In a city so known for big dreams held by even bigger dreamers walking the streets in snip-toed cowboys boots, the launching of a company—and certainly of a dream all its own—soled in leather and rubber might have come as a surprise to many. But in a place like Nashville, Tennessee, where the impossible happens everyday, the fact that a company handcrafting luxury flip-flops and sandals could achieve nationwide success might very well be the makings of a toe-tapping country song.
Initially begun in 2012 as a shoeshine service catering to the needs of clients throughout the Nashville area, Southern Polished transitioned into a full-service shoe repair company after the purchase of an old shoe repair shop outside of Nashville in 2014. And while the father and son trio of Norm, Heath, and Trent Potter could easily have satisfied themselves mending the threadbare structures and worn-out soles of the many shoes that were brought in to them day in and day out, the three forward-thinking men saw the opportunity to set themselves apart and address a very serious issue that literally fell into their hands everyday.
“Our original intent was to open a chain of higher-end, quality shoe repair shops throughout the Southeast; but after opening our shop, we had customer after customer bringing us sandals that had begun falling apart and needed to be glued or stitched back together,” Trent recalls of the Aha! moment that truly spurred the company to realizing its potential. “It was right then that we knew we could make higher-quality sandals with a classic look that folks could actually keep for years, rather than just for a season or two. From there, we began designing and tinkering around with different materials and leathers to see which worked the best; and by the following spring, we sold our very first pairs of sandals.”
As with any first-run of designs, the sandals that Southern Polished created were well made, but still not quite perfect. A few tweaks here and there to the design, the construction, and the materials used, however, and the Potter men landed with their feet—and their sandals—well on solid ground for true success.
“The original flip-flops had leather soles and were definitely not as comfortable, and the ladies’ sandals we originally sold were more intricate and took forever to make,” Trent explains. “So we knew both products had to change, so that people would enjoy wearing them and for that enjoyment to last. We completely revamped them all to make them very comfortable while still maintaining the highest quality and also improved their designs to be more efficient to make.”
Efficiency, however, has never come at the sacrifice of the quality or the handcrafted touch that sets Southern Polished apart from its competition. “We’re one of the only American sandal companies that combines both the styling and craftsmanship of sandals you’d find in Italy or Greece,” says Trent, who speaks knowledgeably about the construction and design of European sandals from firsthand experience. A military family who spent a large portion of their lives dotting the globe as Norm’s duty stations took them from one country to the next during his career in the Air Force, the Potters were able to see and feel the quality of European footwear and appreciate the very details that made them so desirable. “Most sandals sold in the U.S. are made in factories overseas and completely glued together; but ours are glued, stitched, and tacked together by hand, which makes for a much higher quality sandal and allows them to be re-crafted later on as they age.”
In this time of national pride, being able to brand oneself as fully American-made it a true achievement and certainly one that brings value to the table. And as a retired military family, the Potters’ appreciation for patriotism has led them to maintain a U.S.-based operation in as many facets as they can, going so far as to source their materials as locally as possible to support the economy of the country—and the region—that they love so much.
If we can source the materials we use from the local and surrounding areas, we definitely try.
“The large majority of the leathers we use on all of our sandals come from tanneries in Tennessee and Kentucky, and the Vibram rubber that we use on our flip-flop bottoms is produced here in the U.S.,” says Trent. “Even the tags we use on our sandals are made by a small business in North Carolina. Our goal is to continue growing our family business by getting the word out about us and increasing our brand, and we would love to continue making our sandals here in the Nashville area. As more and more American- owned shoe brands take their production overseas, we want to keep our sandals made here,” he goes on. “There aren’t many sandal brands being made in America—let alone with the type of quality that rivals those found in places like Italy and Greece.”
And that type of quality has certainly been the secret of their success, even in the face of more recognized national brands. “Guys have become so used to other large brands out there that some are hesitant to make the switch to ours, but I can’t tell you just how many customers come back in for a second and third pair in other colors after they’ve purchased their first,” Trent says proudly “As soon as they’ve been broken-in and molded to their feet, they absolutely love them. We sell them on the fact that our flipflop straps are internally stitched to prevent them from ever pulling apart, and we’re one of the only brands to do that. They also have arch support and crepe that molds to the feet—and, like any great leather shoe, they just get better and better with every wear.”
And that wearability is one that comes from the level of craftsmanship and the quality of the materials, both of which enable the flip-flops and sandals to be re-soled and reheeled. Add to that the customizability of their women’s line, and Southern Polished has truly hit the mark in making the longevity of their brand a reality—and something that they can leave as a family legacy.
Still a family business in every sense of the word, Southern Polished relies solely on the heart, souls, and hands of Norm, Heath, and Trent. But like any family enterprise, the support of their wives is crucial; and so Norm’s wife Pam runs the office while the boys’ wives lend a hand as they can. With success, however, comes the need for expansion, and so Southern Polished has set its sights on a larger production facility and adding more hands to the operation over the course of the next few years.
“Watching our company grow has definitely kept us motivated, and when we have customers stopping by to tell us how much they love their sandals and see others coming in to buy more pairs of sandals, we know we have something,” says Trent. “It’s been an amazing feeling, being able to watch our idea grow into what it is now; and it really is incredible to have found something that we’re all so very passionate about,” he goes on.
From a simple shoeshine to a handcrafted work of art, Southern Polished has walked a path that has led to success far beyond what they might have imagined possible. And in this land where dreamers happily stomp the naysayers under their heels, these three sole-searchers found their own way to make their dreams come true—one pair of sandals at a time.
Written by Liesel Schmidt / Photography by Zack Knudsen