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Tampa startup fuses fashion, utility and humor into one big-pocketed T-shirt

John Grellner, 25, left, and Jake Kehlenbeck, 24, both of Tampa, are two of the creators of Bucket Tees. They have sold roughly 600 shirts so far.
John Grellner, 25, left, and Jake Kehlenbeck, 24, both of Tampa, are two of the creators of Bucket Tees. They have sold roughly 600 shirts so far.
Published Jun. 27, 2016

TAMPA — The Great American T-shirt has come a long way since the Cooper Underwear Co. introduced its "bachelor undershirt" in 1904.

In the 1920s it got the name as we know it today — "T-shirt" — in a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald and was subsequently entered into the Merriam-Webster and Oxford-English dictionaries. By the 1940s, everyone from the Marines to Marlon Brando had made them a household item.

But the days of the simple white T-shirt as fashion item are largely gone. And in Tampa, three young men have entered the fray of the T-shirt business by taking the shirt to another level.

Mixing basic, plain-colored short-sleeved shirts with hugely oversized pockets on the front, they call their couture "Bucket Tees," and individually they carry cleverly marketed names like "The Floridian," "The Gentleman," "The F Train" and "The Bonaparte."

Jake Kehlenbeck, 24, John Grellner, 25 and Alex Alfaro, 23, all knew one another through high school and college. Kehlenbeck's mother sewed the first big pockets (coming in at a jumbo 11.5 inches wide and 13 inches tall) onto a handful of T-shirts and the guys wore them out on the town.

"We got a lot of comments and everyone seemed to love them," Kehlenbeck said. "So we decided to make it a business and sell a few."

Kehlenbeck and Alfaro now work full time on their business, while Grellner has kept his job as a real estate investment analyst.

So far, they have sold roughly 600 shirts through their website ( buckettees.com) and at booths. The price is now $29.95 each, including shipping. About 60 percent of sales has come since March, they said. The business officially launched in the second quarter of 2015. The company has earned roughly $12,000 in revenue so far, sporting everything from puppies to iced-down six packs of beer in the pockets of the shirts.

Their target audience is adult college-aged males, but they are discussing options for women, too. People of all demographics have ordered their shirts, they said, even citing the theater club at Tampa's Wharton High, which ordered 68 custom shirts last year.

They've had to learn the cut-and-sew industry, while also learning how to put their T-shirts together the best way possible. Each shirt comes together via a four-vendor process: the shirts themselves; fabric for the pockets; a sewing vendor; and a vendor to put a tagless brand on the inside neckline of the shirt.

Pulling it all together can be a logistical headache, they said.

"Big pockets bring big problems," Grellner said.

"Yeah, it's a little bit more complicated than just big pockets," Kehlenbeck chimed in.

One hurdle they've faced is getting the right type of pocket fabrics to shrink in proportion with the fabric of a T-shirt. Another was when their original sewing vendor was putting some of the pockets on the shirts crooked. They rejected those shipments.

"The lady we dealt with for that shipment said a woman had been fired for that," Grellner said. "Which is tough, but we couldn't accept those shirts."

Another time needles were found embedded throughout dozens of the shirts they ordered. But they've worked out the kinks since then.

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One highlight is that they haven't spent any money on advertising yet, saying everything's been word of mouth so far.

And they have a retailer based in Boulder, Co., that confirmed it is ready to begin selling Bucket Tees' shirts. Shinesty Clothing's mission statement is "to bring the most outlandish collection of clothing the world has ever seen."

"When we take a new brand on our site, we test their products first with a small order," Drew Wyman, head of business development at Shinesty, said via email.

"With (Bucket Tees) I'm confident our customers will love it. … Their product is unique, honest and hilarious. It markets itself. To our fans, it's like water in the desert. They need it."

The co-founders of Bucket Tees are hoping things just keep getting better. They said a major online retailer in London had also recently reached out to them, but they were reluctant to reveal the name of the retailer before things were more firmed up. They also said Minor League Baseball had sent them a feeler email, but nothing has come of it yet.

"I'd like to see us in some brick-and-mortar stores," Grellner said. "We're not fixated on big pockets — we're just having fun for now."

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