SAN FRANCISCO - Portlandia, the Independent Film Channel series that spoofs the heck out of Portland, Oregon's hipster-hippie populace, could have just as easily been set here (albeit, obviously, with a different name). The penchant for local -- and preferably organic, fair-trade, add your eco-friendly, socially-conscious attribute of choice here –- products is just as strong in San Francisco as it is in its northern neighbor.
SFMade formed in 2010 to support the growing legions of entrepreneurs turning hobbies -- from letterpresses to urban wineries to artisan furniture to coffee roasters -- into professions. But SFMade, a non-profit that operates largely through the city's community development grant block funding, also shines a light on and supports local manufacturers that have been operating in San Francisco for decades, often below the radar.
Bringing production back to U.S. shores, or onshoring, is a growing trend among large manufacturers, fueled largely by transportation costs and rising labor costs in Asia. For many of SFMade's more than 400 member companies, offshoring is not an option -- they tend to make small quantities of goods that often require specialized skills to create. That said, SFMade helps these companies keep manufacturing local even as they grow and, in some cases, thrive. One case in point is SFMade member Dodocase, which makes book-like covers for iPads (and other portable devices), and has remained local despite making a big splash when President Obama acquired one for his iPad 2.
"We help companies grow, so they can remain sustainable and successful and create more jobs. It all boils down to making jobs for a diverse, local workforce," says SFMade's senior director Janet Lees.
Dusting off infrastructure
Lees spends much of her time creating links between creatives -- clothing designers, for example -- and the local manufacturers who can turn their prototypes into products.
San Francisco is home to a fair number of sewing factories, considering the exodus of apparel-making to Asia over recent decades. Factories that are still functional, however, are not always visible to burgeoning apparel and accessories companies.
"A lot of them are underground, not that they're illegal, they're in compliance, but they're doing their business in an old-school way," says Lees of the sewing factories. "They don’t have Web sites. A lot of them are used to operating on big contracts, so they haven't had to hustle for business. So that is where SFMade comes in. We connect designers with factories."
That includes guiding designers toward fabric sources and pattern makes. Or it might include helping a startup find appropriate workspace or a commercial kitchen.
Aside from the city's support, SFMade is sustained through substantial donations from some of its largest members, such as Anchor Steam Brewing.
Timbuk2, a well-known San Francisco bag maker, is also a member -- though it has outsourced production of all but its custom bags to Asia. (Lees is quick to point out that custom bags represent the company's fastest growing segment). Former Timbuk2 CEO Mark Dwight now runs a rival bag company, Rickshaw Bagworks, which creates only custom bags and sells mostly online. In fact, SFMade is Dwight's brainchild.
Work in progress
At least one San Francisco-based entrepreneur has opted not to team up with SFMade until the organization spends more time helping make working standards in San Francisco factories more transparent to customers.
Tae Kim, former design director for The North Face and the co-founder of outdoor gear company Alite Designs, says he could not find a local sewing factory that could prove it pays its workers a livable wage as well as overtime pay.
Alite Designs has its goods made in a Korean factory, one in the Philippines and a third in Chico, California. Kim's experience with The North Face helped him identify factories with high workplace standards. He plans to bring production to San Francisco slowly, by building his own workforce here in a factory with the type of high-end sewing machines needed for backpacks and tents.
SFMade has no control over the wages factories pay their workers, Lees says. “We can’t impose [standards] because they are private companies. As long as they are paying minimum wage and meeting minimum standards, they can obtain a California garment manufacturing license, which they need to operate.”
SFMade does hope to launch some new labor-related initiatives soon, including a vocational program that would deliver training in sewing, fabricating and other trades vital to the long-term viability of SF-based manufacturing.
"We don’t have great vocational schools anymore," she says. "We're really looking at creating some kind of training program or a pipeline -- a youth program where people would go into apprenticeships, and we’d expose them to the idea of going into a career in manufacturing."
To get a sense of the breadth and scope of manufacturing in San Francisco, SmartPlanet toured two very different plants: a 46-year old belt manufacturer and a three-year-old urban winery.
Above the belt
If you've got a belt from J.Crew, Banana Republic or Tory Burch in your closet, there's a good chance it was made in San Francisco.
That's because these brands source belts from contract manufacturer Circa Corporation, headquartered in the city's Bayview neighborhood. The company was founded in San Francisco and grew up in the heady late 60s, evolving from the same culture that produced The Gap. From its beginnings, selling its wares "out of a VW," the company has specialized in belts and belts only, says Samantha Kretchman, Circa's design director.
Forty to 50 percent of its manufacturing is done in San Francisco, with the remainder completed in Asia. Circa produces many staple pieces, mostly basic men’s products, that see brisk demand in its Bayview plant. It also makes high-end pieces, mostly women’s, for brands such as Tory Burch, which requires significant custom work but also sells for a high dollar. Belts that require a fair amount of handiwork but sell at a low-price-point — something sold at Target, for instance — Circa generally outsources to its Asian partners.
With transportation and labor costs on the rise in China, the 125 employees in Circa's San Francisco office appear to have very good job security. Although as we tour the 100,000-square-foot factory, Kretchman admits that "things were tough" during the recession.
Circa employs an in-house design team that creates a line of belts each season, based on trending looks and materials, and then works collaboratively with brands to come up with final product. Production, either in San Francisco or China, is then planned and executed.
Kretchman says she doesn't expect being an SFMade member will lead to new business, since Circa deals mostly with large brands based outside the Bay Area, but it is a valuable network to be part of nonetheless. For instance, when Circa's design team needed to fill a position, it posted the opening to the SFMade job board and a qualified applicant quickly emerged.
"I love being part of the community," she adds. "I'm a maker, myself. I design jewelry."
An Urban Appellation
Beer isn’t the only adult beverage that’s increasingly being made in small batches and to high standards. Given San Francisco’s love of wine and locally made food and drink, it’s no surprise that urban wineries also are finding fertile ground here.
A century before Matt Reidy opened his winery on Bluxome Street in the South of Market neighborhood, there were actually more than 60 wineries within a five-block radius. The city was the nexus of California winemaking, thanks to the nearby vineyards and its transportation infrastructure. Then, the 1906 earthquake struck, followed by Prohibition, and the industry never regained its footing.
Today, you can taste pinot noir, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc in the Bluxome Street Winery’s tasting room, and watch them being made. Since 2010, Reidy has sourced grapes from vineyards north of the city, crushing, fermenting and bottling them in small batches at his urban winery sandwiched between a rail yard and a freeway.
“It’s good to be a trailblazer,” says Emily Virgil, the winery’s special events coordinator. She admits that operating well outside the winery hubs in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties sometimes makes thing difficult. But banding together with other San Francisco-based makers of food and spirits has helped the business gain visibility.
“We host a ‘Meet Market” the last Saturday of every month, and that features local farmers. We focus on San Francisco brands,” she says. That usually includes makers of cheese, chocolate, olive oil, BBQ sauce, pickles… the list is long and SFMade has had a hand in helping many of them get a footing.
Walking outside the tranquil tasting room, I see a delivery truck backing up into the winery’s loading dock, where caterers begin setting up for a fancy plated dinner -- the main wine-making workshop doubles as an event space between production cycles.
In some ways, Bluxome Street Winery is just like any wine country operation. But as a street crew works up a cloud of dust right outside the door, cutting away the street for some roadwork project, I’m reminded that this isn’t just any winery. And increasingly, it’s what manufacturing in San Francisco is starting to look like.
Images: Mary Catherine O'Connor, except Janet Lees photo, courtesy of SFMade