Rios of Mercedes
Trainor Evans recalls his conversations with Zeferino Rios, the father of boot making in the Rio Grande Valley, a craftsman who opened his first shop in Mercedes in 1929 and came from a long line of Mexican bootmakers and zapateros, dating back to the 1850s.
“He was a tough old guy,’’ said Evans, of the namesake of the company he purchased in 1975. “He didn’t mince words. He had one way of making a boot and it was the right way.’’
The right way, the Rios way of making a boot, has carried on and prospered over the last four decades-plus under the watch of Evans and his partner, Pat Moody. Rios of Mercedes has gone far beyond the days of the first Rios boot shop, taking the name of its city and legendary bootmaker to all corners of the United States and beyond.
“Mercedes is known throughout the western wear industry for the high quality of its boots,’’ Evans said. “Don Zeferino left us with a great foundation, and we’ve taken it and gone into a more modern way of making boots.’’
It’s a more modern way, but it’s still steeped in tradition and a legacy of handmade boots. The technical elements of making boots by hand are intricate, with each stop along the way filled with dozens of steps. Ryan Vaughan, the general manager of Rios of Mercedes, looks across his assembly floor and points to his employees by name and knows from memory how many years they’ve spent at Rios, working on their craft.
“No one builds a boot better than we do on the wholesale level,’’ Vaughan said.
They’re specialists and experts at what they do. They stitch, stamp, hammer, cut and stretch the leathers to specifications they know by feel and measure with precision. It’s a focused energy. There are no distractions, just a steady hum that runs through the assembly floor. Each employee does his or her individual part, with each step as important as the one just completed until a boot is finished.
“We owe everything to them,’’ Moody said of his 130 employees. “Most of them are more like family to us than employees.’’
The operation is multifaceted. There are three companies under one extended roof at Rios. There’s the Rios boots, the high-end boots of the parent company, the ones where the greatest hours of labor are poured into the product. A few steps across the way are the boots made under the brands of Anderson Bean and Olathe Boot Co. There are considerable handmade qualities to these boots as well, but they are made a little more quickly than the Rios boots, with a bit fewer options, and their price points are lower than the Rios boots.
A large distribution center sits nearby from where all the boots are made. It’s a collection point and staging area, not only for the boots made in Mercedes, but for Mexican boots imported from Guanajuato. In all, Evans said, 70,000 pair of boots made in Mercedes were shipped out in 2018 to their over 100 retailers in the United States and Europe, with another 100,000 pairs of the imported boots also sent out.
Despite the scale of operations that may seem considerable in size, Vaughan said the focus is on quality and not quantity.
“I don’t want us to be the biggest,’’ he said. “I want us to be the best.’’
A look on the company’s website shows an astonishing variety of boots. There’s black full quill ostrich with black calf, chocolate belly crocodile and black calf, and then there’s Havannah elephant and light chocolate calf, to name just a few of the selections.
“We’ve always tried to make a good honest product for a fair price for the ranchers, cowboys and people who depend on boots,’’ Moody said.
The two iconic figures of the company – Evans and Moody – have been grooming Vaughan to take over the top leadership role of the company as it moves into its next generation of boot making.
“We haven’t had to do much,’’ Moody said of preparing Vaughan to take charge of company operations. “Ryan is plenty smart already.’’
In his office near the front entrance of his building, Evans walks over to a single boot standing over a table.
“I think if Don Zeferino was here today,’’ Evans said taking the boot in hand, “he would say, `that’s a really fine boot.’ ’’
- Ricardo D. Cavazos