T-shirts are great, Tyler Enders said, but local makers have so much more to offer.
Retailer Made in KC is rapidly expanding its footprint across the metro to help Kansas City-based vendors reach an even broader customer base, said Enders, Made in KC co-founder.
The company — which carries in its stores everything from locally made barbecue sauce and candles to coasters, prints and, of course, T-shirts — is opening new locations at 11th Street and Baltimore Avenue downtown, and at 509 E. 18th St. in the Crossroads.
The downtown space is set to debut Dec. 1 with a few features customers might not expect, Enders said. The store is set to include a coffee shop showcasing local roasters in front, and a taproom in back serving all local beers, he said.
“That’s going to be a really fun new venture for us,” Enders said. “It’s an opportunity to learn some new things, get to play host a little bit, and invite people into the space and let them experience Made in KC in a different way.”
The Crossroads addition is an unexpected retail expansion born of a market with a wide appetite for local products, Enders said.
“We spend a lot of our time here. This is where a lot of the action is,” he said from Made in KC’s new office space, upstairs at the 18th Street property. “We initially had no interest in also putting retail down here because we thought we’d be stepping on the toes of a lot of the brands that are around here.”
“We feel like we’re right in the middle of a lot of friends,” Enders said.
In the process of securing the Crossroads location, Made in KC’s ownership team — which includes Enders and co-owners Thomas McIntyre and Keith Bradley — consistently heard from neighbors that even more retail was needed, he said.
“Fortunately, that just happens to be in our realm,” Enders said.
The space below Made in KC’s offices will be split between its own retail store and a future tenant, he said, noting the Crossroads location’s opening is likely still about three months away.
Across 18th Street from what will eventually become Made in KC’s fifth brick-and-mortar location, an existing store owner offered a simple reaction to his new neighbor.
“It’s perfect,” said Chad Hickman, Sandlot Goods founder.
Known for its durable, high-quality leather goods, Sandlot was one of the first of more than 300 brands with which Made in KC now works.
“They have a tagline that they use sometimes: ‘Cultivating Creativity,’” Hickman said of Made in KC. “They find local good brands, and they make large enough orders that, while they won’t completely support a brand, it gives plenty of small brands a jump start. Sandlot would be in a tough spot right now if it wasn’t for the efforts they’ve put in for the past two and a half years.”
“And they’ve never given up on us,” he added.
Unlike some local makers, Sandlot isn’t a heavily “Kansas City-branded” store, Hickman said, with products that could easily attract attention outside the city as well.
“That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate Made in KC carrying us so much,” he said. “It would be so easy for them to be a KC pride-only situation. Not a ton of our products scream ‘Kansas City’ in your face anymore. That’s part of the bigger effort that we’re taking on to try to grow this outside of the city.”
The partnership has developed to the point that the Made in KC ownership team has joined forces with Hickman to help sell Sandlot’s goods across the country, he said.
Sandlot is a phenomenal example of a Kansas City maker offering a complete product line with high-quality work and high-volume production, Enders said. It’s an easy fit for Made in KC.
“All those relationships that we have and continue to build have been extremely natural,” he said. “The community is very much about helping each other, lifting each other up, collaboration. There is very little fear of looking over your shoulder at who’s copying. Occasionally we get copycat stuff, but it’s amazing how sensitive people are to it because everyone has this crazy mutual respect where they go out of their way to avoid anything that looks like it’s encroaching on other people’s turf.”
Hickman and Enders should know. One of their earliest conversations was when the Made in KC owners approached Sandlot in 2015 about the retailer’s name: Would it interfere with a popular line of “Made in KC” T-shirts sold by the leather goods store?
“The T-shirt was sort of an afterthought for us,” Hickman said, shrugging off the potential for dispute between brands.
Not all makers fit the atmosphere or logistics of Made in KC’s physical retail locations as well as a vendor like Sandlot, Enders said.
“Sometimes it’s furniture or bespoke pieces that are outside the price point of our stores, or products that just don’t merchandise well in our shops,” he said, noting the limited capacity of a brick-and-mortar space.
With purchases from hundreds of brands already on-hand in shops or at Made in KC’s fulfillment center, a lot of money is tied up inventory, Enders said. The company simply can’t afford to carry every available line, especially from unproven, early stage makers.
A peer-to-peer Made in KC Marketplace, which launched in May, allows the company to broaden its community-based platform to less-established brands, he said
“Our mission statement from the beginning has been creating a platform for these makers, creators, artists to reach more people,” he said. “And we don’t want to leave anyone behind if we don’t have to.”
Describing the marketplace as being like Etsy, but specific to Kansas City, and cleaner than Craig’s List, Enders said the portal is moderated by Made in KC to make sure vendors maintain requirements set by the company.
“Right now, we get a really steady trickle of purchases, which is great,” he said. “It’s really opened our eyes to certain products that we said no to for our stores. If we realize they’re doing really well in the marketplace, we bring them in.”
“We think it will become a really robust marketplace for people to find one-off, unique items,” he added.
Outlasting the trends
It’s difficult to deny a spike in interest for all things Kansas City since the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 World Series runs. They’ve helped makers across the metro explode into the mainstream, co-owner Bradley said.
“Anytime we travel, we hear Kansas City’s name pop up more and more. … People know that something exciting is going on here,” he said. “The enthusiasm built up by Kansas Citians has kind of infected the rest of the country in some very positive ways. We’ve rode that wave for a while, but our real strength is in the quality of products that are being made and becoming everyday goods for Kansas Citians.”
Acknowledging the World Series championship has been a significant catalyst for success, Enders agreed Made in KC must be mindful of deliberately steering the company’s own future, rather than letting it be tied solely to trends they can’t control.
“Kansas City has a lot of unique attributes that make people very proud to call it home, and I think that will continue over time. But if that diminishes, we have to figure out other ways to maintain and serve our purpose,” he said.
One such tactic is expanding Made in KC from largely “giftables” to offering more “consumables” — training customers to return to their shops for such items as liquid hand soap or daily face scrub, Enders said.
“We want them to ask: ‘How can I replace everyday, ordinary purposes with products made here?’” he said. “Those little changes all of the sudden get someone into the routine of buying something local all the time.”
It’s another way for the Made in KC team to help its partners in the maker community grow stronger, Bradley added.
“We’ve seen quite a few of them turn what was their passion project into a part-time job, into a full-time job,” he said. “Seeing that develop in the short time that we’ve been developing as a company has been really special.”