How do you begin to talk about a city as special as Portland, Oregon…
With nicknames like City of Roses, Beervana, Little Beirut, Bridgetown, Stumptown, Rip City, and PDX it’s clear this city wears many hats. I could talk about the importance Portland has placed on sustainability or the emphasis its residents put on living eco-friendly lifestyles but there is one topic that seems to have a much broader reach. Portland is a city committed to strengthening the community.
This community-focused way of life has attracted creative, inspired, intelligent, and motivated entrepreneurs and, in effect, their one-of-a-kind businesses. Although there are hundreds to choose from, here are five Portland businesses that truly embody the spirit of this unique, eclectic, and community-driven city.
I think it’s safe to say few if any, cities in the world are known for being the home of a bookstore. Portland wears that fact as a badge of honor and it is easy to see why. From the moment you step into Powell’s Bookstore, it becomes very clear that this Portland staple may sell books but it is so much more.
Since 1971 Powell’s has redefined what a bookstore should be. While many stores in the industry were selling only new or only used books, Powell’s opted to provide both. Today, all sorts of used, new, hardcover, and paperback titles make up an inventory numbering around two million. This substantial stock quite literally means there is something for everyone in and outside of Portland.
So what is it that continues to propel Powell’s Bookstore forward? Their love of books, their employee’s love of books, and their global clientele’s love of books. That and their passion for the industry. In addition to selling books and literary merchandise, Powell’s dedication to the Portland community is shown through their hosting of events, namely hundreds of authors annually, children’s story time well attended writing workshops, game demonstrations, and book clubs.
Today Powell’s Bookstore is as close to its roots as when it first opened its doors. Walter Powell opened Powell’s, continued expanding it with his son Michael, and eventually passed it onto the third generation – Emily Powell. Emily is proudly keeping the Powell values alive and well saying, “My grandfather taught me that our job is to connect the writer’s voice with the reader’s ear and not let our egos get in between. My father taught me not only the love of the book itself but also how to love the business of bookselling.”
I would be remiss in talking about the unique businesses in Portland if I didn’t mention Voodoo Doughnuts. The story of this tasty destination actually starts with Cat Daddy and Tres, two guys who had a passion for doughnuts but no idea how to even make one.
This little hurdle didn’t stop them from setting up shop in Old Town, one of Portland’s unique neighborhoods, because they had a plan that involved wooing some doughnut masters – and woo they did. It took a little time to pry trade secrets from these “holey masters” but once they did the possibilities were endless.
Voodoo Doughnuts is anything but conventional. Their doughnut varieties include the “Oh Captain, My Captain” – raised yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting and Captain Crunch, “Dirt” – raised yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting and Oreo cookies, and the “Grape Ape” – Raised yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting, grape dust, and lavender sprinkles.
Their desire to “return the lexicon to the correct spelling of D.O.U.G.H.N.U.T.” and their drive toward culinary uniqueness has put this Portland native on the global map. While Voodoo’s actual doughnuts have reached as far as Tibet, Easter Island, Japan, and Tanzania the community focus of this business is unwavering. Voodoo supports multiple Portland-area organizations making it clear that they have their eye fixed on the “hole” picture!
Even though the Portland Commissioner doubted the unique concept asking – “What are you going to sell? Lumber?” – Sam Naito started Made in Oregon as a shop in Portland’s 1975 airport. From there I guess you could say it really took off (pun fully intended).
Though his physical business origins were small, Naito’s big vision for selling high-quality, locally-grown products has produced nine Portland area locations and a strong e-commerce presence internationally. The reach of Made in Oregon has grown but the community-focused roots of the original concept are still as Oregon as ever.
If you’re wondering (like the 1975 commissioner) what Made in Oregon sells, feel free to check out their store. There is something for everyone from gift baskets filled with select Oregon wines, Tony’s Wild Smoked Sockeye Salmon, too-good-to-be-true Tillamook Cheeses, Werner Summer Sausage, and Oregon Growers & Shippers Marionberry Seedless Jam to their wide assortment of warm Pendleton Wool Blankets and handmade jewelry.
While all the products Made in Oregon sells are special, there are other things that make this business unique. Sam Naito believed in the Oregon makers so much he built his business around them. He has been paying it forward ever since.
Since it opened, Made in Oregon has been positively affecting the Oregon economy. “To date Made in Oregon has “helped grow thousands of small businesses – Oregon people who make, grow, and bring good things to market – and has helped many small craft businesses develop into sizeable businesses.”
4. Bike Gallery
Portland loves bikes and the Bike Gallery loves Portland. But that shared love wasn’t the only thing that got the wheels turning for this unique, principally bipedal, Portland business. The Bike Gallery, founded as a single family-run location by “Portland bike legend” Bob Graves in 1974 and his son Jay (who was 15 at the time), really took off when the cars stopped.
In the 1970s there was a major petroleum shortage. No petroleum meant no gas. No gas meant… well… bikes!
Since the Bike Gallery opened they have been highly community-minded, even as the business changed hands from Bob to Jay to the current owners – Kelly Aicher, a 16-year Bike Gallery employee, and Mike Olson, a successful bicycle shop owner in San Diego.
While that single shop, that kept Portland moving in the 70s, has grown into the “multi-store, multi-generation Portland-area staple” it is today the Bike Gallery continues to be a “family-owned company that strives to make a sustainable impact on the communities [they] serve by putting more people on a bike.”
The Bike Gallery believes there are many good reasons to shop with them. From the idea of “Ride Local. Shop Local” as a way to support the local economy, to their commitment to reducing their environmental impact by incentivizing employees to commute via bike, the Bike Gallery is committed to keeping things rolling in a distinctly Portland area community direction.
Let’s talk about Beervana – one of Portland’s numerous nicknames. This title has been earned through an intense commitment to and love of breweries, brewers, and all things beer. This dedication is clear as Portland hosts over a dozen beer festivals annually – the largest being the Oregon Brewers Festival drawing an astonishing 70,000 brew lovers into the city.
To showcase Beervana’s beer love we could talk about one of its 177 breweries… or we could take a look at a local business that has been making Portland brewing possible since 1918.
F.H. Steinbart, who recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, has been supplying Portland home microbrewers since they first opened their doors. They have overcome hurdles along the way such as prohibition (which began in the U.S. shortly after the store opened) and then the slow crawl to1978’s homebrew legalization. During this time F.H. Steinbart powered ahead supplying equipment and ingredients for “near beer” and sacramental wine.
Their dedication to the craft of brewing eventually paid off and in 1980 Cartwright Brewing Company opened their doors and the doors to a small community of Portland brewers with whom F.H. Steinbart played a large role. According to Steinbart, “If a brewer had an equipment failure, it wasn’t uncommon for someone from another brewery to come by and help out. This still happens today in Portland.”
After 100 years F.H. Steinbart remains a unique Portland staple and some might argue that their contributions to the Portland community are the most important of all! So whether you want to brew their Two Flamingoes Strawberry IPA or their Oregon Super Dank F.H. Steinbart will be there to “cheers you on” along the way!
Running a small business is not easy. Each day we are inspired by the business owners we interact with who put their trust in Rubicon to manage their waste collection, recycling projects, and sustainability opportunities. We want to give back and help some of those small businesses continue to flourish. We are out to salute those small businesses that continue to help America thrive. What differentiates your business from the rest? Enter now by telling us why your small business is the best.
By Amy Koonin