When it comes to choosing a lifelong profession, you could say Edmonton’s Sanchez family has a lot of “sole.”
For three generations, the family has been immersed in the custom shoe making and repair business, currently operating one of the oldest outlets of its kind in Alberta at West Edmonton Mall.
Custom Shoes by Zapata Sanchez was opened as a traditional shoe repair business by Julio Sanchez, 69, almost 38 years ago. He was following in his father’s footsteps – along with five half-brothers -- who were in the shoe and leather business in Santiago, Chile.
Now Julio’s son Rodrigo is a partner in the business, which has expanded into quality custom shoe making.
“Shoes are more important than a car,” argued Julio, noting, “Half your life you’re on your feet.”
Custom Shoes initially operated in a smaller space in the Marketplace area of the mall near the Galaxyland amusement park. It then moved to a larger store and workshop on the second floor of the mall’s Phase 1.
Rodrigo spent a year in Italy’s fashion capital of Milan studying shoe pattern making. That led to expansion of the family business in 2016, offering custom made shoes in the $399 to $2,000 price range. Rodrigo’s mother and sister have roles in the company, which also employs an apprentice and another part-time worker.
In his 20s, Julio emigrated to Canada from Chile in 1977. While he made his first pair of sandals from old car tires when he was a teenager, in Canada he dabbled at other jobs, including painting, janitorial work and welding, before getting into the shoe repair business.
“I hated welding,” he declared. “Better money, but I hated it.”
When he first moved to Edmonton, Julio says there were easily a hundred shoe repair shops, sometimes several in one neighbourhood. Now, with the market dominated by a plethora of shops that sell low-priced but inferior quality shoes, the number of repair shops has dwindled, due to the disposable nature of the not-worth-fixing shoe market.
“We’re trying to bring back the handmade, high-quality shoe with a flair to it,” said Rodrigo.
“Unfortunately, now there’s a big hole in that market because everything is fast fashion. We want you to invest your hard-earned money in something that’s going to last.”
Rodrigo also offers four-day shoe making courses, usually on consecutive Sundays, where students learn to make shoes from scratch and walk away with a custom-made pair, constructed from one of about 70 different leather options using150 and 175 individual work steps.
Julio says the business would not have survived – particularly at the mall where rents are not cheap -- without expansion from strictly shoe repair into the shoe making business. “I would have retired,” he said.
But he would not dissuade someone younger from wanting to get into the custom shoe making business.
“If you love it, do it, why not?” he said. “But if it’s for money (only), don’t do it. It’s a lot of work.”
He added wryly: “Sometimes not getting rich is not that bad.”
Rodrigo, who is married, says a long-term goal is to have children one day and pass the business on to one of them, particularly if, like himself, they show an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Because we have this passion and we found this creative outlet, we’ll be doing this as long as we can,” he said.