Meet Onion River Outdoors: Darn Tough’s First Retailer

Exterior view of the main entrance of Onion River Outdoors store in Vermont

Darn Tough Vermont started 20 years ago, in 2004. It was a desperate idea, a Hail Mary to save the family business and keep jobs in Vermont. As we reflect on those first 20 years, we’re forever grateful to those who took a chance on us when we were at rock bottom. Onion River Outdoors was the first store to carry Darn Tough socks, so we asked the folks at Onion River to share that story, from their perspective.

A Small Mercy

When we were first approached by the “nice Cabot Mills folks” to see if we would be willing to bring in a few pairs of their new brand of high-end Merino Wool socks, we did it more to support a local manufacturer than anything else.

We just didn’t think anyone would pay $20 for a pair of socks, so we put in a small “mercy” order to show our support for this new Vermont-based brand. It wasn’t long after that when Darn Tough Vermont sales were supporting us.

Bikes and Axes

Inside Onion River, rows and rows of mountain bikes ready to buy

Later in 2004, we were mountain biking in Moab, Utah, and we saw Darn Tough socks in an outdoor shop. We were excited to see them out west and to claim our shared Vermont roots and personal knowledge of Darn Tough to the (no doubt highly impressed) staff working there. Even then, we were starting to understand the star power of those simple wool socks.

A few winters later, we were at Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City, and Darn Tough had a bustling booth with local personality Rusty Dewees as spokesperson sharing anecdotes such as, “The other day I was chopping wood, and I cut my toe clean off and the ax didn’t even go through the sock.”

Later that evening, we ran into Ric Cabot himself at a bar, and we audaciously asked him how many socks they knit that year. He smiled, paused for a moment, then said, “There’s a foosball table over there, can any of you play? If you beat me I’ll tell you the number.”

Next thing you know, we’re playing foosball at a bar in SLC with Ric Cabot, and as I’m sure he knew all along, he never needed to tell us that number.

The Early Days

A store employee arranging Darn Tough socks on a wall covered in socks

There was a time early in Darn Tough's days when we worried that other wool sock brands would steal the market with their beautiful patterns and colors. Someone at Darn Tough had the brilliance to engage local designer Poppy Gall (who used to telemark race with shop owner Jen back in the 90s). Poppy brought her style and clever animal designs, and now we hardly sell a sock that isn't Darn Tough.

One of our staff advised us we should ditch everything else and just sell Darn Tough and micro-spikes given the volume of those Vermont necessities that moves through our shop every year.

A Bellwether for Progress

The checkout counter at Onion River, with a large Darn Tough rug in front of it

At our annual holiday parties, we have circled up and put our feet in the center, hokey-pokey style, for a picture, amused at all the eras of Darn Tough socks inadvertently represented.

We like to think Vermont is a bellwether for progressive, sustainable behaviors that the rest of the country will eventually come to adopt. The idea of selling a product that is so high-quality that it rarely needs to be replaced is counter-intuitive from a business perspective, but it is a foundational value that Darn Tough and Onion River share. It has served both of us well, and we look forward to continuing on this path together.

We are proud to have been Darn Tough's first retailer and congratulate you on 20 years of great socks - with many more to come!

About the Author

Onion River Outdoors is a locally owned, community-minded outdoor gear and apparel shop in Montpelier, Vermont. We've got gear for outdoor adventures including biking, running, camping, skiing, and snowshoeing.