Less than a month after a world-renowned leather repair shop abruptly vanished from its Jeweler’s Row storefront, a startup cobbler is swooping in to try and rescue its stranded customers.
The owners of Shoe Drop, a mail-in repair service launched in 2014, don’t claim to be able to return the thousands of dollars in luxury items that customers say disappeared when Brooks Shoe Repair shuttered on March 2. But they deliberately targeted the 6th floor workshop at 29 E. Madison Street for their first walk-in shop to prove that their Silicon Valley approach to shoe repair can bring a measure of reliability to one of the city’s oldest cottage industries, co-founder Duncan Davis said.
“We’re trying to innovate on the retail experience… where a customer walks in and gets a paper ticket, and their shoes go into the back room, maybe never to be seen again,” Davis said. “We’re using technology and tracking, and trying to take in some of the best practices from a variety of service industries.”
The storefront is set to open on April 16 under the name Chicago’s Best Repair—Powered by Shoe Drop.
Davis and general manager Chris Zimmerman said their online model takes cues from the meal kit delivery industry, inviting customers around the country to slip their scuffed shoes into prepaid boxes and send them off to a 4,000 square-foot workshop on Chicago’s West Side. The shoes are then handled by six full-time cobblers and a rotating team of part-timers, all of whom were scooped up from long-running independent shops.
The company set up partnerships with high-end outlets like Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, powering a system that now processes “hundreds of orders” each week, Davis said.
The startup’s move to a downtown storefront follows the same path trod by retailers like Warby Parker and Bonobos, which are both opening brick-and-mortar bases to supplement their online businesses.
“We’ve heard from online customers that they’d like some kind of personal interaction,” Zimmerman said. “We’re working on creating a sort of lounge area where customers can sit right next to the [office], where they’ll still handling our national mail-in program. But we want to be able to provide that same level of quality and convenience to local Chicagoans.”
Davis and Zimmerman acknowledged that it may be an uphill climb to earn back some of the customers who lost their belongings when Brooks Shoe Service owner Mike Morelli closed his 29-year-old business.
The phone number for Brooks Shoe Service was disconnected, but former customer Jacquie Amacher said she reached Morelli and learned that the cobbler had thrown away her $2,000 Chloe Faye shoulder bag.
Morelli also told Davis that he tossed all of Brooks Shoe Repair’s leftover inventory, but only after giving his customers 10 days’ notice, Davis said.
Amacher called Morelli “a liar,” saying she had no warning that she’d be on the hook for her purse.
She added that she would consider taking future business to Chicago’s Best Repair, but Davis and Zimmerman are a long way from matching the global reputation Morelli spent three decades cultivating, she said.
“If [Davis] has absolutely nothing to do with Mike Morelli than I’d have no reason not to shop there, with the exception of it not being the most convenient location,” said Amacher, who lives in Lakeview. “The only reason I would schlep down there is because [Morelli] was the best.”
Davis called the lost items episode a “head-scratcher,” saying his team had already been negotiating with property owner Marc Realty to take over the lease when Morelli’s outraged customers started to come forward.
“It’s certainly not the way we would have handled it, and it’s not something we want to be associated with,” Davis said. “But we feel this is an opportunity to step in for a lot of those loyal customers, some of whom were left in a pretty bad spot, and provide a high-quality service with a commitment to integrity.”