Moccasin-style footwear collections spark leap of success and faith
By Lynn Ascrizzi
It’s easy to recall a business that has the charmingly quirky name, Broncy Donkey Leather Company. It trips off the tongue and delights the ears, and we might even find ourselves repeating it a number of times, just for fun.
But the company co-founded in 2019, by two Texas women, has earnestly grown into a significant success in the biggest, most purposeful sense of the word. Meet Misti Calhoun of Queen City and Caroline Blackard of Mount Pleasant. Their sole product is uniquely designed, moccasin-style leather footwear.
As for the business name, Misti had dreamed it up long before the footwear company was launched. “I always thought that I’d like to have a boutique or other business and call it Broncy Donkey,” she said. “I’m not sure how it originated,” Caroline added, “because I’ve never heard Misti fully explain it.”
The main thing is, business is booming. “We’re fairly new. Our products are going great. At this point, we actively do nothing,” Misti said with a bit of humor, meaning that they’re not trying to build up the business until they catch up with their success.
For her, the now-thriving enterprise was born in the midst of adversity. “In 2018, I was really struggling. I needed some extra income to help raise my young son and daughter. At that time, my job was at a pawn shop in gun sales, in Queen City. But, I knew how to buckstitch,” she said of the leathercraft technique that can be used, for example, to make decorative lacing for cowboy-style leggings. “And, I knew how to hand sew.”
An amazing turning point came when her daughter, who was 8 at the time, asked her mom to make her a pair of moccasins. “So, I started by trying to make a pattern for my foot and then I tried to size it down to my daughter’s foot. Finally, I made a pair. They weren’t very good, but she wore them proudly. I had a lot to learn about patternmaking.”
Nonetheless, the gift to her daughter sparked Misti’s creative imagination. She found herself designing and making moccasins. “I sold my first pair in May 2019. I had made only a few. But by the end of June, they gained a lot of popularity on social media. Looking back, I can see that my first attempts were pretty plain, and honestly, not very good quality.”
Before the month was out, however, about 40 people were on her list of those who wanted handmade moccasins. The growing demand was exciting and motivating, to say the least, but she found it nearly impossible to keep up with her day job.
“I’d work on the footwear at home until 2 a.m. I always had a pair of unfinished moccasins on the kitchen table, while cooking supper, and I’d work on them when I could. My kids used to get embarrassed whenever we’d go to rodeos, because I would bring a fish and tackle box with my sewing supplies in it and work on making the shoes. Between events, I’d be sewing. People would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, I make moccasins.’ I was trying to learn.”
By this time, she was looking for part-time work. Her goal was to leave the full-time job, so she could create more footwear. At this stressful juncture, her acquaintance-friend, Caroline, came into the picture. “She really liked what I was making and asked me, ‘Why don’t you quit and do the moccasins?’ I told her that I couldn’t just quit my job to work on them, for financial reasons.”
Caroline, who has a master’s degree in business with a concentration in human resources, was working full-time in a community outreach program at a local college. And, she had helped run a family business and hired women who had no support system. That experience made her realize, she said, that a lack of child care is why a lot of single women find it difficult to hold down a job.
She asked Misti, “If you had a business partner, would you feel more comfortable?”
She agreed and Caroline generously offered to help. With that support, Misti was able to quit her day job. In 2019, the two formed a 50-50 business partnership.
Growth was rapid. By February 2020, their footwear business was surging. Success was so palpable that Caroline quit her full-time job. “We had grown so much in that short amount of time,” Misti reflected. And, like a number of small independent businesses, Broncy Donkey thrived during COVID.
Currently, the company sells about 180 pairs of moccasins per month. The specialty footwear sells from $99 to $300 per pair, depending upon their decorative style and the time it takes to make them. “Business is excellent,” Misti said.
LEAP OF FAITH
Today, Broncy Donkey Leather has two business sites. “For one, we work out of a tiny shop — about 400 square feet — at my home in Queen City,” Misti recounted. “We do all the prep work there. We cut the patterns and all the designs are figured out. All machine sewing is done here at my shop. Sometimes, Caroline comes up with a new idea and sometimes, I do. And we’ll make the patterns. We don’t want everything to look the same.”
Their second business site is located about an hour’s drive from Queen City, at Hope Ministries in Mount Pleasant, Texas. The community-based, non-profit was founded in 2012, by Judy and Steve Capps. Its goal is to help single mothers and senior women break the cycle of poverty.
“It’s a faith-based program,” Misti explained. “Participants get life coaching, which can include banking know-how, receiving an academic education or learning how to apply for a job.” “We’ve seen women get custody of their kids, who haven’t had custody in years,” Caroline added.
The Hope Ministries action plan, however, is no stroll down easy street. “The program is hard,” Misti pointed out. “Women who apply are serious about standing on their own two feet and getting their lives together. It has very strict rules. They are not babied, but gently pushed. Nothing is handed to them. They have to be responsible for themselves and their kids. All are expected to find jobs.”
