Family putting feet first for 125 years

October 24th, 2016

Vivian Sade | The Journal Gazette

Ross Toenges began working for his father Fred in the family’s shoe store at the age of 7, doing various tasks and receiving a nickel an hour and a daily soda.

“My dad was German and taught us how to work,” Toenges said. As he grew, his job duties increased.

“I graduated to sweeping the stores and then, in high school, delivered shoes to the various store locations,” he said.

Today, Toenges, 52, manages the Fred Toenges Shoes and Ped­orthics store at 2415 Hobson Road in Fort Wayne and another store in Muncie. He is the fourth generation to do so.

This month, the store will celebrate 125 years in business. It was established in 1891 when Frederick William Toenges emigrated from Germany and settled in Fort Wayne. An experienced cobbler, he opened a shoe shop at 1127 Maumee Ave.

After he died in 1930, his sons, Arthur and John, managed the business until grandson Fred took over in the 1950s. Fred Toenges expanded the shoe business and opened his first branch store in 1959 on East State Boulevard. That was followed by stores on West State and South Anthony Boulevard and children’s stores in Glenbrook Square and Covington Plaza.

Widely recognized as a foot and ankle expert, Fred Toenges was chosen for the 2004 Summer Olympics as one of 11 certified pedorthists – out of 1,800 – to serve athletes from all nations at the games in Athens, Greece.

“Every customer gets our best efforts to be sure their shoes are carefully fit. That’s the one thing that has not changed in 125 years. Our reputation for proper fitting has been built over the last 125 years of continuous service to this community,” Fred Toenges said.

Eventually, Fred Toenges consolidated his stores into the current facility.

“Dad decided to combine the resources and inventories of all of the stores into one new, larger location and built this building (on Hobson Road),” Ross Toenges said.

The result was a 10,000-plus-square-foot facility – a shoe store that incorporates the science of pedorthics; the design, manufacture and fitting of modified shoes and foot support products; and an orthotic-prosthetic division.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, arthritis and foot pain are major public health problems. As the number of older adults in the population increases, so will the proportion of society affected by these problems.

Emerging research suggests that foot orthotics and footwear may have a significant role in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis of the hip, knee and foot, according to the NCBI.

In addition to being a certified pedorthist, Ross Toenges is a certified prosthetist, helping fit patients with leg and foot prosthetics.

Toenges studied prosthetics at Northwestern University’s Prosthetics-Orthotics Center, which is housed in the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The store provides total care for typical, healthy feet as well as for customers with common foot ailments or injuries. Prescriptions are filled at the front counter. Two large showrooms and storage rooms hold more than 18,000 pairs of shoes.

In another part of the building, technicians pour plaster into foot molds that will be used to modify or repair shoes or design and manufacture foot appliances and braces.

The staff of 40 also includes certified pedorthists and foot pros who are trained to identify and solve foot problems and fill prescriptions.

“They go through a training process and serve an internship before they are allowed to work with customers or patients on their own,” Toenges said.

Some of the more common ailments the staff encounters include arthritis, athlete’s foot, plantar fasciitis, claw toes, neuropathy, shin splints, diabetic feet and bunions.

And people often wear ill-fitting shoes, which can lead to all kinds of problems, Toenges said.

“Customers used to be fitted and measured for shoes – which we still do – and shoes used to come in many sizes and widths,” he said. “Now we have medium and wide, if we’re lucky.”

The image of the store has also evolved.

“We used to be known for shoes for kids and the elderly and being expensive,” Toenges said. “But we now do much more than that.”

While Toenges is still known for offering quality children’s shoes, both stores carry popular brands for all ages including New Balance, Birkenstock, Rockport, Ecco, Clarks, Merrell, Drew, P.W. Minor, Salomon, Keen, Teva, Dansko, NAOT, Asics, Skechers, Stride Rite and Brooks.

The prices are comparable to those at other shoe stores, Toenges said.

The store also offers a frequent-buyer program and, for families with growing children, a 13-week growth guarantee to help minimize the cost of shoeing a child every three months.

Toenges’ entire family is involved in the business. His wife, Angela, oversees the medical paperwork in addition to advertising and other clerical work.

The couple also manages what may be the fifth generation of Toenges shoe experts: Their son Max, 18, sells shoes, 14-year-old Muriel sometimes serves as a cashier, and the youngest, Nari, 10, helps clean the store.

“Nari gets paid more than I did at that age, but there’s no daily soda,” Ross Toenges said.

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