Why the 88-year-old family business draws the likes of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Kristi Yamaguchi to the Peninsula.
“Whenever you came to visit, you could smell the glue.”
Skating boots were a special part of Jason Kuhn’s childhood, and their tactile assembly remind him of time well spent with his father. Jason’s father, Phil Kuhn, started working at Harlick Skating Boots in San Carlos during the late 1970s, and was eventually running the company by the time Jason formally started working at the factory upon turning 18. Looking back, it’s the smell of glue that seems to bind these memories together for him.
“There’s a distinct smell, which I think is awesome.”
For almost 90 years now, Harlick boots have been the perennial gold standard for the ice skating world. While non-skaters may not be familiar with the company, Harlick’s figure skates have long been a staple at the Winter Olympics, and even sometimes on the silver screen. That’s why Harlick’s modest-looking headquarters in San Carlos houses numerous files containing detailed information about the feet of Olympic figure skaters like Peggy Fleming and Brian Boitano, as well as Hollywood stars like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. For generations now, this small, family-owned factory has produced a key component to the flawless jumps and spins executed on ice, and in a normal year receives visitors from across the country and around the world.
A San Carlos resident, fourth-generation owner Jason Kuhn has recently stepped into the big shoes — or boots, rather — of leading Harlick forward in the next decade towards its 100th year. For Kuhn, everything comes back to his family and the Harlick legacy, even as the recent start of his leadership signals the beginning of a new era.
Or, as he enthusiastically puts it, “I get to be that young energy.”
Fit for a champion
There’s no doubt that every pair of boots that leaves Harlick’s factory carries special significance to its skater. Figure skater Brian Boitano, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist, still has his first pair of Harlick boots from when he was nine years old. “When I first started skating, I just wanted Harlicks so badly,” Boitano explained to The Six Fifty recently by phone. To him, and many other young skaters, getting your first pair of boots from Harlick was a rite of passage.
Not only were his first pair of Harlick boots the start of a wildly successful figure skating career, but they were also the beginning of a long friendship with the entire Harlick family. A Bay Area native, Boitano was able to make frequent trips to the factory, working closely with previous Harlick Skates’ owner Bob Henderson. As Boitano’s skating career became serious, he got to know Phil Kuhn and eventually Jason Kuhn. “It was great because they were local and I could just drive down,” Boitano said.
After his first pair, Boitano never skated in anything other than Harlick boots, citing their high quality and impeccable customer service. “They were there for me during times that have been really important,” Boitano said. “It’s still important. Your relationship as a skater to your equipment is always important.”
Jason Kuhn takes pride in creating the boots that make an Olympic medal possible. “When I’m laying that piece of reinforcement on, I’m envisioning them wearing it,” Kuhn said. Compared to a boot that’s assembled using machines, he believes that the handmade touch gives the boot a little more soul. “When it’s made for that specific person there’s something special. It’s hard to describe.”
When it comes to watching his boots come to life at competitions, however, he says that he’s never nervous — after all, they’re Harlicks.
An artisan enterprise
Every boot order placed at Harlick, whether it’s for an Olympian or a skater just starting out, is made in the same handmade fashion that Louis Harlick employed — even with some of the same equipment that has been passed down through the family.
For Kuhn, the design of a perfect boot all comes down to the fitting session with the skater, whether it’s in person or more recently, online. “You pick up on what their needs are,” he explained. “To be a boot fitter, it takes a special ability to read their feet and what their specific needs are.”
Kuhn also emphasizes that every step, from cutting and glueing the pieces of the boot to the lasting process — where the boot is shaped around a mold of the skater’s foot — is done with care. “We’re doing each one by hand, it’s not a prefabricated mold or a plastic mold injection piece that gets bolted on. Not to say that that’s a bad thing for certain people, but our method of doing it is that every single one has to be just perfectly crafted.”
As technology improves, Kuhn is open to exploring modern shoemaking techniques. But, the original Harlick skating boots they’re known for are here to stay. “The Harlick legacy is that true classic method, that’s the core of the company,” he said.
While it may be hard to spot the Harlick logo among the standard white, black and tan skating boots at the rink, Harlick makes plenty of boots that are impossible to miss. “What makes us different is if you want something like an artistic design on the side, or if you want glitter on the bottom, or you want a pink boot, or whatever it is, we’ll do it. We’re such people pleasers, almost to a fault sometimes,” said Kuhn, laughing. A quick glance at their Instagram shows that whatever your dream skates are, Harlick can make them a reality.
The special requests that Harlick gets keeps the job interesting, according to Kuhn. His favorite and most challenging request right now: a pair of light-up skating boots. “I tried to say no to this guy with the laser beam like 10 times, but he just kept asking, he was so persistent.” Reluctantly, he agreed, and now that the boots are reaching their completion, he is excited to see how they turn out. “I’m such a perfectionist. Once I get going on it, the project sucks me in because I want it to be perfect. It’s gotta be right.”
Beyond the figure skating world, Harlick boots can also be spotted on the big screen. “We made Michelle Trachtenberg boots and she sat in the same chair and came in and got fitted,” said Kuhn about the star of Ice Princess. Other household names who have placed orders include Ben Stiller, Jackie Chan and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, for Tooth Fairy. “They just put boot covers over it to make them look like hockey skates, but they were really Harlick boots. We made them special, we have his foot mold upstairs.”
