STILLWATER — Eskimo Joe's founder Stan Clark never meant to start a T-shirt company.
He just wanted to open a bar.
But as the business of that little juke joint (which is still jumpin' near the Oklahoma State University campus) evolved, so did Clark's companies. And one that doesn't serve food, Eskimo Joe's Promotional Products Group, which is 10 years old, is now poised to surpass the others in annual sales and become the most profitable.
Clark often explains the company to potential clients like this: we do our branding for your company. They design logos and print T-shirts and other clothes for businesses, organizations, restaurants and retailers.
It seems like a natural progression for Eskimo Joe's, which has arguably the most recognizable and popular logo of any hole-in-the-wall eatery around.
But it was still a gamble for Clark, who at one point during construction of the 35,000-square-foot warehouse and printing facility in an industrial area near Stillwater Regional Airport, sat in the parking lot and thought: what am I doing?
But he knows. He gives tours of the presses with gusto, explaining each step in the T-shirt printing process, from burning the screens to applying color after color and finishing with a retail fold, something their clients appreciate immensely.
Clients are welcomed to the facility with a personalized graphic displayed on a flat screen monitor inside the showroom, which shelves hundreds of products that can be printed with the company's name like high-end, name brand polos and jackets to pens, cups and other useful trinkets.
How it began
Many people have heard the story of Eskimo Joe's, which was founded by Clark and his business partner, Steve File, in 1975.
They enlisted the help of an art student to design the logo (paid him $35) and started selling T-shirts featuring a toothy Eskimo named Joe and his dog, Buffy, on opening day.
When Oklahoma's drinking age was raised to 21 in 1983, Eskimo Joe's began serving food and converted the bar to a full-service restaurant. The shirts' popularity continued.
But in 1995, Eskimo Joe's created a slam dunk. The Oklahoma State University basketball team had just earned a spot in the Final Four by defeating UMass in a physical game that left Cowboy player Scott Pierce missing a tooth. The staff designed “Toothless in Seattle,” depicting Joe mid-dunk with his signature smile minus a tooth. Stillwater was ecstatic with the win and the shirts were so successful Eskimo Joe's couldn't keep up. People were waiting in line for shirts coming off the printing press, which were sold while they were still warm.
From the success of that shirt, Clark began building the printing plant at a cost of about $2.5 million.
“They say you don't build the church for Easter Sunday,” Clark said. “We built this facility for another success like that (Toothless in Seattle.) It never came.”
So to utilize the creative staff and printing presses when they weren't working on Joe's Clothes, Clark had the idea to extend their services to other companies. Eskimo Joe's Promotional Products Group was formed in 2001.
This spring, they hit a milestone by printing more shirts for other companies than their own, though they are now back to ramping up production of Joe's Clothes to stock the holiday shops they'll have in malls across the state.
Recent orders include tank tops for a new club the Chickasaw Nation is opening, Eskimo Joe's co-branded shirts for the Girl Scouts' centennial celebration and logo shirts for Chaps My Ass motorcycle accessories shop in Medicine Park (which have been so popular, sales of the shirts are now covering the shop's overhead, Clark says.)
Jaimie Siegal, director of collaborations for the Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma, said they jumped at the chance to have their 100th anniversary shirts feature “the most recognizable T-shirt design around.”
“It's a wonderful opportunity to have partners in our community,” she said. “And an opportunity for them to give back.” The design has been a great seller, she added.