The dream – the reality

Author: Barrett Rainey

“Outside every silver lining
there’s a dark cloud.”

Our little burg-in-the-Oregon-woods is witnessing proof of that chronic pessimism.. A local, extremely entrepreneurial company has become so successful it’s gone now. And we’re left with our lining-less dark cloud.

Here’s what happened. About five years ago, local soccer moms Mandy Holborow and Sheri Price wanted to make more healthful snacks for their kids. Right here. Just across town. They finally decided on oatmeal laced with fruit. Put a handful in baggies to keep in the cupboard, take out and add the hot water. Soon, some friends wanted to try it so Mandy and Sheri whipped up more and passed around the baggies.

As word got around, more friends – and people they didn’t even know – wanted some. So, starting in the kitchen – and later expanding into the garage – the ladies cranked out more oat and fruit snacks. Voila! “Umpqua Oats” was born.

One thing led to another. Some local coffee shops and grocery stores added Umpqua Oats – by then in small, white styrofoam cups, selling for about $3 each – and things just kept growing. Seven flavors, too. So, Shari and Mandy took over a building that had formerly been a large department store. That meant seven full-time workers – another 10-15 as needed.

Today – just four years later – Umpqua Oats is an international business with product in a lot of major airports, many stores and hotels in this country and Canada. Airlines are interested for on-board snacks. Some already have ‘em. Sheri and Mandy are talking to public school food providers, colleges and universities, fitness clubs, motels and other places where people would like a quick, healthful snack.

Bottom line: each year since founding, sales have doubled. And more. Using the same very active marketing plan that has succeeded so far, outside experts think that doubling can go on for several more years at least. It’s now a multi-million dollar, international business and no one knows where it will top out. Or if.

WOW! Talk about a couple of local Oregon soccer moms putting our little burg-in-the-woods on the map! A growing payroll – dollars multiplying in the local economy – success that could draw spinoffs or new businesses.

Except – now they’ve closed and moved. Production is in California and corporate headquarters now in Nevada. And the empty retail building that used to be a department store – before it was home to a booming local industry – is vacant. Again. Former employees now unemployed.

Shari and Mandy – their husbands and kids, too – are living in a Las Vegas suburb. Production of Umpqua Oats is being handled by Honeyville Food Products in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Orders Umpqua Oats used to handle by the baggie over the phone are being replaced by fork lift pallet-loads out of a large warehouse going everywhere.

Product production demands now require a company with the right equipment and experience like Honeyville – experienced in large-scale packaging and assembly not available here.. Also necessary – a larger pool of labor. The active sales calls Mandy and Shari make in person are now several a week with destinations coast-to-coast and overseas. So, better air travel connections were necessary. Couldn’t do that here in the trees.

As for the spinoff economic “benefit” for our little burg, well, we can go buy a cup of Umpqua Oats at Safeway and say “We knew them when.”

The Northwest is full of little burgs like ours. Once flourishing with major industry – timber, fishing, mining – where things went bottoms up. A variety of reasons. Some – like Idaho’s Silver Valley – lost their “glory days” decades ago and they haven’t come back. Maybe they never will. Others – like Bend, Sisters and Redmond in Central Oregon – lost timber mills and forest products but made a largely successful shift to tourism with skiing, white water rafting, dozens of golf courses, large numbers of retirees and smaller entrepreneurial businesses. They became “service industry” towns.

The largest problem for a one-industry town like ours is that it takes so long to replace the economic underpinnings that created past stability. Timber has been here 150 years. Economics and technology dictated downsizing. Now, folks hereabouts are looking to the wine industry. That’s a hopeful future. But it takes a long, long time for a full-blown impact on the local economy. Nearly all the vineyards and wineries here are family-owned. The big names seen in California and New York aren’t here. Yet. Maybe never. Neither is the large, skilled workforce of field hands and vintners – at least not in large enough numbers to make a sizeable economic impact. May happen. Someday. But that someday could be many years away. People are working on it. But it’s a long-haul situation.

Like a lot of other small Northwest burgs, we’ve got some good economic development people at work. There are plans on the table. Things could look a lot better. Someday. But, again, it takes years. Often, a lot of years.

Umpqua Oats is quite a story. Outside of high tech startups today, a very unusual story of rapid success and a wide open future. Especially in the backwoods. Lots of folks hereabouts thought Mandy and Shari really had something. In fact, about a year ago, they told my Rotary club this was where they were born, where they started and this was where they’d stay. I’m sure they believed that. Then.

But business is business. Even in our little burg-in-the-woods. Good luck to ‘em.

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