BY LINDA BAKER
In late August I paid a visit to Hummingbird Wholesale, a Eugene-based regional distributor of organic foods that recently relocated to a glamorous remodeled warehouse and office space. Today, of course, local and organic food products are staples available in a wide variety of grocery stores and restaurants, from Walmart and Whole Foods, to Burgerville and Bluehour restaurant in Portland’s Pearl District. But there was a time when whole grains and organic foods were niche products, enjoyed, and pioneered, strictly by the flowerchild set.
Hummingbird owners Julie and Charlie Tilt are there to remind you of an earlier era, even as their business benefits from contemporary, and mainstream, demand for natural foods. Longtime advocates of organic food, with experience in the organic gardening sector, the Tilts purchased Hummingbird nine years ago. The company’s history dates back to 1972. Today, business is booming. Hummingbird employs 30 and grossed about $4.1 million in 2011, up from $600,000 in 2003. Its new headquarters, a state of the art eco-friendly wood, glass, and brick structure, quadrupled the company’s square footage and helps define Hummingbird’s expanding role as landlord, small business incubator and regional player in today’s local and whole food revolution.
Economic returns aside, Charlie Tilt says the couple’s primary interest is “spiritualizing the business…which is what really excites us.”
He goes on to explain. “Spiritualizing the work by directing the opportunities afforded by being in this business towards improving the quality of life for the people — customers, vendors, co-workers, farmers — that we come into contact with gives us the passion and energy to do the work needed. We focus on the areas most critical to quality of life — a healthy environment, clean healthy food, and convivial relationships.”
More specifically, the Tilts rent out the building’s commercial kitchen to food start ups, lease extra office space to like-minded tenants, mostly natural health and wellness businesses, and support local farmers by negotiating contracts to purchase an entire crop — i.e., garbanzos, lentils, pumpkin seeds — on a section of land.
Located near downtown, the building itself, which the Tilts purchased and remodeled for about $4 million, is “a visible representation” of their values, says Charlie Tilt. The environmentally friendly features include use of recycled materials, solar water heating, rooftop solar panels, and a straw bale demonstration area.
The couple also gave the building a name: “Stellaria,” which means little star.
“A little star can light up the whole sky,” Julie Tilt says. In 2007, the couple also gave the company its current name, Hummingbird, intended to invoke the bird’s “gentle versatility, sipping the nectar of the earth without harming the flower.” (The original name was Honey Heaven).
Back to the business side. Today, Hummingbird serves a network of food coops and natural food stores along the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco. The Tilts are now considering expanding into select mainstream supermarkets. They are also introducing a new label for their grocery line — organic almond butter, filbert butter, honey, trail mixes — and are expanding that line with select companies “that share our values,” Julie Tilt says. In the meantime, Hummingbird has racked up numerous growth awards, including the Regional Award of Merit for Economic Enhancement, and the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce Emerald Award for Growth.
About those values. As interest in natural foods explodes, an ever-expanding number of Oregon companies are moving into that market space, many touting value-added, triple-bottom-line business frameworks. Those second-generation businesses join Hummingbird, Springfield Creamery, Glory Bee Honey, and a number of other Eugene based natural food purveyors who were toiling away long before sustainable food and farming became all the rage.
The organic movement, and Hummingbird, has been in the making for more than 30 years, says Charlie Tilt. He doesn’t seem the type to claim success is the best revenge.
But his star is shining bright.
Linda Baker is the managing editor of Oregon Business.