You might not expect the kind of welcoming and inclusive vibe you’d be more likely to find at a small-town running store when you walk into BlackToe Running Inc. in downtown Toronto. But you’d be surprised, since that is exactly what you’ll find.
BlackToe is a family-run business. Five years in, owners Mike and Maya Anderson are still hands-on seven days a week. That’s how passionate they are about delivering the most inclusive running and shopping experiences available.
Their approach in the store has always been to give customers, whether beginners, elite, or somewhere in between, the best possible advice, regardless of where they are in their running journey. “We never dumb it down,” says Mike, “We just start at the beginning.”
“We never dumb it down,” says Mike, “We just start at the beginning.”
The approach extends well beyond the retail side of the business. BlackToe sponsors a number of smallish races with a strongly inclusive community vibe, like Pride and Remembrance, Divas and the Bum Run, all of which exist primarily to support good causes and a love of running, rather than elite rosters, competitive fields and prize money. Another passion project is the training BlackToe provides to the Good Foot Run Group, a unique delivery service staffed by runners with developmental disabilities, including their 24-year-old son, Braden.
It also extends to the way they train their staff (who are all experienced runners), and how they run their training groups, including a Tuesday night run club for anyone who’s just starting out, or progressing up in distances, and a Wednesday night race team for those training for marathons and half-marathons. Mike almost never misses the Wednesday night runs, because he enjoys them so much.
It’s easy to see why. The group is friendly and welcoming to a newcomer, chatting amiably during the 3K warmup jog down to the city’s Martin Goodman Trail on the lakeshore. The coaches position themselves at the front and back of the group, making sure no one is left behind, and work concerns fall away as the group divides itself into pace groups for kilometre repeats.
“I really love running with our teams, and Maya does too,” Mike says. “We do way more work on those teams than we could possibly get paid for, but the experience for us is so good that it’s a fun thing to do… We’ve seen so many friendships blossom, and relationships, so it’s pretty fun for us… I almost never miss them.”
Where the shopping experience is concerned, Mike points out that even young, urban condo dwellers who do most of their shopping online want to talk to a knowledgeable human now and then, to try on shoes and see new things they may not have known they were looking for, many of which Anderson brought in before they were available elsewhere.
“Whether they buy something or not, our goal is to make sure they’ve learned something…”
BlackToe’s commitment to giving value is evident to anyone who walks in the door. “Whether they buy something or not, our goal is to make sure they’ve learned something…” says Mike. “We figure they’re interested in the sport, they want to feel pumped about it, and they want to learn something, and share something. We want to make sure we’re doing all of those things with them. They should walk away feeling like they’e got some new piece of information, for example how to pick a shoe, or a race, or whats’s going on in the community.”
BlackToe was something of a roll of the dice for the Andersons, who were ready for a full-time passion project after a combined 45 years in the corporate sector (he in banking, she in engineering). They knew their new store had to give customers something different in an industry in which online sales were already the norm.
The lack of a “shoe wall”–the white wall of shoes you find almost everywhere else–is a humanizing element in the retail space. Other elements are the “bleachers” on the south wall (inspired by Mike’s high school years as a student-athlete) and the athletes’ footprints in cement on the shoe table.
Of course, the store has an online component, too, as any store must, and Anderson says it’s always been his goal to provide the most modern and easiest shopping experience that they can. He also chats with customers online to answer questions and offer advice about finding the right products.
The Andersons talked about various ideas to fulfil their entrepreneurial drive, but they always came back to running. Mike always ran for fitness, even while pursuing hockey as his main sport growing up, while Maya had been a track runner in high school. “It’s not the easiest business to make a living at–in fact we probably picked one of the more challenging businesses to start,” says Mike. “But the passion has to be there. If it’s not, you might as well stay in your office in the towers downtown.”
The passion, obviously, is for running–but also for the sense of belonging that running offers. “We our proud of the community we are contributing to here in Toronto and excited for what is happening in 2019.”