For decades, the city of Spokane, Washington has been a major hub of the Pacific Northwest bootmaking industry, home of such storied brands as White’s Boots and Nicks Boots. In 2016, Spokane saw the arrival of its latest bootmaker: Frank’s Boots, founded by Frank Petrilli.
Frank himself is far from being a newcomer to making boots, having previously spent over two decades in various roles at Nicks Boots. When he left Nicks, Frank thought he’d be leaving the industry behind as well. Slowly he realized he still had an acute itch to make boots. Shortly thereafter, Frank’s Boots was born!
We had the utmost pleasure of sitting down to chat with Frank and his wife/Frank’s Boots co-owner, Michelle, who manages their office and social media accounts while Frank does everything from answering phones to building boots alongside his incredible team. In our wide-ranging interview below, we talked about how much the bootmaking industry has changed since Frank came into it, the experience of starting a company from scratch, and Frank’s Boots devoted customers—everyone from firefighters to surgeons.
Stitchdown: Frank, I’d love to start by asking you about what your experience was before you started Frank’s Boots, and if you could fill us in on your background.
Frank Petrilli: So it all started back in 1991, when my brother fell in love with the company Nicks Custom Boots. Back then, Nicks Boots was very small, three or four guys in a strip mall down on the corner of Sprague Avenue and Evergreen Road in Spokane Valley. We purchased the company, my mother and my brother and I—I had a very small share of it at that time. My brother’s name was Nick. He purchased the company with his own name, so that was kind of fun. My mother was the bookkeeper, and I came in and started my training process back in ’92.
Stitchdown: And your family, were you Spokane natives?
Frank: No, actually all of us were from the East Coast. My brother was an over-the-road truck driver, and he ended up settling down in Kirkland, Washington, and running a trucking company from there. When he sold it, he bought a travel trailer and a pickup truck and was wandering around the Northwest, because it’s such a beautiful place. He settled north of Spokane by about an hour and a half in this place called Addy, Washington. It’s really small, I mean, it’s a tiny, tiny little place, and he told us a lot about the area and about the Pacific Northwest. He invited us to come out and visit him.
So myself, my mother, and another brother came out and visited, and that’s when we took a look at Nicks Custom Boots. And as I said, my older brother Nick fell in love with the company. The truth is, I really wasn’t planning on moving to Spokane at that time. We had our daughter, we were stable in Connecticut, but then it got more and more appealing. Michelle and I came out for a visit. She looked at that part of the country and liked it as much as I did. So we decided, we’re gonna move to Spokane.
Stitchdown: What were you and Michelle doing in Connecticut before you decided to make this trek all the way out to Spokane?
Frank: I was a manager of a kitchen remodeling company, I did that for 12 to 15 years, then I owned my own delicatessen for about two and a half years before going back to the kitchen company.
Michelle Petrilli: I worked for a shoe company, and an in-store advertising agency. Back in the day I was the graphics and media person. Then when I came to Spokane, I just wanted to be in touch with my children’s education. I decided to work for the school district so I could really have a pulse on everything that was going on in the schools and just being a part of that.
Frank: A little bit about our backstory…we met when I was 15, she was 14.
Michelle: He asked me if he could borrow my pencil in woodshop class.
Frank: She fell totally head over heels for me.
Stitchdown: That’s really cute.
Frank: We fell in love with each other way back then and we’ve been together ever since. We’re on our 46th year, something like that.
Michelle: I still kinda like him.
Michelle Petrilli: And we work together too, which I thought would have more challenges, but he’s so busy and out and about. Meanwhile I’m running social media and the website. My daughter writes our blog and does a lot of our website stuff.
Stitchdown: And then Frank, you’re running the whole show, otherwise?
Frank Petrilli: Well, I’ve got a great crew. I’m the guy that writes the paychecks, makes some of the hard decisions, makes some of the good decisions, but my crew…it’s a great team. We’re a family. I don’t want to turn us into a production company. You take a craftsman and put them in a production situation, and you kind of take the wind out of their sails. My craftsmen and craftswomen are artists. I mean, they love what they do, they do a great job and I let them have their creativity. At the end of the day, we get a great product and everybody goes home with a smile on their face.
