By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent
A successful tech marketing entrepreneur and a free-spirited village greeter have made a match aiming to put conversation-starting shoes on feet. Then the new enterprise goes an extra mile.
Businessman, surfer and sailor Jay Williams decided about four months ago to create “something personal and custom” to celebrate his daughter Mara’s graduation as valedictorian from Laguna Beach High School. He landed on the idea of canvas sneakers printed with whimsical designs, including an “LBHS Class of 2023” design in three styles.
Williams’s online startup company, Alma Laguna, was born. He points out that alma means “soul” in Spanish, and he wants to inspire souls by selling soles — of the footwear variety. Alma Laguna offers high-tops and slip-ons reminiscent of well-known international brands but “much more comfortable,” according to feedback from at least one customer. The hottest seller is the Laguna Greeter high-top, a bright yellow pair featuring current Laguna greeter Michael Minutoli and his predecessor Eiler Larsen in greeter mode. Larsen, the third in a line of the town’s self-appointed village ambassadors, began startling passersby on Coast Highway with a loud “Helloooo!” beginning in 1942 and did so for decades. He died in 1975. The sidewalk in front of a statue of Larsen at Brooks Street is Minutoli’s favored spot for his energetic antics.
Since 2011, Minutoli has customized his greeting gig by dancing, voguing, twirling, waving, and shouting warmhearted greetings to motorists and pedestrians on Coast Highway. He typically grooves to a dance soundtrack while wearing a fanciful faux-military jacket and captain’s hat with white gloves –– the better to wave and be waved at.
Williams first met Minutoli 17 years ago and recalls his colorful red carpet party-crashing stories. “He would sit on the deck at Diedrich’s Coffee and tell wild stories about his escapades,” Williams says. Without panhandling, the use of substances, or a fixed address, Minutoli lives life on his own terms. He’s been profiled in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and OC Weekly and has appeared on The Today Show and in two documentaries.
His motive for this unusual line of work?
“If I can make people happy when they’re heading to work, give them just a little spark of happiness, then that makes my day. It’s fun to see their reactions. I will do this until the day I die or for as long as I can wave,” he said. Turning to the busy Coast Highway, he waves and shouts at the passing traffic, “Have yourself a beautiful day, Laguna Beach!”
A few months ago, Williams approached his friend with a win-win marketing idea: an Alma Laguna discount card for the greeter to hand out. For each sale of any pair of shoes bearing the greeter code, Minutoli receives a commission.
“Every time his greeter discount code is used, regardless of the shoe purchased, I pay him $10,” said Williams, adding with a laugh, “Michael actually ends up making a little bit more than I do on each unit when customers use the code.”
Knowing that Minutoli’s chosen field held no prospect of steady income, Williams wanted to create a revenue stream for his flamboyantly attired friend. When he proposed the arrangement, the greeter was overwhelmed.
“This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me in years,” he said.
“Alma Laguna as a business is really just getting going,” Williams said. “I have zero experience in the shoe or apparel business, but I love the process of design and the creative escape it provides. I’ve been relatively successful in other business areas, so I wanted to do this for fun and to help Michael. The hardest part of working with him is tracking him down so I can pay him. He doesn’t have a phone.”
Exclusive of the discount, Alma Laguna customers pay $50 to $65 per pair, including shipping.
“I can usually have an order to the customer’s door within 10-12 days after an order is placed,” he said. “I’d like to get to a point where manufacturing is onshore and on-demand so I can stock minimal inventory. One problem is that I keep giving them away to friends who admire them when they see me wearing them.”
A few retailers in Laguna and Newport Beach have expressed interest in carrying Williams’s kicks on their shelves. The Alma Laguna line is open to partnerships with nonprofits through its Karma Kollection, whose proceeds go directly to charity organizations. An example is the Pescadero Bomberos high-top, directly benefiting the volunteer firefighter and ambulance service that protects the community of El Pescadero in Baja Sur, Mexico.
And that discount code for Alma Laguna sneakers? Check out the designs at almalaguna.com. For a 15% discount, it’s “sawdusty.” Most days, Sawdust Festival painter Joan Gladstone sports her yellow Laguna Greeter high-tops at her booth. If you want the 25% code, go see Michael the greeter in person.