Made in America is back. No brand embodies what that means more than Portland, Oregon’s Tanner Goods. What started out as a leather goods company has branched into a full-fledged lifestyle brand offering everything from mugs to pencils to chairs.

But the founders of Tanner Goods weren’t looking to wave a flag or follow a trend. They just wanted to craft quality products they would buy themselves.

We sat down to talk with co-founders Jevan Lautz and Sam Huff (above left and right, respectively) about how you convey a lifestyle with a product, why American manufacturing is back and what you should definitely not do if you want to start your own brand.

“We appreciate small things and bigger things. Every day you pick up your belt and wallet. Every day, you make your morning coffee. What are the rituals that go along with that?”

Home Country Advantage

For Lautz, the desire to manufacture products right here at home is driven not so much by patriotism as it is by an emphasis on quality. “I want to control the product and our working environment,” he explains. “We’re all under one roof so if we have to make changes we can do it right away.”

Huff believes that Tanner Goods is more a regional story. Both he and Lautz are Oregon born and bred. “If we were born somewhere else, we’d be making things there,” he says. “For us it’s about having great relationships with vendors and keeping money in the local economy.”

“A lot of times ‘Made in America’ can be a smokescreen,” Huff observes. “There’s a lot of shitty stuff made in America and a lot of great stuff made in China.”

“I think there’s an importance to bringing manufacturing back to the United States,” adds Lautz. “But it’s never going to be like the 1940s again.”

Standing Out From the Pack

It should be noted that tons of companies are doing this “men’s lifestyle goods” thing. Few are doing it as well as Tanner Goods is. “For us, it’s process,” stresses Huff. The goal is the best product for the most people at the best price, sort of the opposite of what you imagine about a small-batch company’s goals. “I could have a factory in Texas making this stuff for a lot cheaper,” he says. “But now, because everything is done in house, if we have a quality issue with bags, I know right away.” That’s something not even larger “Made in the USA” brands can boast.

“We appreciate small things and bigger things,” says Lautz, who thinks the common thread for all Tanner Goods products is quality you can use on a daily basis. “Every day you pick up your belt and wallet. Every day, you make your morning coffee. What are the rituals that go along with that?”

Where’d the inspiration come from? For Huff, a little tome called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig’s ground-breaking, philosophical road trip novel. “Reading that book was the first time I ever really thought ‘What do “quality” and “value” mean?’” So what do they mean at Tanner Goods? “To me it means feeling like you got more than your money’s worth. We want to create products that have a really long aesthetic shelf life so people can enjoy them for years.”

“Not to be cliché, but it’s timeless,” notes Lautz. “You don’t need a wood-and-leather chair, but it’s nice to have. You’re not going to want to replace our stuff in a couple years because it has bright colors or some kooky font on it.”

Huff’s wife uses the term “price per wear.” “If you spend four hundred dollars on a pair of shoes you’re going to wear every day for the next five years, that’s an incredible price per wear value.” The key is to design something that will not just hold up, but be as stylish and relevant in five years as on the day you bought it.

Worker’s Perks

Portland is known as a great place to live, but not one bursting at the seams with employment opportunities. While Tanner Goods is a small operation, employing just under 30 people, they’re still offering great jobs for Bridge City. “People aren’t doing the same thing eight hours a day,” says Lautz, who counts his ability to help others pay their rent as his proudest achievement with Tanner Goods.

The owners also sometimes make breakfast for everyone and the company is filled with pinball and foosball afficionados, leading to many impromptu tournaments.

And beyond that, the company offers extra-curriculars that are actually fun—not things you have to pretend are fun while your boss doesn’t pay you on a Saturday. “Every summer we shut everything down including our retail stores and go camping together,” says Lautz. “Everyone gets paid for camping.”

Parting Thoughts

Lots of guys want to leave the cubicle behind, work with their hands and create their own business. So what advice do the Tanner Goods gents have for you?

“It’s so easy to look at what else is out there and just want to replicate that,” says Huff. But he recommends that you “find your own niche.”

“Being authentic is where it all stems from,” adds Lautz. “If you’re just going to get into it because you want to make a buck or you want a hobby, don’t. It should reflect who you are as a person in a way people will latch onto and understand. Smaller brands can do a good job of staying true to that.”

Can they do as great a job as Tanner Goods? Well, friend, that might just be up to you.