Monday, March 29, 2010

N.C.'s cleanest running store? It'd better be.

Think of two things that absolutely do not go together. A tweed jacket with swim trunks. Or green beans on an ice cream sandwich. Maybe a duet between Metallica and Hannah Montana.

Then imagine trying to get someone to buy into your unlikely mash-up.

This is the exactly the kind of zany leap Peter Asciutto took in 2004 when he opened a store in Albemarle that promised to be a one-stop shop for all of your -- ahem -- vacuum cleaner and running shoe needs. (Oh, if you need something shipped via UPS, he can help you out there, too.)

Vac & Dash defied common sense, logic, and just about every set of odds you can come up with. But the funny thing is? Asciutto's concept worked.

Today the 11-time marathoner and his store have a tremendous influence on runners in Stanly County, and maintain a small but growing following within the running community here in Charlotte, 38 miles to the west.

The 51-year-old Florida native attributes some of his wackiness to his childhood. He had four siblings and was the middle child; his mother is "a devout Catholic woman ... [who] was married seven times to five different guys. Yes, she doubled dipped Holy Matrimony to two different guys," says Asciutto, who himself has a wife, Renee, and a son, Gregory.)

He took up running as a freshman at Troy State University (now just Troy University) in Alabama, but had an off-again on-again relationship with the sport until a little over a decade ago.

"My weight got up to about 230 in 1998," recalls the 5-foot-7 Asciutto, who moved to Albemarle that year. "My blood pressure was 165/110. I decided to get back to running and make it part of my life. My weight still hangs in the 190 range. Still need to bring it down more."

Yet he's run sub-two-hour half-marathons several times, and has a marathon PR of 4:01 that's only a few years old -- making him an above-average runner for his age.

Like it or not, though, Asciutto will probably always be better-known for his sense of humor than his running prowess. He makes hilarious T-shirts (oops -- did we not mention that Vac & Dash also does screen printing?), and has a sense of fun that's infectious.

Exhibit A: This Thursday evening's sold-out April Fools' Day 5K Classic, which will send runners through backyards and a garage, and features aid stations with water balloons instead of cups of water. "Originally, we were going to cap the race at 100 people the first year. Ended up with 135," Asciutto says. "I thought it would be all [Albemarle] runners. We have 41 runners coming from 45 minutes or more to participate."

Over the weekend, Asciutto shed light on his odd business concept and his flair for the funny, but also talked about the things he's done to help turn his area into a hotbed for seriously good high school runners.


Q. What did you fall in love with first: Vacuums, or running?

I love running. The vacuum part was my livelihood for 15 years. I worked for the Eureka Company for 14 years as a Territory Manager, then as the Branch Manager for Charlotte. Selling to vac shops from Florida to Maryland gave me the background in the vacuum industry.

Q. When you first started "going public" with the idea for Vac & Dash, did your friends and family think you were a little bit crazy?

People had to digest it for a bit. Even today, folks that first hear about us have to think about it for a while. Some of my friends suggested that I pick one or the other, rather than do both. Initially, I had a hard time getting shoe companies to allow me to be a vendor. The idea of selling shoes next to vacuum cleaners was not something that fit their marketing schemes. I had to keep talking to people up the chain of command at the shoe manufactuers until I got a yes. Brooks, Mizuno and Saucony were the first three companies that let me sell their shoes. Since then, I've added Asics, Pearl Izumi and Somnio.

Q. Why do you think the concept has succeeded?

The strange combination has actually become a marketing boom. The first week we opened the store, a college kid from Memphis came in the store with a camera. He was in town on a mission trip with a local church. He said, "Vacuum cleaners and running shoes, that's the most unique specialty store I've ever seen. Can I get a picture in your window with me standing next to the mannequin in the running clothes pushing a vacuum cleaner?" That's how I got my slogan, "The South's Most Unique Specialty Store!" People tell me stories all the time how wearing a Vac & Dash T-shirt tends to strike up conversations with strangers.

Q. What is more responsible for keeping the business in the black: Vacuums, or running?

For the first three years, dollar sales were split even between vacuums, running and UPS Shipping. Then Kellie Pickler came along, and we sold a few thousand Kellie Pickler T-shirts during her "American Idol" ride. I'll always be thankful for her success, as she drove a lot of business to Vac & Dash. A friend of mine printed the shirts and we sold them. Each week, we had a new shirt out. Example: When Simon called Kellie a "Naughty Little Minx," on Tuesday night, we had black T-shirts with "Naughty Little Minx" in Hot Pink Ink on the shelves to sell, and an ad in the Stanly News & Press by Thursday. Businesses and schools started coming to us for their T-shirt needs. We soon were outselling what my friend could produce, so we bought our own screen printing equipment. Now the screen printing, UPS Shipping and running keeps us going. The vacuum part of the business hasn't grown much the last few years.

