From ollie-poppin’ everything in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. to owner of the HUF boutique skate shops, Keith Hufnagel has some firsthand knowledge of what works in skateboarding, both as a professional and as a businessman. We caught up with him to hear his thoughts on how mom-and-pop shops can survive and what the future will be for the new line of HUF shoes. Will Stranger be involved? Read more about shops/skating in the extended version of Huf’s Shop Talk from our May issue.
How’s everything going for you?
It’s good. Skating, but its been raining. We’ve had about two weeks of it, but it’s clearing up and everyone’s back on their boards. The older you get, though, the more sore your body gets from not doing it [laughs].
Luckily you have a shop to run. For all the pro skaters and people who have tried to invest in or run a shop, HUF has done really well. Why do you think that is?
It’s really hard work, no matter what you’re doing. I’ve put a lot of work into the shop, picking the right brands that go along with it and making the shop special. You know, there’re hundreds and thousands of skate shops out there and they all cater to their own personal style, because skating has so many different personalities and different styles. So I chose something that I was more familiar with—that kind of boutique skate shop. We don’t carry every brand. We’re usually very selective in what we carry. It’s kind of just family, you know? We can’t carry every brand. There’s just not enough space and there are too many brands out there. So we’re very specific in what we carry.
What are some of the ups and downs of running a shop, besides chewing into the time you spend skating?
Well, it definitely does that, no matter what—that’s good and bad. But, um… I guess the ups are that you have product at your fingertips, no matter what [laughs]. But, you know, being a boss at times can suck a lot. It’s definitely a job where you make friends with certain people and then they think they can do whatever they want at times, but in the end, you can lose friends like that or those friends learn from that. One downside is the hiring and firing. There are a lot of great things about it too. For some people, they get on and then all of these opportunities open up for them, because they catch on and learn in the shop. People move up and go on to other things. It can be a stepping-stone for a lot of people.
How does it compare to the day-to-day of being just a pro skateboarder?
Um, it’s all on your mood. A skateboarder has unlimited freedom if they’re skating well. If they’re not skating well, they have to perform. The companies want their photos and their video clips. So, skateboarding—if you’re good at it—is an easier job. You’re just having fun, basically. You’re doing what you love. A shop is more of running the business and figuring it out. There aren’t really any guidelines. You’ve got to make sure you’re not extending yourself too much. You’re working on computers, maintaining inventory, figuring out your profit margins, and all that kind of stuff so that you can succeed.
You mentioned before having a shop that’s kind of unique. Yours is differs in that you have non-skaters coming in to buy softgoods to keep up with trends. Some smaller stores don’t have that same luxury and, as skateboarders, I think we naturally want those stores to survive. So from your perspective, what would you advise a mom-and-pop shop somewhere in the middle of the country do to keep their heads above water?
It’s really just watching your cash flow—watching your buys and your sales of product. If a shop just keeps buying product, you’re doing something wrong. It’s pretty simple. But be different from what’s around you. Don’t open up a shop that’s right next to another shop. It’s like, why are you doing that? Go somewhere new, open a shop, get some new product. Make it original, make it fun. You can’t repeat what’s already happening. You have to be original in retail. It’s a lot like skating. You really have to be different some way.
Do you think that the big-box stores are a kind of necessary evil to keep the skate industry alive?
Yeah, they buy a lot, get people out there knowledgeable about skateboard products that might not be. I mean, they keep a lot of companies afloat with the product that they’re buying. It’s just that survival thing—there has to be that big whale in the ocean that’s at the top. But for small stores, that whale can come into that area and eat them up. So it’s important to either stay away from those big-box stores or make your store something unique that they can’t really compete with. If there is a demand or you’ve created a demand, sure. I feel like all real skateboarders support that mom-and-pop shops. The skate companies are trying to do special things for those stores because they know the situation—how important they are that they’re there.
So you parted ways with DVS, right?
So now you’re starting a new line of HUF shoes?
Yeah, it’s a full shoe line of skateboard lifestyle shoes. You’ll see when they come out that they are skateboard shoes.
When that all happened, was that a thing you approached DVS with and told them, “Okay, it’s probably time for me to part ways?” Or did they find out about the shoes and decide to end it with you?
Well, I guess just talking with [Tim] Gavin, I let them know what we were doing with the shoes. I was just about to sign a contract and I was supposed to have shoes coming out in spring, but I let them know ahead of time so that they could make sure my model wasn’t going to be mass produced. They were able to keep it quiet and try to get rid of anything with my name on it. We kept it really low-key. It was really amicable. We’re all friends in the end and we’re stoked for one another.
What are you going to make as far as HUF shoes, then?
Well, we have five styles that we did for the first line. There are three vulcanized shoes—a high-top, a low-top and another low-top that’s kind of like a slip-on style. Then we’ve got two cupsoles and there’s a high-top and low-top in that. Overall, we start with 22 colors to start for fall.
Are you going to have a team for the shoes?
Um, that is the plan. We’re just starting out putting the shoes into the market and then we want to start a skate team and do pro models and get back to skateboarding and support skaters. We just want to get it going and then get skaters pro models and get them paid, too.
It seems easier than just starting from scratch, I guess, since people already like the HUF clothes, so they’ll be able to float the shoes.
Yeah, we figured we can survive for a little bit of time and then add people as it progresses and then get pro models and help out skaters we want on HUF shoes.
Do you have anybody in mind for the team, who might be in the works?
Oh, it’s just me so far—kinda sucks. I’m the lone soldier [laughs]. You know, we’ll pick up a lot of am kids and all that, but we don’t have any pros yet.
I heard Julien Stranger might be on the team.
Yeah, he could go. He’s awesome. But the team’s really not certain yet. Just gonna build it over time.