in my opinion, there is no secret to success outside of dedicating yourself to the craft and doing what’s necessary to meet your goals.”
– Jay Stahl
Bozz Prints: Making ‘cool stuff’ that celebrates landmarks, landscapes
Location: 215 Fifth St, West Des Moines
Owner: John Bosley
Product: Vintage-inspired prints, clothing and mugs
Why it’s a legend: Bozz ― ex-lead Raygun designer John Bosley, perhaps best known for his “Iowa, 75 percent vowels, 100 percent awesome” T-shirt — started his business with just seven poster designs, printed in the basement of his Des Moines home and marketed online.
The Iowa State University fine arts grad became a brick-and-mortar retailer 4½ years ago, opening Bozz Prints in Historic Valley Junction. The similarity of his business to Raygun is apparent, but the emphasis is distinct. While his former employer loves to lampoon the foibles of the Midwest, Bosley says his passion is celebrating the landmarks and landscapes of various cities and regions.
His Des Moines-centric art offerings have since expanded to showcase landmarks in other major cities in the Midwest and beyond, as well as Iowa state parks, national parks and other states. Bosley was recently licensed by Drake University to begin making apparel and prints for the school.
Retailers across Iowa and in 17 other states carry Bozz’s prints, T-shirts and other merchandise ― notably, the multi-state Rally House chain, where his creations provide a complement to the sports-centric apparel.
“If you walk in here, no matter where you’re from, there’s going to be something that appeals to you,” Bosley said.
And Bozz Prints is still growing. The shelves in the back of the 2,800-square-foot store are filled top to bottom as the business gets prepared for the holiday season. Bosley noted that when he first moved in, he wasn’t sure he’d need all the space. Now, he’s glad he has it. And, of course, he still sells online.
Secret(s) of its success: Bosley and his crew point to passion and a desire to “make cool stuff” as their “secret sauce.”
Their strategy works. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce recently gave an interview with one of Bozz’s prints in the background, and actor Paul Rudd was photographed wearing a Bozz-designed shirt last year. The TV sitcoms “How I Met Your Father” and “Dave” have incorporated the shop’s artwork on their sets.
“We make stuff that we ourselves want to buy. We just focus on things that don’t exist that we want to exist,” Bosley said.
– Addison Lathers