That’s where Broncy Donkey Leather comes in, she noted. “We provide a lot of jobs for those Hope women who want to work with us. If it works out, they can bring their kid or kids to work. Or, they can work from home. We’re very flexible about the work schedule.”
By this past spring, the company had nine employees. Five participate in the Hope program and were hired by Broncy Donkey. The company also hired four other women from the local area. Since Caroline’s family home is in Mount Pleasant, she works primarily with the women taking part in the ministry’s program.
“They’ve proven themselves, that they can be good moms. A lot of women in the program never held a job before. We have to teach them the rules of being a good employee. Our business is designed so we can extend a lot of grace and patience,” Caroline said.
Leatherwork flows between the two business sites. During the prep work done in Queen City, leather for moccasin making is cut in three pieces — a sole, a heel and a vamp. These are sent to Mount Pleasant for sewing. All the mothers involved in the Hope program live in that area, in an apartment house or duplex provided by the ministry at low cost. The women come to work at a nearby facility called The Landing.
“A lot of coaching happens in that building,” Misti said. “Leatherwork is assigned on an individual basis. Six women out of our nine employees sew moccasins. Each one sews at least 10 pairs of shoes a week.”
Their employee starting rate is $10 per hour. (The minimum hourly wage in Texas, which has remained unchanged since 2009, is $7.25.) Once the moccasins are completed, they are displayed at the Broncy Donkey website and sold.
“The opportunity for extra work is almost always available,” Caroline said. “If need be, some women will take their work home, so they can take care of their kids. If they take the pieces home to work on, we pay them for the completed shoe.
For some women, this work is the first job they have held.”
Footwear sales are phenomenal. “Typically, we sell out,” she continued. “Every Sunday, at 1 p.m., we do a ‘website drop’ and add new inventory. Usually by the end of the day, we’re almost sold out. But if not, we will be by the end of the week. We had been adding about 30 pairs of moccasins a week. They consistently sold out so quickly, people started to complain that they never had a chance to buy. Now, we’re adding between 40 and 50 pairs every week.”
FROM CUSTOM STYLES TO COLLECTIONS
When they first started the business, they designed more time-consuming, custom-type styles. Now, they create weekly moccasin collections, Caroline said. “For instance, yesterday we offered the ‘Black and White’ collection. We create whatever we want to.”
All Broncy Donkey moccasins are sewn by hand. A sewing machine, however, is used to attach the footwear’s 1/8” rubber soles onto every shoe. “First, the soles are glued to the leather. Then, the sewing machine helps to reinforce them,” she explained.
“We use mostly 3-to-4-ounce suede in lots of different colors,” she added. “The other leather we use is deer-tanned cowhide. It’s tanned to be really soft, like deerskin would be. For this kind of footwear, you need a leather that is a little heavier than deerskin. But with cowhide, you get the weight you need and a nice, soft finish.”
Currently, Misti, Caroline and three of the women employees make up the design team. “We like to balance the easy designs with the more complex. This business model helps us plan ahead, to make sure that Hope moms have the work they need,” Caroline explained.
Misti estimated that Hope Ministry has about 20 to 30 women in their program. Generally, participants have a two-year commitment. “Older women live at the facility as well. They might have health issues, or subsist on a fixed income or are not able to find a decent place to live. Hope is a safe place to live, and the older women get to help younger women who might have been victimized by domestic abuse. The younger women look up to them as a grandmotherly person in their lives,” she said.
Misti, 35, is married and has two children, a boy and a girl, ages 11 and 13. “I had been a single mother and I know what it is like to struggle and care for your kids. I want moms to work for us, so they can make money, help their kiddos and still be a mom, which is the most important job,” she said.
Caroline, 42, is married and has five children, four boys and a daughter, ages 14 to 21. Among other things, she handles a number of social media tasks and day-to-day work, like shipping and updating the website.
Both women have the expertise to work on footwear. “But sewing is not part of my daily job. The women we’ve employed know how to make them, from beginning to end. We come up with new ideas,” Caroline said. “It’s an ever-changing, constant fluctuation,” Misti added.
They work full-time and are paid weekly by Broncy Donkey. “We have not opted to try a store front,” Caroline noted. “There is no phone number posted on our website. We communicate with email and messenger on social media. We usually get from five to ten messages per day, depending upon what we post. Every day, we post on Instagram and Facebook. Social media is almost a full-time job in itself.”
Eventually, she feels they’ll have to hire a social media person and a shipping manager. “Right now, it’s still doable with the two of us and our employees. We want to keep growing without adding too much expense. We work hard to keep our overhead low. We have 11 pay checks every week.”
Their success both thrills and mystifies them. “Judy Capps, founder of Hope Ministry, tells us all the time — when you pay attention to the widow and the orphan, then you have God’s attention. We feel our little business is blessed because there is a purpose behind it,” Caroline said.
KEEP IN TOUCH
Broncy Donkey Leather Co.
Misti Calhoun & Caroline Blackard, co-owners
271 County Road 3780
Queen City, Texas 75572
Messages can also be sent through Instagram & Facebook.