Brotherly business: After returning to Sandusky, Ryan and Chad Whaley Paddle together into ventures

When Ryan Whaley looks at Sandusky, he sees a “microtropolis.” 

“It’s a small town, so you have that small-town feel, but it also has a lot of the things you need, and I enjoy that,” the downtown resident and business owner says, adding that it’s “a great base of operations” thanks in part to its relatively close proximity to Cleveland, its airport, as well as to Detroit’s airport. “But you come back to this pretty walkable and inclusive community.”

That helps to explain why Whaley, about a decade ago – after post-high school stints working in Colorado skiing hot spots Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge and then attending Bowling Green State University – returned to the North Coast, where he is a partner in a number of ventures. 

“After having experience in the tourism industry (in Colorado),” Whaley says, “coming back to Sandusky and seeing all this waterfront and all this opportunity – not only was (returning) a good way to be around family, but also (there was a lot of potential) for business,”

It wasn’t long before he had help. 

His younger brother, Chad Whaley, who grew up with him in Perkins Township – Ryan and Chad are 1996 and 2000 graduates of Perkins High School, respectively – returned home after first going south to Athens, to attend Ohio University, and then west to Breckenridge.

“I saw Ryan move back here and start doing his own thing,” Chad says. “I like to say he needed help, but the truth is he probably didn’t. But I came back and helped anyway.”

In a recent joint phone interview, the co-owners of connected downtown businesses Paddle & Climb and Paddle Bar discuss working together and the challenges of running businesses in an area that still thrives when the weather’s warm and can be reduced to less than a dull roar when it isn’t. 

“We always got along very well,” Ryan says when the pair is asked about what they were like growing up together. “However, we were always hyper-competitive with each other, particularly when it came to skiing. But, luckily, when it comes to business, we mesh really well and have different ideas – and they tend to turn into business plans and bar ideas and all kinds of things.”

They first partnered on Green Door Mediaworks, a boutique communication firm on East Water Street that worked to help clients with media relations and social media. It was a real family affair, with their father, Tom Whaley, serving as their videographer as needed. 

Tom runs the decades-old video-production company TW Teleproductions and, says Ryan, “He’s in his 70s, and I don’t think he’s ever going to retire. He just keeps going.”

The brothers closed the door on Green Door in January, after about a decade, because, they say, they simply wanted to devote more of themselves to other endeavors.

“We made a nice run,” Ryan says. “We didn’t close it for lack of business; we closed it for lack of time, wanting to move on to other things.”

It was during a break from work, while throwing a Frisbee at a nearby park, that the idea for Paddle & Climb was flung into the air. 

“I don't remember who said it,” Chad says, “but at some point during that session – that little Frisbee session – we looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe should do an outdoors shop in that building across the street.’

“And a year and a half later, it happened,” he adds with a laugh. 

At Paddle & Climb, visitors can do everything from purchasing a kayak or paddle boat to ascending a 31-foot climbing wall. 

On the opposite side of the building resides the Whaleys’ more recent project, Paddle Bar, where patrons can unwind with a beer or three and often enjoy live music. 

Last year, they added an elevated deck to Paddle Bar, doubling the outdoor seating space. And while the details aren’t yet set in stone, they say to expect more of the same in the near future.

“I think there will be even more activities and seating outside by spring of 2023,” Ryan says. 

Oh, and they’ve made an apartment above the store available through Airbnb, where guests can open a curtain to review a glassed view of folks reaching the top of the climbing wall. 

Ryan is involved in a few businesses Chad is not, such as The Cedar Motel in nearby Bay View – which recently got a new 1950s-era retro sign that, Ryan says, “looks like it came off Route 66” – and the world’s largest rubber duck, which in September appeared at the Detroit Auto Show.

“All you have to do is Google that,” he says, “and you’ll get the gist of that thing.”

And much closer to home is Volstead Bar, a 24-seat speakeasy he owns with Nikki Lloyd, a former Sandusky city commissioner.

“It is right across the street from Paddle Bar, so you can commute between the two pretty easily,” he suggests with a laugh.

Just about any business is still dealing with some COVID-19-related effect – Ryan says he thinks downtown Sandusky persevered through the pandemic as well as any business district could have – and inflation, with the Whaleys looking to balance rising prices with specials, such as Paddle Bar’s four-hour happy hour. 

Of course, Sandusky-area businesses also must deal with cooling revenue with the arrival of the colder months of the year, when fewer folks flock to the area for a little R&R. 

In fact, as the brothers talk, they’re huddled together on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in a closed Paddle Bar, which they shut down on Tuesdays once the weather has cooled. Were it a different time of year, at least a few folks would be enjoying drinks and a musical act may be getting ready to perform, they say. 

“I will say this: We’ve been back to Sandusky for 10 years now, and the offseason, if you will, is getting shorter and shorter,” Ryan says. “There are more things to do.

“I don’t think we’re a four-season town quite yet, but we’re definitely going in the right direction.”

He gives some of the credit for that to work done by groups including the Erie County Chamber of Commerce and the newer Greater Sandusky Partnership, as well as a shared attitude among business owners.

“We’re always pushing (toward), ‘How do you get people here in November when Cedar Point’s not open and the islands aren’t open basically?’” he says. “There are certainly a lot of business owners that talk about it.

“Like I said, It’s changed,” he continues. “Any given weekend, whether it’s July or December now, it’s going to be a busy weekend. It wasn’t always like that. There’s definitely a bit of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ We have tons of restaurant and bar options. There’s ax-throwing. There’s duck-pin bowling. There’s all kinds of different things to do. There are breweries and distilleries. A new winery is going to open downtown.

“I think we all have the attitude of, ‘Make the city attractive enough that people are going to come all the time.’”

Adds Chad, “The camaraderie and the friendship between business owners down here is really quite special, and you can tell that just by going out to dinner one night or walking down to have a drink somewhere. It’s pretty cool how we all feed off each other.”

You can expect the brothers to keep feeding off each other, as well. Their newest venture is Zero Tide Apparel. Operated out of Paddle and Climb, the business specializes in T-shirts that celebrate the city, Lake Erie and more. 

“We’re just kicking that off and planning to have that really up and running by Christmas,” Ryan says, “so you hit that holiday-shopping business and, certainly, continue into the summer.” 

Asked how they’ve evolved as entrepreneurs, Big Brother says he’s learned to be more patient, more calculating.

“But it can sometimes be a disadvantage,” Ryan says. “Some of the earlier businesses started because you go, ‘Ah, I don’t care about consequences – I’m just going to go.’ As you get deeper and deeper into it, you start thinking a little bit more about the consequences. However, I think that we’re still risk-takers.”

“Ryan, of the two of us, he definitely has the business mind,” Chad says. “And sometimes I think the only thing I have to do is walk him back from starting a business every couple of weeks.”

Ryan laughs.

“Or (he wants to do) something new with a current business that we have,” Chad continues. “It’s just one thing after another. ‘Let’s do this.’ ‘Let’s improve on this.’ Sometimes I have to be, ‘Hey, let’s just hang here for a bit.’

“But the two of us – it balances out and works pretty well.”

Mark Meszoros is a Northeast Ohio-based features editor and writer and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer Approved Critic who spent two enjoyable years in Sandusky not long after graduation from Ohio University.