Michelle Petrilli: In fact, we have some people who have left the other Pacific Northwest bootmakers to come here because it’s a little bit more of a relaxed setting and it’s more family-oriented. I mean, it’s literally run by us two, so…
Stitchdown: So Frank, you decided to come out here because your brother, Nick, decided to purchase Nicks Boots and bring you guys along for the ride. And then you started training in 1992?
Frank Petrilli: ’92, yeah. I left for a real short period of time because we just didn’t have quite enough work to keep as many people on board, but then I came back, so I really started getting my full-blown training in ’94. But I spent all of ’92 in the back, and I mainly went through most of the departments, learning how the process worked and how the boots came together, and then went into cutting. Cutting was my very first department I ran on my own.
At the same time as I was in cutting, I was also sales manager. So, my brother was owner, I was sales manager and cutter, and my mother was in the office, and we worked it all together. So having that knowledge of cutting and sales really helped with my ability to custom-fit somebody who’s got something wrong with his foot or legs or some oddity.
And then, we had a lot of training from the original Nick, Nick Blahcuzyn. He was still friends with us and was a great man. He would come in on a weekly basis and sit down with us and give us a lot of his old-school knowledge. We would give him materials because he still made one-off boots in his garage. My brother and I got a lot of our training from the old-school craftsmen like Nick Blahcuzyn, who used to work with Otto White. So that’s where all of that came together.
Stitchdown: You’re part of a whole chain of people that have been key to this industry! That’s really cool. So you did cutting and sales for a bit, and then you moved into doing more hands-on work?
Frank Petrilli: Yeah, basically I’ve been in every department…from cleaning or fixing a piece of machinery, to putting the bottoms on the boot, heeling, sanding, sewing. I’ve done just about all of it.
Stitchdown: What’s your favorite thing to do?
Frank Petrilli: Vacation. [Laughs]
Michelle Petrilli: Tearing apart a boot, I think!
Frank Petrilli: Yeah, I enjoy taking an old boot apart and getting it prepared to go back together. I enjoy cutting still. I don’t think there’s one job I don’t like, and I’m not sure that there’s something I like better than anything else.
Stitchdown: Would you say you have a least-favorite job?
Frank Petrilli: Not really…eh, okay, I think my very least favorite job would be putting the sock liners in the inside of the boots, because of having to get down inside and gluing and putting them in there. And then there’s nails sticking up from the manufacturing process, so you have to get in there and you have to knock those nails down or cut them. That’s probably my least favorite, but I don’t mind doing it.
Stitchdown: Fair enough. So, you were talking before about your time at Nicks…
Frank Petrilli: So my mother, my brother and I worked there from 1991 through 1997. In ’97, my brother wanted out of the business. He’s just not a people person, he spent so many years behind the wheel of a semi truck by himself. But he did a really good job growing the company. Meanwhile my mother wanted to retire. So, we sold the company to a local guy named Dick Hosley. He came in, bought the company, but very quickly realized he didn’t wanna do it without me. So he made me a silent partner—it was a handshake-type deal.
Dick and I ran the company between 1998 all the way up until 2013. In 2013, Dick wanted to retire. So here I was at a second round of people wanting to retire and of course I had first right of refusal on his options and then I thought, well, maybe I’ll go do something different. So we sold the company to the person who owns Nicks Boots now. I worked for him for two and a half years, and what I realized at that point is, I preferred the old school way of doing things. He was moving towards a different direction than what I had been doing for all those years.
So after two and a half years of working for him, I left in January of 2016. He was in the building I’m in now, which he moved out of in August of 2016. When he moved out, I came up to clean out the building and that’s when I kind of looked around and made a decision and said, “I’m gonna reopen under the name Frank’s Boots.”
After you’ve worked for yourself for so many years, working for somebody else is good. But I just wanted the freedom that I had in prior years to allow my people to be a little more creative, and some of that was kind of disappearing. And then my old partner, he’s actually my bookkeeper now just to keep himself busy. He’s 75 years old and we’re great friends. So he comes in and he can’t stay away. He’s here about three or four times a week. So it’s fun again. It’s the family that came back.
