As an entrepreneur looking to sell leisure products to hockey fans and hockey players, Landon Johnson has a major advantage: He knows how fans and players think because he has been both of those things for most of his 30 years.
Growing up in a small town in central Massachusetts, Landon Johnson started playing hockey at the age of 4. He played through high school, stopped playing while in college, but picked up the game later. Now he plays in men’s leagues three nights a week.
As anyone who has played men’s hockey knows, beer is nearly as essential as sticks and skates. And the malt beverage can be essential to team bonding. The combination of beer and hockey led to Johnson’s current part-time business: a White Bear Lake-based company called SotaStick Co., which makes and sells a bottle opener made out of a wooden hockey stick, along with hockey-themed hats, shirts, man-cave artwork and branded hockey sticks. The company has recently branched out to feature a Minnesota baseball and football collection of products as well.
Johnson and a teammate, Jon Hauschild, got the idea for SotaStick openers while working on a case of Canadian-made Labatt’s Blue beer, which came with a promotional bottle opener mounted on a simulated hockey stick butt-end. “We said, ‘Let’s make them more authentic,’ ” Johnson recalls, “and we started making them for friends,” using their own worn-out sticks. They made a batch of the openers for a friend’s bachelor party in March 2015, which were well received as gifts. That led to making and selling a few more on the e-commerce website Etsy.com. Then they started placing the product in small shops in White Bear Lake and elsewhere in the metro area. “Goodthings in White Bear and the General Store in Minnetonka were the first ones that gave us a shot,” Johnson says.
Eventually, they moved the production operation from a garage to a small wood shop at the White Bear Lake home of Tom and Barb Hinrichs, the parents of Johnson’s wife, Sarah. Regarding competitors, Johnson says one other firm makes similar bottle openers from carbon fiber sticks; SotaStick openers are the only ones made from wooden sticks.
A psychology major in college, Johnson says he has had a longstanding interest in branding; his day job is working remotely for a Los Angeles-based market research firm. One of the keys to their business model is staying away from official team logos, uniforms and other copyrighted items; they use original images crafted by local graphic artists. One of their nostalgia items triggers memories for middle-aged Minnesota North Star fans.
As of mid-June, the company had already surpassed its total 2016 sales, so the future is bright, says Johnson, who has been in talks with Summit Brewing of St. Paul to produce SotaSticks with the Summit logo.
The brand has gotten a boost from former North Star Mike Modano and the Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise. Modano spotted some SotaStick apparel on Twitter and asked them to send him some stuff. When Modano was in town for a North Star alumni game, Johnson and his wife met him by chance at a downtown Minneapolis eatery. Then Parise saw some of the apparel worn by a sales representative for a hockey equipment firm and asked to get some for his own use. “When [Parise] was on 93X radio last season, he gave us a shout-out,” Johnson says. Former Minnesota Twin Kent Hrbek also has been spotted wearing some of SotaStick’s baseball products.
“We’re still fairly small,” says Johnson. "But we want to be the go-to outlet for original, Minnesota sports and nostalgia stuff, for the beer-drinking, sports-fan demographic.”