Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Master at Work

Steve Doudaklian arrives every day at his Bedo's Leatherworks in Virginia, usually wearing a pair of Alden Indy boots that are nearly ten years old.  After brewing some Najjar coffee, he begins work, surrounded by worn-out shoes, stacks of fresh soles, a plethora of tools, and an atmosphere of hard work.  The warm aroma of fresh leather fills the air.  Make no mistake, Steve Doudaklian is no mere local shoe repairman but is a Championship cobbler.
 






Mr. Doudaklian is the current holder of the Silver Cup, the top award for Cobblers in America. Americans love to compete and cobblers are no exception.  The Shoe Service Institute of America hosts a national competition every two year for cobblers.  Participants must restore an old, worn-out shoe to the manufacturer's specifications or, as Steve calls it, "the original flair."  He was disqualified from his first competition because his shoes "were not worn out enough", but he learned from his mistake and eventually won the Silver Cup in 2017 after twelve years of trying.  He will not defend his title as SSIA Champs are "one and done" under the rules.   However, he will compete in the World Cup held by Shoe Repair International later this year.  


Steve laments the lack of knowledge most men have about their shoes.  A well-made shoe will last ten to fifteen years if properly cleaned and repaired. Unfortunately, customers often spend hard-earned money on shoes only to throw them away when they wear out because  "They don't think the shoes can be repaired," said Steve.  "I tell customers don't throw the shoes away until I look at them.  Knowledge is one thing they are lacking.  If an item is made, it can be repaired.  It is more a question of how much you are willing to spend," he said. 

The biggest mistake his customers make is "they just don't take care of their shoes.  It's a matter of getting shoes conditioned and cleaned up.  It doesn't just look good but it makes the leather last much longer.  Most of the time, they don't know any better."   The most common mistake is the failure to use a shoe horn, thus the heel counter breaks down.  Steve said he can replace the heel counter by removing the liner and reinforcing the stiffener.  However, such a repair costs $60-80 - money that could have been saved by merely using a cheap shoe horn.

Each shoe is treated as a challenge.  "When I get a pair, I overthink how to improve the shoe and usually do more than I promised to the customer.  I will show them mistakes made by other shops.  There are a lot of things I see they don't see so I take 15 minutes to explain it to them," said Steve.  When asked what his toughest repair was, Steve said no job was any tougher than others, they just took longer.



"I'm doing basic repairs, what am I going to do is stand out more.  I slowly began to customize the options so now most of my jobs are over $250.  People are dumbfounded that I charge those prices.  However, it's quality you are offering.  I don't know any of my friends who Face-time their customers and explain the job.  You must build the relationship with the customer, not just take his money.  Most cobblers don't want to do that.  They tell me "You don't understand."  "Unfortunately, most of them are set in their own ways and don't want to change," he said.  They contribute to the stereotype of cobblers being old men who work in dingy shops - an image Steve would like to change. 

Steve bemoaned the state of the shoe industry as many brands have lowered the quality of their shoes.  He said, "You have to understand, most shoe manufacturers use mass production.  Saving a penny on a pair is worth thousands of dollars."  While some brands such as the more expensive Aldens continue to produce premium shoes, shoe brands such as Bostonian, Johnston & Murphy, or Cole Haan that were considered "top of the line" twenty-five years ago are now known for their inferior quality.

Such companies will skimp on materials due to mass production. Moving production overseas resulted in more cheaply-made shoes that are  simply not worth the cost of repair as manufacturers cut more corners.  They focused more on meeting margins instead of producing well-made shoes.  Indeed, Steve produced a video that showed him dissecting a Cole-Haan shoe that had a paper welt, glued sole, fake stitching, and a heel that was not stacked leather even though it appeared to be so. Companies must make a profit, something Steve said he understood as a small businessman.


Some well-known manufacturers produce shoes with mold-injected soles while using a "fake stitch" in order to make the shoe appear to be well-made . Such shoes typically have a "shelf-life of five to eight years" before they start falling apart.  "Time affects the polyurethane sole just as much as wears do.  The soles start disintegrating over time," said Steve. The consumer sees a nice, shiny shoe on display and doesn't know any better. He is forced to spend more money replacing the shoe when for a few more dollars, he could have bought a shoe that would last at least ten years.  Stay away from such shoes at all costs. 

How does one know if a shoe uses a Goodyear Welt and is properly stitched?  Steve said a manufacturer will almost always declare its shoes use Goodyear welts - consumers should pay attention if it's not mentioned on the shoe. 
Many manufacturers instead use glue to attach the sole to the shoe in order to lower costs even though it shortens the life of the shoe.  Steve said the sole can usually be glued again to the shoe but it is still a sign of inferior quality.



The champeenship cobbler believes in using premium materials for his craft. He uses a variety of soles such as Virbrum, Dainite, and SLIG for dress shoes.  However, JR soles are his true love.  The leather is tanned longer, more durable, and has twice as many fibers as prime leather soles. It absorbs less water.  He recently visited the JR factory in Germany and was "mesmerized".  He said technology was only used to track leather while the soles were made by hand.  His basic cost for a JR sole begins at $230 per pair.  However, the higher cost pays for itself as the soles last much longer than does a typical leather sole.



Many cobblers balk at using the expensive materials in their work but he discounted their concerns.  The cobbler must educate the customer but too many of cobblers don't want to spend the time or money doing so. However, Steve had some advice for such recalcitrant cobblers.

