BY LINDA BAKER
David Howitt explains why Portland consumer brands like Stumptown and Voodoo Doughnuts are taking the world by storm.
BY LINDA BAKER | PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN
The Meriwether Group
CEO: David Howitt
Factoid: Once a year, Meriwether staff does a team cleanse, including 30 days of green juice and raw food
David Howitt is in his Northwest Portland office, explaining why Portland consumer brands like Stumptown and Voodoo Doughnuts are taking the world by storm. “These businesses are being birthed from founders who are first and foremost in their craft. It’s literally woven into the DNA of their company. You can’t come up with coolness, authenticity and irreverence. Starbucks can’t decide they are going to launch an irreverence initiative. The consumer will sniff it out and know it’s bullshit.
“We have the dirt under the fingernails and that’s why Portland is disrupting the status quo in ways that are more profound than anywhere else.”
When Howitt, 46, talks about Portland’s “secret sauce,” people listen. The CEO of Meriwether Group, a business acceleration firm, Howitt is the man behind the curtain, a deal broker who has helped many of the city’s flagship independent businesses grow and expand to other cities.
In 2011 Howitt helped Stumptown Coffee Roasters sell a majority stake to the San Francisco private equity firm TSG. That deal became part of Portland hipster brand lore — and paved the way for the sales of Dave’s Killer Bread and Laughing Planet Cafe, also orchestrated by Howitt.
Oregon entrepreneurs who sell parts of their companies to outsiders are often labeled sellouts. Howitt wants to change the narrative.
“We need to embrace the notion that companies can take out capital, export to other cities and maintain authenticity. "Yes, Starbucks and other consumer brands started out small and grew “tired, stale.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. “There is something called Dunkin’ Donuts.” Howitt expounds. “Portland’s Dunkin’ Donuts is Voodoo. There is something called Red Robin; Portland’s version is Little Big Burger.”
“We are birthing that next generation, but it is different this time. It is homespun and heartfelt.”
A former corporate counsel and director of licensing for Adidas, Howitt is an investor, dealmaker and storyteller — encased in a new-age sheen. His marketing spiel includes references to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Buddha and the Wizard of Oz, and he is fond of describing the world as a set of dualities in need of resolution. The company’s mantra is the “power of ‘and’ versus the tyranny of ‘or.’” As in: “This region has heritage and authenticity, and it also has push-your-envelope, newness, disruption. We can be both.”
A collaboration between Voodoo and Pendleton Woolen Mills illustrates the point. The 104-year-old heritage brand and edgy doughnut shop are partnering on a limited-edition blanket featuring Voodoo designs and logos. It sounds gimmicky, but the blanket, to be released this holiday season, is part of a larger Meriwether-facilitated effort to make Pendleton more relevant to younger customers, Howitt says.
The fact that Voodoo and Pendleton jumped on the idea “shows uniquely what we can do in Oregon.” He pauses. “This is cool stuff.”