In Portland, Unconventional Business Makes Sense

From Portlandia to Grimm, Portland has become known for its unique yet endearing quirks through pop culture. The shows feature handmade artisanal foods, communities of enthusiastic outdoorsmen, and few fairy tale creatures. Reality was not so distant from fiction when the UO Entrepreneurship Club went to the Rose City this past weekend to hear from different businesses about the keys of their success.

Walking into Evo Sportswear, the first thing you notice is how unlike a sportswear company the location looks. A fake pink storefront sits in the middle of the store with the name of Uncle Jacks Bakery; the building itself is a renovated Salvation Army; and the second floor has walls painted with faux stained-glass windows. All in all, a little quirky for a place that’s known for selling skis and snowboards. But as our guide—general manager Kevin—explained, all of these elements are play a part in staying true to the Evo brand. Started 14 years ago by Bryce Phillips, Evo began in Seattle as an online retailer selling skis and snowboards. Eventually the first brick-and-mortar store opened and the product line now includes everything from yoga mats to surf boards. Phillips used the location as not only a store front, a place where people could buy something and leave, but as a community gathering place where local winter sports enthusiasts could discuss their favorite pastime, create an event space, art gallery, provide giveaways, have launch parties, organize trips to mountains, hold training courses, and use the space for fundraisers and clubs as well as meetings.

With online sales booming (the company sells 25 percent of all European winter sportswear through Evo.com) the second Evo location opened its doors in Southeast Portland this past October. So when so many mom-and-pop-style sports stores are closing their doors for good, why would Evo choose to invest so much in a new location? The simple answer is that shopping online, though cheaper, has cost the industry a lot. As Kevin talked about his last trip to the mountain for a day on the slopes he saw tons of people with their skis on the wrong side, grips not properly installed, and frustrated in general because their online purchases failed to live up to their expectations. By having a brick-and-mortar location near their target market, Evo is able to provide the community with an immense amount of support through customer service and by allowing people to handle the products before they spend hundreds of dollars. Even if someone can’t find the perfect piece of equipment they’re looking for (only 5-10 percent of Evo’s total inventory can be found in the 11,000 square foot retail location), there are multiple iPads throughout the store so an employee can help you search through the company website. This click-and-mortar approach has been the determining factor in Evo’s success balancing tech and face-to-face customer service.

The next stop of the day was Salt and Straw, nationally recognized gourmet ice cream makers. Just a few days before our tour, cofounder and head chef Tyler Malek was recognized by Forbes magazine as one of their 30 under 30 for changing the way Americans eat. Known for creating ice-cream flavor combinations such as sea urchin and mint, and mashed potatoes and gravy, Tyler has shaped Salt and Straw to become an iconic part of Portland. Kim Malek, Tyler’s cousin and cofounder and president of the company, provided a tour of the manufacturing facilities where all the ice cream Salt and Straw sells in Oregon is made. Club members saw the R&D facilities where all the unconventional flavors are concocted, the actual process of how they produce hundreds of gallons of ice cream, and the administrative side that keeps everything running smoothly. Amazingly, three small ice cream machines are responsible for churning out more than 20 flavors. As a fresh batch of the almond brittle with salted ganache came straight out of a machine, members were treated to a taste of the incredible ice cream and learned that the milk used to make the delicious concoction was as close to butter in consistency as you could get.

Malek explained how the core principle of her business idea—creating a neighborhood gathering spot—is still felt in the manufacturing process through terroir, a French word that means “taste of place.” By partnering with other local companies for ingredients, Salt and Straw keeps their flavors local both in Portland and in their newest scoop shop in Los Angeles, California. Throughout this rapid growth (the company began four years ago as a food cart), staying true to their identity as community minded foodies has been the key to Malek’s success.

Our takeaway: in Portland, community matters. Treating customers as neighbors rather than profit margins means a lot in gaining loyalty. Finding a way to make that experience more than just a transaction can be a game-changer for not only customers, but for an entire industry. Knowing how this community approach has created such success, Portland’s reputation as a hub for the unorthodox will likely outlast any cable TV series.

Written by Jordan Johnson

Senior at the UO, majoring in business administration, minoring in art. Current President of the UO Entrepreneurship Club.