All business owners wear many hats, but few can say they have done so both literally and figuratively for 25 years.
That’s the case for Kevin Neufeld, whose Beau Chapeau Hat Shop celebrates its 25th anniversary as a Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake mainstay. Neufeld, his family and his staff held a celebration last week to mark the occasion, and to officially open their expanded Queen Street store, complete with a fedora room and a new custom hat shop and vintage vault acquired from a legendary Toronto hat-maker.
In the mid-1990s, Neufeld and his wife Jana had been living in British Columbia. With Jana pregnant with their first son Tanner, the couple decided to move back to Niagara and were considering opening a sports memorabilia store in town. A chance stop in Seattle gave them the seed of a different idea.
“While we were there we went into a costume shop,” Neufeld remembers. “I started playing around with a top hat, pretending I was Abe Lincoln. Then I was Indiana Jones, then Paul (Crocodile Dundee) Hogan. I was amazed at how much fun it was without even having to buy anything.”
Once back home, Neufeld took a job at the Pillar and Post, learning all he could about the customer experience from Si Wai Lai, who he credits for her early mentorship.
“She was a perfectionist,” says Neufeld. “She taught me all about perfection, and I absorbed everything.”
In 1997, a store front facing valu-mart became available. The sports memorabilia market had begun to fizzle out at that time, so Neufeld accessed his memory bank for that visit to the costume shop and the fun he had trying on hats. Some research showed that no one locally was selling much beyond ball caps.
The self-professed country bumpkin, only 25 years old at the time, booked a trip to New York for Fashion Week and purchased his first array of men’s and women’s hats for the store.
Business quickly grew, and within six months Beau Chapeau had moved into a bigger space in the site of a former chocolate store at 126 Queen St.
“The two locations actually shared a bathroom,” Neufeld laughs. “We closed at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday and opened at 10 a.m. the very next day. We moved everything from one store to the other through the bathroom. We were so tight on cash I couldn’t afford to be closed for even a day.”
A second store in Banff opened in 2001, but Neufeld says they had to close that one after 9/11 happened. They
got out of Banff by the skin of their teeth, and were able to stay afloat by returning fixtures and retracting their Alberta inventory.
Four years later the NOTL store moved to its current location at 42 Queen St.
With his mind ever on expansion, when an opportunity came to double the size at his current location, Neufeld took the plunge despite the economic downturn driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I talked to my wife, and my staff,” he says, “and I said we could either bunt, hunker down and be careful, or swing for the fence and hope for
the best. So we signed the lease and began to figure out how to fill it.”
Conveniently for Neufeld, The Hatter on Avenue Road in Toronto, run by the Catleugh family since 1936, was closing its doors. Neufeld called George Catleugh Jr., who along with his brothers Len and Steve were the second generation of the family in the hat business, offering to take his equipment and inventory off his hands.
“We want to continue their legacy,” Neufeld says of The Hatter, whose signage and collection of old historic hats he also acquired. “George Sr. started it as a hat service in 1936. He would crisscross Toronto to pick up hats, he’d block and clean 500 to 600 hats a day. It evolved into The Hatter, and became Canada’s premier men’s hat shop.”
Stepping into Beau Chapeau’s new custom hat shop is like stepping back in time. Working steam lines and gauges line one wall, while a vast array of hat shapers and bands in every colour imaginable line the others. A sewing machine built in 1893 is still operable, while hanging overhead, a domed hat press awaits its next shaping assignment.
As enthusiastic young hat-makers Meghan Harrison and Sarah Olsen ply their trade, tourists and townsfolk stop to gawk in awe through the Queen Street window. The Catleughs have visited Beau Chapeau to train Harrison and Olsen on how to use the equipment.
Neufeld shows off a glass case, holding gems such as an Italian admiral’s hat from the mid-1800s, a hat belonging to an Olympic gold medalist from 1928, and top hats from the turn of the twentieth century.
“We’re restoring them, and trying to carry on the stories that come with them,” Neufeld says. “Many of them were made with this same equipment that we have right here in our store.”
“These are the very first gift cards,” he continues, pointing to a set of miniature men’s and women’s hats and hat boxes. “If you wanted to buy someone a hat, you bought one of those, gave them to your loved one, and they brought it back to cash in for a hat.”
Neufeld says the new equipment makes the shop not just a destination for tourists, as it has been for 25 years, but also a destination for true hat-lovers and collectors.
“It’s kind of like restoring a rusty old ‘68 Mustang with no floor boards,” Neufeld explains. “We completely disassemble the hat, bathe it, clean it, steam it and re-block it back to its desired shape. Then we’ll put a new band on, a new binding on the edge and a new inner lining. When it’s done it is in showroom condition.”
Neufeld is visibly excited about the new direction being taken by Beau Chapeau. He’s committed to preserving and telling the story of the history of hats through the restoration and hat-making process.
At the anniversary and grand opening celebration Friday, Neufeld was quick to thank his staff and his family, including his father Elmer, who during the pandemic put in eight-hour days to disassemble, sand, restore and refinish much of the cabinetry and vintage machinery. He also recognized former staff members from the store’s early days who came to take part in the event.
A behatted Neufeld also gave much credit to many of his neighbours for their mentorship.
“It’s the anchors,” he tells The Local. “Just Christmas, Irish Design, Greaves Jams. They know what they are doing. They are pros, with a high pedigree in retail. And I’ve been really impressed with the Chamber over the years, too. They’ve been invaluable. And the way the town takes care of the gardens, they’ve been
For any business to make it through a quarter of a century it has to build a relationship with its customers or clients. Hats are a very personal purchase, and it’s common for Neufeld to receive feedback from happy hat-wearers.
“We have so many people who post photos of them wearing their hats on our website,” he marvels. “We have some people who come back year after year to show us their photos personally, too.”
As well, through 25 years he’s weathered some of the highs and lows of the hat trade. He expects women’s hats to have an uptick this year with Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee and the return of polo to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Commons in September.
For men’s hats, there’s been nothing like the resurgence that came with the popularity of the AMC Network’s Mad Men from 2007 to 2015. Fedoras were flying off the shelves in droves as men emulated the suave Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. It’s also the go-to hat for Neufeld himself.
“It is the easiest hat for me to wear,” he says. “I’ve tried a couple of other things, but it’s a dynamite hat that looks really good on most men.”
On the women’s side, Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter, who wore a red fedora in movies and a TV series from 2013 to 2016, increased the demand for that hat. Neufeld says Beau Chapeau became the top seller of Agent Carter fedoras in the world during that time. A new Indiana Jones film scheduled to be released in 2023 should bring its own surge on the men’s side, too.
Before helping Kevin and Jana cut the ribbon to welcome visitors into the custom shop, Lord Mayor Betty Disero reached up for a fedora and dropped one onto her head, wanting to be the first to buy a hat from the now officially-open fedora room. And she was touched by Neufeld’s humility.
“All the thanks you have just given everybody,” Disero said, “without talking about ‘we’ve done that, we’ve done this’, it makes me know why this is such a welcoming place. You are so grateful for all the help that you received. Your humility is contagious.”
Though he’s not likely to brag about what Disero said, that compliment is surely one more feather in Neufeld’s cap.