All celebrity interactions aside, Kuhn is happy to help anyone who comes in the door. “I’m still willing to just take on anybody,” he said. “Kristi [Yamaguchi] came here as a little kid… She got custom boots starting at the age of 8, and my dad helped her out. You never know if she’s going to become this gold medalist, right? So I do try to treat them all the same.”
Sitting next to the raised chair that generations of skaters have gotten their boots fitted in, Kuhn reflected on the history of this beloved skating institution. Harlick was started in 1933 by Russian immigrant Louis Harlick in San Francisco. Located just below his shop was the office for the Ice Capades, a traveling ice show that was immensely popular at the time. While Harlick began by making equestrian boots and ballet slippers, he was soon taking orders for skating boots for his downstairs neighbors.
As Harlick perfected the boots that skaters have grown to love today, two brothers, Bob and Ike Henderson, were busy with their own shoe shops in Glendale, California, and Palo Alto, respectively. Ike Henderson would often help Harlick at his shop. When Harlick retired, the brothers took over his business. Bob Henderson, Jason’s great-grandfather, sold his shop and his home in Southern California, and the two Henderson brothers bought Harlick. Under their leadership, the company blossomed in its new location in San Carlos.
Following Phil Kuhn’s recent retirement, Jason’s great-grandparents and father no longer make daily appearances at Harlick. However, he’s reminded of them every day at work. “I feel like I live a bit of a parallel life because I live in San Carlos and work right here,” he said, comparing his own life to that of Bob Henderson and his wife, Bonnie. Years working side by side with his father left a lasting impression as well. “He was a great craftsman. He really set that high standard of doing things the right way.”
While Kuhn remembers periods of doubt, he is grateful and excited for the opportunity to lead Harlick after 20 years. “I’m glad I stuck it out,” he said. “It’s kind of like waiting for my turn to go to bat. I was on deck for quite a while, but it all worked out.”
To some, shelter-in-place orders and ice skating rink closures meant picking up new hobbies, such as roller skating. While Harlick is widely known as an ice skating boot manufacturer, they have always made roller skates. Whether it’s nostalgia or simply quarantine boredom, Kuhn has seen a recent increase in roller skate orders. “Even though they’re not making up a majority of our current production, you can still sense the energy in the room and it’s neat to see that,” he said. “What we lost in ice skate sales we made up for with roller skates.”
Keon Saghari, or NeonKeon, is known online for her viral roller skating videos featuring mesmerizing choreography and eye-catching curly hair. Saghari learned about Harlick through Candice Heiden, a professional roller skater and coach that she had been training with. Saghari always assumed that Harlick boots were meant for professional and competitive skaters, not an outdoor dance skater like herself. But, through training with Heiden and speaking to Jason through Instagram, Saghari soon decided that it was time for her to invest in a pair of Harlick boots. (For pricing, the Harlick Skates website states that stock boots start at $800 for adult sizing, with custom boots beginning at $1195.)
“I’m realizing now that the boot is accessible to a wider range of skating than just competitive skating because of its customization.” Saghari said. “I think more and more now we’re going to see non-competitive skaters wearing their boots.” The high price tag means that Harlick roller skates may be out of reach for beginning skaters, but Jason added that they’re meeting plenty of new customers that have fallen in love with the sport and are now looking for a boot upgrade.
Ice skaters also jumped on the roller skating craze for a different reason: a way to train when many rinks were closed or inaccessible. Boitano started skating with a pair of Harlick boots fitted with special inline skate wheels — called Pic Skates — that mimic the feeling of ice skating. “I’ve always had a passion for roller skating,” Boitano said. “I really like the fact that the Pic Skates get me outdoors.”
Beyond roller skates, the pandemic has also given Harlick the opportunity to introduce virtual fittings and a brand new website. In the past Harlick has reached its customers through appearances at figure skating competitions, offering attendees an in-person fitting. The cancellation of competitions meant it was the perfect opportunity for Harlick to invest in its website instead. Now, customers can be fitted for a pair of skates from the comfort of their home. “It’s a neat way to access skaters, and then guide them through the measuring process on a personal level,” Kuhn said. “Had the pandemic not happened, maybe we wouldn’t have felt that pressure or been as creative.”
A family affair
Now that it’s his turn to run the company, Jason Kuhn will continue to expand Harlick Skates. Yet only time will tell whether that means entry-level boot options or innovative boots that will help figure skaters land quad jumps (jumps with four revolutions in the air), only time will tell. “You never know, I might become a high-end fashion boot maker at some point in the future.”
Despite the challenges that the pandemic brought, including a reduction in employees, Kuhn is confident that Harlick will be here to stay for decades to come. Two of his five sons, Jonaven and Jayden, work side by side with him just like he once did with his father. “I’m trying to balance teaching them, rubbing shoulders, talking shop with them and also not pigeonholing them,” he said. “Destiny is awesome, I love it. But for them, I’m trying to give them a bit of an open-ended outcome in terms of what comes next for them.” Even still, he hopes that one day they can represent Harlick’s fifth generation.
You can learn more about purchasing a pair of boots from Harlick on their new website, or simply admire their work and watch behind-the-scenes videos on their Instagram. And if you’re lucky enough to pay a visit to the factory, you’ll notice that Jason Kuhn is right — the smell of the glue, foreign yet not unpleasant, lingers long after a visit to Harlick in the best possible way.
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