Stitchdown: Now you mentioned something there about how you felt like Nicks was moving away from what you described as the old school way of bootmaking. Could you elaborate on that a little bit more?
Frank Petrilli: Well, it’s not in process. They were moving into the dress-casual world, which is great. It was a hard transition at that time because a work boot manufacturing shop moving into the more delicate leathers is kind of a crossover, and within that crossover, what can happen is the more delicate leathers get ruined. You had to move into that slowly, and I think at that point we were moving into it too fast.
As the general manager, I had to work through a lot of the problems that were happening, and it was like a cross contamination of a grill. We were introducing all these beautiful new leathers into a dirty boot shop, and they were moving more towards online sales, a big online presence, more of a standard option company. They’ll still do some custom tweaking and things like that, but I want it to be more accessible to the consumer. If a guy wants to make some changes, I’m very willing to do things like that for the customers. I think it’s just that the age of internet high-volume sales takes that away from the management of the company. It’s real hard to have all those options when you’re selling online, as big as some of the companies are.
Stitchdown: So, it sounds like you didn’t decide to start Frank’s Boots right away. Once you parted ways with Nicks, was it sort of a realization that you had after the fact?
Frank Petrilli: Yeah. I took six months off when I left, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’d been in the boot business for 20 years, and I wanted to see if there was something that was more interesting. But during that six month timeframe, I found myself missing the interaction with the customers, and doing the custom fits—when a customer walks through your door and they can’t find footwear because they have a really odd-shaped foot. It could be anything from big bunions to little tiny feet or missing toes or extra toes.
Michelle Petrilli: Yeah, the crazy things he would come home and show me just would be mind blowing. Somebody had a lawn mowing accident and were missing toes and he was able to fit it. Or somebody had a club foot, or somebody had super wide feet, or one leg shorter than the other. It just amazed me what he was able to do and how people were so grateful.
Frank Petrilli: I found myself standing in a grocery store and looking down at footwear again. That’s what you do when you’re a boot guy, you stand there talking to somebody and you’re looking at what they’re wearing on their feet. I started to miss it. I really did.
So, when I came up to clean this building out and looked around and said, “I built that wall. I built that office. I put that shelf up. I have the makings of what we used to have.” There were some of my old employees that were no longer at the old company either, and I called and said, “If you guys are in, I’m in,” and everybody just jumped for it and said, “Absolutely.” So here we are almost seven years later.
Stitchdown: What was it like getting a whole new company off the ground and starting the whole thing over again?
Frank Petrilli: So I tried to have the same energy at 54 years old as I did when I was building Nicks boots at 30 years old. And, it kind of wasn’t there, but…what was it like? It was two months of gathering equipment, reestablishing all my accounts with my suppliers, getting your name and all the paperwork in place, and then buying material, driving all over the country to pick up machinery…
Michelle Petrilli: Wiping out our life savings. [Laughs]
Frank Petrilli: Yeah. It was hectic. It really was hectic. But it was challenging and I’m always up for a challenge. So it was fun at the same time.
Stitchdown: How has the company grown and changed since you started things up in 2016?
Frank Petrilli: When we first started, people really didn’t understand the difference. Keep in mind, I’m in the old building that said “Nicks Boots” on top. Now I’d changed the name to Frank’s Boots. So there was a lot of confusion, and a lot of explanations had to be given to customers. We started out saying, “We can repair your other companies’ handmade boots, and in the future, we’re gonna be able to build boots.” And it was only a short few months before we put our first boot out. It was just one boot: 10 inch top, black, Vibram lug sole.
Stitchdown: Was that the Type One Commander?
Frank Petrilli: Yep, my Type One Commander. Then customers started coming by word of mouth, which is how I grew Nicks: word of mouth, quality workmanship, and doing the right thing. I always tell people, don’t judge my company on our mistakes. We’re human, people are gonna make mistakes. Judge the company on how we fix the mistake.
My customers started coming back, and now we’ve gone from that one boot to 20 or 30 different styles and shapes and colors. Now we are moving into the more casual world. We’ve got some great Wickett and Craig colors, new Seidel colors coming in, Horween Chromexcel. I’ve got a beautiful bullhide that we’re working on right now. We’re making some canvas upper boots. Tanker boots. It’s gone from just the one handmade work boot, and within six years we’ve branched off to many different styles, and a lot of great customers.
