Editor’s Note: Recycling and reuse are more than just slogans to Beth Shissler and Hannah Kubiak, Maine natives and co-owners of Portland’s Sea Bags. The company repurposes old sails into tote bags, placemats and other products that each carry a bit of Maine with them wherever they go. The company is committed to staying on Portland’s Custom House Wharf, where they work in a crowded manufacturing and retail facility filled with second-hand furniture.
IP: Why is Sea Bags in Portland?
Beth: Because there’s no better place for a business like ours. Not just Portland, but specifically Custom House Wharf. Hannah started here forever ago—in 1999—across the way and it was just a natural. When we first started, we got up to 12 people over there [in just over 400 square feet].
IP: Working in shifts, I hope?
Beth: No…we actually had people cutting sail in front of us, and four sewing machines. I had my corner—I’m a little claustrophobic—that no one was allowed in because I was running the computer and running and shipping boxes in the corner.
IP: That’s impressive. When did you move here?
Beth: Maybe three or four years ago.
Hannah: Yeah…we couldn’t tell you.
Beth: It was a year from the time that we decided to move here that it was ready. [Moving pre-production upstairs] will give us an additional 4,000-5,000 additional square feet up here. We thought we’d hit the jackpot when we moved downstairs, and it soon became apparent that we’re busting at the seams down there, too.
IP: There’s something to the atmosphere you have down there, with the seamstresses. How do you maintain that?
Beth: I think the energy comes from the people we work with. We’re really lucky that we have over a third of our staff who started with us in our first year. The energy comes from the demand for the product, which we’re so thankful for. We’re trying to keep kind of a calculated growth to keep it sustainable, because we don’t want to hire people and then have to lay them off or let them go. So everybody wears at least a dozen hats. We’re the owners but we’re known to roll up our sleeves and pack up a box, or do labels, or fix the copier, or whatever it takes. Our staff has really grown with us. I think the energy comes from that growth. It’s exciting and it’s scary and it’s chaotic.
IP: Can you share some metrics?
Beth: We’ve gone from three of us to 20. We’re in our sixth year. We’ve gone from less than a hundred bags a year to over 2000 units a month.
IP: Hannah, you started in 1999. What happened six years ago?
Beth: We incorporated. I came on in 2006.
IP: What was going on before that?
Hannah: It was just a little shop my best friend and I started the company in 1999. We were making the bags to pay the bills and we were having a wonderful time doing it. We met some wonderful people, and we found a great use for materials that would otherwise have hit the landfill. Being down here on the waterfront as well was key to the whole aesthetic of what we were trying to accomplish.
IP: Can you remember the first time that idea of bags popped into your head?
Hannah: Yeah, because my dad told me about it (both laugh).
IP: How did he bring it up?
Hannah: He said, “Hey kid. Check this out. It’s just a wonderful thing. You gotta do this.” He was actually a bag maker from way back. He started a company called the Port Canvas Company in 1969 in Kennebunkport, so he knows the basics on how to make a sturdy bag. He lives on his sailboat and he needed a bag one day. He had an extra piece of rope, and…tada.
IP: What’s your role here now?
Hannah: I run a lot of errands. Seriously, every day is quite a bit different. I don’t have any set parameters. It’s all a big mystery which kind of keeps it interesting for everybody, including me. We have meetings that we have to set up. We have people that we have to look after. I need to make sure the flow is going well in production. If there’s something missing then I’ll either fix it or go after it. Stuff like that.
IP: Are you designing new stuff all the time, and how does that process work?
Hannah: Beth comes up with some great ideas and occasionally I’ll chime in with one or two as well. Our staff is pretty amazing at being vocal about what’s hot and what’s not. I’m more the utilitarian type of thinker when it comes to design. Beth is the aesthetic thinker.
Beth: Hannah is being a little bit humble. Hannah still makes the best bag around. I might dream of something at night that sounds good to me and I’ll come in and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this,’ and 45 minutes later she’ll show up with something that she actually put together based on that. That’s the difference between somebody who can think about something and somebody who can something.
IP: So you set the standards, in terms of stitching, the quality and how things are made here.
Hannah: Yes, absolutely. But it’s just grown really strongly in those cornerstones of what we believe in, how our material is used, and how our look is represented in each and every bag we make. From strength and durability to being comfortable on you. But Beth is being quite humble; she comes up with some really amazing ideas.
IP: What’s your role, Beth?
Beth: I like to think what I bring to the party is more the business end. My background is business. I worked for a big global company and have never been involved in a start-up. I don’t have a background in bags or even consumer products, but it’s safe to say that my background in business is what I’m most comfortable with. The bags themselves are just something I fell in love with. Our line is based on Hannah’s core line. Our best-selling bags are the Stars and Anchors and Hannah’s been doing that since 1999. We’ve strayed very little from that as a core design element. We built the business on three cornerstones: Green in product and practice; made in Maine, and being involved in our community. For us to come with something that totally contradicted that wouldn’t feel right to us. We agreed early on—when Hannah and I were ‘dating’ before we went into business together—that if it didn’t feel right we just wouldn’t do it. And still that gut feeling is what drives us.
