Felix Ponte of Apache Junction has been in the sandal business longer than he’s been traveling the country playing in senior division tennis tournaments.
An economic downturn in the early 1980s helped spark the idea of selling footwear, and eventually, he looked into marketing his own brand.
As luck would have it, Ponte discovered he had the perfect name for his brand of sandals – his own.
“I had somebody who does logos and designs put together a logo that turned out pretty nice,” Ponte, who began putting his own name and logo on his sandals in 2016, said. “The name Ponte, in Spanish, literally means ‘put them on’ or ‘try them on.’
“So we figured that was a good name. It’s a good looking name. It’s different.”
It’s right there on the sole – “Ponte – try them on.” Every weekend, women visit his booth at the Mesa Marketplace to do just that.
“I thought about some other names, but nothing materialized. By using my name, people, I think, can relate to that person,” he said.
“It’s a start. People like the product.”
Ponte tells of one customer who started dancing with excitement when she tried on his brand of sandals.
“It’s gratifying for me, in that the design I made, and the product came out really well.”
Ponte got started in the footwear business when he and his first wife had a pro shop in Carefree in 1980.
“She was familiar with acupressure sandals. We ran into a Japanese fellow who sold Kenkho sandals, which supposedly means ‘health’ in Japanese.
“She said she was familiar with reflexology or acupressure sandals, and said we should sell these. So we got into selling them retail. It did pretty well.
“That’s how I got into the sandal business and it evolved from that.
At the time, Ponte was a tennis pro at the Carefree Inn Hotel & Resort. “But when a recession hit in the early 1980s, the resort went out of business. People that were playing tennis or golf; that was the first thing they gave up because they didn’t have the money or the time.
“I read that from 1979 to 1981, over 2,000 tennis pros across the country lost their jobs. Same with golf pros. That’s how I changed my career, from being a tennis pro to retail. And it started with sandals.”
Ponte moved his business to Apache Junction in the fall of 1981, and became a resident in 1996.
“That turned out good, because people need footwear as a necessity. I realized later on that I can sell sandals all of my life, so it evolved quite a bit.”
The seeds were planted for Ponte to develop his own brand of sandals during his days running the pro shop at the Carefree Inn Hotel & Resort.
“When the Japanese yen was still considerably lower than the U.S. dollar, I would order a thousand pairs under my own name. Same concept, but a different design,” he said. “I wanted to really get into it with massagers, wholesale and retail. The next time I was going to import another order, the Japanese yen doubled in value – it killed my business.
“I’ve been working on developing this since the 80s. It’s just kind of evolved, and this model is a winner.”
For Ponte, the challenge now was how to make his sandal different from competition.
“I used the theory or analogy of a glove on your hands. Most sandals don’t fit like they should. Most of them are flat, others have flaws, and some are very expensive, up to $100 a pair,” Ponte said.
“Some of the materials are very hard. So I figured, ‘OK, they sell well, even if they’re hard, I want to make a sandal that’s a little softer. More supple, something you can put on right away and feel the ‘Wow’ effect.
“I see all kinds of sandals out there, and they often don’t fit at all – they buy them for the name, not because they fit well. And they have a tough time keeping them on. Mine are the opposite – I make sure they fit you and stay on your foot, and fits on your foot like a glove.”
As part of the process, Ponte went through many demonstration models to find the one he liked.
“I’d see many different models, but felt they were lacking in something, like arch support. We address that, and the heel cup is usually flat on other makes. On mine, your heel sinks in and stays stable and supported,” he said.
“Yes, the wheel has already been invented, but it could be improved.”
Locally, Ponte sandals are only available at the Mesa Marketplace. “But I opened up accounts in Parker recently. That’s a start. And they’re available on Amazon.
For now, Ponte sandals are for ladies only. “As time goes on, I have plans to design men’s sandals as well.”
Ponte has been playing in USTA tournaments over the last few years, winning the Asics World Tennis Classic in 2017 and, a year earlier, the USTA National Men’s Age 65-70 Hardcourt Championships.
Ponte played recently in the City of Mesa Championships in the age 65 division, and won. He just returned from California, where he reached the round of 16 in a 128-player field.
“I had some injuries last year, so my quality went down a bit. I had an average year, and was unable to do as well as I wanted.
“But now, I’m healthy and doing really well. I’m playing four times a week with my practice partner, Hunter Mattocks.”
Sandal sales, Ponte says, help bankroll his tennis pursuits.
“It takes time and money, so the tennis can put a dent in your pocket!”
NOTE: Ponte said that if people visit his booth at the Mesa Marketplace and mention The News, they’ll receive a 20 percent discount.