Snow down the pants, buckles that bite into the gut — these are just a couple of annoyances that are no longer tolerated by North Shore skiers Cody Townsend, Tristan Queen and David Bronkie.
“We kind of had this minor revelation while skiing that our belts sucked,” said Townsend, a professional big-mountain skier based out of Squaw Valley. “Our leather and nylon belts that we were typically wearing for skiing just weren’t working. They were either too tight or too loose, too constricting, the buckle would slam you in the gut if you ate it, you’d get snow down your pants — they were just bad.”
A solution was in order. Queen explored his options and came up with a stretchy fishing wader belt, which spawned an even better idea.
“Tristan tried on these fishing wader belts and was like, ‘Oh my God, these are amazing.’ But it wasn’t our style,” Townsend said. “So we essentially started making our own (belts). We started out by making 500 of them — just kind of took a gamble on it — and went in to some local shops and we sold out within about six or seven weeks. So we decided, ‘Maybe we should start a company.’”
Arcade Belts was born.
Three years later, the Tahoe brand has gone global, with sales in more than 140 stores across the country, as well as Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. And Arcade Belts continues to grow.
“We’re really happy about it. It’s cool to see something turn from kind of a pet project into a success organically, without forcing it to happen,” said Queen, who moved to Tahoe from Breckenridge, Colo., in 2006. “We kind of followed the natural course of things, and things kept going. It’s been fun to have a creative outlet and bring something a little different to the market.”
To get the company off the ground, the trio of friends first learned how to sew. They sewed the first 2,000 belts themselves, embarking on three-day marathons piecing together their new product. They settled on a flexible but tough, nylon-blend, stretch weave, Townsend said, with commercial-grade, low-profile plastic buckles.
“There are a few different fabrics in there, mainly nylon, which is super durable as opposed to polyester, which really breaks down with heat and the weather,” he said. “So that was a big part of it as well. We really wanted something that was super durable and lasted forever, and we took a lot of time to make sure we found the right webbing.”
Based on customer feedback and the infallible test of time, they nailed it. “We have guys with the first belts we ever made, and they look just the same,” Townsend said.
While the first belts were designed with skiing in mind, Townsend, Queen and Bronkie — like most Tahoe locals — enjoy many of the outdoor recreational options the area affords. They wanted their belts to reflect that all-around, active lifestyle.
“We live in the mountains because we love it here. Yeah, we happen to ski, but we didn’t really start this brand because we ski,” said Bronkie, a mechanical engineer who moved out West from Buffalo, N.Y. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed to skiing. We really are a year-round brand.”
Arcade Belts, which come in numerous colors, styles and functional designs, are useful for just about any activity, including climbing, backpacking, skating, skiing, mountain biking and more. They’re fashionable, too, making for great street wear, Bronkie said.
Most of the belts retail between $24 and $26, although the friends plan to unveil a new, more sophisticated hybrid model this fall that will sell for $32.
“It’s become sort of an everyday thing for me,” said Queen. “My primary use is my jeans every single day. It’s part of my wardrobe for whatever I get into. So I don’t look at it as a sports-specific thing. It also works really well for sitting at your desk emailing for 10 hours.”
Porters Sports was the first local shop to jump on board, Queen said. Others followed suit — Tahoe Dave’s Ski & Boards, the Start Haus, Tahoe Mountain Sports, Elite Feet of Lake Tahoe, even Obexer’s General Store in Homewood.
“They took the first risk on them, and they did well. So we have a very solid relationship with our local retailers, because they’ve really supported us, and we try to always support them,” Townsend said.
Townsend, a former big-mountain competitor who now sticks to filming and “chasing powder,” used his connections in the outdoor industry to branch out beyond Lake Tahoe. Soon Arcade Belts began appearing in shops across the country, then Canada and overseas. Townsend said once the word got out, stores began contacting them.
“A lot of people we’ve noticed have this ‘Ah ha’ moment when they put it on,” he said. “Because at first it’s like, ‘It’s just a belt; whatever.’ But then they put it on and it’s like, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ So a lot of our sales and growth is by word of mouth from people falling in love with them.”
The experience as business owners is new to all three friends. They overcame the initial financial hurdle by starting out small. They’ve since managed to double the brand’s growth each year since 2010. This coming winter, they hope to sell 20,000 belts, Queen said.
“The goal was to be successful, but I don’t think we really knew what success was. The numbers, or what territories we’d be in or whether we’d try to go international, that was very much not planned out,” Queen said. “It’s been a learn-as-we-go, by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of thing. We had to develop a plan as we went. We see where we’re trying to go now, but originally it was like, ‘We have 300 belts; we need to sell 300 belts.’”