On Thursday night, alt-country star Ryan Bingham finished a cover of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” then took a swig of his drink. “Hell of a koozie,” he said, referring to the stainless steel vessel holding the beverage. Bingham was performing onstage in one of Austin’s newest and perhaps most unlikely venue — a retail store for coolers.
But perhaps you aren’t surprised, because you know the brand YETI, and are one of its 674,000 Instagram followers. If you’ve only encountered the word on the sticker on your neighbor’s Tacoma, here’s the deal: YETI, the Austin-based manufacturer of high-end, hardcore coolers for real outdoorsmen (and folks who see themselves as real outdoorsmen) is one of the quickest growing and most visible brands in the outdoors industry. From 2014 to 2015, YETI’s profits grew over 400 percent. It’s now slated for a 2017 IPO that some estimate at $5 billion.
The Austin store is YETI’s first — until now, their goods were sold only online and through retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI. Built in a 1930s-era warehouse steps from the Congress Avenue Bridge, the 6,000-square-foot flagship will serve as a kind of Graceland for the cooler cognoscenti — and an introduction to the brand for those just lured in by the outdoor bar. Visitors can purchase everything from a wall mount bottle opener ($20) to the Tundra 350 ($1,300), a 90-pound, 82.3-gallon cooler made to hold deep-sea catches, up to three elk, or 222 cans of beer. There’s also an array of smaller Tundra coolers along a wall, including the 14-can Roadie ($250). One can get a feel for scale by placing a cooler in the bed of an old Ford Ranger pickup, and once they’ve settled on a size, can visit a customization station to pick out different colors of rope, latches, and gaskets. Customers can also pick up the same double-wall, vacuum-insulated Colster ($30) Bingham drank from during his performance.
Placards, videos, and mementos throughout tell the YETI story: The company was founded by Roy and Ryan Seiders, Texas brothers and businessmen who couldn’t find a cooler on the market durable enough to meet their fishing needs — or the needs of professional outdoorsmen they knew. So they developed a manufacturing process that uses rotational molding — similar to how sea kayaks are built. The result, though more expensive than your old-school Coleman, is more structurally sound — you can stand on it while casting — and can stay cold for longer than a week, depending on the model. (One thing you won’t see in the YETI flagship, of course: the growing number of competitive coolers fighting for the same market segment YETI created in 2006 — many at a cheaper price.)
Two artifacts on the flagship’s floor push a point about YETI’s design ingenuity: One is James Beard–winning BBQ wizard Aaron Franklin’s original grill — a cooker Franklin built at home when he couldn’t get the convection he wanted from commercial smokers. The second is a boat made by Florida fishing guide Flip Pallot, purpose-built to glide over the shallow waters of Hell’s Bay in the Everglades, where the tarpon fishing is great but most boats strike ground.
During the VIP opening, YETI insiders — many of them fishing and hunting guides — milled around the coolers and artifacts in a hat mix that was equal parts trucker and cowboy. The YETI flagship opens to the public on February 23rd, and its stage will host performances during SXSW next month.