Local Manufacturing: Made with Love in San Francisco
When most of us think of “manufacturing,” we imagine industrial warehouses, mountains of raw materials, or mile-long assembly lines. But in San Francisco, local manufacturing is a diverse class of small businesses.
Manufacturing presents a different range of opportunities—and challenges—compared to small businesses that focus on selling. For example, most bookstores don’t print the products on their shelves. Even City Lights, the notable exception in North Beach, which has been publishing local writers since 1950, carries a large selection of material it doesn’t publish.
Local manufacturers, with shops where they design, craft, and construct the products they sell, add another layer of identity to their neighborhoods and the small business culture in the city. Here are three takes on what it means to make in the Bay Area.
Manufacturing a Sense of Place
Mark Dwight, founder of Rickshaw Bagworks, didn’t expect manufacturing to be part of his grand life plan. But, after a stint in the tech industry, he joined Timbuk2, a San Francisco bag manufacturer. That job led him to create his own company for designing and manufacturing customized bags when he realized that tourists would visit the city and end up buying products made elsewhere.
“I always found that curious,” he says. “We had an opportunity to use [the city] as an ingredient of a brand.”
Dwight still designs with paper, pencil, and a ruler. That tangible beginning translates to bags and accessories that receive plenty of hands-on attention.
“We do probably have this outmoded notion of manufacturing at scale,” he says. “I think of manufacturing as theater, this idea that there is a place people come together to make things as a team.”
For Dwight and Rickshaw Bagworks, that place is San Francisco.
“That’s kind of a loaded concept. Where is the right place or the just place? China is home to a big portion of the worldwide population. That’s local to them.”
Instead, Dwight characterizes his pride in the city and the United States as a feeling of celebration, not protest.
“It’s a matter of fact that we make it in San Francisco, and we make it ourselves. Hopefully people will give me a high five for that.”
Rickshaw has also allowed Dwight to continue his considerable work in the community. He serves as president of the city’s Small Business Commission and serves on the board of directors for the city’s Chamber of Commerce. And in 2010, Dwight founded SFMade, a non-profit that supports the manufacturing sector in San Francisco.
“I’ve made it my mission to give back by being involved.”
Manufacturing a Sense of Style
A college art requirement changed Lia Larrea’s life. Her path pointed toward a career in business, despite her love of art and design, a field that didn’t pay well in her native Ecuador. But a painting class sparked a revelation about whose expectations she needed to meet.
“That reminded me that I should really do what I love,” Larrea says. “I would spend more time on that homework than my business homework.”
She says she also found her next home when she visited the Bay Area during that period. The city reminded her of places in Ecuador, and she planned to join the Art Institute of California in San Francisco.
Now, in the San Francisco clothing studio that bears her name, she’s blended her sense of fashion with a desire to offer others a helping-hand.
“I’m an immigrant,” she says. “A lot of people in San Francisco come from different countries. In order for them to stay, they need jobs. I always envisioned myself working with factories, working with people. I’m passionate about being able to help others. I wish I could do it at a larger scale.”
But her small scale has contributed to her success as a local garment manufacturer.
“I tried doing some prototypes with international factories. It was so time consuming. You have to wait on something to come from Mexico, China, wherever. I didn’t have a team to oversee quality. I couldn’t fly to the factories. So I decided to do everything in California.”
Larrea says she often visits the local factories that produce her clothing pieces because the time allows her to learn about the people and the processes that bring her designs to life.
“Sewing machines, stamping machines, big leather cutters. I love that about manufacturing. You’re using your hands but also these big machines that allow you do all these different things. I am able to have really efficient manufacturing because I can communicate what machine to use, how to stitch it.”
Producing clothing collections in San Francisco might not yet permit Larrea to help others on a global scale, but it does mean she fits into a thriving culture of people making a difference in her local community.
“I don’t want to do huge, large-scale manufacturing,” she says. “That’s one of the great parts about San Francisco. The people that do make things here are not the ones producing thousands of pieces.”
Manufacturing an Appetite
Dan Kurzrock’s manufacturing career started in college. The co-founder of ReGrained began his work at UCLA, but he and his business partner, Jordan Schwartz, headed back to their hometown after graduation.
“We’re lucky to be from here,” Kurzrock says. “We recognized we didn’t have professional experience. We had a lot of ideas, and we had a lot of spirit. In hindsight, it’s a great place to launch this operation. There’s of course a great community of eaters and sustainability thinkers and innovators.”
ReGrained creates snack bars baked with spent grain, a byproduct of brewing beer.
“With food, when you say manufacturing, it feels less personal than food really is. We like to think about recipes, not formulas. When you’re cooking and baking, you don’t think of it in the same way as a hand-sewn leather wallet, but it’s maybe not that different.”
What will change for ReGrained is the business focus. Right now, the company manufactures the grain ingredients and the baked goods. Kurzrock says the goal will shift to research and development that leads to better ingredients. Partners will then handle the end products.
“We call it alchemy — how do we take something that would be a waste stream in an urban environment and turn it into a food stream and close the loop?”
Kurzrock also takes that broad view when considering how a manufacturer can influence the citywide economy. Choosing area suppliers. Hiring local workers. Sponsoring neighborhood events. Donating products and services to other San Francisco institutions.
“We try to keep all of our stakeholders in mind,” he says. “We’re part of an ecosystem here, and we want to be a productive member of it.”
Manufacturing Crafted Solutions
“We officially rolled out in the worst possible year to do it,” Adam Holm says with a laugh. He founded Pseudo Studio in 2008 after he and business partner Tud Moerk were each laid off from other jobs. They decided to combine their talents, which included architecture, interiors, and general construction.
“The whole thing was a tongue-in-cheek joke,” Holm says. “We started doing weird stuff. We can sort out a project that other people won’t even look at.”
Pseudo Studio has turned out design, fabrication, and manufacturing projects that vary from the simple — kitchen cabinets — to the show-stopping. One of the most recent jobs included a four-story silkscreened map installation based on early 1900s fire insurance schematics from the Sanborn Map Company.
Holm points out that the most striking difference between large-scale manufacturing and smaller, neighborhood manufacturing lies in volume. Pseudo Studio’s largest order to date is about 2,000 items.
“We could gear up if we needed to make 10,000 of something, but that’s all we’d be making. We tend toward more bite-sized chunks. So much of it has to be hand-wrought.”
Aside from care and craft, Holm has encountered another aspect of local manufacturing he calls The Amazon Effect.
“There’s a lot of unrealistic expectations in terms of timeline,” he says. “It’s not like I go down to the store and buy your product and I just send it to you with a markup. I have to go buy a chunk of wood. I have to turn a chunk of wood into a board, and I have to turn that board into a spoon or whatever we’re making for you.”
Holm wants to stay in San Francisco, but he and other manufacturers face unsustainable prices. Rent jumped 25 percent last year, and Holm says his rate is slated to rise another 50 percent this year. Part of the problem is the conversion of industrial space for other uses, such as offices.
“They weld the overhead gantry cranes into place and put flower pots on them,” explains Holm. “Sometimes it seems like the writing’s on the wall. We can’t afford tech prices per square foot.”
But moving means a potential loss of clients and the interactions that make local businesses so integral to any city.
“Clients like to stop by and see the sausage get made.”