IP: Is that why you’re successful?
Beth: Are we? I think that there is nobody I’ve ever met that has a better instinct about decision making than Hannah does. We can lay it out and she’ll make a decision from her gut, and never backtrack on it, and that is really admirable. Being able to do that together has made us be able to grow to the extent we’ve been growing. Not sure I’d call it success yet, but I’d call it sustainable growth.
IP: You have a strong brand that’s built around reuse and recycling at its core.
Beth: It is a core belief for us. Myself, I don’t think consumers buy things because they’re green . I think it makes them feel better about taking their wallet out. But I don’t think there’s a market for green product just yet. Hannah has certainly been doing this before it was trendy or cool. We feel it’s our responsibility, not necessarily a trend to follow. Being green in product and practice was a cornerstone we built our business around. But not a buying trend.
IP: Is that why you’re still here in this building?
Beth: Yeah, look around….we stole the windows from the Porthole [Restaurant].
IP: That’s recycling.
Beth: It’s really who we are. We have furniture downstairs, a lot of it we got from architectural salvage. They have amazing histories in themselves, from old mills and things like factories. It’s cool.
Hannah: It definitely is. It’s like what people want out of a magazine. Only it’s the real deal.
Beth: Hand-me-downs are very cool in Maine. We’re a very thrifty state to begin with, so it’s just more who we are. I think our homes reflect that too, and our personal lives. We’d much rather have something cool and weathered than manufactured new to look cool and weathered.
IP: Sounds like you’re planning to stay here for a while.
Beth: God willing. City of Portland willing, and the landlord willing. Yeah. We love it here. And if you think about it, in Portland, we’re one of the only commercial wharfs that you can come down and see. We’re one of the only places you can see your product being made. We’ll have people come down here—Commercial street is, what, 100 yards away—they’ll come down and say, “Whooo!. We’ve FOUND you.” Like they had traveled to the bowels of the earth to find us. It’s great. We love it here. It’s seedy and dirty, like we are.
Hannah: It doesn’t get any more authentic than this. The smell of bait in the summertime. And the lobstermen who are our neighbors love us.
Beth: They take good care of us, too. We are safe down here. We’re well cared for and we think we’re good neighbors too.
IP: You have some superfans, I know. I imagine they’re pretty vocal. Do you have any fun fan stories?
Hannah: Stalkers, do you mean?
Beth: We get letters from as far away as Japan and Amsterdam and Saudi Arabia so those are always kind of fun. We have active social media participation and a Facebook page, so when we put out there ‘how many Sea Bags do you have’ we had over 200 people reply that they have five or more, which for a company like ours is pretty fun. We get people here and in the Freeport store all the time who say they read about us in a magazine. It is a destination, because they have seen us on Facebook or they have read about us in a magazine or they have seen us somewhere and they can come watch the product being made. That’s pretty amazing. We’ll get phone calls—we have our crew on our Facebook page—with one sentence about each of our employees and they’ll call up and say, now, “Are you the blonde girl? which one are you?”
IP: People connect with you guys.
Beth: We hope so. That’s what we’re out to do, so it’s great.
IP: Do you have a favorite bag?
Beth: I think we all have pretty extensive collections.
Hannah: Right now I’ve got the upside down 58 and it’s got an original sail maker’s stamp in it from the 70s, which I absolutely adore.
IP: What do you carry around in it?
Beth: The problem with us is, what don’t we carry around in it. Right now I’m carrying around our new Hobo bag, which I’ve been ‘testing’ for a year now. I’m in love with it. When you own your own business, you hope you love what you do, and we do love our product. Ask me about our placemats.
IP: So…what about your placemats?
Beth: I’m so glad you asked. We are a bag company, and yet the placemats are my favorite. My husband and I are the biggest slobs on the planet when we eat. I throw them in the washer, I throw them in the dryer and they don’t stain, they don’t wrinkle and they come out looking brand-new every single time. I’m in love with them.
IP: What makes Sea Bags special?
Beth: One of the ways we stand out is we really are, I believe, the best quality. Beyond that we have the most extensive sail collection and acquisition process of anyone. We’re the only ones that could offer an extensive line of what we call our vintage sales. If you think of a sail like a triangle, there’s a little sweet spot. That’s what we think is the most coveted piece—that really vintage piece, whether it was a number or a letter or whatever it was that was on there. We were able this year to offer J. Crew a line of what they call their Indigo collection of just blue original vintage. We didn’t do anything to this bag. It’s just whatever was on [the sail] and it’s all shades of blue. We let them hand-pick them. We’re the only ones I know that could offer something like that. When a sail gets unfurled downstairs there isn’t one person in the shop that isn’t like, “That’s so cool. Wow….I’ve never seen that one before.” It’s like unwrapping a Christmas present every time we unfurl a sail to see what it is.
