It isn’t often that I get to take an inside look at a company as uniquely infused by its principles and hometown as Keen Footwear. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend Keen Utility’s inaugural media event at its headquarters in Portland, Oregon. I experienced how their commitment to quality, innovation, stewardship, and philanthropy permeate the sole of the company. (Yeah, I know.) This Keen manufacturing tour and factory tour turned out to be more than I expected in many ways.
Editor’s Note: Check out our best work boots review article for our favorite products for all applications.
Keen Headquarters Tour
After a long flight, I arrived at the hotel with time enough for a shower and power nap before heading to Keen headquarters. Keen’s sales director, Kevin Kious met us at the Keen Headquarters. He wore a pair of Keen Uneeks and looked as laid back as his shoes. As he showed us through the facility—definitely one of the coolest I’ve seen—it became evident that “laid back” is an important part of the KEEN equation. This also showed up later in the Keen manufacturing tour.
The structure that Keen transformed into its headquarters and garage is a wonderful old five-story brick building. Located in Portland’s Pearl District, the faded block lettering that jackets its face is a ghost of its past life. Presumably, it once served as a restaurant supply house. One of KEEN’s goals in renovating this massive structure was to create less debris than would fit in one dumpster. By reusing or repurposing most of what was already on-site, they beat that goal handily, filling it to only 85% capacity. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, with impressive results. The enormous, previously painted wooden beams and columns throughout are once again naked and naturally conspicuous in their former grandeur.
KEEN Utility Line Overview
After the tour, Mark Reilly, Chris Heffernan, and Bre Fokes joined us to give a thorough overview of the entire Utility line. They emphasized their new and American Built styles. Keen’s leadership team is a creative powerhouse with collective cobbling expertise from virtually all the big names in footwear. It isn’t surprising that Keen Utility is blazing an unconventional trail through the work shoe industry. From concept to market, JKEEN examined every step of the process to find tweaks and mods. For example, one of Keen’s most popular Utility offerings, the Atlanta Cool, is actually a steel-toed sandal. It features a breathable mesh to fill in the space between the straps. Whodathunk you could wear sandals on a construction site without fear of OSHA repercussions?
The Utility line is inspired by their hiking boots. That’s a logical move since you want to be comfortable in shoes worn hard for all-day use. The company actually has 38 models in the Keen Utility boots line that ship around the world. KEEN assembles around 11 of those in the United States. Within two years, Keen is hoping to be 100% American-built.
Addressing the Women
Keen realized that women’s feet are generally smaller than men’s. They also have a different shape. To accommodate this, Keen Utility built the women’s line on an entirely different set of lasts than they use for the men’s line. This is a big difference from simply resizing men’s shoes for women’s feet, and one I’ll bet the ladies appreciate.
Reviewer’s note: A “last” is the foot-shaped form used to develop the basic shape of a shoe. It also holds the shoe as it travels through the various assembly stations.
Another Keen tweak is in their understanding of the way a safety toe insert affects the fit of a shoe. Most manufacturers have just three insert sizes available to put into their wide range of shoe sizes, and generally, that insert is just a round cap. Keen has 5 different sizes in each of their steel, aluminum, or composite safety inserts, and each one is asymmetrical—left or right—to fit the natural profile of your toes. That’s big!
Why the KEEN Toe-Cap?
Probably the most distinct Keen “tell” is the pronounced black toecap on most of its Utility styles. It was born from the realization that the seam between the upper and the lower toe of the shoe will often be the first to fail. When that happens, your shoes fall apart and your toes get wet. Enter the uniquely formulated toecap—and problem solved.
Dinner at Henry’s Tavern, just a few blocks from Keen HQ, gave us a look at the old Blitz-Weinhard Brewery, one of the oldest breweries in Portland, up until 1999. Like so many buildings in Portland, it has been re-purposed with much of the great, old character left in place. Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve beers are still brewed today, but from another location.
Keen Manufacturing Tour and Factory
The Keen manufacturing tour showed us a 30,000 sq. ft. portion of an industrial park just a few miles from Keen headquarters. While the building for the Keen factory doesn’t share the same old style architecture as HQ, Keen’s personality is front and center. The conference room in the back of the warehouse, for example, is a modified bright yellow VW bus. No joke. In its current configuration, this facility has the capacity to produce a million shoes per year, a number Keen is on track to hit soon.
Research and development are all handled in-house, and it’s headed up by Keen’s Innovation Director, Stephen Smith. At his disposal is a nifty assortment of 3D printers, vacuum formers, sewing machines, and various cobbling tools both old and new, to prototype new products and concepts. As an interesting side note, Keen tends to salvage older equipment from other shoe manufacturers and shops, restoring and rejuvenating them for use in their own facilities. It’s a practice that really fits in well with their theme of recycling and making the best use of materials and systems.
The KEEN “Torture Chamber” (Not their Official Name)
Just off the assembly line our Keen manufacturing tour stumbled upon the “torture chamber”—otherwise known as Quality Control. KEEN examines every aspect of the shoes here. They scrutinize every feature. That includes testing heat tolerance, water resistance, crush resistance, and build integrity. More often than not, Keen’s standards seemed to exceed the industry norms in many areas.
The factory uses a cell-style manufacturing method, and it was neat to watch the employees working efficiently to assemble the shoes. Another thing that was great to experience was a factory that didn’t smell bad. Because they direct-inject polyurethane (PU) to bond the lowers and uppers together, they avoid the harsh chemical glues that could leak out pollutants and render a factory of this size almost unbearable. We were able to walk around and observe everything without masks or any protective equipment. Quite impressive, considering the alternative.
Keen & Philanthropy
Keen is definitely “keen” on lending a hand to non-profits, and one of the ways they do it is with the thing they know best—shoes. Our United Villages is one organization in Portland that bids on demolition jobs. However, they don’t use backhoes or wrecking balls to accomplish the job. They actually de-construct the building. Anything they can reused or repurpose goes to their ReBuilding Center for sorting and resale. This might include electrical outlets, windows, doors, trusses, and wood flooring—up to 85% of a building’s major components.
In a year, Our United Villages will have over 2,000 unique volunteers helping out with the operations. On many of the jobs, safety shoes are a requirement and one that many volunteers cannot accommodate. Keen realized that need and worked with the organization to start a steel toe shoe lending library. It’s a lot like the bowling alley concept, but the volunteers don’t have to pay to rent the shoes. While they do this in Portland, Keen also teams up with companies elsewhere, donating and providing shoes for people working in these types of organizations or similar businesses.
This was a really well-coordinated event that was a lot of fun to be a part of! We also took some time with Boaz Frankel, a Keen ambassador, to go on a walking tour of Portland. I was certainly impressed with the ethics, aesthetics, and all-around attitude of Keen and its employees. The important thing for the consumer, however, is whether or not their boots and shoes will hold up to the expectations I now have for the brand. I’m looking forward to shedding some light on this after I have a few more projects underfoot (See what I did there?) in my American Built Keen Mt. Vernon 8 boots. I’ll give you the rundown in a few weeks, but so far, so good.