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|Wednesday, February 01, 2006|
In the thick of it
Everyone says your life will change when you start a business. For once, everyone is right.
By Greg Netzer
If you’ve read this magazine regularly for the past 10 years, you’ve likely seen my name attached to reports on Oregon businesses, particularly small ones, whose prospects I’ve tried to gauge with something approaching precision. For much of that time I’ve also worked for the Oregon Entrepreneurs Forum, a nonprofit whose mission is to help startups succeed. All of which is to say that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade thinking about how companies can start, grow and prosper.
So I should have known what I was getting into when my wife and I decided to start a family business.
Do you like chocolate? Of course you do. Everyone I know does. This is good for my wife, Sarah Hart, because she’s a chocolatier. She’s so good — our daughter calls her “an artist who’s found her medium” — that in mid-2004 she decided to start an artisan confection business. Alma Chocolate LLC, named after Sarah’s grandmother and the Spanish word for “soul,” was soon testing the market with small batches of truffles, toffee and molded figures she gilds with edible gold leaf. We held a holiday sale that December for friends and acquaintances, hoping to cover costs; when we sold 300% of our goal, we realized we might be onto something.
To market to a larger audience, we opened a ooth at the Portland Farmers Market on Saturday mornings on the Portland State University campus. Sarah worked part time for a public relations firm, and I worked full time at OEF, so production occurred at night. Friday nights we packaged the goods; Sarah would leave for PSU at 6 a.m. Saturday. After cleanup and breakdown, our weekends shrank to Sunday afternoons. Family time at night all but disappeared. We didn’t see many friends, either. And I won’t even go into how lax our housekeeping became.
Still, Alma gained loyal fans, and we were soon hampered by our inability to meet demand. We needed to increase capacity beyond our state-licensed home kitchen if the company was going to grow. And that’s when our 8-year-old son, Owen, and I stumbled onto a vacant storefront in Northeast Portland.
We’d wanted a commercial kitchen, not a retail space, but we ran the numbers and gut-checked the idea with dozens of customers and friends, and heard the same answer repeatedly: a perfect location. Next thing I knew it was October and we were signing bank papers, negotiating a lease and ordering kitchen equipment.
Then the fun began.
The City of Portland’s permitting process, true to its reputation, was confounding. The sanitation inspector mandated four extra sinks to accommodate our manufacturing process; the environmental bureau said that since we were adding four sinks, we’d incurred a sewer load charge of $2,300. Seating for customers? That’s a $10 per square foot transportation charge. In one memorable two-hour stretch, Sarah was told our budget would have to absorb $18,000 in extra fees and equipment.
Building out the kitchen tested my patience and character. The contractors did such poor work that I had to redo much of it. The plumbers broke the water main and failed inspection four times. To make the space presentable for a reprise of the holiday sale, I worked nights and weekends at the space for weeks.
Meanwhile, Sarah quit her job to work full time on Alma, feverishly running between the bank, the city, and the restaurant supply, making chocolate when she could. I couldn’t remember the last time our family had eaten dinner together. Owen began calling my cell phone to say good night. Sarah and I spoke to one another in clipped, tense sentences.
Yet what happens to your life when you start a business is that it grows in unexpected ways. Yes, our cupboards went bare from neglect. Yes, we made entirely too many mistakes.But our children, despite the changes they were enduring, bragged about Alma to anyone who would listen. Dozens of friends offered help. We fell into bed at night — exhausted, but energized.
Does it matter that we didn’t get done in time, or that we had to move production equipment back to our house? Does it matter that our sewer line collapsed five days before our holiday orders were due? No. What matters is that the orders came in: On the first weekend in December, we held the holiday sale in the store anyway. Customers loved the “in progress” feel of the space. And they bought chocolate — lots of it, enough to surpass our ambitious goal of 270% of 2004’s sales (taking the sting out of the plumber’s bill). And they told us they eagerly anticipated our grand opening, which is just in time for Valentine’s Day.
And us? We’re excited, too. It hasn’t been easy, but suddenly our little company has repeat clients, increasing revenue and growth potential. We’re still not quite sure what lies ahead, but we’re hopeful that it’ll be easier to handle than another sewer load charge.
Monday, April 27, 2015
BY JACOB PALMER
As a general rule, the more people with autism can be provided with visual cues, the better they will be able to understand and manage their environment. It’s a lesson Tom Keating learned well. The 61-year-old Eugene grant writer spent 31 years taking care of his autistic brother James, and in the late 1980s developed a spreadsheet that created a series of nonsense characters that grew or shrank depending on how much money James had in his account.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER
On April 1 I attended a forum at the University of Portland on the sharing economy. The event featured panelists from Lyft and Airbnb, as well as Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. Asked about the impact of tech-driven sharing economy services. Hales said the new business models are reshaping the landscape. “But,” he added, “I don’t pretend to understand how a lot of this [technology] works.”
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
BY KIM MOORE | RESEARCH EDITOR
An earthquake would completely destroy many Oregon businesses, highlighting the urgent need for the private and public sectors to collaborate on shoring up disaster preparedness, said panelists at an Oregon Business breakfast summit today.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER
Spring rains are the bane of an Oregon cherry farmer’s existence. Even a few sprinkles can crack the fruit so badly it’s not worth picking. Science to the rescue: Researchers at Oregon State University have developed a spray-on film that cuts rain-related cracking in half, potentially saving a season’s crop. The coating, patented as SureSeal, is made from natural chemicals similar to those found in the skins of cherries: cellulose, palm oil-based wax and calcium.
Monday, April 27, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER
Oregon already ranks as the nation’s second largest generator of hydroelectric power. (Washington is No. 1). Now an elegant new installation in Portland is putting an unconventional, sharing economy twist on this age-old water-energy pairing. The new system, launched this winter, uses the flow of water inside city water pipes to spin four turbines that produce electricity for Portland General Electric customers.
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
BY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR
The Wilsonville-based company is targeting GoPro enthusiasts with its latest release. Is spy gear poised to go mainstream?
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
BY KIM MOORE
A conversation with Gene Pelham, CEO of Rogue Credit Union.
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Tonkon Torp helps seed sustainability at Gunderson.
Oregon-based Environments helps companies create inspired workspaces. “Simply put, we help companies future-proof their workspaces,” says Chris Corrado, president. Since 1988,Environments has witnessed firsthand the changing landscape of business. Native Portlander and Environments founder Corrado says, “We help our clients navigate the complex realities of the workplace today and plan for their future in a very mindful, strategic way. We think of ourselves as their partners in the process.”
One hundred years ago, the Willamette River might easily have been mistaken for a sewer. Unchecked industrial activity and decades of pollution made it unrecognizable compared to the clean river that now flows north for 187 miles from Eugene through the center of Portland.
The Oregon Entrepreneurs Network (OEN) will be presenting its third annual Entrepreneurial Summit on Friday, June 5 at Castaway in Portland, Oregon.
On June 13th Mayor Charlie Hales will attend nonprofit organization Dream Change’s inaugural Love Summit and will introduce one of its keynote speakers, Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency.
34 spots for food, 17 places to sip, and 7 sites to choose a brew beckon visitors.