July 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit Surf Co. makes its own wave far from sea

T-shirt business grows into popular line of apparel, surfboards

It started almost as a joke.

Dave Tuzinowski, an avid surfer and Detroit native who winters in Hawaii, wanted to combine his passion for his hometown with his favorite sport, so in 2005 he made a shirt bearing the phrase “Detroit Surf Co.”

The idea was farfetched; you’d be hard pressed to catch a wave on the Detroit River, even on the most blustery day.

But Tuzinowski’s way of identifying himself clicked with friends and strangers who wanted a shirt for themselves. He sold them for $20 out of a backpack, then later trademarked the brand and formed the Detroit Surf Co., selling hats, shirts, stickers and other apparel.

Nine years later, Tuzinowski still carries around that backpack full of T-shirts, but he’s recently added actual surfboards, longboards and snowboards — all handmade in Metro Detroit. He sells them online and at Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market, and —as of last month — he has a display in Midtown’s new Shinola sister store, Willys Detroit.

“It’s pretty indescribable,” said Tuzinowski, who in 2010 quit his job at Net Express — an Internet access company he founded in 1994 — to devote more time to the surf company. “When you put on a shirt, it’s like you’re not anonymous anymore. People come up and ask about it. The stuff sells itself.”

He makes three types of surfboards: longboards, shortboards and stand-up paddle boards, which retail for about $1,900. His snowboards cost $450, and his wheeled longboards about $140. Tuzinowski said his boards are meant as second or third boards for experienced surfers, and are therefore more costly than boards from other companies.

Detroit Surf Co. products have been worn by celebrities such as Pearl Jam musician Eddie Vedder and Quicken Loans founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert. Although he won’t reveal sales figures, Tuzinowski said he’s sold to all 50 states, as well as Germany, Puerto Rico and other countries.

The company hosts a number of racing events, and it sponsors seven athletes, from marathon runners to BMX bikers.

Michael Bernacchi, a University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor, said Tuzinowski is part of a growing trend of companies that are taking advantage of the popularity of the Detroit brand. In recent years, trend-savvy marketers have branded everything from beer and bicycles to jeans and watches with Motown’s name.

“The word ‘Detroit’ is no longer the butt of jokes by late-night comedians,” Bernacchi said. “It has some cachet. It’s moved from being laughable to consumable, and maybe even hot.”

Great Lakes surfing

You may not be able to hang 10 in Detroit, but surfing is possible on the Great Lakes.

Tuzinowski said he caught 20-foot waves on Lake Huron in 2012 as the remnants of Hurricane Sandy touched the Great Lakes region, and a number of other Michigan surfers often hit the waves into November and December.

“It’s a small underground community of surfers,” Tuzinowski said.

While Great Lakes surfers are rare, Michigan-made surfboards are even more uncommon.

To make his line of boards, Tuzinowski teamed with Matt Campbell, owner of Oxford-based Blkbox Surf.

Campbell is a professional snowboarder, board designer and paint and coatings engineer, and has surfed the Great Lakes for years.

“We have a beautiful state and a lot of waterways,” he said. “It’s way more accessible than people realize.

“You don’t have to go to California to go surfing.”

Each Detroit Surf Co. board is handmade at the Oxford facility, and takes about four weeks to produce.

'Labor intensive'

“They’re extremely labor intensive,” Campbell said.

“A lot of people can build a board, but the number of people who can build a really good board is few and far between. They’re not easy to make.”

Despite the popularity of the Detroit Surf Co. and his own Blkbox Surf brand, Campbell said most surfboards will continue to be made on the coasts.

“As far as us having a major industry, I don’t see that happening,” Campbell said.

“But for Dave and me, this is our home. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”

'A brand all its own'

Tuzinowski says he gets as many requests for his shirts as he did when he launched in 2005. The Detroit name helps sell the product, he says.

“It doesn’t work for Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Kansas City,” Tuzinowski said. “It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Detroit is a brand all its own.”

UDM’s Bernacchi said that lately, companies need to show some level of dedication to the city to successfully sell items branded with its name.

“I think just getting a rubber stamp and putting ‘Imported from Detroit’ won’t do what it once did,” he said.

“Once, it was a novelty. Increasingly, folks want to know that it has some commitment, some support.

“If folks find out you’re a fraud, it loses its essence.”

In addition to being born in Detroit and living in nearby Chesterfield Township, Tuzinowski uses profits from his products to host surfboard events.

Each year, Detroit Surf hosts the Detroit SUP (stand-up paddle) Festival at Kensington Metropark, featuring a number of races.

It also holds a race on Belle Isle and a Toys for Tots campaign during the winter.

Tuzinowski said he never imagined his T-shirt idea would turn into a full-time job.

“I’ve probably worked harder than I ever have,” he said.

“But it’s fun.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2401
Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

Detroit Surf Co. owner Dave Tuzinowski rides his stand-up paddle board on the Detroit River. He started out selling T-shirts. / Todd McInturf / The Detroit News