ST. JOSEPH — For Brittney and Jonathan Meier, starting an outdoor specialty store answered a question they’d already been kicking around: Why not just follow your passion?
That’s how Brittney Meier saw the launch of Wanderlust Outfitters, which the couple opened on Labor Day 2016 at 120 S. State St. in downtown St. Joseph.
“Since we got married, we backpacked, we hiked, we camped, we did all those things. We had this idea: ‘If we could do anything, what would we do? This is what we would do,’” she said.
For Jonathan Meier, the answer came down to four words: “We love being outside.”
Wanderlust’s name comes from a noun that means “a strong desire to travel and explore the world.”
The store sells men’s and women’s outdoor apparel, backpacks and gear, with one idea in mind, as its Facebook page states: “We get outside. We explore our world. And, we exist for one very important purpose … to inspire and equip others to do the same.”
But the story hasn’t stopped there.
Three years of steady growth have also allowed the Meiers to strike up relationships with similar organizations, like Sarett Nature Center, and offer classes and events.
Brittney Meier sees these developments as an ideal blending of their personal and professional worlds.
“This is home for Jonathan. He’s from the Stevensville area. It’s really fun to take the things you’ve learned to do in your career, and apply them to something you’re super passionate about. Not many people get to do that.”
For Jonathan Meier, it’s all about the relationships that the couple have formed through their business.
“We’re blessed to work with the team of people that we have, and the customers we interact with – the stories they share with us on their adventures. They’re doing (Mount) Kilimanjaro, they’re doing these major hikes. They’re also doing these things locally, and we get to hear about it from everyone, which is great,” he said.
The Meiers met in an economics class at Anderson University, a Christian liberal arts institution in Anderson, Ind., just north of Indianapolis.
Jonathan was studying business management, while Brittney focused on marketing and communications.
“It’s not a super exciting place to meet, but that’s OK,” Brittney said, laughing.
Jonathan Meier continued his education with graduate studies at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., where he got his master’s in business administration.
The couple married in 2005 and then worked in the tire industry, with Jonathan involved in the operations management side, and Brittney on the marketing side.
The Meiers returned to St. Joseph in 2016, after a 16-year absence from the area. They now employ about 15 people.
They also have a 3-year-old son, so “outdoors looks like a little different today,” said Brittney said.
But the Meiers still try to get in some hiking and mountain time a couple times a year, in North Carolina and Tennessee.
“We’ve had to learn to enjoy the experience, not worry about the destination. Our little guy’s great – we still hike with him, but we spend lots of time hanging out in the streams. We don’t always get to the end of the trail. But that’s OK, though,” she said.
“It’s just changing the perspective,” Jonathan said.
Something for everybody
One thing became apparent when the couple opened their store, as Brittney Meier explained.
“We have an awesome outdoor community in Southwest Michigan that was pretty underserved – we’ve got Third Coast (Surf Shop), obviously, for surfers,” she said.
Forty-nine percent of Americans 6 and over have participated in at least one outdoor activity since 2017, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
Those activities include hiking, with 44.9 million people – and car, backyard, backpacking and recreational vehicle camping, at 41.9 million people, the association’s latest figures show.
Those figures often end up reflected in different ways at the counter, according to Brittney.
“Everything here is tied to the outdoors. That can look different than we traditionally think, like getting a raincoat for somebody to walk their dog on the pier. You don’t have to be planning a 12-day backpacking trip to come in here. We have stuff for everybody,” she said.
The Meiers are also ready to serve customers with more immediate needs, such as one whose air mattress stopped working a couple years ago, on their trip around the world.
Jonathan Meier remembers the moment well. “I think it was (in) the Ukraine,” he said.
Brittney Meier picks up the story from there.
“(The customer said), ‘Somebody’s coming to visit me on this date. Can you get the air mattress to them?’ We sent it to (the neighboring country of) Georgia, because this person was meeting up with them. It’s a little bit easier when it’s here in the States,” she said.
Expanding the experience
Not every customer’s request is so dramatic, but running the store does sometimes require unique problem-solving skills.
“We have people going on big backpacking trips across Europe, and they’ll literally take everything they think they want to take. They’ll bring it in, in a big, huge suitcase,” she said.
Jonathan Meier has trimmed down plenty of those large suitcases. “They’ll be (saying), like, ‘Help us,’ and we’re like, ‘You need these things. You don’t need these things,’” he said.
But those experiences keep the business fresh, in Brittney’s view.
“That’s been really fun. If you’d have asked when we opened, would we have people rolling in big suitcases full of stuff – it wouldn’t have been something I would have thought we were going to do,” she said.
That aspect also helps Wanderlust thrives as a small business, since its customers like to see what they’re buying, and how well it fits them – which an online experience doesn’t offer, Jonathan notes.
“There’s a certain level of customization and specialization that goes into fitting someone,” he said.
The Wanderlust experience has also allowed the Meiers to back charitable ventures, like those of Larry Ward, a longtime customer who’s backpacking the Appalachian Trial, “to raise money for his Relay For Life team,” Brittney said.
“We’ve gotten to support several people like that, and they call, text, or email us, and say, ‘Can you send another pair of shoes? Can you make sure they’re waiting for me in this town, on this date?’ That’s been super fun,” she added.
The couple looks forward to further expanding those experiences.
That’s why they do two work days a year with Sarett, for instance, or offer free classes on topics like the basics of long-distance hiking, which they’ll do on Sept. 14.
It’s the reason they’re also planning a Community Camp-Out for Saturday, Oct. 5, at Van Buren State Park, and give local outdoor enthusiasts a chance to connect.
Whatever project they’re pursuing, the Meiers will make sure that it carries a personal touch, Brittney promises.
“We want to see a lot more of that stuff grow. That helps us continue to connect people, and to get them outdoors, which is what we’re here to do,” she said.
For more information about Wanderlust Outfitters, visit online at www.wanderlustoutfitters.com.
For details on the Community Camp Out, visit https://wanderlustoutfitters.com/events/2019-community-camp-out.