Dan Hughes has owned Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop at 804 Massachusettes Street since 2001, but has been at the shop since 1989. He started working there while attending the University of Kansas, when it was owned by Susan and David Millstein. They opened Sunflower in 1972, but then, it was known as Sunflower Surplus.
“Dave's dad was an Army/Navy surplus guy in Kansas City, so they opened one here,” says Hughes of the original incarnation. How he came to take over the long-running business from the Millsteins is a story of finding one's niche.
“I got my degree in anthropology, and that wasn't going anywhere,” the store owner says with a grin. “That was in '91. I started working here full-time, and took on more responsibility and more responsibility and more responsibility until I was pretty much runnin' the place.”
Around 2001, the Millsteins – though not in their golden years, by any stretch – were looking for someone in the next generation to take Sunflower over. That led to Hughes and his wife, Karla, purchasing the shop. They took over a store with nearly thirty years of history, including a disaster which could have ended it.
On February 26, 1997, a fire gutted almost the entire bike shop side of Sunflower at 802 Massachusetts, as well as damaging much of the outdoor gear portion next door. Hughes was the bike shop manager, and he describes it as a seminal moment as an employee.
“It nothing but a shell left over – no roof, no second floor,” Hughes explains. The building his office is in at 804 Mass, has one million gallons of water pumped into it to keep the fire from marching all the way down the block. The employees met the next night at Free State Brewery, and in the midst of libations to take off the edge of the hurt, David Millstein took Hughes aside.
“He took me aside and said, 'Dan, I know the bike shop was your baby, but this is our chance to rebuild exactly the way we want to,'” says Hughes. The process of rebuilding Sunflower Outdoor and Bike into the warm, friendly wooden structure it is today would take a year. “We feel fortunate – it was not the ideal way to remodel the space, but it turned out okay, I think.”
Sifting through the debris after, Hughes would pull out bike frames, rating them as rare, medium rare, and well-done, with tags to that effect and priced accordingly. It was rough process, with the shop being ran out of a much smaller location down the block and employees who knew the right end of hammer helping to rebuild the store itself.
Since then, Sunflower has only continued to grow. In addition to selling a variety of bikes, kayaks, hats, knives, camping equipment, pants, and everything one could possibly need to go have fun outside, the shop has a variety of programs which encourage and help people who want to do so.
“Obviously, we're big supporters of the area clubs that are in line with what we do,” the owner explains of Sunflower's work with Lawrence Mountain Bike Club and the KU Rock Climbing Club. He also points to their sponsorship of the annual BANF Outdoor Film Festival at Liberty Hall. The sell-out, two-night event allows Sunflower to pass along funds to various charities, as well. When local schools like Woodlawn Elementary have a bike rodeo, Sunflower's there, tuning up bikes.
“We also doers – I like to say that we have a bunch of nerds on staff,” says Hughes enthusiastically. “They're outdoor geeks – not for love of money, but for love of doing stuff, so being out there and being part of that community and participating in paddle sports or trail running or backpacking is kind of familial. Any chance we get to help, we do.”
Sometimes, there's merchandise to support those events – some bike bottles, for instance – but you're actually more likely to get a free Sunflower t-shirt if you're already wearing one. Hughes pulls a card out and passes it over. In the middle is the Sunflower green and yellow logo, with text on it reading, “Thanks for sporting our shirt! Redeem this card for a free t-shirt. It's our way of saying thanks!”
“All of the managers have these cards in their wallets,” he says. “It's viral marketing – sort of a random act of kindness. Every time I see one of our logos it makes me feel like, 'Yeah, we've got a fan.' That's worth a lot. We want to reward that, if at all possible. It spreads the love a little, for relatively low cost.”
There are also pictures out there of Sunflower t-shirts which have been taken all around the world.
“Just a couple of months ago, I think we got a family of four in Antarctica wearing their Sunflower tees,” Hughes offers by way of example. “It's a whole thing: saying, 'Yeah, I was at Machu Picchu with our t-shirt.' It's super cool.”
Given that Sunflower sponsors races and an outdoor and bike shop offers no end of possibilities on items which can be branded with the store's logo, there seems to be quite a variety of Sunflower Outdoor and Bike merchandise.
“We've been very fortunate with Blue Collar, in that we come to them with a crazy idea, and they seem to figure out how to do it,” chuckles Hughes, as he lists off everything from t-shirts to embroidery to hats. “They've been a very capable and accommodating partner in that.”
He admits that a fair number of the Sunflower design ideas are homegrown. Employees with experience in art or graphic design bring ideas to Hughes, and suggest them, to say nothing of Hughes' father-in-law, Jim Smith, who is a former Hallmark artist.
“We basically call him up and say, 'We need a t-shirt with my face on Mothra's body and Uri's face on Godzilla, and it needs to say 'Battle of the Gravel Monsters,'” Hughes says, pulling a shirt off his desk which, in fact, features just that image and text. “We send it off to Blue Collar, and – poof – they get it done. We're very grateful they put up with our shenanigans.”
by Nick Spacek
photos: Austin Snell