IP: Are they really that different?
Beth: Oh, yeah. Some of them are so unique that it’s amazing. You just want to know the story behind them. Because we use authentic recycled sail that’s actually been sailed, we do wonder about the stories behind them. It’s very different than buying product off a bolt—not that a start-up business isn’t exciting and something to be proud of in its own right, it is—but it’s very different doing it this way. I mean, try to inventory something that all comes in random triangles. Your yield is different on every single one. So to do it and do it well and profitably is really something that we’re very proud of.
IP: Do you have any sails that come off of a really cool boat?
Beth: We see sails off the windjammers and we can name those. We have our pedigree sails. Hannah and I never want to give them up so we actually stockpile most of them, just waiting for that special project to release them on.
IP: What makes you personally successful?
Beth: I think it’s our staff. It’s scary to have a payroll to meet every week. That’s probably the biggest driving thing in my life. We promised to create jobs when we started this. There sure could have been a lot of shortcuts along the way in doing this. But we set out to create jobs here and that responsibility is what drives me to move this ball forward every single day. It scares me too, most nights.
IP: Describe a time when it just got crazy for you.
Hannah: It would be the day that our website went up. HGTV had just aired a spot [in January 2006]. This was our first national spot and it was the day that we launched the website.
Beth: Hannah was [in Florida], and I was still finishing up my other job so I was in a hotel on the way back from China. I was in Chicago and I called Hannah and said, “Uh…we’ve got orders!” The website had been live that day that the show went live. I was logging in from my computer—and I had the only computer at that point—and I called Hannah. We didn’t know how to scale up production, it was just Meg and Hannah sewing. That was overwhelming.
Hannah: it’s not a bad thing to be a little bit scared. I think it keeps you edgy.
IP: How did you meet?
Hannah: Beth came down to the shop. Her brother had bought a bag for his wife. She found me open one day, which is kind of a miracle unto itself, because I kept very Hannah-like hours. She came in and was like, “I’d like to buy a bunch of these bags; they’re great. Can you give me a discount?” I was like, “what?” Then she used the word wholesale and I was like, “what?” So I think we decided on five percent.
Beth: It took me a month to get five percent from her. At that point, I didn’t know it, but it was more bags than she sold in a year and I got five percent. She’s tough.
Hannah: I just didn’t see any sense in giving anybody [a discount].
IP: Any really difficult times since then?
Beth: We haven’t had any really scary times. I think that every day is a little bit scary because we have a lot of mouths to feed and now we’re in a new phase. We’ve gone from the first in market and the best in market to being the first in market and the best in market..but not the ‘only’ in the market. We’ve changed our approach a little bit, but what we haven’t compromised on is quality. We’re not afraid to say no to orders; we weren’t then, and we’re not now. If the orders don’t make a lot of sense to our business or our core philosophies, we just don’t take them.
IP: What’s in the immediate future for Sea Bags?
Beth: We have some new products that we’re pretty excited about. They’re a little bit outside of our core bag business. We’ve just partnered with a local bookbinder and we’re creating beautiful journals and guestbooks out of our vintage sails. They’re stunning. We’ve just partnered with some swimwear guys out on the west coast to do some board shorts for men, just to further utilize our scrap; that’s kind of a new venture for us. In the next 12 months our plan is to move upstairs and grow. We have some other key projects we’re going to be taking on over the next 12 months but nothing we’re ready to print yet.
IP: What’s going to happen to Portland in the next 12 months or so?
Beth: We continue to think it’s the best place in the United States to live. I’m lucky; I’ve lived everywhere. I’ve traveled around the world. This is just one of the coolest cities ever. It’s made up of small businesses. It’s a small enough city and state that you can work with the people you want to work with, you can reach your elected officials. There’s capital to be had. Banking relationships are manageable and easy if you are established with good business and good business qualities. I think Portland will continue to grow. We’re going to continue to see the downtown thrive. Our arts scene is just nothing short of amazing. I think you’re going to see more fishing coming back here. We’re just a great place to live.
Hannah: Over the years, Portland has just gotten cooler and cooler. I’ve seen the changes. I started hanging out in Portland when I was about eight, with my dad. There’s definitely been a lot of change but the at its core, Portland is either a tiny city or a really big town. I think it’ll maintain that feel.
Beth: You know what’s great abut Portland? You could be sitting at the diner or at a bar, and the guy next to you could be a fisherman, a millionaire or both. You wouldn’t ever know the difference.