Word of foot puts Benzie company on the map

BENZONIA – In this technology-crazed world we live in, Fernand Footwear makes shoes that are designed and handmade to fit the feet that wear them.

In his small, but airy Benzonia shop just off the main drag, owner Tim McKay traces his customers' feet and creates a one of a kind pair just for them. He hand cuts the insole to the foot shape, hand stretches and works the leather over a piece of iron, and using just a sewing machine and small grinder, assembles each pair by hand. The entire shoe is then dunked in water and pushed out by hand to the final shape, all for less than $200 a pair.

With a "Made in America" Vibram sole, vegetable-tanned full grain leather insoles and water-resistant oil-tanned top-grade cowhide uppers, the shoes are lightweight, flexible and laminated to fit the curves of your sole. The oil-tan uppers are supple, durable and breathe through the grain.

McKay can build around any shoe inserts or orthotics and is often told by his customers that they have been unable to find a pair of shoes commercially produced that fit and feel good. They also service what they make with resoling and reconditioning.

"There are people walking around with Fernand's made in the late 1980s that have been reconditioned," said McKay.

In a good week, McKay and his part-time assistant can make about 15 pairs. He has a four-month backlog of custom orders and admits, "I'm always looking for interested and able assistants. It is very physical work and requires craftsmanship, strength and attention to detail, but it beats swinging a hammer."

McKay is a former construction worker who worked and learned from the original owner Steve Fernand, and then bought the business in 2006.

"The learning curve on just what it takes to run a business has been huge," he said. "But it was a logical progression once I learned from Steve, and he was interested in selling and moving on to other things."

"The Fernand brand name is well-established and we get customers by word of "foot" as Steve used to say," said McKay.

Fernand started the Comfoot Shoe line in 1978 and the business has been in Benzonia since 1987. There is a large file of "shoe love letters" from satisfied customers raving about their shoes and often wanting another pair and catalogs to pass onto their family and friends.

Although the 60-hour workweeks have been a surprise to McKay, he sees the business as an important link to his personal beliefs of sustainability and concerns about the environment.

"It's been a pleasant surprise that people are more conscious of where and how the products they buy are being made. I'm really glad to see that. The product sells itself. I could probably move the business anywhere and customers would find me."

McKay chose Benzonia for its small town qualities. "I ride my unicycle a few blocks to work all year around, it's a good place to raise my 15-year-old daughter, I play music in a local band when I can and, for now, that all fits. I'm hoping in a few years to run the shop with alternative energy and go off the electrical grid, and that's entirely possible here."

For those wanting to forgo the custom shoe wait time, there are several styles available in the "shoe room" including loafer and oxford styles and sandals. McKay is also expanding a line of handmade leather purses and pouches. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday year-round, he will also take appointments if customers call first.

Check out www.fernandfootwear.com, or call 800-419-8621.BN