San Antonio, Texas
In the early 1970s on the beaches of Cocoa, Florida, Piper was struggling to make ends meet as a schoolteacher.
"I was teaching elementary school and taking home almost no money per month," says Piper. "It was '71, and hippie things were starting to happen in America: everybody wanted to make something with their hands. I had to figure out a way to subsidize my teaching, so I bought a bag of leather scraps from a shoe repair shop and started making some leather goods."
His side hustle proved to have real legs. "Within a few months, I opened a little shop in town. I was there after school and on Saturdays," he says. "People liked what I was making -- what they liked most was when I started making sandals."
But what followed was a shock to even Piper himself: for more than 50 years, Piper Sandals have been crafting quality leather sandals, making more than 64,000 pairs in the process.
Their signature sandal style is known by many names -- the Jesus Sandal, the old hippie sandal, a style older than ancient Greece -- but officially, it is The Original. The Original -- now priced at $149 a pair -- is made up of a fully adjustable 3/8" strap of a single piece of leather, a foam inner sole made to conform to footprints within a week of wear, sturdy arch support, and a 1/2" black Vibram rubber sole.
While Piper has made many other styles over the years, The Original has always been the primary draw. "The first 10 years or so that I was making sandals, I experimented with 25 to 30 different styles. I would set out all these different samples, but I began to notice that everyone wanted the one I was wearing, which was the original style. So, I got rid of everything else."
By 1990, Piper had fully mastered his sandal making, and settled into the gig full-time. The only teaching he would do thereafter would be passing the trademark craftsmanship and business operations to his son, Jon, and eventually his granddaughter, Penelope. "I felt like it took us 20 years to perfect our sandal completely, and I haven't changed anything since," says Piper.
By 1993, Piper Sandals was even on the Web -- one of the first of its kind. "Our website went up in '93, just about the day the Web was given to the public," says Piper. "In fact, the computer geeks that built it for me said it was one of the first 1,500 websites in the world. That gave us kind of a leg up and back in that day."
Piper Sandals is a methodical manufacturer. Still headquartered out of Piper's garage in San Antonio, Texas -- the same location for more than 30 years -- each day is as follows: cut the leather in the morning, and assemble away.
"We go slow enough to not mess up," says Piper. "It's not really an assembly line -- except we do cut the pieces for several pairs first thing in the morning and begin putting them together. But at no point does it slide from one person to the next; everybody has to take however long it takes to do a job.
The process has evolved over the years, but the majority of the credit goes to a 1937 American Straight Needle Machine -- a sewing machine built by a company that went out of business in the 1960s. Every sandal is now stitched together with the American Straight Needle Machine, making for a manufacturing process that is relentless in its quality and precision.
"In my travels to these arts festivals and shows, I would always stop at a shoe repair shop to see if they had any machines for sale," says Piper. "I knew what I was looking for -- Industrial Revolution-era shoe machinery. My old antique machine can sew a shoe in one minute and never miss a stitch, ever."
Another key to Piper Sandals' success: product longevity. They rebuild sandals through the mail for half the selling price, and new straps are always free.
With a high-quality product that has proven to stand the test of time, as well as a 3rd generation business owner waiting in the wings, Piper Sandals is in good hands.
"We are a niche business that caters to people who want really good sandals," says Piper. "Turns out, there's always people making a good enough living to want nice things. I never wanted to build a huge company. My son was two years old when I started -- he lives next door now, and he runs everything. He's 52 now. So, we just do what we do."
Challenges: Piper Sandals made out better than many during the pandemic. With everything but the buckle being American-made, the worldwide supply chain nightmares have been mostly manageable.
That said, the biggest current challenge is still an erratic supply chain. "The only complication we've run across with the pandemic is a shortage of materials," says Piper. "Our tannery -- Horween Original Leather -- experienced the same things that grocery stores have experienced: they're not getting all the products they ordered."
Opportunities: Despite the significant losses resulting from the pandemic and its prolonged effects, optimism remains: Piper Sandals was forced to become leaner across the board, and Piper himself doesn't seem to be too perturbed by it.
"We learned through the pandemic that we didn't have to make as many sandals as we thought we did in order to live just fine," he says. "Prior to the pandemic, we had three employees, and we were just bumping into each other all day long in this small shop. But now, it's just me and my son. We cut it back from about 2,300 to 2,400 hundred pairs a year, to about 800 pairs a year. Occasionally we'll bring in a college student to work in the spring."
Needs: Annual summer festivals are still when and where Piper makes the majority of his income each year. Additionally, sales are as seasonal as the shoe itself -- most people do not look to purchase sandals during the winter. "I haven't had an arts festival for the last two years with the pandemic, but that's how we sell half of our sandals: traveling to about a dozen or so arts festivals around America," says Piper.