Bend retailer is committed to clothing cool Central Oregonians while helping feed needy families, one fashionable shirt at a time. Story by Jeff Spry CBN Feature Writer
Energetic co-owner Patrick Wurtz believes their rapid path to success and popularity follows the fortuitous route of few digital age grassroots startups.
“The original idea was to throw Bend’s 541 area code logo on a t-shirt and ask Bendites to get behind it back in January 2011,” said Wurtz. “So we started it as a hobby to make some extra beer money. We got connected with a local guy, Jesse Roberts, who did design work with Rise Up, the well-known clothing and charitable organization, and he was basically our one stop shopping contact. Zack Nutter, my business partner, and I each kicked in 250 bucks a piece of our own money and that was the initial order of 24 shirts that showed up at our door.”
Their original design was simply “541” placed up toward the shoulder and on the opposite lower corner of the shirt, an outline of the State of Oregon with a star pinpointing Bend.
“So we went around to different downtown retailers and showed them our shirts to gain potential clients. Part of the marketing strategy was to pick charities that we could offer a “dollars back” benefit movement to add to the appeal of our venture.”
The first charity Wurtz and Nutter chose after hours of research was NeighborImpact out of Redmond, the food bank that services all of the Redmond area and surrounding Central Oregon counties.
“The plan was to run with this charity and then change it after six months,” Wurtz explained. “As we researched this food bank we realized its magnitude. It’s a pretty big entity, servicing over 18,000 people a month. We discovered our contributions could make a big difference, initially by donating four meals for every t-shirt sold.”
That first batch of 541 shirts sold out immediately so Wurtz ordered another 48, got more retailers on board and sold out again.
“We started out paying $10 for a little table set up on First Friday in a breezeway; it was super guerrilla-style marketing. We slowly but surely kept growing and decided to introduce some new designs. These fresh styles turned into full seasonal offerings, branching out and progressing into dresses, tank tops, hoodies and more, expanding the line with different designs and new graphics.”
Arriving at the notion of wanting to include Madras, Prineville, Sisters and surrounding towns, 541 Threads hit a crossroads. That was when marketing wiz Deb Townsend approached them to represent their benevolent cause to help bolster an ever-widening network.
“She was out repping our stuff in early 2012 and we all came in and had a meeting one day. Deb had the incredible idea to up our commitment level from four to five meals donated per t-shirt sold, letting us symbolize our mission in a whole new dimension – literally “Five For One.”
Growing to the point where they were doing pop-up shops in Bend and using them as temporary, mini retail locations during First Fridays with live music, beer and wine, 541 Threads was able to move a considerable amount of product… and feed hungry souls.
“During this time, we were introduced to a man who had just moved into town and worked for Tom’s Shoes, the worldwide charitable footwear company. Matt Molletta was one of the original employees of Tom’s Shoes and ended up essentially mentoring us and consulting us for free and believed in what we were doing. Matt was the pioneer behind sewing tags in the back of the shirt, allowing us to brand ourselves better. He took our shirts and our company branding to the next level as far as quality goes and came up with the slogan, “Five Fed For Every Thread.”
Today 541 Threads has gone from impromptu shops to their own downtown retail space on Minnesota, opening in November 2012.
“It’s been great, the company has grown 20 percent since last August,” said Wurtz. “This last month has been the best year in the company’s history and we’re very excited about that. And hey, we haven’t killed each other yet which is half the battle.”
Their product line puts out a new set of gear every month. That means two-to three designs for both guys and girls.
“The directors of NeighborImpact are pretty much shocked at the enthusiasm and commitment we’ve maintained to help end the epidemic of hunger, especially from young guys like us.”
Wurtz and Nutter also brought in a minority partner, Conan Breitmeier, to join the company, whose sole purpose is in web design and art for the t-shirts, keeping all design work in house.
“Right now our big quest is transitioning into online sales so we’re starting to ship all over the country and trying to expand that to reach wherever we can. One of the new concepts is to connect with food banks in other areas, ideally one in every state, so if we sell a shirt in Florida, we donate the meals to that area food bank.”
For Wurtz, this whirlwind success story has been an enriching, fun and rewarding experience.
“I still get a thrill when I read letters from the food bank and hear these people’s stories, and realize these are normal families that just can’t make ends meet and that we’re making a real difference in their lives. Walking around downtown Bend or anywhere, it’s always a cool feeling when you see somebody wearing your 541 t-shirt and know what that represents.”
541 Threads is located at 112 Minnesota Avenue in downtown Bend. For more info find them at www.541threads.com, on Facebook or call 541-350-2856.