Walking the streets of San Francisco, you’re likely to see more iPhone stroking than welding, more bento boxes than lunch pails, more bike helmets than hardhats, more geeky specs than safety goggles and, sadly, way more of those heinous rubber five-finger shoes than steel-toed work boots.
Amid all this urban frippery, it’s easy to forget that things — actual things that don’t exist in the cloud, but can be held in the hands or worn on the body — are made right here in SF.
“Everyone’s always saying nothing is made here, but a lot is made here. People are just not aware of it,” says Janet Lees, director of programs and communications at SFMade, a nonprofit that seeks to support and nurture the city’s manufacturing sector.
On Saturday, SFMade Week kicks off with a pop-up shop of locally-produced goods at i/o Ventures in the Summit building, and a special edition of the Off the Grid street food market at McCoppin and Valencia streets.
The week features a series of factory tours and events designed to raise the profile of goods that are produced within city limits and highlight San Francisco’s manufacturing future. Click here for a complete schedule.
Now is an ideal time to think about growing San Francisco’s manufacturing sector, says Lees. The city needs to create jobs, and there’s a “perfect storm” of low commercial real estate rents, a bevy of talented emerging designers, and consumers who are increasingly willing to pay a bit more for unique handmade products. At the same time, skilled manufacturing operations like sewing shops have time on their hands, since much of their work has been outsourced.
“We’ve got the manufacturing, we’ve got the designers, let’s put the two together,” says Lees.
Putting the two together is exactly what SFMade aims to do. The group, which started in 2010, has 150 members, ranging from smaller companies like Mission clothing designer Dema to Anchor Brewing on Potrero Hill. Any company that makes at least some of its products in San Francisco can join.
The group helps designers connect to manufacturers, and also offers low-cost consulting to help businesses navigate things like zoning, taxes and strategic planning.
It also helps businesses that make their products in the city get the word out. The group hopes its snazzy maroon-and-gold SFMade label will help brand locally-made products.
Dema Grim, owner of Dema, has long touted the fact that her wares are designed and made in the city. She designs the line and makes samples at her shop on Valencia Street. Most of the sewing is done at a small factory at 18th and Capp streets that is frequented by many local designers. The rest — about six pieces a week — is done by an expert seamstress who’s pushing 80 but still does a little sewing to earn gambling money.
Now is a natural moment to highlight locally-made products, Grim says. “It’s certainly timely, since everyone’s all about shopping locally, eating locally.
Those who want to buy products made in the Mission might be interested to know that some manufacturing still happens here, though not as much as in Bayview-Hunters Point and SOMA. There are at least three sewing shops here, as well as two door- and window-makers on 17th Street and two woodworking shops on Alabama Street. There are also a handful of furniture-makers and upholsterers.
While SFMade’s Lees has no illusions that the city’s factories will ever compete with China, she sees opportunities for some kinds of manufacturers. “We’re advocating for making the things here that make sense,” she says.
Two things that make sense are clothing and food, Lees says. Both products are relatively simple to produce and consumers are willing to pay more for small-batch, unique versions.
There are a few gaps in the city’s manufacturing industry waiting to be filled: While Lees has no trouble referring clothing-makers to sewing shops or screen printers, she says the city could support more wood and metal workers.
The city also needs a cold-pack facility for food manufacturing, Lees says. Although incubators like the Mission’s La Cocina help fledgling food entrepreneurs get a start, there’s a gap in facilities and infrastructure to support them once they outgrow that nest.
The granola-bar maker 18 Rabbits, for example, is “dying to be part of SFMade,” Lees says. But an appropriate food-packing subcontractor doesn’t exist, so for now, the company’s products are made in Sacramento.
For Grim, cultivating a younger generation of skilled sewers is important, too. The people who sew much of the clothing made in the city are middle-aged women who got their start when the city was still a knitwear mecca. But once these women retire in a decade or two, there’s no younger generation with the skills to take their spots at the sewing machines.
That could leave designers like Grim in the lurch. “When those women retire, I’ll probably retire, too,” she says.
As San Francisco looks to create jobs, it shouldn’t just focus on attracting tech companies and neglect its manufacturing sector, Lees says. Factory jobs, which typically don’t require a college degree, can pay $25-$45 plus benefits at some SFMade companies.
The city needs a diverse economy, Lees says, one that offers decent-paying jobs for both blue- and white-collar workers. “So much of the work in this city is in soft things — consulting, finance, marketing. This is tangible and real and we need it.”
And, as Grim points out, creating those well-paid jobs locally helps everyone along the city’s economic chain. “If I was manufacturing in LA, those salaries would be being spent there instead of in San Francisco.”
Saturday’s pop-up shop at i/o Ventures, 780 Valencia Street, runs from 10 am to 6 pm.