 He said the shoe man can buy two pairs of JR soles and use one to make a sample while the other is used for a repair. They don't have to buy "thousands of dollars of inventory."  "I guarantee if he takes the time, he will sell that repair and put a couple of extra dollars in his pocket. Do the same thing at the counter.  This is A for a certain amount of money, this is B, which is superior.  You do that for a couple of months, you will keep using them.  You have to educate the consumer and keep using them," said Steve.  He said "the consumer comes to you as a professional, they want a service.  If they see you offering that service and quality material, some will say yes, and some will say no.  You've got to create the market. If the shop owner put a little more effort into it, he will see a difference."

While quality among many shoe manufacturers decreased, Steve said there is hope for the industry's future.  He said younger men in their 20's and early 30's "are really getting into quality shoes, even vintage older shoes." Older Florsheim Imperials are cited as an example of increased interest. Their prices are actually rising as older customers are holding onto them while the younger customers desire them for their superior quality.  He recommended younger guys who don't have $400 to spend on a pair of quality shoes to buy used shoes such as Allen Edmonds online.  Even used, they can be later recrafted and be restored to factory condition when the gentleman can afford to do so.   



Steve became known to this website through his Youtube videos.  The discovery was no accident as he expanded his presence online.  His Youtube channel has nearly 40,000 subscribers and generated nearly 4 million views.   One video even received over a million hits.  He asked "How the hell did that happen?"  Something is working because 15 videos received over 50,000 hits apiece.

"I've been making videos for a long time, originally to help my fellow repair guys.  I didn't have an Instagram page.  I didn't have time for that.  A friend said you are doing the same thing on our Faceboook group page so I started using Instagram.  My wife made me start using Facebook as well.  Now I'm on Facebook more than my wife is," said Steve.  The numbers validate his online marketing strategy:

Instagram: 7,388 followers
Youtube Channel: 38,877 subscribers, 3.9 million views
Facebook: 1,867 followers

Steve became a cobbler through the usual way: his father. The senior Doudaklian fled the Lebanese Civil War and brought his family to America in 1977.  Although he was a shoemaker in his home country, he didn't have the resources to practice the same trade so he opened a small shoe repair shop.  Steve said he became interested in helping his father because "I like to do stuff with my hands."  He worked as an informal apprentice while a teenager and started working full-time when he was 19 years old.  He gradually took over the business at 24 years old when his father unexpectedly died.  Despite his father's death, the business soon outgrew the 450 square foot building.  Steve bought a small nearby property and built one that tripled in size where Bedo's Leatherworks now resides.  

Steve considers himself to be an artisan, not just a repairman.  He said although he has three employees, he does 95% of the work.  "I'm still a one-man shop," he said.  Most shoe repairs take one to three weeks.  His shop also repairs other leather products such as jackets, purses and even briefcases. Bedo's repairs women's shoes as well (There are a few videos showing such repairs).   Customers can ship shoes and other leather items to him for repair.   No work is done until he talks to the customer. 

He said he isn't too worried about other cobblers mimicking his ways.   "There is a customer for everybody," he waxed oh so philosophically.




Company Information
Name: Bedo's Leatherworks
Address: 412 W Broad St, Falls Church, VA 22046
Phone Number:  (703) 534-3233
Shipping: US Priority mail runs $13-15.
Website: Bedoesleather.com

Full soles & heels: Starts at $180 (Includes replacing the corking, prime leather & vibram heels are used)
Recrafting begins at $180.  JR soles begin at $230.

All jobs are discussed with the customer before the work begins.







11 comments:

Animal Mother said...

I'm a Crocs & Socks guy myself. That is when I'm not wearing steel toed boots. See, I'm a real man who works a real job.

IMO Obsessing over shoes is a bit too effete for me.

Anonymous said...

Have learned so much about shoes from JJ. Currently in the market for some new work boots and have been able to quickly rule out so many options because of the information found here in this series KF. So thanks.

Anonymous said...

We have a Silver Cup cobbler right here in Brandon, MS:

https://solesandheelsbrandon.com/about-us/

Anonymous said...

I knew a tv repairman when I was little

Anonymous said...

"I knew a tv repairman when I was little"


Thread winner! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Crocs? Is that those plastic things people wear for shoes? Lawd Mercy

Anonymous said...

12:25 pm

You are a fat lawyer who is pretty funny.

Ain’t a person here who knew what effete meant without google.

Get back to your .1 phone calls macho man

Animal Mother said...

@4:31 PM
Nice guess about my occupation.

You know very well I keep a pair of steel toed shoes in the bimmer for cases that require that I tour a factory or any situation that requires a photo-op in a hard hat.

And you might be surprised to know how well read and well spoken that JJ's readers can be, even if KF himself is not.

Some people watch TV, others read.

Anonymous said...

It’s a good post about shoes. We all should appreciate that. I’m sure this cobbler could cook up some good Croc’s for you if you wanted, Animal Mother.

I wear very fancy shoes but I don’t obsess over them anymore than an avowed Croc lover would.

Anonymous said...

That's a real Soul, Man.

Anonymous said...

I know this post is about shoes, but if anybody is interested in some high quality, yet reasonable, cowboy boots, check out Tecovas.com. I bought a pair of the basic calfskin ropers a few months ago and have been very pleased, especially given what I paid for them.

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