Michelle Petrilli: Frank spent so many years building the Nicks name and going to vendor shows and getting his name out there, at the Arizona Wildfire Academy, the Texas Wildfire Academy. I got to do the first two shows with him this year, which were in Arizona and Colorado. It was so cool to go there because everybody was like, “Frank, we heard you opened up as your own, come over here!” We got some very, very warm welcomes from the community.
Frank Petrilli: Back then, to grow a company, you had to do it physically.
Michelle Petrilli: There was no Internet!
Frank Petrilli: In 1993 we had a network of dealers and I would make rounds to visit with them.
Michelle Petrilli: Emergency services…
Frank Petrilli: Yeah, out at the wildfires, out on the base camps, delivering boots. And these were things that I always talked about and explained to Michelle, parts of the country I saw, driving through Utah in the middle of the night, or something like that. She never got to experience that, she was raising the kids. So having her come on this last trip to the two wildfire academies, it was fun. She got to experience how many hours I can drive. She doesn’t like that!
Michelle Petrilli: Oh my God! Six in the morning ’til ten at night! It was like, please let me stop! I gotta go to the bathroom!
Frank Petrilli: But I was excited to get to the next place, so…
Stitchdown: So you talked a little bit about your customer base. Obviously it sounds like you have a pretty dedicated following of people, people who like you for you. But could you paint a picture of who is buying Frank’s Boots? I’m imagining first responders, wildland firefighters, but who else?
Frank Petrilli: People in every trade out there. Anyone from a plumber, to construction, linemen, carpenters, farmers, factory workers. I have one brain surgeon who is in Texas and he was absolutely amazed once he got into our boots, because of the way they balance the body weight. When he does 12 to 24 hour surgeries, he was finding his legs and his back fatigued.
So he heard about us, heard about the handmade boot world, and called me. We talked a lot before he flew up here. Since then, he has been a big advocate for us because he feels the difference in what the handmade boot does for your posture when you’re standing for hours and hours at a time. And then, we share this unique customer base with the casual-dress market, with all the other companies. Those customers are fun because they have some really good ideas. Michelle will be on our Frank’s community page with me, but she does the typing, because I’m not good at that.
Michelle Petrilli: [Laughs] That’s been really fun for me. I mean, sometimes it’s midnight and he’s like, “Honey, you coming to bed?” But I’m like, “Wait, just one more question! Let me just answer one more!” And then I’m up first thing in the morning, and then doing it all day here, trying to come up with fresh new material to put on the community page, and just trying to keep everybody engaged. It’s so fun to hear the banter about “Oh, I think you should get this boot” and “Oh no, I think this one’s better. Oh, have you seen this color?” It’s fun to watch that excitement.
Frank Petrilli: People say a guy’s boat is his girlfriend, and I have a boat, so I have my girlfriend. But our social page has become her boyfriend, because I take second to it. She’s on it all day long, which is fantastic.
Michelle Petrilli: I definitely love the relationships that I’m building with some of the guys, you know, the fanboys. They’re just so sweet and so kind and so courteous to one another. And I’m so grateful for that.
Stitchdown: I’m interested in this guy you mentioned, Frank, that you said was a brain surgeon who started wearing your footwear. What’s his footwear of choice? I would not expect a brain surgeon to be interested in a PNW-style boot.
Frank Petrilli: You know, it was a bit of a dressier-looking Front Range. Anything with a high heel, high arch is balancing the body weight. Once you start lowering a heel, you start shifting body weight backwards, and that’s where you can start to get fatigue and pressure on the lower back, knees, and your quads and other muscles in your legs. So when we talked about this and looked at how it balances the body weight, he just chose a very plain-Jane Front Range with a dressier leather, just something that he wanted to shine so that it can look a little bit cleaner when he’s visiting with patients and families.
Stitchdown: Spokane is as crowded as bootmaking cities get in the United States today. Where do you see Frank’s Boots fitting in in the Spokane bootmaking community?
Frank Petrilli: There’s room for all of us. We’re all slightly different. We coexist together very well. If I don’t do what a customer needs, I just simply send them to whoever does. We all compete against each other, we all build very similar products, but how Frank’s fits in is by continuing to keep growing our company the way we have been, by enjoying what we’re doing.
