As the face of retail continues to transform, stores are becoming more and more a reflection of the individuals who run the business. We sat down with Chhun Tang, owner of East Fork Supply Co., to talk about how he merged his passions to create a space that is part motorcycle shop, part art gallery and one hundred percent original.
Tell us a little about East Fork Supply Co., how you got started, and your role there?
Honestly, starting the business was a complete accident. I started East Fork Supply Co. as the sole owner back in 2012. I moved into a loft space that had living space on the upper floors and a business space on bottom. I had no intention of opening anything at first, but I had to take that chance, the opportunity to do open something was too good to pass up. And when it came down to the type of store I was going to open, I listened to my gut and made it a store that was all about my lifestyle.
What was your inspiration in creating your space?
I decided to keep to the things I really knew about. I gravitated towards art, design, photography, outdoors and motorcycles. Those are the things that I love and building the store and its core philosophy around what I know made too much sense. All around the store, you’ll find elements of those things. We always have art or photography from local artists on the walls that fall in line with the overall look of the store. There’s a motorcycle out front, helmets on the shelves and trail maps posted. It has a more casual, blue collar vintage industrial look because it’s more inviting and low key. The vintage props and display pieces add that sense of familiarity and nostalgia. In the last few years, I’ve gotten more into the outdoors and motorcycles, because that’s something I personally have gotten more interested in.
Motorcycle gear and culture seems to be an important part of your business. How does that influence your store as a whole?
It’s important, but it’s only a part of it and not what truly defines the store. It plays a role within the whole brand because it’s one of the things I do. It’s just much more visible, because we do our monthly event where guys ride over and hang out and that has become really popular right now. The people who do ride are usually passionate about it and the community as a whole is pretty tight knit. Those two aspects of passion and community are common themes that are shared with everything else we do. We carry one brand of performance motorcycle gear (http://www.eastforksupplyco.com/collections/motorcycle-gear) and accessories and also some motorcycle inspired stuff, but we’re by no means a motorcycle shop.
What influences your decision making process when deciding to carry new brands?
I’ve been around and seen a lot of brands that are well branded and well marketed, but aren’t great products. So, first of all, it has to be a great product that functions well and is built to last. Local is even better and made in the US, that’s ideal, that’s perfect. Not everything we carry meets those guidelines, but if it’s a really great product that fits within our lifestyle and the context, we’ll make exceptions. We’re a small business and we want to support other small businesses as well, so we look for small brands. We want to carry products that help to make the store unique, because if we’re carrying the same things as everyone else, people might as well go to the mall across the street from us.
Could you walk us through why you decided to carry the Snake Bite?
We brought Snake Bite in for a few reasons actually. Accessories sell really well for us, whether someone is buying something for themselves or as a gift. Key chain accessories specifically, have been doing really well. At the time we weren’t carrying any type of bottle openers, let alone openers that were also key chain accessories. Snake Bite is an interesting twist on the classic bottle opener, it’s a simple quality product, it’s made in the US, the aesthetics of the brand matches ours and they really wanted to work with us.
What inspires you to keep doing what you are doing on a daily basis?
Seeing the business grow, and meeting interesting people continues to intrigue me.
People come into the store and say things like “What a great place, I’m glad there’s a cool men’s shop in the area.” That gives me a sense of satisfaction and affirmation that I’m doing something right, which makes me want to build on that. I’m a creator and builder at my core. As an art director, I used to build brands for other people and now I’m able to do that for myself. Also, I see the store, its brand and our monthly events grow and to a small degree, it’s like watching your kids grow.
I also get to meet amazing people, create bonds and have a chance to work with a lot of great people. To date I’ve met restaurant owners, bike builders I’ve admired for years, a brewer, a magician, artists and crafts persons and that’s just to name a few.
How would you define success as it relates to your business and what do you think has contributed to that success?
At the moment, growth. Having only been open for two and a half years, I knew we weren’t going to have people filling up the store everyday with things flying off the shelves. I understood that it had to start slow and would hopefully pick up. So the key is growth. Not just financially, although that’s important as well, but more in terms of what the overall store is about. By growing the community around the store and its influence in the industry, I know the financial aspect will take care of itself.
On a personal level, which relates to the business, I have to grow as a business owner who’s learning how to run a retail store with no prior experience in doing so.
My experience with branding and strategy as an art director, my personal aesthetics and passions, my friendly and approachable personality and my determination have played roles in the success of the store thus far. People want to help good people and I’ve been lucky that people want to support me and help me succeed.
Tell me a bit about Project Connect and how it relates to your retail business?
Through the store, I’ve become connected with so many different people. I understand that neither myself nor the store exists in a vacuum, we’re part of a larger connected community. I’ve thought about that a lot lately and wanted do a project around that idea. It doesn’t necessarily sell any products, instead it’s more about celebrating the people who I’ve been fortunate to come into contact with who have made the store possible and has shaped what it’s become. So my photographer friend Nick Miramontes came up with the idea of shooting all the different people in a way in which we kept it simple to focus on the person and who they are. All of the photos are online http://www.eastforksupplyco.com/blogs/project-connect and we encourage people to download them. In the long-term, we’re going to print them all and wallpaper one of the walls of the store. It’s a way to make our customers feel more like a part of the store.
Where do you see your brand and business going in the future?
Retail, business in general, has changed. You can’t just open your doors and expect people to walk through the door and buy things. So understanding that, along with my experience with branding and strategy, I’ve made a big effort to make the store about community, lifestyle and relationships. And oh, by the way, we sell some really great products that are a part of that lifestyle. As I’ve learned more and more about buying and figuring things out, our selection of products just gets better and better.
We’ll continue to build on our relationships with our customers through our monthly Coffee + Donuts event, do more group hiking trips and later on this year we’ll be launching a club named the East Fork Society, details of which are a secret at the moment. We’re also looking to do some more collaborations with other brands, artists and interesting people.
All of those things help us integrate more into a person’s life. While we may not be Apple or Google which are ingrained into a person’s life, we want to the first place they think of when they want to buy something that we have that fits their need.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in specialty retail?
Go into an area they’re passionate about. If it’s something they’re really into, they’ll know a lot about it and a lot of people who are part of that culture and also come off to a customer as someone with credibility. Use all of their resources to their advantage. Most people have friends and family that are more than willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask so that they can use their skills and strengths as an advantage. When I started the business, I was hesitant to ask my friends to help. I’ve had to learn to use my network of people and tap into those resources.
For more about East Fork Supply Co, visit http://www.eastforksupplyco.com/