Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise. 

The cult television favorite Portlandia gently satirizes a commercial culture full of artisan-obsessives trafficking in such esoterica as $68 handmade light bulbs. Though the goof quotient is amped for laughs, the titular Oregon city fosters an abundance of entrepreneurs more interested in creating beautiful products than in growing large corporations.

Tanner Goods is a more ambitious version of these craftsmen--entrepreneurs using Portland's handcrafting ethos to attract customers worldwide. The company primarily makes men's leather accessories, such as wallets, bags, and belts. If fashion is about finding the new black, then Tanner Goods is about celebrating what made black classic in the first place. "Everything we design we hope to keep in our line for years and years to come," says co-founder and creative director Sam Huff. The company's message: Buy it. Break it in. Make it yours.

Tanner Goods' flagship store is on a premium-retail stretch of Burnside Street, one of the city's major thoroughfares. A second outlet opened last year in Los Angeles. The company also sells online and through 80 retailers in the United States and another 100 across Europe, Japan, and South Korea. Craftspeople in their 20s turn out roughly 400 items a day in a workshop on Portland's east side, using a mix of modern and antique machinery.

"We probably have a cap on how much we can produce because artisanal manufacturing is an integral part of our story," says Jevan Lautz, sales director and another co-founder. "The brand becomes diluted very quickly once we scale."

A legacy of leather

A taste for the boutique was bred into Huff, 34, and Lautz, 40, from an early age. They both grew up in Sisters, Oregon, and met in 1998 while working at a nearby resort. Sisters is a small town with a lengthy strip of antique stores, furniture stores, galleries, and knickknack shops. It is also a horsey burg, known for its annual rodeo. Surrounded by saddle-makers and tack shops, Huff and Lautz developed an appreciation for the look, feel, and scent of leather.

The pair also associate leather with heritage, products passed down from one generation to the next. Huff lovingly describes a leather box and camera strap left to him by his grandfather; a version of that strap is now part of Tanner's line. They both grew up wearing leather boots from Danner, a venerable Portland company. "Having that pair of boots you wore for a few years and then getting a new pair that your big brother handed down to you and your dad had handed down to him--those are our touchstone elements," says Huff.

In 2005, Huff, Lautz, and a third friend from Sisters, Scott Bulloch, opened an art gallery and limited-edition T-shirt shop in Portland. Tanner Goods was born a year later, when Huff and Lautz began making leather products in a 150-square-foot space behind the store. (Bulloch had left the partnership by then but joined Tanner Goods in 2014 as operations director.) In need of a leather sensei, Huff and Lautz sought out L.P. Streifel, a septuagenarian former bronco-rider-turned-saddle-maker based in Washington State. They brought Streifel the company's first bags and wallets to sew. Then they sat in his workshop and watched, peppering him with questions about different types of leather, finishing techniques, and pieces of equipment. "We also learned his approach to business, where a handshake means more than anything else," says Huff.

In 2009 Huff and Lautz rebranded their gallery and T-shirt store as the Woodlands, specializing in menswear and raw and selvedge denim--itself a kind of heritage product harking back to jeans' Made in America, pre-pre-distressed days. Tanner Goods, which was already successful doing business online and through other retailers, began selling through The Woodlands as well. In 2012, Huff and Lautz opened Tanner Goods's flagship store. The Woodlands, a separate but complementary business, now operates out of the same space. 

Tanner's first products were a wallet and a belt. But "the goal has always been to become a lifestyle brand," Lautz says. Merchandise now includes leather notebook covers, folding chairs, gloves, pet leashes, and accessories like key fobs. In the works are furniture and housewares. "The idea is to take things people touch every day and elevate them with quality," says Lautz. (Price is commensurate with quality. A belt or a billfold costs around $100.) 

"Tanner has been at the forefront of these local, craft manufacturers that take the essence of the Pacific Northwest and ingrain it into their products," says Sucheta Bal, a business development manager at the Portland Development Commission. The business, which sources all the hardware that goes on its products locally, exemplifies "this timeless, sustainable culture that Portland is renowned for," says Bal.

Spinning vinyl, pressing metal

Tanner's Portland store, like the city itself, embraces individualism. Customers can choose from a selection of belts, wristbands, dog collars, and other products. They then select the hardware--rivets, studs, and buckles fashioned from various metals. Staff members use a foot press to build custom products while the customers watch.

And because this is Portland, naturally there is music. Store manager Colton Tong deejays around town and has his own local radio show. In the store, he spins vinyl on a Dual brand turntable, vintage Sansui receiver, and made-in-the-USA Klipsch Heresey floor speakers. Once every couple of months Huff and Tong get together and record a mix from their collections, which they post to the company's website. Tong favors soul and psychedelic rock. Huff collects every genre from the '60s and '70s.

The company's 30 employees also don't stray far from the stereotype. "The Portlandia joke is that everyone is a server or works at a coffee shop because they are in a band or they are an artist outside of work," says Huff. "That is definitely true. Our creative community includes a lot of people who have studied things like woodworking, metal-smithing, and furniture-building." Many Tanner employees have their own outside studios, and the founders advise them on selling their work. Sometimes they go further. Taylor Ahlmark, the company's R&D manager, owns Maak Lab, an artisanal soap and candle company, with his girlfriend. Their products are sold at the Tanner Goods store.

A small business group hug

Tanner's strongest claim as a citizen of Portland may be its myriad collaborations with like-minded local businesses. The company worked with Chris King Precision Components, a nearby bicycle manufacturer, on a bike outfitted with three Tanner bags. Mazama, a maker of hand-thrown beverage containers located up the street, sells leather coasters made for it by Tanner. In turn, Mazama produces mugs and tumblers with a Tanner-designed glaze. The company has done a leather sheath for Gerber Gear, a 76-year-old Portland knife company; and a slender case for the stainless steel-and-bamboo chopsticks produced by Snow Peak, a Japanese outdoor-goods company whose North American flagship store is also on Burnside.

Perhaps most gratifying: For each of the last four years, Tanner has produced a new boot for Danner, the Portland footwear company that inspired the founders in the first place. "There's a creator's spirit in Portland that if you can't find something you like, go make it yourself. And if you can't figure it out, ask someone else," says Bradley Walhood, who worked with Tanner on the boot while helping to launch Danner's lifestyle category. (He is now director of operations for Clive Coffee, another local business.) "The people in Portland are incredibly kind, so they reach out to one another and learn," he says. "Those relationships lead to all kinds of great products and partnerships, like this one."

Huff loves being part of this entrepreneurial hive, whose members routinely take field trips to one another's businesses and swap stories over beers (microbrews, of course). "Even if you are in the same industry, there is never any bad blood or spirit of competition," he says. "We are all very proud of each other."

Published on: Apr 20, 2015