Q. You're known for making wacky running shirts. What are some of your personal-favorite designs?

People seem to like the Vac & Dash Racing Team with the "We eventually get there!" motto. I have some University of Albemarle Fighting Catfish shirts I like. When we first started screen printing, we came up with a line of Fighting Catfish shirts to practice screen printing. My favorite is the Fighting Catfish Badminton Division III Sub-Region Runner-up 1967.

Q. How would you describe your role in the running community?

Mainly as a communicator. I don't have the knowledge or time to put together a running program to teach someone to qualify for Boston. I probably should, since I own a running store. I try to send out information -- whether it's [through] the newspaper, by e-mail newsletter, posting on my Web site, Facebook, etc. -- on successes of others. Runners come in all shapes, speeds and sizes. I feel that sending that info out will [allow] others [to] see that they are not alone and start running.

Q. What are some of your proudest achievements as a running ambassador?

One of the most successful things has been helping the local cross-country programs. I don't know how to teach a kid to get faster, the coaches do that. I just dangle the carrot. The faster kids -- the ones who are named all-conference, all-county, or break [a certain time] in a race, etc. -- get their name in the paper, picture on my Web site, and bunches of free T-shirts. I put together a group of XC boosters that help fund a timing clock and finish line supplies that I donate to local races, plus the T-shirts to the kids. We also have an XC camp in the summer, [and] put videos on YouTube of major meets. It seems to help. When the store opened in 2004, two local kids ran at [the] state [meet]. The last few years, over 30 have run at state each year. In 2008, Daniel Yeakley of West Stanly was the 2A State champ, with his team finishing second and Gray Stone Boys placing second in 1A. In 2009, Gray Stone Boys were 1A state champs with the Girls fifth. Five of the 10 all-state runners in 1A Boys were from the Yadkin Valley Conference.

Q. OK, tell me about this April Fools' race.

Each year I send out an April Fools' Day Newsletter. It usually tricks a few folks. This year, I decided to try an April Fools' Day Race. My biggest challenge was convincing people that I was actually having a race.

Q. How much can you tell me about the course?

It is a race with surprises. We are going to run through two people's yards, have an inflatable obstacle course at the finish line, plus fun at the post-race awards.

Q. What's the race tee look like?

Long-sleeve white tee with orange and blue print on front, with the following quote from Mark Twain: "Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed." On the back, we made up wacky combo stores and logos, such as Barney's Animal Clinic and Taxidermy: "If we can't fix 'em, we'll stuff 'em."

10 comments:

beth said...

this is hilarious. I drive through albemarle on my way to visit my folks - I'll look forward to checking out vac and dash on my next trip.

Anonymous said...

Peter does a great job.....he has done so much for the local runners and running club. With Vac and Dash you want to support the local businesses, and spend your money with him. if you're ever in Albemarle go by and see Peter...he is always there...unless he is out supporting a race.

Thomas said...

I would never have put the two together (sort of like sprinkling old coffee grounds on ice cream) - but thanks Peter. Wearing my new Brooks, I was able to vacuum my whole house in 15:19 - a new PR!

See you on the start line Thursday.

Kassie Taylor said...

Peter is the mastermind behind the running craze in Stanly County. Did he mention that we have over 100 participants in the Running 101 class this spring? The running community in Stanly County is very lucky to have Peter as one of their leaders! I encourage anybody that is in our neck of the woods to stop by even if it is just to say hello and meet Peter and his great staff!

lynn said...

Peter is amazing I joined the running club because of him. I live almost an hour away but I love to support him because of everything he does for the running community. I wish he had moved to salisbury!! They are so lucky to have a person like peter in albemarle!cannot wait for the april fool's race!

Lee said...

Peter and I started running together - although we didn’t know it at the time -
we ran our first marathon together - Charlotte (the old course from Davidson to Queens College). Since then we have shared many miles together and he is truly a fantastic ambassador for running in Stanly County and BEYOND!!
He is the perfect example of finding a niche, filling it and doing it with excellence. He and his staff are the most helpful. Whether you are looking for your next race shoes, just getting started or want to stop in and chat - they are always ready with fantastic customer service -

You're 'family' when you stop in @ Vac & Dash.

Anonymous said...

cool

The world needs more eccentrics.

Cool Down said...

Been to Peter's store many times, Definitely, he helps put running first in the Albemarle area.

Anonymous said...

Got my current pair of Somnios there when they were the only ones in area carrying the brand. I will be heading back for my next pair even though they are well out of my way.

Jackline said...

I took the running 101 class in March 2009. Shortly after the class, I approached Peter about running with him and his group. The very first day I went out to run I was so nervous. I knew that I was not at the level as all of the other runners in the group. From that run and so many more,he has encourarged me just to do my best and he has never left me behind. His encouragement gave me the confidence to run more, which helped increase my distance and speed. He is an awesome running partner.