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Onion River Outdoors is back in business

One of the new owners shares with us what it took to bring back the cornerstone outdoor shop in Montpelier, Vermont.

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At the end of last year, the community of Montpelier, Vermont, was crushed when Onion River Sports turned off the lights after 44 years in business. But behind the walls, something was cooking. Former manager Kip Roberts and his wife, Jen, were in talks about owning a bike shop and are now leading the store’s recent revival.

“Our options were either moving west and finding a bike shop for sale or restarting Onion River because there was no way we were going to compete against the behemoth,” Kip Roberts said. “With support of family, friends, investors through an Indiegogo campaign, we have made the leap to open without all the pieces fully in place.”

It’s been a flurry of activity at the same spot on historic Langdon Street since the soft opening in time for the Muddy Onion Gravel Ride on April 28 and the Montpelier Bike Swap on May 5. Ahead of an official grand opening, we caught up with Kip Roberts about what it takes to resuscitate a store that will live up to the community’s expectation.

A bike fixing station inside Onion River Outdoors
A small team on mechanics are on hand to fix customers’ bikes, from a basic tune to a safety check.Kip Roberts

What was going on in your mind when Onion River Sports closed?

Kip Roberts: It was certainly tough for me, but I was quite hopeful. I think it was tougher on the community. Everyone was asking what’s next and there was such an outpouring of shock and love and hope that something would come out of this. I had been living in the behind-the-scenes reality for a while so I knew that there were some things coming to a head. The closure for me was that one door closing and another opening. It was risky and anxiety-ridden, but exciting at the same time.

What’s new both visually and behind the scenes?

KR: Right now, it looks like a bike store. From the basement, I pulled up old Tommasinis and vintage Panasonics to fill the shelves. We’re only occupying about half of the 3,600 square feet, but that’s going to change in a few weeks hopefully as we get more inventory. The community understanding, but expects a certain broad range of product selection that we’ve advertised in Indiegogo and we want to deliver on that promise.

What was once the marketing department—four people jammed into a little office—is now down to a piecemeal team of one contractor. Luckily, social media gives us a pretty big soapbox at a low cost. What’s different on a day to day basis is that marketing reach and trying to do all of that at once. The new staff is a cast of characters of mechanics of years past all putting together part time schedules to make service work. The time is now for us to be up and running.

What are some ways you’re reintegrating Onion River into the community?

KR: We’re engaging in trail and street infrastructure projects. I’m part of Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association and we have worked with a pro trail builder and city council to get a pump track approved by July. It’d be near the rec center, where we already see a ton of bikes out there. Then there’s a secondary project there to make machine-built trails more accessible so we actually have some rideable loops from town.

We last reported that a costly legal dispute over Onion Rivers’ websites’ ownership was part of what led to the demise. How will online sales play into the business?

KR: Online killed us, but it was due to lawsuits on the online side of Onion River Sports. It was our own internet, not external forces. As long as we’re focusing on being a community space from the start—what’s always been most important to the community—we’re going to combat the internet just fine. Online sales will be secondary and Amazon isn’t out of the question. But rather than receiving a little smiley box on your doorstep, I think what ORS will benefit from is that recognition if you don’t shop locally, the stores that make your downtown vibrant will go away.

Onion River Sports closing
Onion River Outdoors reopened in its original building on historic Langdon Street in downtown Montpelier, Vermont.Courtesy

Why will Onion River stay alive this time?

KR: Onion River Outdoors gets a reset button on inventory, on debts, on baggage. Onion River Sports had a very heavy payroll. Providing jobs is great, but right now, we have the opportunity to be more sustainable. We can scale down and that will allow us expense control and be careful about the categories we choose. We want to create that community hub again by continuing to foster relationships and customer retention. That’s what’s going to help us survive.

My wife and I, and all the crew who works here right now, are incredibly humbled by the support that we’ve gotten so far. So many people have said they just can’t imagine Montpelier without a downtown bike shop. It’s certainly our hope that we can fulfill that cornerstone retail space so that people can believe in this. And if we want vibrant downtowns and stores that give back, it takes a village to make that work.