Portland-area small businesses teach, find niche

mr. green beans.JPGView full sizeNathan Brower (left) stretches mozzarella to test its readiness as Irene Jade looks on Saturday during a cheese-making class the Florida residents took at Mr. Greenbeans on North Mississippi Avenue in Portland. A growing number of small businesses are adding such sessions to their usual lineup of goods and services. The secret to making tamales is in the masa, and one Milwaukie restaurant known for them will let you in on it.

Canby Asparagus Farm’s Casa de Tamales started teaching others how to make the traditional Mexican dish about six months ago, joining a growing number of Portland-area small businesses that are adding classes that complement their products and services.

The do-it-yourself courses highlight everything from beekeeping to fermenting, and appeal to customers and business owners alike.

It’s part of the city’s culture, said Maria Raleigh, who owns Collage art supply shops in Portland. Classes at its Northeast Alberta Street store regularly sell out as more and more customers sign up, she said earlier this spring.

“There’s a big DIY movement in the Northwest,” she said. “Portland’s a very creative city.”

For consumers, the classes are often more affordable and require a shorter time commitment than more traditional options.

bee thinking.JPGView full sizeBee Thinking owner Matt Reed sells beehives to backyard beekeepers — and teaches them the basics of the trade during classes he offers in a new Southeast Portland space.

For business owners, the courses create an opportunity to build their customer base, bring in more revenue and boost sales of related goods. But many say the biggest incentive is a chance to share their passion with curious learners.

“Tamales are lots of fun,” said Charles Maes, who owns Canby Asparagus Farm. Requests from customers as the holiday season neared first inspired him to start offering the classes. The success prompted him to add other classes on preparing salsa, tortillas and chile rellenos.

For $125, students spend three hours learning how to make their own meat, broth and masa for the tamales. They leave with a dozen tamales in hand and skills to repeat the process at home.

Maes teaches four to six people at a time, bringing $500 into the restaurant. He schedules the sessions for the restaurant’s slow days.

“Monday is a dead day for me. Tuesday is a slow day for me,” Maes said in May. “That’s not too bad.”

Of course, he keeps some recipes guarded, such as the restaurant’s top-selling Naca tamal, a Nicaraguan-style tamale steamed in a banana leaf. He also keeps the vegetarian tamale recipe under wraps because it took quite a while to develop.

“As a business owner, I am sharing with (students) how to make the basic tamale,” Maes said. “The secret in making tamales is the masa.”

Students often return to the downtown Milwaukie restaurant to receive follow-up tips on how to improve their finished products, he said.

“They tell me about their masa or their broth,” Maes said, “and I try to tell them what they may be doing wrong.”

Portland’s Bee Thinking moved from a small Sellwood space to a larger shop off Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard this spring, in part to expand its classroom area. Now, 35 students can be accommodated for such classes as beginning beekeeping and beehive maintenance.

Owner Matt Reed quit his job in February to pursue the business full-time. It started as an online-only shop that grew out of a blog he kept as he pursued beekeeping. He ships hives geared toward backyard beekeepers throughout the U.S.

But he knew it was important to offer classes for his local customer base and wanted a space that afforded him the opportunity. The basic beekeeping class sells out every time, he said. Eventually, he hopes to add related courses that teach budding beekeepers what to do with harvested honey.

“I don’t want to just give them a box and leave them on their own,” Reed said.

Ashley and Ethan Bisagna added a teaching arm to their Portland-based Feastworks catering business a year ago. Ethan butchered hogs and made charcuterie from the meat to sell at farmers’ markets. Now he teaches the same skills to groups that gather at Portland Homestead Supply.

“It was great for us this winter,” Ashley Bisagna said this spring. “It helps with the off-season.”

Mr. Green Beans opened two years ago along North Mississippi Avenue in Portland with the same philosophy. Owners Trevin and Ginny Miller started with topics they knew well: soap making and coffee roasting (hence the store’s name).

“We designed the whole shop around the learning experience,” Trevin Miller said recently. “It’s been an interesting learning experience from our perspective, as well.”

Customer requests drove new courses, such as making kombucha and cheese. The retail side of the store stocks related supplies, such as a kombucha starter culture and cheese molds.

Collage, too, has always had a space in its shop dedicated to classes. In fact, its original tagline when it opened eight years ago was: “Creative classes and supplies for artists of all ages.”

It eventually expanded into the shop next door, a space large enough that 20 students at a time can learn the basics of embroidery, jewelry, collages and more. The shop’s July schedule included at least 16 sessions, including $5 Fridays and $10 Tuesdays.

More and more students are streaming into the classes, Raleigh said, which now make up between 10 and 15 percent of monthly sales. That share has expanded this year.

For example, classes often could accommodate last-minute students. Now, almost all of them sell out. “We’ve been experiencing a lot of growth,” she said.

–Molly Young, @mollykyoung

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