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Door County Ace Hardware wins ‘cool’ award

The Door County store one of two Ace Hardware stores picked nationwide for distinction

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March 20, 2024

DOOR COUNTY — Door County Ace Hardware is one cool place to be.

Because of that distinction, the hardware store, located at 1225 Egg Harbor Road in Sturgeon Bay, was recently named the “Coolest Hardware Store East of the Mississippi” by Ace Hardware Corporation.

Out of more than 5,000 Ace Hardware stores in the country, only two stores are chosen each year for the recognition — one east of the Mississippi and the other west.

Evans Ace Hardware in Hamilton, Montana, was selected as the winner west of the Mississippi.

“It’s a prestigious award in the hardware industry and not many stores receive it — we were one of the lucky ones this year,” Door County Ace Hardware Owner Amy Austad LaBott said. “I’m excited about it — it’s a big deal in the hardware industry.”

LaBott said Door County Ace had to be nominated for the award.

“It’s not something you apply for,” she said. “After being nominated, there is a team of people who look at the things — based on several factors — and decide the winners. The Ace corporate arena decides.”

Why so ‘cool?’
Door County Ace has been family-owned since 1939, LaBott said — which makes it “that much cooler to begin with.”

“Because we’ve been around so long, that makes us cool, right?” she laughed. “I think there are a lot of things that make us cool — we’ve been around for a long time, we recently moved to a new location in Sturgeon Bay — the pulse of the town — and we try to help our customers with their projects and needs and focus on them. I think people in the community like us — I give kudos to my staff – they do an excellent job. They’re willing to help anyone, and the community knows that.”

LaBott said she thinks the staff at Door County Ace “does a good job in the day-to-day operations of the store,” as well.

Door County Ace Hardware Manager Jason Bartel said the store “wants to be known as the grilling hub of the community.” Submitted Photo

“We’re also involved in the community,” she said. “We support a wide range of things, but the biggest thing that makes us cool is the people who work here — their desire, want and need to help people.”

LaBott said the Sturgeon Bay store has 60 employees.

She said Door County Ace is “always looking for new things to add to the store and willing to try new things” — another thing that makes it “cool.”

“If it works, great, if not, we can move on,” LaBott said. “Retail is ever-evolving, and you have to evolve. Times change — if you’re not changing with those happenings, you’re not growing. You have to be at the forefront of what’s happening in your community and environment.”

LaBott said at a basic level, “it’s retail common sense.”

“Taking care of the customer and making sure you have the correct products for their needs,” she said. “Also, make sure your employees enjoy their jobs. Door County is the Cape Cod of the Midwest — we’re a huge tourism area, so we try to incorporate some Door County things into the store as well.”

Kudos to LaBott
When they moved into the current store location on Egg Harbor Road with a grand opening Sept. 1, 2022 — LaBott said that more than doubled the store’s square footage to 30,000 square feet.

“We have a huge dÈcor area, we’re big into power (equipment) and grilling,” she said. “We like to say, ‘if you can’t get it from Door County Ace Hardware, you don’t need it.'”

District Manager Michael Blattner said LaBott “is tenacious about things.”

“When she wants to do something, it’s either go all in or go home,” he said. “Amy gives a purpose for the employees to come to work.”

Store Manager Jason Bartel said LaBott is “one of the most giving people I’ve ever met.”

“You have to have passion, and Amy certainly has that,” he said. “Most of us here bleed (Ace) red. Our customers see it, so that makes us want to do more. Our customers will come here compared to a big box store because of that passion and customer service we provide.”

A look back
LaBott said her grandfather, Russell Austad, started as the manager of the hardware store in 1939 and eventually purchased the business from the then-owner — starting a family legacy still felt today.

“Unfortunately, my grandfather died young,” she said. “The business went to my grandmother, who wasn’t too involved in the business at the time — she had three boys to take care of. At the time, my father, Dan, who was the middle child, was in college. He went to college during the week and then came home on the weekends to help run the business. He ended up back here full-time. My uncle Tom (my dad’s brother) was also involved in the business.”

Like many family-run businesses, LaBott said “I was strongly encouraged to work at the store during my younger years.”

“I don’t want to say it was required, but it was expected,” she laughed. “I was involved with things and grew up in the business — it was in our blood. I have three other siblings, so somehow, I was the lucky one who wanted to come back and run things.”

In 1939, LaBott said her grandfather, Russell Austad, started as the manager of the hardware store and eventually purchased the business from the then-owner. Submitted Photo

The journey to ownership, LaBott said, wasn’t without some hesitation.

“(The day I was asked to take over the business) is still vivid in my mind,” she said. “Taking over the business was quite a ways back in my head. I was working for another company and my dad called me — I wasn’t even living in the Sturgeon Bay area.”

Her dad, LaBott said, wanted to step back from the business.

“He said, ‘I want to retire, and I want you to come back and run the store,'” she said. “I wasn’t even in retail — it was his time to be done, and he was looking for an avenue to step away.”

Though the opportunity was there, LaBott said, “I did hesitate — at least initially.”

“I think you have to (hesitate),” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility and was a big life change for me. I didn’t have plans to come back to the area — it was a big decision. I had a job and was established. I had to think about it to see if it was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. Being from Sturgeon Bay, I know it’s a great place for family and children. I was raised here, so that made the decision easier.”

Processing everything thrown her way, LaBott said when her dad retired in 2006, she leaped into entrepreneurship — full force.

“When he retired, I took over his portion of the store with his ownership,” she said. “My uncle and I ran the store together until he passed away in 2010. When that happened, that’s when the entire business came to me.”

Now, LaBott is also the owner of two other Ace Hardware stores — one in Little Chute and the other in Sister Bay.

“We’re going on three years with the Little Chute store,” she said. “I officially purchased the Sister Bay store effective Jan. 1 and renamed it Ace Hardware Sister Bay.”

LaBott said Ace Hardware is a “good cooperative to work for.”

“It is a retailer-owned cooperative, with retailers not only owning their stores but shareholders in the organization that’s managed by a board,” she said. “That means the location and employees define the store and experience rather than a cookie-cutter template. That’s where Ace is great. They give us a lot of leniency — their focus is to make us successful.”

If LaBott has anything to say about it, Door County Ace will be “a cool place to visit” for years to come.

Door County Ace is open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

To learn more about Door County Ace, visit the store’s Facebook page.

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