The founders of the Sonora-based clothing company Tuo*Co say they are as surprised as everyone else to see West Coast hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg repping their small local brand throughout the United States over the past few days.

Snoop Dogg wore a Tuo*Co hat while performing Saturday at Black Oak Casino Resort’s Westside Pavilion in Tuolumne and was spotted the next day wearing the hat while performing at a festival in Milwaukee.

Millions also saw Snoop Dogg wearing the hat in a video he posted to Instagram on Sunday advocating for the World Cup champion U.S. women’s soccer team to be paid the same as the men’s team, which was covered by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, TMZ, and international news outlets.

The rapper was last seen wearing the hat on Monday at the University of California, Los Angeles, for the second annual charity celebrity basketball game sponsored by Monster Energy.

“This is the best accidental exposure we could have hoped for,” said Greg Stevens, who co-founded Tuo*Co two years ago with his cousin, Joel Franco.

Stevens, 46, and Franco, 42, were unable to attend the concert on Saturday but started getting text messages from friends after Snoop Dogg hit the stage wearing the hat.

They recently started selling the hats in the Turnback Creek Bistro in Black Oak Casino Resort’s hotel, so Franco said he went there to check inventory earlier this week and asked the staff if they knew how Snoop Dogg got the hat.

“They said he just walked in, shopped around, and bought the hat,” Franco said. “Someone later said to me, ‘How many companies pay Snoop Dogg to wear their gear, but he actually paid you guys to wear it by buying it.’ ”
The business partners said they’ve seen a noticeable boost in sales on their website and gained hundreds of followers on their Facebook page since Saturday, but “nothing too crazy,” Franco said.

Both men said they never envisioned starting their own clothing brand while growing up together in Tuolumne County.

“Neither of us are business guys,” Franco said. “It just snowballed into what it is.”

Both attended Curtis Creek Elementary School and graduated from Sonora High School.

Stevens served in the U.S. Army from 1991 to 1994 after high school and was stationed in Germany. He later worked primarily for 20 years as a boilermaker in Local Union 549 until a motorcycle accident three years ago rendered him medically disabled.

Franco also wanted to serve in the Army and joined a program that saw him complete his basic training over the summer before his senior year, but a knee injury while playing football the following semester ended his military career.

After high school, Franco also started working as a boilermaker before joining Local Union 342 for plumbers and steamfitters. He still works part-time for the union while also working as a real estate agent for RE/MAX Gold in Sonora.

The pair got the idea to make a clothing brand promoting Tuolumne County in 2016 after seeing similar apparel for other cities and counties.

“Tuolumne County wasn’t branded,” Stevens said.

Stevens said they wanted their brand to show that there’s more to Tuolumne County than downtown Sonora. because they felt there are many parts of it that even locals don’t explore.

They teamed with a graphic designer to come up with the logo for the company, which incorporates the company’s name with a Highway 108 road sign or snow-capped mountains.

“We grew up with camping, fishing, hiking, backpacking, and loving the outdoors,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to show that part of the county.”

Franco said they made a few hats and started giving them to friends and family at first, but then others started saying they wanted to buy one.

The company patented its logo and launched a website in 2017. Their selection has grown since that time to include several styles of hats, men’s and women’s T-shirts, tank tops, beanies, pullovers, hoodies, and also zip-up hooded sweatshirts.

They donate proceeds each year to various community causes that are mainly youth-oriented, such as senior high school projects and prep sports teams.
Stevens said their products are sold on their website and at locations throughout the county, including Dardanelle Resort, the Chop Shop of Jamestown, Cafe Blossom in Twain Harte, Alicia’s Sugar Shack in Sugar Pine, Dougherty Tire of Sonora in Standard, the Turnback Creek Bistro, Mountain Liquors in Twain Harte, Twain Harte Chamber of Commerce, and soon at Let’er Buck in The Junction shopping center.

They haven’t spoken with Snoop Dogg or anyone from his team since the show on Saturday, but they have reached out to a mutual friend who has connections, because they want to give him more Tuo*Co gear.

Franco said the endorsement from Snoop Dogg tells him they must be doing something right.

“If Snoop thinks it’s cool, then it must be cool,” he said with a laugh.

BJ Nelson, executive director of operations at Black Oak Casino Resort, confirmed that the rapper’s show on Saturday was the first sell out at Westside Pavilion since the new venue launched its summer concert series last year.

Nelson said the estimated attendance was just under 6,000 people.

Snoop Dogg could not be reached for comment.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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