Are we talking BBQ or Gear?

11 11 2009

I’m originally from Texas. I’m proud to be from Texas and there are plenty of things that I identify with from Texas – and plenty more that I don’t. I don’t really get homesick for Texas anymore since I have created a new life (or new lives) since leaving but there are some things that make me miss home like nothing else. One of those things…Bar-B-Que…and not just any BBQ, but BBQ…BEEF! Give me a brisket that has been slowly smoked for 12 hours, a foot-long rib that falls off the bone, smoked sausage smothered in sauce (tomato not vinegar) and I’m as fat and happy as they come. And among the best BBQ that I remember from my childhood came from Uncle Dan’s in Waco, TX. I couldn’t tell you how many times I ate there and I feel confident saying that I can’t remember a time that I left unsatisfied or disappointed. And, being an “Uncle Dan” myself, every time my niece and nephew call me that, it brings back good memories…

Uncle Dan's in Waco, TX

Uncle Dan's BBQ in Waco, TX

So why am I talking about BBQ on a gear blog? Well its not really about the BBQ, its about Uncle Dan’s. Chicago has its own Uncle Dan’s…Uncle Dan’s – The Great Outdoors Store.

Uncle Dan's in Chicago

Uncle Dan's in Chicago

I discovered Uncle Dan’s because they used to have a location in Evanston around the corner from the Whole Foods Market that we shop at. The moment I walked in, I felt right at home. The old store in Evanston was small and cramped with inventory shoved into corners, hanging from the ceiling with that pungent gear store smell that I have already described and so love. It was perfect! I walked in and immediately thought, “I want to own this store.” It reminded me of some of the small mountain town gear stores that I used to frequent as I was first cultivating my love of gear and gear stores.

Upon some research, I learned that this was only one of four locations that they have in Chicagoland. In a metropolitan area of this size (3rd largest in the country) it makes complete sense. This is a diverse area; what applies to one side of town, or even an adjacent neighborhood, may not apply in another.  One of the important things that Uncle Dan’s understands is who makes up their clientele. The Evanston location is in the back yard of Northwestern University and in the downtown area of a pretty wealthy suburb. Therefore, having a bunch of whitewater or Everest-quality mountaineering gear isn’t necessary. They have a great selection of what I call “crossover” gear – that is gear that is designed and made for the outdoors but can be worn to work, out to dinner or walking the dogs. (For instance, I have a Patagonia soft shell that I got at Uncle Dan’s that I wore up Kili and on most days at home when the temps are <40.) They also have the requisite TNF Denali Fleece selection and daypacks (book bags) for the rash of high school and college age kids that flood the area. They also have an equally wide and quality selection for men and women, which many gear stores lack. And, in the spirit of knowing their clientele, they also have a pretty healthy selection of clothing for children (for all of the yuppies who want their kids to look cool and crunchy like mommy and daddy).

The location that I frequent most is the Evanston store. They moved down the street from the original store and have upgraded in size and improved the overall look of the store. It was probably a good move and I’m sure they made the move in an effort to grow, etc., but I have to say, I loved the old place. It had all the charm of a small but serious gear store. Now don’t get me wrong, the new place is really nice. It is certainly larger and not as cramped and they did a great job on design and layout. What I really appreciate about this location is that the store is always well staffed. There is almost always someone to greet you at the door and the employees seem to know what they’re talking about.

I’ve been to the Lakeview store a couple of times and it still has some of the gear store charm that the original Evanston store had but with the chic-ness of a Lakeview boutique. I don’t remember being blown away by the staff but I liked it nonetheless. I have also been to the Highland Park location. This store seems larger than the others but it could be because of the layout – I don’t make it a habit to pull out a tape measure and figure these things out. The thing that stuck out to me at this location was the massive inventory. They had a lot of everything! I walked through at the end of October, so the winter stock was in full effect. They had so many different jackets from so many different makers that I can’t imagine that someone could go in and not find something they wanted. The store is really nice and in a great northern suburb location. My only complaint was that I was not impressed with the staff at all. I went in around noon on a weekday, so there were quite a few people in on their lunch breaks.  Although there was plenty of staff, they seemed pretty inattentive to the shoppers – changing displays, working at the cash register computer, teasing one another. And, being a bit of a gear snob, they didn’t seem like the most gear-savvy folks. I could be wrong because no one really talked to me while I was in there for about 10-15 minutes, but this was my only complaint about this location. I’ve not been to the Wrigleyville store, but I’m sure it’s great…

What I like the most about Uncle Dan’s is that it is a serious gear store but non gear heads can go in there and not feel intimidated or lost. They’ve got you covered on clothing, footwear of all kinds and plenty of camping and backpacking gear. Their pack selection is great and (at least in Evanston) there is someone who knows what they are talking about to get you fitted correctly. One thing that they do well that some other gear stores don’t is outfitting you for travel. They’ve got travel packs, rolling suitcases and duffels that can often only be found online. In fact the morning that Amanda and I left for Kilimanjaro in September, we made a mad dash to Uncle Dan’s (link to blog) to grab some last minute stuff before we flew out.

