Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 7, 2018

River City: Refinery has modern man’s needs covered

efinery co-owner Carl Greene shows attorney David Ward a briefcase by Leather Satchel Company of Liverpool. - David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Attorney Alix Michel steps through the door of the Refinery on an important mission. Lured in by the word “apothecary” on the front door, he hopes to find a product that will ease his daily dilemma: shaving a beard that’s getting tougher with age.

One of the proprietors of the establishment, Keith Wooten, greets Mikel from behind a 15-foot bar that’s supporting an assortment of goods. From bowties and bourbon-flavored toothpicks to men’s jewelry and locally made hot sauce, a surprising variety of products span the ink black surface.

A glint of light reflected off a bottle of amber liquid on a shelf behind the bar catches Mikel’s eye. The assortment of bourbons and whiskeys suggest the bar itself serves as more than a display area, and that Wooten does more than smile and greet customers as they step into his store.

But Mikel has not come to the Refinery to taste spirits, so he presses past the bar toward the back of the store, where several shelves are stocked with high-end shaving and hair products, lip balms, soaps and more.

“It’s a hard shave in the morning,” Michel says to Wooten, rubbing his cheeks and chin for effect. “I deal with this every day.”

Wooten removes a bottle of Olivina Shave Prep & Beard Oil from the shelf and offers it to his desperate patron. Mikel nods, takes the box and thanks his guide through the world of men’s products. “Let’s hope this softens the shaving experience for this aging lawyer,” he says, smiling.

His quest complete, Mikel relaxes and spends a few moments browsing the rest of the store, a roomy 1,400-square-foot space nestled in the heart of historic St. Elmo.

Located at 3800 St. Elmo Ave., Refinery is wrapped in an elegantly aged shell of old brick and wood – a popular and pervasive local look. Although its walls and floor don’t necessarily set Refinery apart from other retail establishments in Chattanooga, the products do.

From stem to stern, Refinery is filled with products geared toward men, including clothes. From Mavi Jeans made in Turkey, to Frank and Oak dress shirts from Canada, to simple T-shirts, Refinery offers a varied collection of attire.

Wooten and his Refinery co-owner, Carl Greene, a financial advisor with Lawson Winchester, hand-picked every article of clothing, partly out of a desire to sell the garments they love (they discovered the Frank and Oak shirts while on vacation in Montreal), but also in an effort to create a niche left unoccupied by other establishments.

“Chattanooga has several excellent suiting stores that have been around for years, and now we’re getting places that lean toward the preppy side of things,” says Greene, who’s joined Wooten and Mikel on their stroll. “We’re trying to find a niche between those. I’d call it upscale casual.”

Wooten and Greene also strive to select clothes that won’t be out of style by the next flip of the calendar. Greene offers their bombers – popular jackets with no lay-down collar – as an example.

“We try to keep men in style but not necessarily trendy,” Greene says. “We don’t have a lot of things you’ll buy this year but not wear next year.”

Despite his comments about steering clear of an overly trendy look, Greene’s outfit appears to be as up-to-the-minute as they come. Draped in a charcoal brown speckled jacket and matching pants, a light beige shirt and freshly-shined dress shoes, he’s a picture of crisp, fashionable perfection.

Greene is also a walking, talking advertisement for his Billy Reid-designed jacket, which Refinery carries. “I’ve always like Billy Reid. One, he’s southern, and two, his clothes look distinctive,” Greene says of the Alabama-based designer.

“His clothes are refined classic designs without being too trendy. And they’re comfortable. I can wear this jacket with jeans,” he adds.

Everything Wooten is wearing is available at Refinery, making him a living, breathing mannequin. From his knitted brown Goorin Bros. hat, to his chambray denim JACHS NY shirt, to his Mavi jeans, he looks comfortable but nicely dressed.

“Everything I have on, down to the underwear, we carry,” Wooten says, smiling.

While Greene looks like he dropped some serious coin on his threads, the cost of his jacket and slacks were relatively affordable when compared to Yacoubian Tailors, Bruce Baird and other local, high-end men’s clothing stores. The same can be said of Wooten’s ensemble.

“We’re trying to cover price points across the board, which is one of the reasons we added Frank and Oak,” says Greene. “Their prices are lower than Billy Reid.

