Small Batch Manufacturing Thrives in San Francisco

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The words “manufacturing” and “San Francisco” aren’t often used in the same sentence, unless a historian is talking about the City’s mid-century last heyday as an active port and shipyard.   Yet there are upwards of 700 manufacturers in San Francisco, employing in the neighborhood of 10,000 people.

According to SFMade, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering a vibrant manufacturing sector in San Francisco, the number of makers has grown steadily since at least 2010, when the organization first launched, with double-digit job growth in the sector.  

Modern manufacturing no longer consists of large factories, explained Janet Lees, SFMade’s chief program officer. “They are very cool, nimble, design-based industries.” Although a handful of firms employ as many as 250 people, most of the City’s manufacturers are small businesses, averaging eight employees. Many fit into what’s called the “Maker-Entrepreneurial” culture.

Of SFMade’s 640 members – including handmade jewelers, pet product producers, beauty supply makers and boutique guitar crafters – the average has been operating for a dozen years; half have been in business for less than six years. 

“The biggest sector is things that are sewn,” said Lees.  Those firms make up 36 percent of SFMade’s membership.  Twenty percent are in food and beverages.  Most of the rest are what Lees referred to as “hardware design companies;” firms that make a range of “lifestyle products,” such as furniture, stationary, and the fastest-growing segment, consumer electronics.

Food and beverage is the largest job creator; clothing lines are the easiest to start. Lees explained that a designer can begin with just one product and outsource to a sewing company.

Companies can join SFMade for free as long as they manufacture in San Francisco. The nonprofit has an annual budget of roughly $1.1 million, with almost one-dozen staff members, funded by donations and grants.  It assists businesses in three core areas:  providing strategic assistance related to identifying sources of capital and marketing; finding space and negotiating leases; and recruiting employees.  A fulltime staff person is available to help with the latter, some of whom are cultivated through SFMade’s youth internship program.

“We are the only organization helping manufacturing to grow and stay in San Francisco,” Lees explained, helping members “be more profitable, sustainable and create jobs.”

Mark Dwight, owner of Rickshaw Bagworks, located on the corner of 22nd and Minnesota streets, founded SFMade, with assistance from entrenched businesses like McRoskey Mattresses, in existence since 1899, and Anchor Brewery, which traces its roots to 1871. “I conceived of SFMade when I was CEO of Timbuk2, back in 2003,” explained Dwight.  The City, though a Community Development Block Grant, was initially the organization’s biggest funder.

Dwight spent 20 years in the technology sector before starting Rickshaw in 2007, during which he learned the importance of branding, a concept he believed could apply to the “world renown brand that is San Francisco to promote our locally-made goods.” He designed SFMade’s logo, which appears on members’ websites and store windows.

“SFMade is a celebration of the renaissance of micro-manufacturing, and the increasing desire of consumers to know more about the who, what, why, how and where – the story – behind the products they buy,” he explained.

That ideology will be on display May 8 to 14 during “SFMade Week,” an annual event featuring the City’s manufacturing sector, with popup shops, factory tours, store sales and crafts classes.

According to Sarah Stanley, who with her mother, Bonnie Gemmell, runs Spicer on Third – making textile and cork handbags – one of the benefits of SFMade has been outreach events like SFMade Week. “They’ve alerted the Bay Area that there is in fact manufacturing in San Francisco, and customers think that is really cool because they don’t realize people in the City are making products that are really high quality,” she said.

Stanley and Gemmell took over Spicer Bags, located in the American Industrial Center, in 2013. The business, established in 2000, sold its products solely from a website or to other stores.  In 2014, when AIC redeveloped its first floor for retail space, Spicer on Third store was created. “We’d been longing to open a retail direct consumer operation and get feedback from customers on products,” said Stanley.

Third Street has emerged as a popular spot for artisan-based businesses. Bryr Clogs, which makes its footwear in the back of its store, and Poco Dulce, which vends chocolate and confections, are also located at AIC.

“In my 30 years in San Francisco, I’ve seen a lot of attempts to keep industry in the City,” said Kathy Wiley, owner of Poco Dulce. “SFMade was probably the first to be really successful at that.” That the organization focuses on smaller producers, she said, could be key to its success.

A block north of AIC is Triple Voodoo, a bar that brews its own beer onsite. After a few years of what he called “gypsy brewing,” owner Greg Kitchen opened Triple Voodoo in 2014. One of his bartenders originally was an SFMade intern, dispatched to do public relations work.  According to Kitchen, a strength of being a small brewer is the customer service he can provide to buyers. In fact, when reached by phone, Kitchen was delivering kegs to other bars and restaurants.

“We fill the kegs for delivery, so it is some of the freshest beer around,” he said, explaining that if he relied on a distributor, as larger companies need to, those barrels would sit in a warehouse for some time. Instead, the brew remains in its 10-barrel system in the brewery until its dispatched to a retail outlet.

A few blocks away, in a 20,000-square foot space on Minnesota and 23rd streets, San Francisco’s largest winery, Cellars 33, crushes grapes, selling the resulting wine primarily through its mailing list and to brokers who deliver to restaurants and shops. John Fones and his wife, Katie, are the sole employees although a handful of interns are deployed during harvest season. Outside of bottling, which the winery outsources, and grapes, which come from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, everything is done in-house.

“SFMade has been a huge help for us from the very beginning, from A to Z,” said Fones, citing the nonprofit’s assistance in finding the warehouse space, building Cellar 33’s brand, and providing networking opportunities. He’s currently working with SFMade to secure a tasting room.

In 2013, SFMade created PlaceMade, the City’s first nonprofit industrial real estate development company. PlaceMade is currently constructing what it calls the “Manufacturing Foundry,” at 150 Hopper Street. The building will feature 50,000-square feet for manufacturing businesses when it’s completed next year.

Both nonprofits are run by the same staff out of two small Howard Street offices, inside TechShop, a membership-based do-it-yourself machine shop. The proximity creates networking opportunities for artisans looking for work or to start a business.

SFMade’s chief executive officer, Kate Sofis, has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Sofis grew up in Buffalo, New York; Lees is from Manchester, England. “They are both gritty industrial towns,” said Lees. “We both had families that worked in factories.”   

According to Lees, more than 60 percent of the lower-wage jobs created by its member companies are filled by minorities. Women similarly represent 60 percent of the City’s manufacturing workforce, and 50 percent of its ownership.

Manufacturing workers are getting harder to find, as housing costs drive them out San Francisco, prompting SFMade to set its sights on a wider Bay Area plan. Already, many makers don’t operate solely in the City. They might have an office in San Francisco, an Oakland warehouse, and employees who commute throughout the region.

With assistance from the cities of San Jose, Fremont, Oakland and San Francisco, the nonprofit recently released a survey on the state of manufacturing in the region. Those municipalities collectively sustain 108,500 manufacturing jobs amongst 3,200 companies.

“We’re beginning a conversation with what a real Bay Area manufacturing ecosystem looks like,” said Lees.