“I don’t run a business, I run a ministry.”
So says Garth Schmeck, owner of ESP Outdoor in Redding. These days, however, Schmeck is sermonizing from a new book.
For years, Schmeck was the area’s preacher of paddling. He founded the Penguin Paddlers club, which grew to 700 members, and his shop of the same name thrived by selling high-end kayaks and paddling gear. Then came the summer of 2008, when smoke from lingering wildfires choked the region week after brown week. Many people simply stayed indoors or took their outdoor pursuits far out of town. Virtually no customers walking through Schmeck’s door for three months.
Firefighters and Mother Nature finally extinguished the fires at the same moment the world’s financial system melted down. Schmeck’s customer base was composed mostly of 55- to 75-year-old Bay Area equity refugees, and, even though the sky was finally clear, they were more focused on their retirement portfolios than on launching $2,000 kayaks at Whiskeytown Lake.
Schmeck, who has known both business success and failure, faced a choice: “Do you shut your doors, or do you reinvent yourself?” He choose the latter, and the Penguin Paddlers shop last year evolved into ESP Outdoor. The Railroad Avenue shop still sells kayaks and paddling equipment, but the focus is on bicycles, which account for about 70% of ESP Outdoor’s business.
When Schmeck, his wife Carrie and their three children relocated to Redding from the Sacramento area in 1999, Garth had planned to open a bike shop. But he soon learned that Redding had plenty of bike stores and that every major bicycle manufacturer already had a distributor in town. And he couldn’t find a shop owner at the time willing to sell the business. Schmeck, whose family has deep roots in kayaking, turned to paddling almost by default. The crisis of two years ago, however, permitted the former professional road cyclist and mountain biker to return to his original passion.
“Cycling has always been a huge part of who I am,” the 46-year-old Schmeck said.
I admit that I was skeptical when I first heard that another bike shop opened in town. Redding already has five full-service bike shops, I thought. How in the heck can it support a sixth? I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that ESP Outdoor – for better or worse – is unlike the other bike shops in Redding.
The typical bicycle shop makes most of its money by servicing bikes and selling parts and accessories. Sure, the stores sell bikes, but seldom in large quantities or for large profit margins. Many new car dealers follow the same business model. They’ll sell you a car, but what they really want to do is service that car for the next five or ten years.
Schmeck’s business model is the exact opposite. He services the bikes he sells for free. Classes, clinics and demos are also free. Group rides, special events and out-of-town trips? No charge.
Instead, Schmeck sells only high-end gear and at prices that may cause a double-take. It’s more of an Old World business model, and one that Schmeck followed to make Penguin Paddlers one of the country’s biggest sellers of sea kayaks.
“Our motto has always been ‘The Finest and More,’” Schmeck explained. “It isn’t the cheapest. It isn’t crap you buy on the Internet. I was bringing in boats from England, from Italy, from Estonia. Price was no object. We wanted to offer the finest equipment.” He took the same approach with bicycles.
“I wanted to bring in some bicycles that you only find in the Bay Area. I see them as the Ferrari, the Range Rover, the Lamborghini,” he said. ESP Outdoor offers mountain bikes by Niner, Yeti and Canada’s Norco, European road bikes by Focus and Bianchi, cyclecross bikes by Van Dessel, cargo bikes by Yuba, and custom-made frames from Moots and Ellsworth. Scott is the latest addition to the lineup. Most of the bicycle parts, accessories and clothing is of similar high-end quality.
Of course, people who own a Ferrari don’t actually get their fingers greasy changing the oil. Schmeck wants his customers to learn how to maintain their rigs and make minor repairs.
“We’re more about helping people become cyclists, become independent,” he said. “We’re not just a retail store. Yes, we have a retail store, but I would do the same thing out of my garage. I’d still ride with these guys.”
The fact that Schmeck hits the roads and trails on group rides nearly every day keeps him honest. “You can’t ride with somebody you just ripped off,” he said.
It seems that Schmeck greets just about everybody who walks into his store by first name. On a recent afternoon, Redding eye doctor Curtis Newcomb brought his Niner mountain bike in for a flat repair and some minor tweaking. Schmeck invited Newcomb behind the counter, demonstrated how to fix a flat in a tubeless tire, and explained everything he was doing to the bike. In between, they gabbed about a group outing to the Auburn area that Newcomb missed at the last minute.
“I’ve learned so much from Garth – equipment, fitness, nutrition,” Newcomb said. “He’s very loose with the information.”
“Only until you start beating me. Then I clam up,” Schmeck said with a laugh.
John Stokes, who heads the We Ski II outdoor adventure club, said Schmeck deserves credit for introducing people to kayaking and now cycling, and then helping them develop their skills – even if Schmeck does intend to make a buck off his pupils.
“The model that he has makes sense. He takes people out on these rides to get people interested in buying a bike from him,” Stokes said.
A few members of the local paddling community feel left behind. Schmeck owns the name Penguin Paddlers, and he appropriated it for a second store, a kayak shop in Rocklin. The local club is now called Just Kayak More, and the members are well aware Schmeck has shifted his emphasis to bicycles. Still, the group remains as busy as ever, with group paddles four days a week, frequent road trips and other gatherings, according to George Ecclesfield, who leads many of the outings.
“I wouldn’t say he’s just chasing the money,” Ecclesfield said of Schmeck. “His heart is still in both. The kayak business kind of got saturated up here.”
The ESP Outdoor website still maintains a detailed paddling calendar, as well as a bicycle calendar, and only last week Schmeck was on Whiskeytown Lake before work, helping a customer with his stroke. No one can deny that Schmeck is committed: There’s a reason the store is called ESP – which stands for Eat, Sleep, Play – Outdoor. That’s his lifestyle. Schmeck coaches the Jefferson State high school mountain bike racing team, on which his son Carson is a top rider. Schmeck’s store sponsors the Team Bigfoot and Blazing Saddles mountain bike racing series as well as numerous other events. The ESP Outdoor website and companion Facebook page promote all local clubs and events, even those sponsored by other bike shops.
Schmeck claims that he’s “not in competition with anyone.” I’m not sure all the other bike store proprietors would agree. Most of them carry at least some high-end gear in addition to larger quantities of the mid-range and cheapo stuff that we hackers ride. Still, it’s clear that ESP Outdoor is trying to carve its own niche.
Redding’s other bike shops – Bikes Etc., The Bike Shop, Chain Gang, Sports LTD and Village Cycle – all have their followings, and for good reason. The fact that all of them remain open while the recession lingers tells me that they’re doing something right. Redding cyclists are fortunate to have such a variety of shops and talented bike mechanics from which to choose. Here’s hoping the best for our six-pack of bike shops.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and is the slow guy who faster riders blow by on Placer Road. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.