Despite the pandemic, the online retailer that celebrates niche films and stars through T-shirts and other products managed to grow from a living room to a small warehouse.

A number of sellers who create pop culture merchandise to sell on Etsy or other marketplaces do it as a side gig. But some can turn that side gig into a full-blown career. That’s how Andrew Ortiz turned Super Yaki, his pop culture T-shirt and merchandise business, into his full-time job.

Ortiz started Super Yaki about five years ago while working as an events coordinator and programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. “My job was to make these [movie] events as fun and engaging as possible. I love movies and this was a dream job,” Ortiz says. “But I always wanted to do things on my own terms and watch it succeed or fail under my conditions.”

Ortiz launched an enamel pin featuring the creator and director Hayao Miyazaki (who made animated films such as “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro”) on Instagram. Fans of the director wanted to buy it and it snowballed from there, Ortiz says. “One little pin started it all.”

In 2016, Super Yaki then launched its online store on the Big Cartel platform, a slimmed-down ecommerce platform geared toward artists and small businesses to sell merchandise for low upfront costs—even for free if an artist wants to sell five products or fewer. For example, an artist can pay $9.99 per month for an ecommerce site with all the basic technology, but it is limited to selling only 50 products and only having five images per product, according to the Big Cartel website.

“I was doing everything by hand, writing addresses, taking packages to the post office, paying for shipping everything on the spot,” Ortiz says. “It was exciting, very do-it-yourself. And I enjoyed the consumer engagement of seeing this come to fruition from the very beginning.”

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As Super Yaki grew out of Big Cartel a few months later 2016, it launched its online store SuperYaki.com on Shopify’s ecommerce platform.

Stay-at-home movie enthusiasts fuel growth amid pandemic

Super Yaki has since grown steadily over the last five years. But 2020 was really its test. Ortiz left his full-time job in February 2020 to focus on Super Yaki—just before the pandemic hit.

“I wanted to take a leap and run the shop as my main source of income,” he says. “But the pandemic took any confidence I had and swept it out from under me. It was a horrible mix of despair and excitement. I spent the first few weeks contemplating, ‘what have I done here?’”

But 2020 turned out to be Super Yaki’s biggest sales year ever. The online retailer doubled its online sales in 2020 compared with 2019 and it is on track to continue its growth this year. “I always go in with a conservative estimate, but we tend to do a little bit better,” he says.

“But I have mixed feelings knowing that we had a really great year but the world had a terrible year,” Ortiz says. “Reconciling those two emotions is something I think about a lot and I don’t take what we’ve been given for granted.”

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In addition to sales growth, Super Yaki outgrew the corner of a room in which Ortiz used to fulfill online orders as it slowly overtook his home. In November, Super Yaki moved to an office space in which Ortiz now runs the operations, which also serves as a mini-fulfillment center. The office space houses its inventory and also serves as a pickup location for local Houston shoppers. In addition, the retailer uses Houston-based printing shop Night Owls Print Shop to screen print all of its shirts.

Super Yaki has used its success to give back, donating a percent of all proceeds for most of last year and for the foreseeable future to organizations and charities that the company cares about, such as those relating to social justice and disenfranchised communities.

Social media power

As a retailer that focuses on honoring niche, “guilty pleasure” movies with T-shirts that read “Josie & the Pussycats is the Best Movie Ever,“ “I Scream for Laura Dern,” and “G for Gerwig,” Super Yaki also engages with its consumer community on social media to get a pulse for what’s popular in films, old and new—but not particularly in the mainstream media.

“We’re making goofy movie shirts, but we’re part of a larger conversation about movies in general and want to help people feel at ease in what they like and watch instead of feeling guilty about what they’re enjoying,” Ortiz says.

What started off as a few posts has turned into a “well-oiled machine,” he says. The Super Yaki Twitter account in January crossed 10,000 followers and its Instagram has about 16,500 followers.

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Ortiz is quick to not take all the credit. Super Yaki hired Brittani Tuttle as social media director in summer 2019 to manage the retailer’s social media presence and engage with its followers. She took the account from about 400 followers to where it is now—all organically, he says.

“To me, it’s important that people realize there are human beings behind brand accounts,” Ortiz says. “It’s easy to click ‘follow’ on a brand or business’s page, but for us, we want to know how we can keep ourselves around. How can we be a functional member of the community and not just a shop? I’m sure some people just want to see what shirts are coming out, but we want to do the best we can for the followers who want to engage.”

Plans for its fifth anniversary

From new product designs to site upgrades, Super Yaki has a busy year ahead to celebrate its fifth year in business.

Ortiz notes that it hasn’t updated its Shopify website theme in a long time. Thus, the retailer plans to upgrade the theme in February and add more applications to make it a more user-friendly experience, he says. For example, Super Yaki plans to add an option so shoppers can sign up for notifications when an item is back in stock.

“We take a cautious approach to changes on the shop or for the business,” Ortiz says. “So for us, it’s about testing everything to a T before implementing something we’re not comfortable with.”

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Super Yaki also plans to diversify its product line more this year by working with more artists and graphic designers that can contribute designs while staying true to the Super Yaki style.

Some upcoming designs include highlighting the film works of Brendan Fraser in February and a summer camp theme later in the summer, Ortiz says. Super Yaki’s plan with product launches is to unify themes in its collections into a cohesive plan, rather than a “grab bag of different ideas,” he says.

Super Yaki has three full-time employees—including Ortiz—and two part-time employees.

“This is definitely a collaborative effort,” he says. “How we’ve been able to grow and expand, it’s not just one person. I’m forever indebted to the people who help us. Anything the shop becomes from this point on is a testimony to their hard work.”

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