"There's a tremendous amount of pride that goes into everything that we sell; our daypacks, gaiters, and our clothing. We guarantee our products for the life of the fabric, something that I wouldn't risk doing unless I firmly believed in their quality," states Chuck Henderson, founder, president, and chief driving force behind Chuck Roast Equipment of Conway.
The 10-year-old company has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a producer of custom gaiters and packs for local climbers, hikers, and skiers in the Mt. Washington Valley, growing from a virtually one-man operation to a full size company of 16 employees. Throughout that period of growth, the company has been able to continue providing the quality for which the Chuck Roast name is known.
The latest success story for Chuck Henderson and company has been its line of pile clothing. The Fiberpile fabric from which the warm jackets and vests are made is a blend of polyester and acrylic with a soft shearling curl inside and a durable knit on the outside. The fabric's construction allows it to maintain its loft and thermal efficiency even when wet, and it has an advantage over traditionally used wool since it is half the weight.
A further advantage of the fabric is that it allows perspiration to pass freely through both the material and its durable knit backing, enabling wearers of the jackets to avoid overheating and to stay comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and activities. Because no shell material is required with pile as with down or other synthetic insulations, the clothing maintains easy stretchability much like a sweater, a feature which makes it popular with mountaineers, sailors, and other active outdoorsmen. When weather conditions deteriorate, the jacket can be worn in conjunction with a lightweight shell to provide protection from winds, a degree of versatility lacking in other conventional all purpose garments.
Chuck explained that he first became interested in the idea of making a jacket out of the Fiberpile while watching a mountaineering slide show two years ago at Eastern Mountain Sports in North Conway. He noticed that members of the hiking party pictured in the slides wore jackets made out of blue fuzzy material which he later learned was Fiberpile. Soon thereafter, the innovative businessman and hiking enthusiast stayed up until 2:00 a.m. constructing a crude but functional pile jacket of his own, "I tested it out ice climbing the next day, and it kept me very warm," Chuck remembers. "It was light and had the stretchability of a sweater, but the interesting thing was that it had the equivalent warmth of a light parka."
Crude as that first pile coat was, it proved to Chuck that the material was functional and possessed the potential to be a fashionable piece of clothing, two qualities which are the mainstays of the Chuck Roast business philosophy. Chuck then proceeded to design the "Gomer" Fiberpile jacket, stressing form, function, and design and the response from outdoorsmen has been overwhelming. The Annapurna III climbing expedition in 1978 was outfitted with four variations of the "Gomer" Shearling jacket, and the reports of warmth and practicality Chuck received from them encouraged him even more. "Two of the climbers from that expedition wrote that they'd fallen into the Modhi Khola river while wearing the jackets, wrung them out, and within minutes were able to continue hiking comfortably since the jackets retain body heat but not water. They didn't reach their goal, but we reached ours," Chuck said.
Although the response have been strong, Chuck notes that the selling of the coats has not all been smooth sailing. "The jacket's biggest obstacle is the look and feel of the fabric. I think that some people have an aversion to anything made of acrylic and polyester, regardless of its value and beneficial qualities. Basically, we just have to tell people to try it and they'll like it," Chuck said.
The 29-year-old businessman added that 40 percent of the dollar volumes of sales for the coat last year was through catalogue sales to the general public, a trend that tells him they are popular. "Our advertising copy in the catalogues stresses the functional nature of the coats rather than the feel of the material. The idea for us now is to have salespeople in the shops try the jackets so they can sell them on the same strengths that we mention in our advertising," he explained.
A new variation of the "Gomer" jacket has been introduced into the Chuck Roast lineup this year which Chuck hopes will appeal more to those retailers who have expressed reservations about the original model. Entitled "The Mountain Heather Jacket," the new hooded item is made of softer, all polyester material which makes it slightly more windproof than its predecessor, and it is also designed to be more fashionable as well. The Mountain Heather's contoured hood protects the wearer from the cold without limiting peripheral vision, and its drawstrings can be pulled taut to the face since the thickly napped pile is soft and comfortable. The jacket is suited for cross-country skiing since it is less warm than the Shearling jackets, which are geared more for hiking and everyday warmth.
The two jackets are just the beginning of Chuck Roast's expansion from the gaiter and backpacking market into the sports apparel business. A third variation of the jacket will have a pile lining with a more traditional poplin fabric which should be attractive to skiers. the new line will also include anoraks for cross-country skiing as well as a cross-country suit combination with poplin inserts.
"The jackets, vests, and fabric combinations are the start of a new direction for Chuck Roast Equipment," commented Julie Messenger, clothing designer for the Conway business. "We're at the point of trying out different fabrications in sportswear other than the jackets now, and I think that where we go from here will depend on which items catch on." She added that the emphasis will continue to be on quality sporting equipment but with more attention given to sportswear and outerwear fashion.
Chuck was quick to note that the new line will feature items that are available from other companies but have not been offered by Chuck Roast Equipment in the past. "There's nothing terribly unique about these products except that they're ours. However, we feel that there is a market for quality sportswear that is both functional and fashionable, and our products fit that description," he said.
Chuck first became involved in the sports equipment business as a student at Kennett High School in 1969. He fashioned a pair of cross-country gaiters for himself initially, and then found himself making them for friends in the Mt. Washington Valley as well. As a student at the University of New Hampshire, he noticed that daypacks were becoming popular on campus and he soon began designing his own variations. His business grew as the demand for the daypacks and gaiters increased, and both items constitute the staple of Chuck Roast Equipment's business today.
"The small pack business has increased dramatically for us, particularly this year. Our daypack sales are now the largest part of our business, more so than gaiters," Chuck stated. Chuck Roast Equipment currently is becoming the major supplier of daypacks for both Eastern Mountain Sports and LL Bean Company of Freeport, Maine, and Chuck expects that business will continue to grow along with the interest in outdoor sports.
"People in the sporting goods industry with a marketing advantage can look forward to growth while those who don't have it will find it rough in the next few years. We are fortunate to offer a mid-priced daypack, which is in demand, as well as to be located in a region that is ideal as a test market for our products. It's a difficult market to get into, though, and I think that Chuck Roast Equipment will have to become more sophisticated with its marketing plans to continue growing," Chuck commented, explaining that he is currently taking marketing college courses for that purpose.
In the years since Chuck Henderson first began making gaiters, his company's reputation for producing top quality and functional goods at moderate prices has been passed by word of mouth and advertising to recreationalists throughout the world. With its entry into the sportswear field, consumers can be assured that the Chuck Roast label on any fabric guarantees that it will be a choice cut.