Rutt’n Rod Outfitters settles in for the long haul
Merrill natives Eric Heimerl and Jon Smith had been talking about going into business together in their hometown for years. Last summer, the right opportunity presented itself and the plan for Rutt’n Rod Outfitters was hatched. The new business catering to the outdoors enthusiast will open April 17 in the former Backwater Sports building on Cty. K just north of Merrill.
“It’s my dream and Eric’s dream that someday we’d own a business in the town that we live in and the challenge was what kind of business was that going to be?,” Smith said. “When we came across the former Backwater Sports and seeing that it’s for sale, we knew right away that the Merrill community would be in desperate need of a sporting goods store. It was something that interests Eric and myself. We decided to take the leap of faith.”
Smith is a pharmacist by trade and part owner in a chain of pharmacies. Heimerl has owned a construction business for the past 13 years. Their combined experience in business gives them a solid footing for their new venture.
“I’ve built residential homes for the past 13 years, managing what is the biggest investment in most people’s lives,” Heimerl said.
“With pharmacy, it’s all about customer service. You have to meet the customer’s expectations,” Smith adds.
The owners also recognize that Rutt’n Rod’s customers will have a certain passion for the products.
“We know that people are coming here to spend their money on the things that they love and enjoy, so it should be a fun experience,” Smith said. “They should look forward to coming back and if they don’t we’re doing it wrong. If they do, we’re doing it right. Business is also about being responsible with the money that people give us so that we have the right inventory, that we’re open.”
The partners took possession of the property in November and dug into the building right away, gutting and reconfiguring the space from the concrete to the roof.
“We got in here toward the end of November and been remodeling ever since,” Heimerl said.
The project was progressing well until Heimerl went in for a scheduled knee replacement surgery in December. Serious complications following the surgery, including multiple strokes, put Heimerl out of the picture for several weeks.
“I was down from Dec. 17 until about the end of February,” Heimerl said.
“A lot of my friends and Eric’s friends pulled together to help get us through the period,” Smith adds. “Once he fully recovered, we went back on track. It’s been every night and weekend for several months.
“I think it was a trial; it’s tested our friendship and our partnership and honestly if we can make it through what we made it through to get here, I don’t think there’s anything in business that could possibly harm us along the way.”
With Rutt’n Rod Outfitters, Heimerl and Smith are jumping in with both feet, showing a commitment to the business and its customers. Upon opening, the store will be stuffed with inventory for the archer, angler, hunter, camper and everyone who loves the outdoors.
“It’s an outfitter because it has everything for everybody,” Smith explains. “I think that’s one of the things that we wanted to demonstrate to the Merrill community is that we are going into it all the way. People want to see a true investment. Shopping is about going someplace that you enjoy going.”
Rutt’n Rod is stocking bows and crossbows by names like Hoyt, Expedition, Killer Instinct, Horton, Velocity and Wicked Ridge. They also carry shooting and hunting accessories including sights, releases, quivers, rests, scent sprays, trail cameras, blinds, stands and binoculars. By the time they open, Rutt’n Rod should have about 20 crossbows on the wall.
The store also carries a full line of baits and fishing accessories, featuring rods by St. Croix, Denali and Fenwick; reels by Shimano, Abu Garcia, Pflueger and Mitchell, along with many other brands.
The bait selection is huge, with some of the merchandise made in Wisconsin.
“If it wiggles and swims, we’ll have it in stock,” Smith said.
The minnow tanks are in their own room, complete with an air exchanger to keep the moisture from the tank away from the rest of the merchandise.
“We decided to take the tanks and isolate them in their own room and then we put in an air to air system which constantly draws all that moisture out of the building and brings fresh air in,” Heimerl explains. “We’ll get rid of that moisture and mold and mildew problem, because it’s hard to sell clothes that smell like minnows.”
Speaking of clothes, Rutt’n Rod is looking to fill a void in Merrill created by the closing of Caylor’s Corner, once Merrill’s source for hunting clothing and quality boots. Rutt’n Rod will stock LaCrosse and Danner boots, along with camouflage from brands such as ASAT and Fishouflage. More camo and blaze orange will show up in the fall as Rutt’n Rod’s inventory changes with the seasons.
“Inventory will be filtering in from the day we open until the end of August, so the store will constantly be this changing, rotating, evolving entity,” Heimerl said.
The owners also will be listening to what customers would like to see them carry.
“We’re excited for a lot of local customer feedback,” Heimerl said. “We’ll work with them and try and get it in here.”
To make the shopping experience more comfortable, the remodel includes two new handicap accessible bathrooms, a fitting room and a fireplace lounge area.
“We want to make it more of a destination than just a place to shop,” Heimerl said. “We want to have that friendly, hometown feel.”
The owners are hoping customers will use the lounge to relax and peruse catalogs.
“In this industry there are a million various products that can be put in stock,” Smith said. “We hope to have the ones that customers want, but if not, pick up a catalog, sit back and relax and we’ll work together on bringing it in as special order.”
Rutt’n Rod also offers snacks, soda, coffee, beer and liquor.
The indoor archery range will also be open, with future plans to start archery leagues. A portion of the archery range area can be partitioned off for meetings and Rutt’n Rod is inviting businesses and organizations to use the space.
Rutt’n Rod is supplying all the ammo for the new Merrill High School trap shooting team and carries a large quantity of shotgun target loads. By the fall, the store will offer a full line of ammunition for gun hunters.
While they don’t have plans to carry firearms, Rutt’n Rod does plan to get a Federal Firearms License to allow customers to order guns through the store.
Eric and assistant manager Tim Anderson will be manning the store. Both have significant experience in the great outdoors.
Rutt’n Rod will not initially be able to issue Wisconsin DNR hunting and fishing permits, which is a service the owners really wanted to provide. The DNR simply doesn’t have any more of the registration equipment to give out and there’s a waiting list of over 70 businesses.
“There’s no more units,” Eric said. “We did all we could.”
The DNR is in the process of revamping the licensing system and Rutt’n Rod hopes by next March to be able to issue permits. In the meantime, they will be able to help customers with the online process at the store so they can walk out with a valid temporary permit and the actual permit will be mailed to them.
The store will be open April 17. Hours will be 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
A new 19-foot-tall lighted sign will go up near the road next week, yet more evidence of the owners’ faith in their new venture.
“‘Here to stay,’ is what that says,” Smith remarked.