Ely’s Susan Schurke is bringing her anoraks back
When the contents of shuttered Wintergreen Northern Wear were auctioned off in 2013 in Ely, Susan Schurke went just to buy a sewing machine.
But when she saw the counters, cutting tables, mannequins and other items being sold, she was overwhelmed by the sight of the business she had founded being liquidated.
“Everything was walking out the door,” she said.
From that sprouted a two-year effort to launch the business again from the the ground up, including production, a retail store and online sales.
The months of work are paying off.
Production has been underway since November. The store is headed for a late June opening. And online sales should be launched by fall.
“We’re really happy the store is coming back,” said Heather Hohenstein of Ely, who wore a Wintergreen jacket as she cleaned gardens nearby. “They’re good-quality products, and they provide good jobs. And it’s good marketing for the town.”
This time around, the brand is called Northwoods Apparel, but Schurke is seeking the rights to use the Wintergreen name again. If that doesn’t happen, she may shorten the name to Schurke Anoraks, after their best-selling item.
The second time around
It was Schurke who started Wintergreen Northern Wear in 1982, selling cold-weather outerwear the business handmade in Ely. The business sprang from the rugged wear she made for her explorer husband, Paul, to wear on his polar expeditions.The business grew with stores in Ely and Duluth, and catalogue and online sales that went international. At its peak under her ownership, the business had three adjacent buildings in Ely’s business district, 40 employees and annual revenue of $1.2 million.
But in 2009, after 27 years, Schurke wanted to try something else. So she sold the business. Four years later, the business closed, and the buildings went into foreclosure.
“When the people I sold it to went out of business, it was very emotional for me,” Schurke said.
At the auction, she got the idea of starting the business all over again. She bought 12 of the 27 sewing machines, fabric to make the jackets, all the notions and the wooden display racks her husband had made for the store years ago.
It all sat in storage for a year while Schurke worked on a business plan. Last summer, she formally started the business. But key was finding a location.
The Schurkes ended up buying back the two-story building that had housed the Wintergreen store and part of its production on Sheridan Street. The sale closed in October.
“I was so glad to get the building back, because this feels like home,” Schurke said.
Paul did some remodeling, refinished floors and painted the retail space.
“There was no patent on the patterns,” Schurke said. “So I have created new patterns, but they look just like they looked before.”
Production to build the inventory for the store and online sales kicked off in November with several returning employees. They include lead seamstress LaVerne Ellis, who started working there in 1993 and, Schurke said, knows how to make everything.
Ellis said she came back because of her fondness for Sue and her love of sewing.
“I get to sit and sew all day and get paid for it,” she said. “I love the different things we create. I’m proud of what we do. We’re made right here in Ely, Minn., and I’m very proud of that.”
Staff has grown to 11 with a few more sewing technicians and a retail staff to be hired.
Part of the community
For Schurke, 61, it’s starting all over again.
“There’s so much to do,” she said. “Basically, we’re creating our patterns, a retail store and a production facility. Overnight, we’re creating several businesses. But because I had the business before. I know what to do. It’s just getting there.”
Besides building inventory, there’s the computer and point-of-sale systems to set up, product descriptions to write and product pictures to take for the website.
Her husband, who focuses on the other family business, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, is supportive.
“I’m very excited for her,” he said. “We’re not getting any younger. So I’m so impressed by how much energy she has pumped into this. It’s not about money, it’s about the teamwork that comes with putting something together.”
But most gratifying, he said, is the sense of community they get from having a small business in town and the positive reaction they are getting from others who are glad they’re back.
“We live 10 miles out of town, so I didn’t get into town like I used to,” she said of the time she didn’t have the business. “It’s fun to be a part of the community again. After having left it, to be back and be part of the town again, I have an appreciation for that.”
This time around, Schurke is taking it slow and proceeding carefully. She doesn’t want the business to get too big, nor keep her from family time.
“Being big is not the goal,” she said. “We want to have enough product to make it interesting. We want the best quality. If you do too much, too fast, you start making mistakes.”