Finally, you know I love gear stores. REI is like Disney Land to me. But one of the tenants that Amanda and I try to live by is supporting local small businesses. This is among the first of many gear store reviews that I want to do around the country (and hopefully around the world). I hope that eventually I will review one that is close to where you live or that you will visit any of their websites (including Uncle Dan’s) and give them your business. I fully endorse these guys and encourage you to check them out next time you’re in need of some gear…or if you are like me and aren’t always in “need” of gear but you have to have some to get your next fix…

Shop well, Dan

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Your nationwide neighborhood running store

28 10 2009

Lest you think this whole blog is about our recent trip to Africa, let me shake things up a bit. Like I said in my original post, I enjoy a lot of things from mountain sports to golf to running, biking and swimming. So to mix things up, I’m going to make the first gear store review about the store that my wife and I buy all of our running shoes at: Fleet Feet Sports. I used to not consider stores like Fleet Feet as a “gear” store, rather more like “sporting goods”, but the more time (and money) I spend there, I have become to drop stores like this in the same category with Gear. They specialize in a very specific niche and do it well with competent staff and high quality products.

Fleet Feet is a national chain but all of the locations I have been in have really helpful and qualified employees. (I’ve been to a few different locations in and around Chicagoland and one in Louisville, KY.) I believe they are successful in this regard because they are a franchise. Each store (or group of stores in a region) are owned and operated independently but under the same core principals of the broader company. As a result, the employees are usually runners themselves who know what they are talking about.

Link to Locations

Link to Locations

When you walk in, of course they carry lots of shoes as well as technical running gear and in some locations, miscellaneous triathlon gear. On nice weekend days in the spring and summer, you often have to wait to be helped but its well worth it. A helpful and knowledgeable employee who is often an athlete as well gives you something that is terribly lacking at most retail places these days – time.

If you happen to be wearing your old running shoes they will do a quick analysis of the wear and tear on the soles and interview you a bit about your running (distance, pace, conditions, races, etc.). From there they will do a gait analysis which can be awkward when you’re running barefoot across the store trying to avoid other shoppers but very helpful to the final outcome. After that they disappear to the back and bring out a selection of different shoes that span the gamut of size, style, brand and price – all of which fitting the criteria decided upon by all the previous shenanigans.

I have bought three pairs of shoes from Fleet Feet and have always been very pleased. New Balance, Saucony and Brooks. I probably won’t buy another pair of Brooks for a while though. Not long after I started running in these shoes, I suffered a pretty bad hip flexor injury and although I can’t say it had anything to do with the shoes, my superstitions tell me that they are not completely without guilt.

At the Lincoln Park / Piper’s Alley location they even carry some triathlon gear. Of course they have you covered for the run but they also have wetsuits, speed suits, race kits and swim gear of all kinds. One of my favorite discoveries from my last trip in to Fleet Feet is Yankz. Yankz are essentially elastic shoe laces which allow you (as a triathlete trying to shave seconds in T2) to slide your running shoes on without having to tie laces. Being a bit lazy I used to tie my regular laces loose enough for me to slide my shoes on and off but these allow you to do the same thing but cinch back snug on your foot because of the elastic.

Blog Pics 001

Brooks and Yankz

A couple of miscellaneous facts about Fleet Feet: At least in Chicago, Fleet Feet is where you pick up race packets and information so it’s nice to have a central place to go for almost every race. They also a have a pretty good program for frequent shoppers that gives you discounts and rebates after you spend a certain amount. If you’re a part of their email list they send out really good announcements every few days. In the summer they sponsor an aid station on the Chicago lakefront for runners to grab water and Gatorade, which is really nice. Finally, when training for some of the bigger races they have free group runs for athletes of all levels of experience. I’ve never joined in because that isn’t really my thing but many of my friends love it and it’s a great way to meet people who have common interests.

The biggest down side to Fleet Feet is that you always leave there spending more money that you intended. Insoles, new running shorts and socks kind of add up quickly. But when you know that you are getting quality products, its nice to get them in one place. So from my experience, I endorse Fleet Feet Sports. One thing that I will reinforce in this blog is my belief that when it comes to gear, you get what you pay for. If you don’t want to spend a little extra money for a better product, then don’t be surprised when you end up with crap. Also, I will always be glad to pay a little extra for extraordinary service and Fleet Feet has always taken good care of me.

Run well, Dan