CORDOVA -- Those accustomed to Xtratuf boots, and they are numerous around here, might have noticed a change in quality lately. If you bought your boots after Christmas, chances are your previously U.S.-made boots are now a product of China.
Beyond the argument of whether or not the company should have left its home in Rock Island, Illinois, for a cheaper Chinese workforce, both customers and the company say the quality of the product has suffered from the move. Word around the harbor is that Xtratufs aren't so tough anymore.
Andrew Moravec, a 29-year-old fishing guide, has been a regular user of Xtratufs for years. He bought his latest pair one month ago and the boot is already decaying.
"I had my first pair of Xtratufs for two and a half years and they were fine," says Moravec, surrounded by fish oil, a knee on the ground getting the flesh out of a halibut's cheek. "I got these a month ago and literally within two weeks they started to separate," he says while inserting his finger right through the brown body of the boot and the white rubber seal above the sole.
Ian Winder, another fishing guide working at the Orca Adventure Lodge during the summer, looks at his colleagues' boots with frustration and jumps in the conversation. "Look at this, the rubber is chipping off, that's ridiculous after a month!" Winder wears his Xtratufs 24/7 throughout the season.
"These are my footwear. I'm going into town in training: I'm wearing these. I'm cleaning fish: I'm wearing these. I'm out on the boat: I'm wearing these. I go everywhere," he says proudly.
A visit to Redden Marine, one of Cordova's distributors of the brand, bore out further indication that the problem goes beyond one or two pairs of boots. Vicky Simpson, manager of the store, didn't need a lengthy explanation for my visit. Mentioning the relocation of the boots' manufacturer was enough to spark her interest.
"People keep bringing back their boots from between three days and three months after getting them," said Simpson as she grabbed two new pairs of boots off a shelf. "You just have to give them a new pair and send those back to the representatives," she says, describing a steady stream of returns. One of the boxes she puts on the store's tables still wears the imprint of a "Made in USA" flag. The other box, smaller and less colorful, shows no sign of origin.
Just by looking at two pairs of 16-inch insulated boots, you can tell that between 2011 and 2012 the recipe has changed. The Chinese one is considerably slimmer on the calf and the rubber of the Illinois-made boot seems more oily than its substitute. Although these differences could be attributed to a good versus bad batch of boots, more annoying problems raised earlier by our two fishing guides are also confirmed.
The store manager starts playing gently with the thin layer of black lining inside the brand new Chinese boot, which almost instantly peels off the rubber. She puts the box aside and says raising her eyebrows: "See, that didn't use to happen."
Determined to verify the trustworthiness of such allegations against one of Alaska's most cherished items of clothing, I called a few stores in Valdez. There, Joe Prax, owner of Prospector Outfitters, tells of similar problems encountered by men working on oil tanks. Their boots too, have been falling apart -- but they weren't before.
"They need to know it's a big deal. The boots are called Xtratuf and not SORT-OF-TUF," says Prax over the phone. The owner of this apparel and outdoor gear store says he decided long ago to share his clients discontent with representatives of the brand. "I have really tried to get that across to them."
So, does this mean Xtratufs devotees should switch for competition? Not quite yet, say Honeywell -- Xtratuf's manufacturers and representatives in the U.S. "We did not change any of the components, we build the boots in the same way," ensures Steve Haynes, a sales representative at NorthStar Sales Group.
The problem seems to be coming from the poor training given to employees in the Chinese plant, rather than the material or technique used. According to the company, both equipment and molds used in the U.S. were moved to China, as well as a management team from the Rock Island factory to oversee training.
"By moving to China, we knew we would be under the microscope, and we goofed with the training of the people making the boots," says Haynes.
Sean O'Brien, Director of footwear at Honeywell, backs up this argument, also mentioning the ageing factory in Illinois that dated back to the 1920s and couldn't "keep up with production demands." And to address the worry of its angry fanbase, Honeywell (aka Xtratuf) ensures it has been working to address the issue by conducting full quality inspections as well as establishing new protocols.