ADDRESS: 914 Main St, Philomath, OR
OWNERS: Tricia Salcido and Larkin Holavarri
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 28
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 17
WHAT THEY SELL: Handcrafted minimal shoes
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: Nowhere else in the US (and possibly the world) is there a manufacturer of custom-made, handcrafted shoes like those at Soft Star. Visiting their showroom and seeing their “elves” at work is a special experience. The products are so personalized that customers even help design and name the shoes.
In the 1980s, just as hundreds of US shoe manufacturers were re-locating overseas, a small, independent American shoe company was just getting started. Decades later, not only has Soft Star Shoes survived the economic downturn of 2008, it has thrived – thanks to the dedication and business acumen of owners Tricia Salcido and Larkin Holavarri. Next time you’re in downtown Corvallis, open the magical Soft Star door and walk upstairs. You’ll think you’ve entered Santa’s workshop!
Tricia, when and why did you buy the business? Tim and Jeanie Oliver started Soft Star Shoes in 1984 because they saw a need for the product, and they wanted a career with autonomy. I grew up with parents who were self-employed, and I appreciated the benefits of owning a business. While I was working as an engineer at HP and had a one-year old child, I began actively looking for a manufacturing business to purchase. I discovered Soft Star Shoes and started talking to Tim because I was so struck with his product and saw a lot of potential. At first, Tim just laughed, but when I followed up with a letter and resumé, he realized I was serious. Tim was excited to talk to me since he was in transition himself; his children had grown up, and the space where the business was located was being re-developed. He knew something had to change.
Larkin and I purchased the business in 2005. We had been job-sharing at HP, and when Larkin heard how excited I was about the business, she asked if I’d like a business partner. We knew we worked well together and that our skills complemented each other. Also, as business partners, we would both have more flexibility in raising our children. We’re now in our eighth year as owners, and Soft Star has benefited from having both of us here. Tim still works here as our Operations Administrator. He loves the product and is excited that it’s available to more people.
Tell us more about your products. What are your favorites? Our products are 100% handcrafted in our workshop, whereas 99% of the shoes sold in the US today are imported. Soft Star Shoes are for people who want a minimal shoe. It’s like a leather glove for your foot; it lets you move naturally. The materials we use are very soft, so they conform to your foot. Our children’s shoes are based on classic designs that go back 28 years. Our adult shoes are designed by Corvallis residents who work here. What’s really fun about our shoes is that about half of our customers design their own. Although most of our business is online, our local sales have grown along with our national sales. It’s wonderful to have real people come in and try on our shoes.
All of the leathers we use are tanned in the US or Germany, since those countries have strong worker safety and environmental regulations – as opposed to China and Brazil, which is where most shoe leather comes from. There used to be thousands of tanneries in the US since, as recently as the 1960s, the US was the major footwear producer in the world. Now, Soft Star Shoes is one of just a handful of US shoe manufacturers.
My favorite Soft Star kids’ shoe is the sandal. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love our sandal! It’s colorful and light-weight, so kids can put them on themselves. My favorite adult shoe is the RunAmoc. There are three different kinds; the Moc 3 is really fast. We have a large customer base of minimal or barefoot runners, and this shoe is sleek and durable. You can just slip it on. As a runner, I love this shoe.
What challenges have you and Larkin faced as independent local business owners? We carry zero debt, and it was difficult for us to get a line of credit during the economic downturn. We went without it, but it impeded our growth. That was a major challenge. Overall, though, Corvallis is a very business-friendly community. Our landlord, Alan Ayres, has been wonderful. He’s very supportive, as are CIBA and the DCA. We’ve done a number of projects with OSU, including equipment design.
What is the impact of local independent businesses on Corvallis? Having grown up in a family-owned business, I really appreciate the importance of supporting locally-owned independent businesses. They create the long-term health and stability of the community. By definition, corporations aren’t as invested. Local independents are the ones who care about the future of the community; for them, it’s not all about making money.
What excites or inspires you about owning your business? I have a sense of pride in being able to contribute to the community and to be part of it. I like the social aspect of owning the business; it’s fun to meet customers. Our joy is in sharing the product and not making it a luxury item that few people can afford.
What is your relationship to the community? We help different community groups by providing donations and products for their events and programs. We’re a big supporter of Montessori and Waldorf schools. We also provide support to La Leche League International and the Earth Island Institute, and we sell cat toys made from leather scraps, with 100% of the proceeds going to Kids for Kids.
How important is sustainability to you and your business? Sustainability is one of the three pillars of Soft Star Shoes. We are a very eco-sensitive business. Soft Star has earned the “We Conserve” stamp of approval for our efforts to locally source our materials, conserve energy in our workshop, and reduce and reuse whenever possible. You see evidence of this in our minimal shipping techniques, our solar panels, green energy purchases, and recycling programs. 100% of our power usage comes from solar or wind energy. Faucet aerators in our sinks and low-flow water savers in the toilets enable us to save 11,500 gallons of water a year. We have a whole page on our website that tells what we’re doing to walk lightly on the earth. www.softstarshoes.com/sustainable-practices
(Interview and article by Annette Mills – March 31, 2013)
The Local Business of the Week program is designed to help the Corvallis community identify our locally owned independent businesses by featuring one business each week. The program is part of the Buy Local First campaign co-sponsored by the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and the Community Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).