While working as a sales associate at Foot Locker as a freshman in high school, Cory Matthews would frequently clean the customer’s shoes as they scanned the store for a new pair of fresh kicks.
His experiences cleaning shoes led him to pursue this craft on his own.
“They came out good,” said Matthews, a freshman business management major. “Once they came out good, it kinda just hit me that I could actually do this. I could turn this into a business.”
Matthews, a North Philly native, created his own sneaker-cleaning service, “Sole Surgeon,” which is now his nickname, in November 2020. Since developing his brand, Matthews has prioritized supporting Black-owned businesses and inspired youth to pursue entrepreneurialism by partnering with other businesses and teaching sneaker restoration courses.
Matthews operates an Instagram page where customers can send him a direct message to schedule a shoe-cleaning appointment, or click the link in his bio to book a cleaning on his website. He cleans shoes in his dorm in Hardwick Hall or at his home on 10th Street near Jefferson, charging between $60 and $100 for cleanings.
His account gained followers at a steady pace, but surged once he partnered with phillyscoophall, an Instagram page that posts Philadelphia-related memes and other content, for a promotional post in February 2021. He currently has more than 3,000 followers.
“My page went up by a thousand followers in that same day,” Matthews said. “It also motivated me because now I knew that I had way more people looking at me and interested in my business.”
As Matthews began serving more clients, he was contacted by companies that wanted him to try their shoe-cleaning products. Last July, Stephen Benson, founder of ShoeCPR, a Texas-based sneaker-cleaner, contacted Matthews in hopes that he’d try his product.
After using complementary product solutions he received, like ShoeCPR’s Essentials Cleaning Kit, Matthews was pleased with the results and decided to make the permanent switch from previous sneaker-cleaning products he used, like Reshoevn8r.
Matthews and Benson hit it off immediately, because their connection to being Black-owned businesses fostered a natural partnership.
“Why not support Black-owned businesses?” Matthews said. “I’m a Black-owned business, so I’m all about supporting other Black-owned businesses as well.”
Benson, who lives in Dallas, sends routine orders of his cleaning solutions to Philadelphia for Matthews. He’s become a mentor to Matthews and enjoys seeing Matthews’ progress as their relationship has blossomed.
“We definitely are friends now more than business partners,” Benson said. “I look at him almost as a version of me when I was younger.”
He’s also appreciated Matthews’ support for Black-owned businesses and the efforts he’s made to give back to his community.
“Our goal is just everybody eats,” Benson said. “There’s no reason to be stingy. There’s enough shoes in the world, there’s enough money in the world so we’re just about getting each other to the top.”
Matthews’ love for shoes spurred while watching some of his favorite NBA players, like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, sport different makes and styles of sneakers while on the court.
His fascination and desire to collect and own different sneakers remained a distant dream, as he couldn’t afford shoes more than $100 growing up.
However, once he started working at Foot Locker in 2019, Matthews earned enough money to start periodically buying his own shoes.
While working at Footlocker, he grew immersed in shoe culture, learning more about the release patterns of some of his favorite shoes, like Air Jordans and Yeezys, only furthering his interest in sneakers.
Matthews works at the NoMo Foundation, a youth nonprofit that offers programs to at-risk youth, and has offered a sneaker-cleaning course to teens in the program.
Chanice Smith, director of programming at NoMo, reached out to Matthews last July to teach a course at the program because she saw how popular sneakers were among teens in NoMo.
Smith wanted the students to learn how to clean their shoes rather than abandoning them once they got dirty, especially because many teens took pride in their shoes, Smith said.
She’s enjoyed seeing the connection Matthews makes with his students at the program and his leadership encouraged more youth to apply for the course, Smith said.
“Since he’s been with us he’s been a remarkable instructor,” Smith said. “He knows our youth well, they’re comfortable with him and they love him.”
Matthews hopes to one day open a studio where he can run his business. He wants the space to be collaborative and engaging for guests so they’re able to do more than just drop off their sneakers to be cleaned, he said.
“We can connect, engage and just get to know each other,” Matthews said. “I can inform them a little bit about what I do and why I do what I do with my passion.”