I always look at it this way: you have to do work to make a living, or you can do what you love to make a living, but there are always things that you might want to be doing other than being at work. So when we’re at work, let’s just make it the best possible day we can. Drama-free. And if there’s ever an issue, we just nip it in the bud right away. I love this. I love being here. And Michelle coming onboard has made things a lot of fun. She had an Easter egg hunt with the guys the other day out of nowhere!
Michelle Petrilli: It was so much fun! Hundred-dollar bills, candy, and gift cards. They were running around here like little kids, it was so much fun.
Frank Petrilli: She’s added a little more of a human touch to the business.
Stitchdown: That’s awesome.
Michelle Petrilli: You know, there’s a lot of feet out there, and there are very few guys on our community page that have just our boots. They have Nicks, they have White’s, they have everybody else. There’s not just one boot out there, people like to have a collection. Now, we have some guys that have a collection of just our boots, which is fabulous, but there’s always gonna be plenty of business for all of us to coexist beautifully together. I think the uniqueness about us is that we really enjoy some of the customizations and love working with people. A lot of times people don’t know that we do all this other stuff, because it’s not stuff that we have online.
Frank Petrilli: I have to give credit to Otto White from White’s Boots. He’s the one that brought his boot up from the South into Saint Maries, Idaho, and then up into Spokane. If it wasn’t for him, none of the others would be here. Now we’ve become the handmade boot center of the United States.
Stitchdown: So Frank, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of experience—a lot of hands-on experience, specifically—with fitting people in boots, especially people who need orthotics or special builds and that kind of thing. Do you find it’s something that you’re still able to do well in the digital era, now that you’re serving people not just in the US, but worldwide?
Frank Petrilli: In the past, we would mail a customer a fit sheet and they would mail it back to us, and we’d have this drawing that we would work with. Then it’s a lot of follow-up communication with the customer. The digital world has changed that a little bit. When a digital fit sheet comes in, there are a lot of unknowns. We don’t know exactly how it was scanned, what type of computer it was scanned in on. I prefer the old school way: mail it in, send me a drawing. Give me the original. I can see more in it.
One of the difficult parts of fit-sheet processing is you don’t get to see the volume of the foot, their circumference. When you’re evaluating fit sheets, you’re drawing back on your many years of doing it right, and many years of what you’ve done wrong. So you have to look at the drawing, and get their answers to some questions—their height, weight, gait. So yes, we still can do it very well, but the digital world has actually caused us a little extra labor and a little extra time because there’s some unknowns in that process.
Stitchdown: You’re not getting the chance to see these feet in person. I imagine there’s no substitute for that with making a custom build.
Frank Petrilli: It’s always best if the person is sitting in front of us. I’ve been training Junior in my shop for seven years now and he’s a good custom fitter, too. There’s not much that he can’t do at this point. He’s got that gut feeling, and that’s what it comes down to. I don’t know how I got it. You just have to have a gut feeling of what’s gonna work or what’s not gonna work to actually design or shape this boot last to the person’s foot.
Michelle Petrilli: We’ve actually had some of the guys of our community stop in. We give them a little tour around the building and show how the boots are made, and they love actually being able to sit down with Frank or Junior and be fit in-person, because they know that is ultimately the best fit. The other day we had a visitor, this guy Trevor, who came in from the East Coast. He walked in and Junior goes, “I recognize those boots. You’re Trevor!” And the guy was blown away. That was very cool. Having that personal connection was beautiful.
Frank Petrilli: There was a time where my memory was better, and I could see a customer pull in in his car and walk through the door, and I knew the size and width of his boot. Now it’s a little bit more difficult to do that, but…
Stitchdown: You’ve been in this industry for so long now. What would you say have been some of the most dramatic changes that you’ve seen in the bootmaking world?
Frank Petrilli: For me personally, how much time is required in the design, and the time that we need to spend with the customers electronically, which pulls you away from what you’re doing in the back of the shop. And that’s where I like to be.
