Timbuk2's factory.

En Español

On a recent Saturday morning, hundreds of people stood in line outside an Alabama Street warehouse. They were there for a bargain.

The building was the old home of Timbuk2 Designs Inc., the company known for the brightly colored messenger bags that seem standard issue in the Mission District. When the company relocated to 20th and Shotwell in February, it marked the move with its biggest warehouse sale ever.

Customers were eager for deals on old inventory, and their strategy was simple. “You just go in and grab things,” said Ken Isaacs, 39. The Castro resident was among the first in line, arriving an hour and a half before the sale began. Just after 10:30, he heard a cheer from inside, the rolling door went up, and the sale began. Behind him, the line stretched down the block

Die-hard Timbuk2 fans snagged bags for a fraction of their regular $100 price tag. Paul Howard said his first Timbuk2 bag was corporate swag from Google. The photographer has since traveled the world with the company’s products and called their quality “friggin’ awesome.” Howard went home with seven bags for just over $200.

Such consumer loyalty translates to high demand. Sales are up compared to last year, and the company is hiring. The website currently lists five open positions. “Right now — 2010 — things are going through the roof,” said CEO Mike Wallenfels. “We’re glad the recession’s over.”

Wallenfels joined the company in November 2009, after 16 years at Richmond-based Mountain Hardwear Inc. At the outdoor clothing and equipment company, his position as president came with a corner office, but he said, “I’d sit there sometimes and wait for somebody to just walk by.”

Now, his desk is hard to miss – it’s right inside the front door at Timbuk2’s new headquarters. The office has an open plan with desks spread out across the first floor and more workspaces in a loft above. The space has high ceilings, skylights and, as Wallenfels pointed out, a disco ball. Staff are evenly divided between the office and the sewing floor in the back of the building.

Since its founding in 1989, Timbuk2 has grown from a one-man operation to a company with 55 employees, an international distribution network and a wide-range of products. There are messenger bags, backpacks, tote bags, bike accessories and luggage. Wallenfels sees Timbuk2’s customer as someone who is young and mobile, someone who treats the bag as a portable office. Recently, bags designed to accommodate Kindles and netbooks have sold well. Kindle sleeves were one of the most popular items last fall.

In response to customer requests, the company is working on a new product: an add-on to make their messenger bags into camera cases. CEO Wallenfels worked with his staff to determine demand and quickly move towards production. “That’s what I really, really like about working with a company of Timbuk2’s size,” the executive said.

Mike Wallenfels at his desk.

Today, five products are made in San Francisco, and the rest are made overseas, primarily in the Philippines, but also in China and Vietnam. In San Francisco, three production lines turn out custom messenger bags, tote bags and backpacks for individuals or corporate clients. It takes nine minutes to build a basic bag from start to finish, and the sewers make 350 in an average week. The company reports that sales of locally made products have risen – from 16 percent of sales in 2009 to 20 percent this year. The company declined to disclose its overall sales figures.

Timbuk2 also looks for inspiration locally. Products in the fall 2009 line took their names from local bars like Dalva on 16th Street and the Hemlock Tavern on Polk Street.

This season, there’s a red, white and blue insulated bag called the Dolores Chiller. It’s a cooler disguised as a messenger bag – with a built-in bottle opener. Blogs like Mission Mission praised the bag for doing double duty, and Timbuk2 for naming it after the “undisputed best place in the entire world ever, Dolores Park.” After that, sales of the Dolores Chiller went up 500 percent.

After a few months on the job, CEO Wallenfels has five Timbuk2 bags. Ask him how many bicycles he has, and he’ll need more specific information. He breaks them down by condition: operational, semi-operational and non-operational, and he has five operational bikes.

Wallenfels is a dedicated mountain biker, and he began riding centuries – 100 mile rides – a couple of years ago. He uses a cruiser for leisurely rides near his home in Marin County. A 1992 LeMond Buenos Aires is his standby for long rides – like the 37-mile commute from his home in Novato.

The trip takes about two and a half hours, winding through central Marin County, Mill Valley and Sausalito. He rides over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Presidio to Golden Gate Park. Then he follows the Wiggle, a route that zigs and zags through city streets to avoid major hills, and ends up at his office at 20th and Shotwell. He does this a day or two each week.

In the next month, Wallenfels will give two presentations on bike commuting at Sports Basement. The first is tonight at the Presidio store. Timbuk2 company employees also plan to staff a Valencia Street aid station on Bike to Work Day on May 13.

More than 20 years after the company began catering to bike messengers, Wallenfels is returning to the brand’s heritage. He sees opportunity in its core market.

“I really want to be sort of an evangelist for bike commuting,” he said.

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