Walkable Workplace Profile: A Classic Home for Classic Foods

Portland Food Distributor Chooses Walkable Woodlawn for New Facilities

By Craig Beebe, Communications and Development Coordinator. Photos by Dave Garlock, Communications Intern.

Jake Greenberg is the first to admit that he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a typical bike commuter. The gregarious founder/owner of Classic Foods, a growing specialty food distributor serving restaurants all over the Portland area, is a big guy, and he's very busy. Few would guess he has a passion for getting to work on two wheels.

But when you meet Jake, you quickly realize there’s a lot you shouldn’t take for granted about him, or his business. Under his leadership, Classic Foods is a real standout, not just for supplying hundreds of restaurants with quality local and imported ingredients and selling top-notch fresh pasta at the Hollywood Farmers Market, but for a community-oriented attitude that infuses everything they do.

For evidence, you need look no further than the company’s new production facility, warehouse, and offices in Northeast Portland’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

Seeing the "Hidden Costs"

When it outgrew its old facilities near Interstate 84 in inner east Portland a few years ago, common business sense would have dictated that Classic Foods find a tilt-up warehouse near a freeway interchange, somewhere out toward the fringes of the region. Many of the company’s competitors have done just that.

But Greenberg recognized that while such a decision might look better on paper, it carried with it a host of “hidden costs”—from the costs and environmental impacts of the extra driving his delivery trucks would go every day, to greater distance from clients, to a reduced quality of life for his several dozen employees, most of whom live in Portland. “Those costs are always transferred to the employees,” Greenberg says. He wanted to take a different path.

So Greenberg set about looking for a new location that matched his company’s ethics, made good business sense, and—this was very important—was within easy biking distance of his home. After hunting around, he found the ideal place: a onetime ice factory built in 1932 in the Woodlawn neighborhood, a few blocks away from Martin Luther King Boulevard and just two miles from Greenberg’s home--easy biking distance.

The building presented some immediate challenges. The ice-making operations had ended long ago, and other tenants over the years had included a brewery and the Army Corps of Engineers during the Vanport floods in 1948. By the time Greenberg found the building, it held a box manufacturing company nearing foreclosure. Most of the vast warehouse spaces were filled with junk, the roof needed extensive repairs, the historic walls and floors were damaged by forklifts, spills, and neglect. The historic character of the building was largely degraded by a series of poorly-constructed additions and high fences topped by barbed wire. (See a "before" photo gallery from Neighborhood Notes here.) It would clearly not be easy to make it work for Classic Food’s needs.

But Jake’s not a guy who gives up easily. He saw a building with distinctive presence and huge possibilities—for a larger facility and for helping revive a whole neighborhood.

Greenberg stands near an original door preserved in the new building.Taking the Tour

After creating plans with developer (and Gresham city councilor) Josh Fuhrer of Ariston Development, followed by a lot of hard work, Greenberg’s vision has become a reality. The new facilities opened in February 2011, with a total of just over 40,000 square feet of usable space. They're gorgeous, with an industrial Art-Deco feel retaining many of the original walls and beams, and breathing new life and color into the exterior. The work included major updates of the building's energy and heating systems, and it will likely eligible for LEED Platinum certification. There are a variety of attractive indoor and outdoor spaces, including a substantial bioswale, a large deck suitable for a neighborhood farmer's market that Greenberg’s contemplating, and a garden area where he'll grow tomatoes to put in the company's ravioli—“food meters,” he jokes.

Spacious exhibition kitchen facilities are separated by a wall of glass from an airy community event area and an open office space, all of it filled with natural light streaming through huge windows on the building’s east side. There is ample bike parking and a shower for employees.

The heart of the facility is a warehouse featuring a vast collection of oils, pastas, spices and other specialty goods from around the world, with a cadre of Sprinter delivery vans parked inside, ready for loading. Two giant refrigerated/frozen storage areas feature an innovative heat-transfer system that takes excess heat generated from the cooling and uses it to heat water for another part of the facility. There’s room for a planned retail outlet, too, and even for storing goods made by some of the company’s neighbors, including Breakside Brewery on nearby Dekum Street.

The transformation cost roughly $5 million, or $115 per square foot, which PSU Professor of urban planning and real estate development WIll Macht notes is quite reasonable compared to the cost of building a new suburban facility. Greenberg benefitted from low-interest loans and other financial and technical assistance from the Portland Development Commission and the state, including an Oregon Express Bond. He also expects to receive federal tax credits for the building's energy systems. Some planned upgrades have yet to be fully implemented, but Greenberg is confident that every investment will pay back many times over.

A Whole Community Profits

And then there are the intangible gains that Classic Foods enjoys in the midst of a residential neighborhood. For one, there is the gratitude of neighbors, who have seen a “real eyesore” turn into a community gem receiving praise from around the country. There are nearby businesses, which include a couple of restaurants and a brewery, that suddenly have 30 more people in the neighborhood throughout the week, who might stop by for lunch or an after-dinner drink. There are the opportunities for community engagement, from hosting a spaghetti feed fundraiser for the local elementary school to bumping into neighbors while stepping outside.

And there’s the fact that Greenberg and his employees can get to work by bus, bike or foot, without having to drive. Three bus lines pass within a few blocks of the building, and several major bikeways converge in the area. Greenberg says about a third of the employees bike to work, which would be virtually impossible for all but the hardiest employees had the company relocated to a more conventional location. This kind of decision is what helps Greenberg retain talented employees, and he’s clearly very proud of that.

Greenberg sees a strong future for his company, finding new niches within Portland’s still-growing dining scene. And his sense of community extends well beyond the Woodlawn neighborhood. He has a particular passion for connecting small farms and artisan cheese producers with fine restaurants. He is a strong believer that successful Oregon farms mean better business for urban companies like his, too. “It makes it possible to have those farms keep their value in farming,” instead of being forced to develop, he says.

Leading By Example

After sampling some recent arrivals, including the year’s first Oregon asparagus delivery and some excellent shredded Parmaggiano cheese, Greenberg grows circumspect about what it will take for more companies to follow Classic Foods’ lead and invest in existing neighborhoods as they create new facilities.

“It starts with passion. You have to believe in it,” he says at first. But the more important thing to do, from a business perspective, is to “factor in the hidden costs” of making the choices other companies too often make—trading the easy choice for the costs borne by a company’s employees needing to drive ever farther to work, the costs of traffic congestion and lost productivity, and the costs to communities that have seen good buildings fall into disrepair and neighboring business dry up.

In cities and towns across Oregon, there are good buildings and empty lots waiting for new life from growing, innovative companies like Classic Foods. With the right incentives, assistance from local and state government, and successful examples like Classic Foods leading the way, more Oregon companies can make similarly impressive moves. Investing in an existing neighborhood or building isn’t just good for the environment and community. It’s good for business, too.

Click here to see a gallery of remarkable before and after pictures, and other project details, from Ariston Development.

You can tour the Classic Foods facility at its annual open house on Saturday, September 15, 2012, from 1-5 PM. The Open House is a benefit for the NE Backpack Lunch Program. More info available here.