As far as the footwear world goes, there are things in the industry that so many years ago we used to stock, like caulk boots, the ones with those big spikes on the bottom, for guys up in the woods, cutting, standing on the trees. We used to stock 50, 60 pair of those, and we would turn our inventory regularly. We used to stock lineman boots and turn our inventory. Some of the big shifts over the years have been the use of different equipment in the logging industry, so that they’re not using that type of footwear anymore. So we’ve had to adjust to what the industry is now calling for, as far as different styles of boots.
Another change would be that the newer generations like a soft, quick break-in on a boot. In my opinion, quick break-in with soft leathers is good, but I like a little bit firmer-bodied leather, because I think there’s a little more longevity involved in that. Then there is the change towards more of a synthetic style of footwear. Part of the new generation, they want lightweight. I prefer to stay in the heavy-duty, rebuildable, resoleable world. I really don’t care for the throwaway society.
Michelle Petrilli: We love having our customers for life. Buy a boot from us, a couple years down the road you resole, a couple more years down you rebuild, and we keep our customer for years and years. We also have Saad’s Shoe Repair right here within our building.
Frank Petrilli: Yeah. It’s a full-service shoe repair shop. When somebody comes to our store, they can bring their wife’s purse in, or their Birkenstocks. That’s a separate part of our showroom. Saad’s is a 116-year-old company. I purchased it from a really good friend who was retiring and was gonna close it down. He came in, we talked, and I said, “Don’t close it down. There’s still a need for shoe repair.” But that has changed.
Since COVID, probably about 60% of our business in shoe repair was women’s high heels, and dress shoes for the professional office workers. That’s all gone away since COVID, because so many people are working at home. So that has changed a lot. We’ve lost two shoe repair shops in Spokane. One actually just closed this week. It’s kind of a dying service out there because the world is used to throwaway footwear. But we’re keeping this shoe repair shop running because there still is a need for other types of shoe repair.
Stitchdown: You talked a little bit about some new leathers coming in, a couple new patterns maybe coming down the pipeline. What else does the future hold for Frank’s Boots?
Frank Petrilli: We just adapt and we reshape as the need comes, because things do change. We’re gonna continue to grow into the casual dress world.
Michelle Petrilli: He does that reluctantly, because his heart is with the hardworking blue collar men and women and addressing their needs. But I’m kind of trying to push him a little bit into that direction of doing some more casual stuff. So, we’re experimenting.
Frank Petrilli: And we’re talking about some different shoe lasts, different shapes, and I’m constantly buying new equipment so that we can bring our lead times down a little bit and make the flow better. And again, I’ve got some great employees and they’re working real hard to do that with me. I guess the answer to your question is, we’re gonna continue to grow and service our customers as best we can with whatever they need. Our core is still gonna be hard-working work boots.
Stitchdown: You mentioned that you’ve got some family members who are working for the company right now?
Frank Petrilli: Mostly my two kids. My daughter is on the backend of the website, and my son is my tech person, he works for a big tech firm. They’re both brilliant. They’re redesigning our website and changing the way we’re gonna be doing things in the future to make things more simple. Michelle is involved in that with them. So that’s the direct family members, the other ones…there’s Junior, his father and I are good friends and I’ve known him since he’s a little boy, so I consider him family. We call him Junior because his name is Frank. And we, when we first started working together at Nicks Boots, he was getting my phone calls and I was getting his.
Michelle Petrilli: Everybody thinks he’s our son.
Frank Petrilli: But he’s been around forever, so he could be!
Michelle Petrilli: One of our guys has been coming in since they were 16, when his dad was buying boots, and he was begging Frank for a job. And then finally, when he turned 18, we finally said, “Right, come on, you can come work for us.”
Frank Petrilli: My shop foreman Jeff has been with me a long time and we’re like brothers. We tease each other all day long, all day long, every minute of the day.
Michelle Petrilli: It’s always who can do it better, who can do it longer? Oh God, it’s crazy.
Stitchdown: How big is the company right now?
Frank Petrilli: Around 16 people in total. We’re in 6,500 square foot building downstairs, and then I’ve got another 500 square feet upstairs to grow into if we need to.
Michelle Petrilli: Yeah. Which is nice.
Stitchdown: That’s perfect. Great chat, thanks for everything you two!