In February 2011, local public radio station OPB-KLCC came to visit our shop. The audio broadcast is no longer available, but you can read the transcript below. At the bottom of this page, you can see an extra multimedia video they posted on their website.
Five years ago, Softstar Shoes had a mere informational page for a website. Then two savvy Hewlett Packard engineers purchased the 25-year-old company. They moved from a shabby shed to a trendier loft in downtown Corvallis. And they ramped up the website with a shopping cart, so their glove-like moccasins could be sold online.
Tricia Salcido: "That was actually a really fun day when we went live. We all kind of sat there with our fingers together, saying, 'Are we going to get an order?' and when one came through, it was really exciting."
Salcido: "We were like, 'Look at that: an order, without a phone-call, without a fax.' "
That's co-owner Tricia Salcido. When she and her best friend Larkin Holavarri bought Softstar in 2005, the shoes were mostly sold wholesale. Now, they retail—or rather, e-tail—90 percent of their volume directly to customers. Their web store feels like a social network. For a premium, people can design-their-own shoes. Trish describes the rainbow of leathers, including fuchsia, kiwi, and shiny metallic sapphire.
Salcido: "There's even coloring pages that the kids can click out. They can color-in what they think they want their shoe to look like. You can even have the Crayola crayon color name link back to the closest color swatch of leather."
Fleeing the corporate grind, Larkin and Trish sought a toddler-friendly workplace. Their kids frolic around the 5,000-square-foot factory, as shoes are cut, sewn and packed for delivery. Larkin is 40. And Trish, just back from maternity leave, is 41. Trish, the entrepreneur, handles marketing. Larkin manages the nuts-and-bolts of production.
Sales doubled in 2010, after Softstar unveiled a new adult shoe -- called the "Run-Amoc." They designed it with input from a growing online community of "barefoot" runners.
Larkin Holavarri: "We had a few customers who were calling us and saying, 'Hey, I was running in your moccasins and this happened.' And we said, "Woah, woah, woah, hold on. You were doing what? And that's when we found out about this whole minimal shoe, barefoot running."
Son: "Mommy, I have a problem."
Holavarri: "You have a problem?"
That's Larkin's two-year-old, still potty-training. Softstar tripled its workforce this past year. The company now has 18 "elves." That includes Softstar s former owner, Tim Oliver, who still happily works here. Other than him, 22-year-old Keita B. has been here the longest--four years.
Keita: "There was an ad in the paper for a job, and I applied, and kind of fell in love with the company. It's very family-friendly, and they want you to be happy to come to work."
Now, Keita's mom, dad and her twin sister Tesla work at Softstar. Keita and Tesla have sheepskin slippers named for them. Larkin takes me to Keita's dad, cutting soles with a hydraulic press.
Holavarri: "Then we use the clicker to cut out the leather. And it's basically just a big cookie cutter."
Robert B., an unemployed punch press operator, started about six months ago.
Robert: "Well, I was doing metal fabrication, and was laid off for a year-and-a-half... Yes, it's a lot cleaner. Less noise. Uh, happier environment."
Each elf makes one-to-five pairs of shoes an hour. Their leather has green-cred. Scraps are recycled, for art projects. Trish says they avoid polluted, overseas tanneries.
Salcido: "We only buy our leather from the United States, or sometimes we will buy it from Western Europe."
They ship shoes around the world, to France, New Zealand, and Kurdistan. The baby Mocs start at $29. Adult boots cost more than $200.
Lynn Kahle: "Customers are willing to pay more money if they think they're getting something that's special; something that does a better job of conforming to their unique values."
Lynn Kahle is a sports marketing expert at the University of Oregon. He cautions:
Kahle: "If a competitor comes in and tries to copy their manufacturing and design, but does it with a much less expensive manufacturing process, using Asian sourcing, that might be a threat to them."
Softstar stresses their shoes will always be made in the USA. They hope to grow enough to become a $2- to $5-million company. Then, they could offer employees health benefits. And avoid furloughs during slow seasons. Breast-feeding her newborn in the office, Trish reveals:
Salcido: "This past year was the first year that Larkin and I actually came out positive, in terms of paying ourselves something. The first three years we didn't pay ourselves anything, and then the fourth year, we were paying out more in childcare than we were making."
The fifth year ended in the black. But the artisan shoemaker needs a lot more volume to ensure a financially healthy future.
For KLCC News, I'm Laura McCandlish, reporting from Corvallis.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! I have purchased over 8 pair of 'minimalist' shoes in the past 3 years...none of them felt like walking barefoot to me......until now. Your leather is soft your soles are flat and my foot is relaxed!!!"
"My entire experience with Softstar has been nothing short of an amazing experience from beginning to end. Will not buy any other shoes...my feet no longer hurt at all."
"This shoe is exactly what you would hope it to be. High quality leather and workmanship in a simple, natural stance running shoes made of all natural materials. Glad I found them."
"I've never had shoes that have fit as well as these or received as many compliments… I wish I had found them sooner!"
"There are no other shoes like Softstar - strong, comfortable, pretty - the best choice of minimal shoes one can get. Thank you for making our lives easier and wonderful!"
"I am loving these shoes! They are just lovely to have on the feet. And I am not easily impressed... There's nothing on the market that I know of that allows full toe splay! To me, it's a beautiful thing to let the toes move with absolute freedom in the shoe. I cannot do that with ANY OTHER of the barefoot shoes."
"I spent SO MANY years searching for a shoe to fit my feet. At last, you have given me such a shoe! I am convinced that had I met this shoe 30 years ago, I would not have the deformed feet I have now, nor would I have had surgery done on one of them. Abundant thanks for this design that honors my feet."
"These shoes are absolute perfection… The toe box finally allows my pinky toe and big toe to splay naturally and has taken away all previous foot pain… My feet will accept nothing less now."
"Finally something I will wear to work that is truly foot shaped… I usually take my shoes off as soon as I arrive home. I was so comfortable in these that I didn't think about it, and I left them on for hours into the evening."
"These are fantastic. Softstar showed themselves as the best minimal shoe company on the market with these. Functionally, they are the best fitting shoes I own, and they are the most stylish."
"Blown away. These should be the standard. I work at a physio clinic and see multiple people come in with foot pain (bunions, flat feet, plantar fasciitis) and it's mostly because of the effects of improper footwear over time... These shoes are the perfect solution."
"These are the best shoes I've ever owned. FINALLY A TOE BOX SHAPED LIKE A HEALTHY FOOT… I can wear my toe separators in these without any squishing or pressure against the sides of the shoe. Finally, finally, finally... someone prioritized function over form in creating a shoe that feels great to wear."