"I’ve always enjoyed being around food. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, but I loved food and it’s always been something that’s always been around."
For Vans' soul of the franchise and Vice President of Events and Promotions, Steve Van Doren, capturing the hearts of both business partners, athletes, talent, colleagues, and most importantly, customers, has in part been through their stomachs. This value towards relationship-building was instilled very early on into Van Doren, who is the son of Vans' co-founder Paul Van Doren.
Such was evident upon my first interaction with Steve, a man who by virtue of his impact and contributions to the action sports and fashion lexicon alone is of mythical proportions. Yet here was this legend, standing in the middle of a new multi-million dollar headquarters built up in large part to his vision and savvy, humbly and happily serving throngs of employees his signature waffles. Yes, food is the vehicle with which Van Doren maneuvers and instills his ideals to people, recognizing that meaningful connections are created and maintained through this great equalizer.
"In the early days, like 20-22 years ago, I’m the scout, I’m looking for talent. But in snow they’ve got goggles on, they’ve got parkas on, head gear. I can’t be like, 'Who’s the guy in the green pants? He was really good'. So eventually I started off with the waffle machine and then I got the grill; started doing quesadillas and eventually hot dogs and hamburgers. That kept me warm and I made them come down and take off their stuff so I could see their face. So I got a chance to meet them and talk to them. It was a way to meet people in an easy and friendly way versus some guy that's like, 'I’m corporate so and so'."
That connection, through the unique common thread of food, has helped Van Doren to nurture a culture of being relatable and personable to one and all. Whether it be serving his famous waffles on a stick (in tribute to the Vans trademark waffle soles) at numerous Vans events or even to company staff at their headquarters or different locations abroad, Van Doren's translation of the waffle soles into edible brand representation has helped create an intimate, grassroots dynamic within one of the largest and most recognizable footwear brands in the world. Such an ethos has attracted many to the energy of the waffle sole, leading to an almost ubiquitous presence in not only the action sports world, but in popular, everyday fashion and lifestyle as well.
Such a selfless and personable approach is ironclad, as evidenced by Van Doren's response to my suggestion of selling the waffles on sticks to the masses.
"That's a no, 'cause to me that that's two steps down where it's not personal anymore."
Using food as a vehicle to reach people has even sparked the idea of a potential Vans-themed restaurant in the future with Van Doren.
"Someday — I guess, my wife thinks I’m crazy — someday I’m going to have some kind of a restaurant because it’s kind of like the Hard Rock [Cafe] when you travel around the world. I’d go there because I know I can get some nachos or a BLT. So in my mind, someday I gotta have this Van Doren place that you can go in and it’s going to be a fun place. We'll give you more than what you're expecting in quality and value. Same thing with our shoes. Our shoes were always high quality, lasted a long time, but it was a good value. It’s gonna be surfing, skateboarding, motorcraft, and then I would make the athletes part of the ownership."
That very uncompromising fortitude of Vans' product quality arose early on in the infancy of the brand, with the elder Van Doren creating the waffle sole mold. "We had shoes coming back with cracked soles," Steve divulged. "The first three months, it happened because of how the ball of the foot bends. So we didn't want that to happen, we had to make a little change and added a different pattern into the mold right at the forefront of the shoe to keep it from cracking." This dedication to value is something that would translate into the restaurant venture as well, something he promises, almost in decree.
Van Doren admits that the restaurant concept is a "light bulb, for now," yet the prospect of such is the continuation of a culture that has made Vans so beloved for such a long time.
"We try to keep it loose and lively, that it’s not a serious company. We’re action, sports, we’re music. We’re art and, you know, we’re who we wanna be and I try to keep us focused that way. It’s just caring about people, you gotta connect with them. And that’s my own thing I have to worry about in life."