- Written by Linda Baker
- Published in Restaurants and Retail
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In a world where authenticity and coolness sells, how do you prevent coolness from being commodified? This is the conundrum facing consumer brands today. Howitt’s solution is to work only with “disruptors,” companies that have a core meaning and purpose beyond the bottom line — and then ensure that purpose endures as the business grows. For example, the contractual terms of the Dave’s Killer Bread sale included continuing the founder’s practice of hiring ex-convicts.
Meriwether itself rebranded three years ago around the purpose-driven tagline “Fulfill your journey.” It’s a riff on the Hero’s Journey, a universal pattern of narrative identified by scholar Joseph Campbell in which an archetypal hero ventures into the unknown, overcomes various challenges and returns to bestow his largesse on the community.
Entrepreneurs are modern-day heroes, Howitt says. “The founders of businesses we’ve worked with have stayed here; pay taxes, hire people, buy more from local supply chains. These people better the world, and if we can be part of it, we’re doing our share.”
Headquartered in the Northwest industrial District — it “combines east-side energy and west-side convenience” — Meriwether Group has an 11-person team and several divisions, including an investment fund that invests in young companies. The firm has been growing 40% annually, with about 70% of business dedicated to business acceleration; i.e., guiding Voodoo’s upcoming expansion into Japan, a move that will involve “sake icings on the doughnuts or icons considered pushing the envelope there,” Howitt says.
Meriwether has been fielding calls from companies outside Oregon and recently landed the iconic New York City brand ABC Carpet & Home as a client. “They want to tap into the specialness here,” Howitt says.
There’s a certain irony to Howitt’s professional evolution. Howitt has found “creative ways for companies to grow without compromising their values,” says Mike Thelin, co-founder of the international food festival Feast Portland. Howitt deserves credit for raising the national profile of Portland’s artisanal brands and culture, Thelin says. “He’s the central figure in all this.”
But it wasn’t always that way. In 2004, Howitt’s wife, Heather, sold Oregon Chai, the company she founded in 1994, for a reported $75 million. Much of her passion for free trade and organic practices “was lost” when the company sold to an international food conglomerate, says Howitt, who served as Oregon Chai’s general counsel.
The sale may have compromised a few values, but Howitt used some of the proceeds to launch the Meriwether Group and change the paradigm. And the fact that Oregon Chai became “not that” allowed other independent tea sellers to enter the market, he says. Likewise, Stumptown’s expansion paved the way for a new wave of coffee roasters: Coava and Heart. “It is a journey,” says Howitt, who recently published Heed Your Call, a self-help manifesto for the entrepreneurial set. “The hope is every time the cycle happens, we get a little better. It’s called evolution and advancement.” When David Howitt talks, you want to believe.