Image - Business Based on a beast

Hodag store

In Rhinelander country, the hodag is serious business, and The Hodag Store at 538 Lincoln St., Rhinelander, is evidence of the that.

The store was even recognized as the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce’s Retail Business of the Year, a testament to the large following the hodag has.

The hodag, a mythical fearsome critter, is most often associated with the Hodag Country Music Festival held each summer in Rhinelander. Upon its “discovery” in the 1800s, it was described as having the head of a frog; grinning face of an elephant; thick, short legs set off by huge claws; the back of a dinosaur; and a long tail with spears at the end. The hodag also has green eyes, huge fangs and two horns sprouting from its temples. The creature permeates the Rhinelander area — from the music festival to the large fiberglass sculpture in front of the area’s chamber of commerce building and a slew of local businesses with the word hodag in their names. It’s a nod to their local mascot, which also is the mascot for the area’s school athletic teams.

One of those — and the only one that makes the hodag a focal point of its business — is The Hodag Store. There, owner Ben Brunell has made the hodag story and intrigue the focal point of gift items, promotional items and souvenirs that appeal to both local residents as well as the thousands of visitors traversing through the Northwoods during tourism season.

he Northwoods during tourism season. The storefront — a former Texaco gas station — first opened as an antiques store about eight years ago. Brunell saw an opportunity to sell antiques in the storefront conveniently located along the main strip in Rhinelander. Over the years, he received more and more requests from customers for hodag items as well at B&B Resale, be it a postcard, toy, keychain or magnet, and it dawned on Brunell that the area didn’t have a centralized location for purchasing items like that. He began by adding a few displays of mostly locally-made hodag-related items to the front of the store, cultivating items from throughout town, “and I couldn’t keep the stuff on the shelves,” he said.

That led him to take the next step a few months later, researching promotional items from online manufacturers so he could order customized items wholesale. He simultaneously painted the store hodag green and added outdoor signage that referred to part of the old gas station as The Hodag Store and he formally opened the storefront by that name in May 2018. The building is split in half; the front service room houses hodag items and the garage bays house antiques for the other business. Between the color and the location (situated right next to a stoplight), he’s been able to garner significant attention, particularly during tourism season.

Currently, Brunell estimates about 50 percent of items in the store are made by small businesses in town and include stickers, coasters, Christmas ornaments, shirts, coffee mugs and other glassware, oil paintings on canvas and saws, metal artwork, candles and more. He said that for the remaining 50 percent, he works hard to buy American whenever possible. He’s broadened the offerings to include license plate frames, toys, sunglasses and ‘a little bit of this and that,” he said. “Hodag poop is one of my top sellers because kids absolutely love it — it is a green egg with what looks like green Silly Putty in it,” he said.

While much of his traffic in the summer is driven by his visible location, he also advertises in various tourism materials, is a member of the Chamber and takes advantage of their promotional opportunities and even had a custom radio jingle created by a local artist that airs locally.

gle created by a local artist that airs locally. Facebook also has been a great promoter for him, as is Brunell’s van that he had custom painted by a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist in the telltale vivid hodag colors. One side features a history lesson on the hodag from 1893 to present; the other side has a picture of a the hodag’s favorite delicacy — a white bulldog.

The van is a big draw. He takes it to various community events including a local flea market, fair, family-oriented events such as Chalkfest and sets up a table full of the most popular hodag items. In some cases, he also brings some chainsaw-carved hodags and a horse saddle and cowboy hat so people can “ride” the hodag, presenting a popular photo opportunity. It’s a rare day that someone doesn’t stop by the storefront and photograph themselves in front of the hodag “totem pole” at the corner of the building; it features several hodags crawling from it.

“It might be a family or it might be a few vans transporting girls from a summer camp,” he said. “People just like taking pictures with the hodag. There’s a very strong fascination with the mythical part of the hodag, and it’s fun to offer something different.”

Summers are, not surprisingly, high time for store traffic. On a typical busy weekend, Brunell will welcome 300 to 500 people into the store every day. He posted a map in the store so people can pin where they’re visiting from, and since last year, it’s encompassed 49 states and more than 20 countries.

“When I started the business, I wanted to do more than create a business. I wanted to make it a destination,” he said. “When you go to the Hodag Country Musical Festival or visit the area for any other reason, The Hodag Store should be an automatic part of that.”

While Brunell’s grand opening was last May, he’s hoping that now that he has an online store, he can cross promote it with the summer visitors so they remember it during the holidays. He said that people’s passion for Hodag socks, stickers that say “I saw the Hodag” or “I brake for the Hodag,” shot glasses, keychains, wool hats that mirror Stormy Kromers and refrigerator magnets are always popular gifts. Then, there are always the locals.

“You either love the hodag or you don’t, and I’d say about 75 percent of people locally do,” he said.