For someone who grew up in the dry cleaning business, a suit shop on wheels wasn’t too far of a stretch for Donald Carlson.
The business he founded, Tweeds Suit Shop, is now going on three years in business — aside from a 10-month shift in strategy thanks to COVID-19. The custom, mobile suit shop covers Sarasota, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Naples, and Carlson has clients in Miami and Orlando, too. He's even on the verge of a major addition: opening a brick-and-mortar store.
It's a long way from his humble start, when he had about $500 in his bank account.
“I literally used everything I had,” Carlson says, noting he wanted to be “all in” on the business. The added pressure led him to success. He bought the 16-foot box truck for about $30,000, which included the interior design cost, and started measuring clients for suits.
The business has since expanded into four mobile box trucks — that’s right, they come to you — each one custom-outfitted and wrapped with advertising, a nod to the marketing strategy. The trucks will travel to the client, whether office or home.
The suit shop’s one-on-one process provides an environment where the client can be involved in each selection step, including the fabric, buttons, lining, thread color and custom embroidery. Clients can find suits, dress pants, jackets and custom jeans at Tweeds. Carlson is even in the process of creating custom shoes.
To keep up with rising material and shipping costs, as the shop sources many materials internationally, the business has had to increase prices a bit. Prices currently range from $1,499 for a custom tuxedo down to $250 for a custom shirt.
Carlson works hard to get prospective client's attention. That's one of several key lessons he's learned while operating his own company. “If someone doesn’t know you’re in business,” he says, “then they can’t do business with you.”
Carlson spends money on advertising and promotes the business on social media. The vehicle, advertising on wheels, adds another component, and he just started doing TV commercials.
While the measures of how each method is working aren’t tracked in any official capacity, Carlson finds out through connecting with his clients.
“Every person who comes in, we ask them,” he says, “so we know what’s working.” Carlson says the various marketing streams work together to bring clients to the truck. He's had clients come in after seeing the truck, through word-of-mouth, social media and press/media placements.
The company is expanding quite a bit, with a few new trucks and the upcoming storefront. When he first started, Carlson remembers not having any interest in ever having a flagship location. But now, he says, “We needed a place to set our roots.”
The brick-and-mortar store is currently being renovated at 1423 First Street in downtown Sarasota, in a prime spot near City Hall and the Ellis Building.
The growth is all thanks to an influx of clients, though Carlson declined to elaborate on the number of customers nor did he disclose revenue. He did hint that Tweeds will be around for a while, with hopes for more trucks and storefronts with the Tweeds name attached to them. "We still have a long way to go,” he says.
During the pandemic, the most important thing Carlson says he did, at first, was show up. “Everybody was freaked out,” he says, and few people were interested in buying tailor made clothes.
Then Carlson shifted to selling face masks, when demand was high and supply was quickly depleting. Utilizing Facebook and other social advertising, he was able to get the word out that he had masks available.
Even though he turned a profit off the masks, which weren't custom-made contrary to his current business, Carlson stresses that wasn't the goal. "It wasn't necessarily about making them custom at the time," a company spokesperson wrote in an email exchange with the Business Observer. "It was an immediate need and masks were nowhere to be found."
Tweeds was put to the side. But once the face mask business settled down, it had given him the confidence to bring it back.
On the other side of the pandemic, the business model has roughly stayed the same — an easy, convenient way to sell men’s suits. Currently, he has one employee and will be bringing in another one soon.
Clothes is a family affair for Carlson, as his family has always either owned or worked in a dry cleaning business,. But he eventually got burnt out there. That prompted him to turn his focus to custom clothing. Then, after a 10-day road trip with his significant other in June 2019, Carlson had a revelation.
“I saw somebody doing something similar that immediately sparked my interest,” he says. “I just knew this is what we have to do.”
He sold his personal truck in July 2019 and had his first client by September, who remains a client today. That first day he was parked near the Kahwa Coffee and Whole Foods on Second Street in downtown Sarasota. The client ducked inside the truck for a custom sports jacket.
Since then, Carlson says he’s sure there’ve been mistakes along the way, including not growing quick enough or spending enough on ads when the opportunities have presented themselves. There’s times he’s wondered if he should’ve opened up the storefront sooner. But now he’s confident. “I felt like now is the right time,” he says.