“It’s also why we have T-shirts. We don’t want to offer just one style; we want anyone to be able to come in here and find something.”

While Wooten and Greene are relishing the opportunity to share the fashion lines they enjoy, the Refinery offers more than new clothes. As Mikel continues his tour of the store with Wooten and Greene, he peruses casual leather backpacks from Estate, duffle bags by Herschell, a small selection of candles with scents that fit the store’s aesthetic, eyewear, bowties, leather goods (including wallets and flasks from Daines & Hathaway in England) and more.

Greene points out that Refinery is just as focused on offering local products as it is foreign goods. One example are the paperweights, which a retired Army veteran in Chattanooga named Terry Dyringer makes out of vintage golf clubs.

While Refinery has an air of sophistication, Wooten and Greene are not without a sense of humor, nor are they above selling products that comically play off the notion of bawdy machismo.

From Lucky Bastard’s lip balm to Duke Cannon’s Big Ass Brick of Soap to Royal Highnies boxers, Refinery offers many fun gift ideas for men.

The one thing every product has in common: Wooten or Greene has personally tested it. “If we don’t like it, it’s not going to be in here,” the former says.

Wooten and Greene have had no issues filling their 1,400-square-feet with products, but there was a time when the entire concept was contained on a single cabinet at Merchants on Main.

The pair launched their store as a pop-up called Refinery 423 Mercantile during the 2015 holiday season. Greene says they believed in the concept but wanted to test it before investing a significant amount of time and money, so they stocked their cabinet with a small selection of gifts, beard oils and pomades and called it day.

The pop-up was a success, so Wooten and Greene opened at 250 square-foot space at Merchants on Main. Wooten wanted to add apparel to their offerings, so this is where t-shirts and hats first made their appearance. “The concept was large, but my risk adverse nature as a financial advisor broke the business plan down into incremental steps,” Greene says.

“ I like the combination of risk adverse and risk taker,” Mikel says.

Wooten and Greene moved Refinery 423 Mercantile into a train car outside the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in March 2016. With 500 square feet to play with, they added leather goods, barware, eyewear and other products. In time, they also added more clothes.

Customer demand and a lack of elbow room eventually led Wooten and Greene to seek out a more spacious home. “Once we added Nifty Genius from California, things got really tight,” Greene says. “People were having to hunt and discover things rather than browse our products in a relaxed manner.”

The men found their current location early this year and then opened in July with a greatly expanded inventory. They also added whiskey and bourbon tastings for visitors who are 21 or older.

“We want to provide a full experience for men; so, while you’re shopping, have a beer or an Old Fashioned,” Greene says.

Wooten found what he says is the perfect bar for Refinery. As the men were transitioning to St. Elmo, Wooten saw that the Choo Choo was going to toss the 30-foot bar that had graced the hotel’s Victorian Lounge. Wooten asked if he could have it.

The hotel agreed, provided Wooten pay to have it moved. The men did have to cut the bar in half to fit their store, but it still offers enough space for a few patrons to take a load off. “You can come in, shop, get a drink, sit down and catch up on your work,” Greene says.

The bottle of amber liquid Mikel spotted earlier contained J.W. Kelly bourbon, a locally made spirit based on a pre-Prohibition Era recipe. Wooten offers Mikel and his law partner, David Ward, who has just arrived at the store, a taste. Neither man refuses.

“This is superb,” Mikel says as Ward nods in agreement.

As Mikel and Ward recover from their midday shot, their attention turns to the center of the store, where one final icon of masculinity surveys all that Wooten and Greene have created: a 2012 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.

“It’s actually owned by a friend, and it’s for sale,” Wooten says. “If we sell it, we’ll have to replace it with something that makes the same kind of statement.” (The Hamilton County Herald suggests a pool table.)

Although Wooten and Greene have achieved their dream of owning and operating a retail establishment geared toward men, their vision continues to grow. For starters, they plan to offer more new products, such as ties and cufflinks, and hope to expand their selection of jewelry.

They also have innovative ideas for additional services, but they’re going to hold those cards close to their chests for now.

In the meantime, they expect to be busy serving customers whose needs and wants they have worked hard to be able to address.

“ When I think of products for men, I think about the things that will help me get ready for the day,” Mikel says. “Did I pick the right tie? How does my face look? Did I miss a spot shaving? Coming here, it’s clear they have some of the answers.”