“It’s like stepping from Idaho Falls into a retreat-town, like Salmon or Jackson.”
That’s a comment often heard when locals first walk through the nondescript doors of Bear & Blue. But the owner of the unique new business on the west side of town disagrees. Carrie “Bear” Royce says the woodsy atmosphere inside her shop is exactly how she pictured Idaho Falls before moving here from Kansas City.
“I guess it’s a matter of perspective. I haven’t lived near mountains in a long time. Idaho Falls is the epicenter of such an accessible, playful region—so this is how I imagined it.”
In fact, Bear loves the area’s outdoorsy vibe so much that she later pivoted her business model to fit. What began in Kansas City as a startup publishing and product design firm, transformed into a handcrafting workshop along with a little store and taproom.
“It sounds like a pretty big change in direction, but most of my equipment was still essential.” Projects like laser prototyping and pattern development turned into wood crafting and soft goods manufacturing. Bear & Blue’s computer, photography, and printing equipment all found their place in the new plan.
“It’s an upstart,” said Bear, “So either way there would still be a lot more ‘figuring out’ and investing to do. But now, there’s a lot more hands-on creation and less desk-sitting. Turns out, I really like getting my hands dirty after decades of working with tech and software.”
Bear has been expanding the company’s capabilities in woodworking and sewing, with an eye toward developing semicustom product lines for the region’s gift shops, pubs, and corporate entities. After she uncomfortably filled up her tiny rented workshop, she bought an old warehouse-like building on Idaho Falls’ west side.
“The place needed a lot of work; it had been neglected for years. But to me, that just meant a blank slate to adapt to my needs (Hobo spider nest cleaning notwithstanding). Besides, the location was ideal for my plan. We’re right next door to Rocknak’s Hardware; I probably visit them three times a day. It’s like having my own tool stockroom, but my money isn’t tied up in the inventory.”
She started scavenging the neighborhood for felled trees, trucked in a pile of lodgepole pines, and learned to debark them herself. The tall tree that makes up the centerpiece of the Bear & Blue store was actually cut down just a few blocks away. With the help of her dad – a longtime carpenter – and a few old friends, the building’s interior was refinished inch by inch.
So why dedicate space in a space-hungry manufacturing workshop to a store and taproom? Indeed, the space feels out of place on the outskirts of town between a hardware store and an auto mechanic shop.
“I decided it would be a good idea to have a showroom of sorts, as well as a place we could sell our trial lines and overstocks. After a while I started to add some of my favorite product lines from other independently owned companies—a gesture of support toward entrepreneurship.”
In Kansas City, Bear was an outspoken advocate for entrepreneurial support and community, a passion she is anxious to keep fueling here in the state where she grew up. She’s conscientious about carrying products made by independently-owned companies, and puts quite a bit of effort into finding unique lines. Distributors are asked during every sampling, “Where did this come from and who made it? What’s their story?”
As for the taproom, Bear said she just wanted a place “to sit and sip a beer after work,” so she applied for her beer license without a real plan in place for the taproom. “In K.C. I had a few favorite, relatively low-key spots near my house where I could walk over and relax without loud music, loud sports, or loud crowds. I missed that. I hadn’t been able to find that kind of place in west I.F., so I figured, what the heck, I’ll build one here.”
The small taproom – called The Hollow – has been both a benefit and drawback to store business. “The Idaho Falls cultural divide—I didn’t realize how thick that curtain is,” said Bear. “Bear & Blue makes beautiful gifts for all cultures, but once beer landed on the shelves last November, a fair half of my walk-in traffic disappeared. I found it confusing and disappointing. I mean, beer doesn’t bite, and there’s so much more neat stuff going on here. But after a few months I realized I had to make a choice. Coming from a family of home-brewers, I chose to keep the beer available.”
Still, The Hollow maintains a full teetotaler drink menu lacking any alcohol or caffeine. In honor of her grandma, Bear offers a family favorite—the “Mormon Mimosa” is a chilled cocktail of 7UP and Guava Juice.
So what’s next on the list of a business that has so many pokers in the fire?
“Our two priorities this summer are finishing the outdoor patio seating area, and developing a line of Solar Eclipse products for area stores along the tourist route,” said Bear.
Bear & Blue has developed over a dozen original designs themed around this summer’s big event in Idaho Falls. The current rollout is a good example of the company’s overall strategy, with designs available on an array of semicustom boutique goods. “Shirts, bags, wood gifts … We handcraft almost everything here from scratch using USA-made supplies, so they’re not going to be just another souvenir on the shelf.”
As for the patio, Bear admits she’s running behind. “I hoped to open in May, but there just aren’t enough hands around here for this ‘barn raising’. There are lots and lots of holes to dig.” Like the interior, the building’s exterior and outdoor furniture are being handcrafted by Bear and her family. “Even though it’s right by Broadway, I want it to feel like your friend’s backyard—recline in an Adirondack, sip a cold beverage, roast a few marshmallows...” The patio will be crafted together through the summer.
Undeniably, the combination of a manufacturing business, the giftshop, and the taproom, makes Bear & Blue an idiosyncratic place. Some compare the store to a Cracker Barrel or Black Bear Diner of taprooms. Some say it’s like the closed Vina Rosa wine shop downtown.
Bear says she simply hopes her customers feel like they’re in a pal’s place where they can relax, play chess, check out the company’s creations, and maybe take home something fun—be it a full growler, a fantastic smelling soap, or a one-of-a-kind Idaho handbag.