WHITEFISH – Part of running an outdoors-based business in Northwest Montana is figuring out how to survive in lean times – business might boom in the summer, but winter can make it difficult to just scrape by.
At Paddlefish Sports, a stand-up paddleboard shop in Whitefish, owner Sonny Schierl had a choice: either close up and save money over the winter, or find a way to cater to his customer base in the cold months.
“We’ve got to find a way to pay the lease,” Schierl said last week, standing in the Paddlefish shop at 105 Wisconsin Ave. “We have to make enough profit through several (means).”
Schierl, who opened the paddleboard shop in 2011, said he had considered just shutting down for the winter and relying on summer as his time of plenty, but he realized he’d miss out on the opportunity to keep engaging with his customers.
So instead of trying to rely on just selling primarily summer equipment while the snow is falling, Schierl decided to diversify.
Now the warm paddleboard shop serves espresso, aimed at those customers headed up the road to make tracks on Big Mountain. Schierl also invested in a line of snowshoes, which his shop rents out at $20 a day. This side of his business is called Fresh Tracks.
“Snowshoes are very similar to paddleboards,” Schierl said. “Everybody can do it.”
Since opening two years ago, Paddlefish has grown significantly; its sales increased so much the company had to move from its original location in Whitefish to its current spot, on the north end of the viaduct near the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Edgewood Place.
The new location allows for easy access to Whitefish Lake and the City Beach, Schierl noted, and also puts the shop on the direct route to Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Paddleboard classes have also been very successful. Through a partnership with the city parks and recreation department, Paddlefish taught kids how to paddleboard last summer.
The collaboration was extremely positive, Schierl said. He was able to keep 20 boards at City Beach, and the classes were sold out all summer. Next summer, he hopes to add adult classes, as well as classes for competitive paddleboarding, both on rivers and flat water.
That could also lead to potential weekly races, and Schierl also has hopes of including shorter races for kids.
But regardless of upcoming summer plans, Schierl has more immediate changes to work on. Along with the espresso and snowshoes, he wants to find someone to rent out the kitchen in his shop and create meals that skiers can grab to go.
“The food is the next thing to really dial in,” he said.
The space needs to be inspected by health officials, and Schierl said he’s already been in conversations with chefs who might be interested.
“We want (customers) to cycle through,” Schierl said.
There isn’t much dining space at the moment, with a bar made out of a wooden paddleboard with seating, along with a cozy couch in the paddleboard shop, where patrons can sip their espresso drinks and watch ski movies.
It could all be adjusted to fit more tables, depending on what the chef wants, Schierl said.
In addition to the coffee and potential meals, Paddlefish has also partnered with Meadow Lake Resort, who has an ambassador at the board shop who can provide valley information and sell discounted vacation packages, as well as gifting people with free activities.
Local collaboration will be key for future success, Schierl said. He’s selling Montana Coffee Traders coffee, and works with the Montana Bike Hostel year round.
But even just being open in the winter has helped the paddleboard side of the business, he said. Since he is there to make coffee and rent snowshoes, he can also answer questions about the boards and sell some during the holiday season.
So while this winter will show him whether his new business model works, Schierl said he’s open to the options that keep him busy.
“It’s really exciting,” he said.