Global demand for a brand of hi-tech huaraches stamped “Made in Seattle” had a Capitol Hill sandal factory bursting at the seams in a 900 square foot space at 19th and Prospect. However, the operation will now have plenty of room to grow. After a somewhat lengthy search, earlier this month Capitol Hill-born Luna Sandals signed a five-year lease at a 5,000 square foot space at 5th and Aloha, Luna founder and majority-owner “Barefoot Ted” McDonald told CHS.
“It’s about five times as big, and we need it,” McDonald said, comparing the sprawling space in Lower Queen Anne to Luna’s current Capitol Hill home. Since it was built in 1920, the LQA brick building has housed an egg noodle factory, a color printing press and a photography studio and most recently was rented out for private events. Soon, it will be home to Luna’s all-in-one manufacturing, distribution and office headquarters, and will also provide room for the company’s first in-house retail operation and a visitor “hang out” lounge overlooking Luna’s factory floor.
Luna’s exit from the Hill in itself isn’t likely to dent the neighborhood’s economy but the company is the type of venture that more and more see as a necessary component of adding some balance to the area’s explosion in entertainment-type commercial development.
The Chophouse Row project on 11th Ave will have only two penthouse-style living units while making room for thousands of square feet of office space. Across E Pike, the project being planned to replace the current home of the Stranger, Value Village and The Rhino Room is also envisioned as an office space-focused building. While the fleeing of almost all of Capitol Hill’s auto dealerships for fancy, huge new showroom facilities in SoDo was inevitable, the loss of smaller operations like Fran’s Chocolates that *make things* has also helped tilt the neighborhood’s commercial balance nearly completely toward food, drink and retail. In the meantime, ventures like Sun Liquor’s mini bottling plant and the planned Starbucks roasting complex at Melrose and Pike show the Hill can still be home to a little light manufacturing.
The loss of Luna Sandals will also mean the loss of a unique Hillebrity. CHS talked with McDonald this winter about his devotion to laptop vehicles — you’ve possibly seen him whiz by on one of the whirring, single-wheel devices.
The queue for wholesale orders of Luna’s light-weight sandals is about 45 days right now, a Luna staffer said, where it would ideally be a week. The company also retails their sandals online. Currently, Luna staff are “stepping on each other” in the cramped space trying to crank out enough sandals to fulfill orders, McDonald said. As of Monday of last week, Luna’s crew was up to 12 employees. The lack of space, and the limits it puts on production capacity, is the only thing holding back Luna’s growth right now McDonald says. “It would be nice to get to the point where we’re able to make sandals in the right numbers for the people who want them at the right time,” he said. “I think at this point we can grow as fast as we can make the sandals.”
Luna was founded in 2010 by McDonald and brothers Scott and Bookis Smuin, and opened its first “official factory” in a garage next to the LaVanch Apartments at10th and Roy, McDonald said — that was the first space it outgrew. The Smuin brothers are both part-owners, though McDonald is majority-owner, of Luna, and the company has one backing investor, a professor at UC-Berkeley whose contribution Scott Smuin says is not overwhelmingly large. So far, Luna has grown at a respectable rate of 25 to 30% per year, staff said. However, it seems McDonald may expect the massive increase in space to release a torrent of potential growth that has been building up and pushing against the walls of its cramped Capitol Hill HQ.
“Our revenue was a bit more than $800 K last year — I think we should double that this year, that’s my hope,” McDonald said standing in the open kitchen of the future Luna HQ. “And make a lot of sandals.” McDonald said he expects the extra space alone will help the existing crew be more organized and efficient, allowing them to set up their materials to process “like ducks in a row.” “Two-hundred sandals a day here will be possible,” McDonald said.
Over the last four years, Luna has been evolving its designs, McDonald said, and most all sandals it sells now feature “ballistic-grade” nylon straps and an elastic heel band that allows them to be slipped on and off. A traditional-style huarache with a single string that requires some effort to tie around the ankle and foot is still sold, however. All the sandals have Vibram soles. “It’s been an interesting journey seeing so many steps and changes,” Jeff, who has worked in production with Luna for three of the company’s four years, said. “It’s just getting better and better and better,” he said.
Without much of a marketing campaign beyond a Twitter and Facebook account, McDonald said, Luna has grown in to “global brand” during its time on Capitol Hill, with wholesale and online retail customers in almost 100 countries. Luna Sandals’ connection with the best-selling book Born to Run, released in 2011 one year after the company’s founding and which promotes barefoot and minimalist-footwear running, has certainly has done much for the brand. McDonald gained his “Barefoot Ted” nickname and some of his notoriety as a character in the book, which features an account of the lore of Luna’s origins, the day in 2006 when Manuel Luna made McDonald his first pair of huaraches, reusing a tire tread for the sole in Urique, Mexico.
McDonald mentioned that Luna pays all its employees a “living wage” though he did not reveal any specific numbers. Lunas do use a majority US-sourced parts and materials, though McDonald says this is more a matter of convenience at the time than an value-driven choice.
Outside the 19th Ave E shop last week, McDonald paid some respect to Luna’s roots. “This is a great little neighborhood we’re in,” McDonald said. “All I can say is, like, we’re a strange outgrowth of this environment. This is the place where we chose to start – ended up being the best.”
… and best of luck in LQA.