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Tanya Basu/MEDILL

Universal Sole is a running store that offers fun events for the community.

Univeral Sole runs with a different herd

by Tanya Basu
March 13, 2013

Universal Sole at 3052 N. Lincoln Ave. started off as just another running store in Lincoln Park. But its calendar of running events, wide selection of shoes and notoriously friendly staff have earned the store a loyal fan base.

While venturing into a running store can be an intimidating experience for newbies, store owner Joel Feinberg has come up with a delicious recipe to calm their jitters: burgers, beer and buddies.

“It’s not a recipe for rocket science,” Feinberg notes. “You come here, you run. Afterwards, you head over to the local bar, Fizz, and Goose Island gives us our first round of drinks free. They run a burger special, and we just hang out all night. We do that one Monday a month.”

In fact, camaraderie is a central part of the store’s running programming – and the secret to how it has built a fan following. Besides the popular burgers and beer runs, Universal Sole hosts Saturday morning Pilates and Pancakes events (with pancakes being cooked fresh on the griddle by Feinberg’s daughter) and neighborhood- themed five-kilometer runs that pass by local cultural landmarks.

“We try to make [events] pretty simple but effective enough for people to come out and have some fun,” Feinberg said.

Heather Williams values the importance the store places on connecting with others.

“When you have a group of peers, it’s nice to see them every week and shoot the breeze and go for a run and come back,” the 30-year-old said.

The personalized service is also a major pull factor.

“I think what really makes it different is that the people who work here really care about you,” Williams said. “They’re friendly with everyone and they’re very warm and welcoming. I’ve had run-in at some other stores where the sales associates were really rude and wouldn’t help whereas here, they’re like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Let me know if you need any help!’

As he laced up his shoes for a fun ran and chatted with other runners, Sean Butler, 40, agreed. “The service is better here. They know you right when you walk in. It makes a big difference.”

That’s the kind of bond Feinberg has worked hard to build. “Really, what I feel sets us apart from anybody else is that we’re really deep in our community here.”

A lifelong passion for running

Ever since Feinberg can remember, he’s been running.

“I’ve been running a long time, basically since the age of 6 years old,” Feinberg said. “That’s how I entered the business: my mom used to take me out for runs.”

Feinberg’s parents played a big role in shaping his dream of one day owning a running store--his earliest memories involve jogging with his university professor mother. His father was an engineer who owned his own business.

While at Glenbrook North High School, Feinberg began working at area running stores. That was where he first began considering a career in running retail. But he didn’t take these thoughts seriously at the time.

“Of course, when you’re in high school, you’re like, ‘Yeah! That’s what I want to do!’” Feinberg laughed. “But then you go to college, you start jobs, things sort of change.”

“I always thought I was destined to work for myself,” Feinberg reflected. It was the appeal of being your own boss [and] putting in time and effort for yourself. [But] I just wasn’t ready to make a move into small retail.”

Feinberg attended Indiana University and graduated in 1997 with a marketing degree. He topped that off with a master’s degree in marketing communications from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Feinberg followed a fairly traditional path working in marketing with sports brands such as Clif Bar, Glaceau Vitamin Water and Red Bull.

But Feinberg was itching to run again.

In 1998, he joined Universal Sole’s original running team. Friends with the original owner of the store, Feinberg ran competitively with the store, establishing a deep-rooted interest in the store’s outcome and valuable connections with the Chicago running community.

Feinberg seemingly had it all: a steady corporate job, a family and a future bright with endless possibility. But he still felt that he wasn’t living his dream.

“It got to a point where I needed to decide if I needed to stay in a corporate career or if I wanted to move into owning my own business,” Feinberg said. “It’s one of those things where I didn’t want to look back and think, ‘What if I bought the store?’”

Feinberg jumped in, taking over Universal Sole in 1998 when the former owner decided to leave the business.

“I love working for myself,” Feinberg said, acknowledging that a corporate career allowed him to have clearer separation between his personal and professional lives. “I probably work 10 times harder. You’re always ‘on.’ At the end of the day, no one’s going to put in as much blood, sweat and tears as you are.”

“I make a lot less money, I work harder, and I haven’t loved a job more. What I saw in my parents, I would like them to see in me, which is: do what you love, don’t just do what people want you to do or that path that people want you to take.”

“It makes a big difference”

Even so, dedication and good service doesn’t guarantee success in small business, and the Independent Running Retailer Association, the trade group for run specialty shops, rates the city of Chicago as the most competitive running store market in the country.

On the other hand, the sport of running is seeing a boom with nary a slowdown in sight. In fact, running stores have seen healthy growth nationwide thanks to a slew of themed races that have attracted runners who would normally not have considered the sport.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, the population of people who run six or more days a week grew 9 percent to 38.6 million in 2011, the latest numbers available. Not surprisingly, sales of running shoes also are on the rise, reaching $2.5 billion in 2011.

Universal Sole’s sales have followed suit, shooting up 15 percent in 2012 from 2011, according to Will Bridge, the store’s general manager. While he declined to provide a precise revenue number for Universal Sole, Bridge did say that a target for similar one-store operations is about $750,000 in yearly sales.

Things weren’t always so rosy though. The recession presented a double-edged sword to Universal Sole--while more customers were switching to the great outdoors as their gym of choice, fewer people wanted to spend on specialized accessories.

“When I took this place over five years ago, the economy hit the tank. We hit the recession right as I took this place over. No bank would lend me money. You couldn’t pull equity out on your home even if you had it,” Feinberg remembered.

Despite those challenges, Feinberg says he was able to quadruple sales in the first two years of his ownership.

So far, 2013 is looking extremely promising. A second location of Universal Soul is set to open in the South Loop in April and will feature an in-house physical therapist who also happens to be Feinberg’s wife.

Feinberg is ecstatic about the store’s growth.

“With the new store, we’re excited because that has a lot of potential and new things that we can do programming-wise that we can do that we can’t do here. I would say that we’re coming into the final mile of our marathon,” he grinned.