June 2008

Kickin' Gator

Author: Whitney Farmer | Photographer: Morgan O'Banion

To truly capture the spirit of island living, you need three basic essentials: surf, smiles, and that famous, easy-going, laid back surfer attitude. For JoAnne and Joe Catalano, it’s check, check and check.

Entering the Kickin’ Gator, guests are first greeted with any easy-going islander’s staple; Jimmy Buffet’s voice flows melodically overhead. Then, immediately comes the inviting laughter and warmth of the genuinely happy-spirited, good-natured owners, JoAnne Catalano and her son Joe.

Though not Hilton Head Island natives, the two perfectly embody the welcoming, easy-going, fun-loving vibe that they hope translates through the store’s décor. From the ceilings of the tiki hut-inspired thatch hang surfboards and beach memorabilia. A corner is devoted to skateboards. Another area displays beach bags and sunglasses. The selection of merchandise is quite different from what JoAnne had in mind when she started, but has evolved over time to meet her customers’ needs.

JoAnne arrived on the Island from Chicago 20 years ago. The store began as a t-shirt and gift basket store. JoAnne set out to provide the “headquarters for Hilton Head souvenirs.” She also made gift baskets for hotels and guests.

“But people wanted the t shirt and souvenir aspect so much, I didn’t have time to make gift baskets anymore!” she said. Although her original intent was not exactly to cater to the surf crowd, by providing one of the most extensive collections of surf gear around, it didn’t take her long to establish a business that inspired customer loyalty.

Fifteen years ago, JoAnne decided it was time for an expansion, moving out of her tiny 650-square-foot shop into the Kickin’ Gator’s first location on Pope Avenue, nearly five times larger, to fit in all of the new gear. Last year’s expansion to a second Pineland Station location keeps both North and South-enders happy. “Our customers kept asking, and we kept expanding the lines to accommodate island living,” she said, JoAnne said.

The business that keeps locals and tourists returning is a true blessing to JoAnne. “I opened the store for something to do and I fell in love with it. My son came to visit and loved it, too, and stayed,” she said.

Joe came to join the family business from Atlanta 13 years ago. Like his mom, he has grown to love the easy island living. “My degree is in computer technology,” he said, laughing. “Here, I don’t have to deal with the corporate suits. ‘Life is Good’ t shirts and shorts—that’s our uniform.”

And the store is more than equipped to handle what beachgoers consider a major part of their vacation uniform: flip flops. “Of all things, people wanted flip flops more than anything,” said Joe. “People come in from Ohio specifically for that. They can buy bathing suits and beach gear up north, but they can’t find flip flops in their malls.”

And like every other customer need, the Catalanos made sure to fill it. They filled this one in a big way with an entire wall devoted to literally thousands of pairs of flip flops to suit even the pickiest sand walker. Motioning to the selection, Joe said, “We have ten thousand pairs of flip flops on the walls at all times.”

When JoAnne talks about how grateful she is to her customers, it’s obvious that her family really does, as she says, “put our heart into our business.”

“We’re a family business. My husband [Gil] is always around in the background. He helps guide us through,” she said.

Joe agrees. “We’re not a cookie-cutter store. We take a lot of pride in what we do. Our customers know us; we know them.”

“And we’re very grateful to them,” JoAnne added. “Some bring us pies, cookies, homemade pickles.” (It’s obvious that the Catalano’s devotion to their patrons is equally appreciated and reciprocated.)

Kickin’ Gator sells everything you need for that perfect day on the beach, from sunglasses, protective clothing, skim boards, boogie boards and, yes, surfboards. If you’re not ready to fully commit to the surfer style, you can rent boards daily or weekly at both Kickin’ Gator locations. Stop and say hi to JoAnne and Joe at their locations on Pope Avenue or in Pineland Station. They’ll be sure to help you put things into perspective.

“Everyone has a rigorous life,” JoAnne said. “People are here to relax on vacation. We want our space to be calm.”

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