Meet Mike McGraw and Gary Hwang, the founders of Grumpy Joes, the Veteran apparel company that makes the complete opposite of what you think a Veteran T-shirt should look like.
Founded in 2016, the two were tired of the same old giant flags and skulls Veteran T-shirts. They wanted to rep their Military culture but couldn’t bring themselves to rock the tacky, over the top clothing lines that dominate the industry.
They met while in a Military Police unit in the U.S. Army National Guard out of Maryland. The two quickly bonded over the ridiculousness of their command at that time, which Mike refers to as “the dark ages”.
“We were in a unit at a time of terrible leadership and made it through those dark ages by constantly making jokes on how dumb some of the calls the unit’s leaders were making. That sense of humor never leaves a Soldier.”
The two carried on their friendship even though Gary left the National Guard to serve in the active duty Army as an Infantryman for a few years in Ft. Bliss and Afghanistan. Upon Gary’s return, they made their regular meet-ups at local bars and clubs. One thing they began noticing while out drinking, was the growing popularity of Veteran T-shirt lines.
“At first it was great,” explained Mike. “We’d spot other dudes in the crowd with Vet-type shirts on and it’d be a cool icebreaker to say hey to other Vets. Then it started happening. The images on the shirts evolved into a way for Vets to scream at civilians to fuck off, leave them alone and tell them how much better they are than people who haven’t served.”
They didn’t agree with the message these companies were putting out and wanted to find a way to wear a shirt that showed their pride of service but in a subtle way. To do that, they decided to focus on the positive side of their service, the inside jokes that kept them up laughing after lights out.
It’s not really about shirts. It’s about changing the way Vets view their service.
This was a risky move as Mike says “To make a Vet T-shirt and not put a flag on it is kinda backwards thinking. These guys want to show their service and we knew going into this that a lot of Vets wouldn’t buy our stuff without it cuz it’s kinda like, well what’s the point? Our goal is that when you wear a Grumpy Joes shirt at the bar, other Vets in the room will pick up on it but civilians won’t. This way, you can spot out and bond with your fellow service members without furthering the divide between us and civilians. We combine this low-key take on Patriotic shirts with inside jokes for a true, Vets only experience."
The feedback and support has been amazing says Gary, “People are really responding to us after only a few months. One really cool thing that we didn’t even consider is how fun it is for people to explain the jokes to those who haven’t served. We met a father & son at an event and the son loved the imagery on the shirts but didn’t get what it meant which his dad found even more hilarious that his teenage son was finally not in the know on a joke. Later that night, the father messaged that they went on our site and had a blast explaining each shirt to his son and for once, felt like the cool one explaining internet jokes to his social media addicted son. That was really awesome for us.”
The company is diving into the video realm on social media platforms. “The Veteran apparel business community is all heading in one direction, original video content,” explained Mike. With this priority for the business, they say they’re bringing their goofiness to Veteran videos which are dominated by a more badass, Super-Soldier approach.
“I wana show that Soldiers, while Patriotic, can be the goofiest, weirdest dudes out there. Like me.” – Mike.
Today, the company continues to grow by adding new T-shirt designs monthly, new video content and reaching out to the Veteran community with events and an overall positive outlook on their service.