Novel Tees

In St. Peters, Shirt Kong is Screenprinting T-Shirts to Support Small Businesses throughout the Metro Area.


Story By Liz Miller
Visuals By Chris Ryan, Once Films

It was late in the day on a Monday in March when Andy Rudman got a phone call from Sloan Coleman. Rudman, the owner of Shirt Kong, a design and screenprinting shop in St. Peters, was finishing up paperwork in the office after the rest of the Shirt Kong team had gone home for the day.

At first, the call startled him. Those quiet hours, when the machines aren’t running and there are no interruptions, are highly productive for him, and lately, as more and more orders had been falling off due to the COVID-19 virus, the phone wasn’t ringing as much.

Rudman was also a little surprised to see who appeared on the caller ID. He’d never spoken to Coleman before, but he knew of her through her company, Tiny Little Monster, a screenprinting shop located in the city of St. Louis. He picked up, not sure where the conversation would start or end.

Rudman examines the design for a Strange Donuts tee. The Shirt Kong team creates a unique design for each business that has a t-shirt in its shop.

As it turns out, Coleman was calling to share an idea with Rudman and his crew at Shirt Kong. Tiny Little Monster had recently launched a movement called “Here for Good,” which helps financially support local small businesses that are suffering during the pandemic. The concept was simple: Customers purchase a T-shirt with the logo or a design promoting a small business through an online store, and then, in turn, the business receives $10 of the proceeds. In this way, the screenprinting shop could give back to the community while still making enough to cover its costs.

Tiny Little Monster was making all of the shirts so far, and Coleman asked Rudman if he’d want to do something similar at Shirt Kong. The tagline for the fundraiser, she said, was “We’re in this together,” and the idea resonated with Rudman.

“She said, ‘You know, everybody is suffering right now, and this is really working for us,’” Rudman recalls. “So we started contacting places that we already do work for, like Sugarfire Smoke House, for example, we already run merch for them, and other restaurants that seemed like natural fits.”

For each t-shirt sold, $10 of the sale goes to the business or organization featured on the tee.

Almost a month after that phone call, Rudman, his wife and business partner, JoAnn, and their team of 13 Shirt Kong employees have partnered with more than 70 area businesses on T-shirts for their online store, Support St. Chuck & The Lou. When the store first went live online, it started with 20 area businesses, having now more than tripled that number.

“Soon after, other business owners started contacting us and said, ‘Hey, we want in!’,” Rudman says. The fundraiser’s initial goal was $10,000, which it surpassed in just a few weeks. As of this writing, the relief fund has raised more than $16,000 and it continues to rise.

The Shirt Kong staff have been working in shifts to limit exposure.

Normally, if Shirt Kong was running T-shirts for a business, the company would require upfront fees for design work and a deposit based on the number of shirts ordered. For this fundraiser, however, there is no cost to the businesses to be included, regardless of what revenue individual shirts bring in.

“We’re going to design this at no cost and build this online store at no cost, and no matter whether we sell one or 100 of the shirts, you, as a small business owner, get $10,” Rudman says.

Some of the businesses featured in the fundraiser, are current Shirt Kong clients, while others are new relationships forged amid the pandemic. Due to Shirt Kong’s location in St. Peters, Rudman approached many local businesses in his immediate community as well as in St. Charles County. Other fundraiser T-shirts are the outgrowth of friendships that the Rudmans have formed over the years.

One example of this, Rudman says, is the T-shirt sporting the bear logo of Louie, an Italian restaurant in the Demun neighborhood. The Rudmans quickly became friends with Louie owner Matt McGuire after the restaurant opened in late 2017, first on Instagram and then as customers.

“My wife and I love Louie,” Rudman says. “I stitched out some hats for Matt one time and dropped them off, just gave them to him. And then later, my wife and I went there for an anniversary dinner, and he gave us Champagne. So I messaged Matt and said we were doing this shirt thing now, and that we’d love to have Louie on it, and he said, ‘Yes, of course.’ It’s just a really tough time for them right now.”

JoAnn Rudman is a talented artist and vice president at Shirt Kong.

As Rudman says, the COVID-19 virus has been devastating for local businesses, and bars and restaurants have been particularly hard hit, with many temporarily closing and some even announcing that they’re shuttering for good.

Times have been tough for Shirt Kong, too: As the virus slowly spread across the St. Louis area last month, the Rudmans had to lay off nine employees. Rudman’s voice gets quiet when he recalls that day, the first time he’s ever laid off members of the Shirt Kong team. Overnight the shop went from a crew of 22, plus Andy and JoAnn, to 13.

“It’s our team, you know?,” he says. “Everybody who works at Shirt Kong really likes what they do, and we all get along well. So this was the hardest thing; it really was terrible. My goal is to get everybody back as soon as possible, and I’m trying to find ways to do that while at the same time taking this day to day.”

While Rudman has had to lay off some team members, he's hopeful that he will be able to hire them back.

Rudman woke up at 5 a.m. the day that applications began being accepted for payroll relief through the federal Payroll Protection Plan last month and he’s still hopeful it will allow him to bring those nine employees back. In the weeks since the virus first hit the metro area, Rudman says he’s seen some business come back because of online sales, “and that’s really encouraging,” he adds. Shirt Kong has also started printing uniforms for larger businesses and organizations, including Target and Mercy Hospital.

He’s grateful for the business during this trying time, of course, and he’s hopeful that Shirt Kong’s Support St. Chuck & The Lou fundraiser will continue to exceed expectations and give back to businesses in the community. No one can know what business will look like on the other side of the COVID-19 virus, he says, but he still believes, like Coleman, that we all stand a much better chance if we’re in this together.

“I work with my wife,” Rudman says. “We work there together all day, and then we come home and have something good to eat and hang out, and we do that whether it’s a good day or an awful day. We’re figuring out how to get through this, and one of the ways that’s pretty cool is being able to help out other people.”

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