KEEN Utility Media Event – Keeping Marc From Getting The Boot

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keen utility

Quick – when you hear the term “Work boots,” what’s the first image that tromps through your brain? For me, it’s a big, clunky pair of brown or black clodhoppers, with a steel toe insert you can frequently see from the outside – and feel on the inside. Turns out there have been some changes for the better over the past few decades. Work footwear has made some great strides, so to speak, and the innovative team at KEEN Utility is also helping to re-boot domestic manufacturing, by opening a plant in the U.S.

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On Father’s Day weekend, I got an email from our (mostly) fearless leader Marc. Turns out he had been invited to a media event in Portland, Oregon, to check out the latest work boots from KEEN, and get an insider’s tour of their state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities. He had recently been AWOL to attend numerous other events, and apparently his wife had indicated that if he wanted to survive until NEXT Father’s Day, he needed to park himself at home for longer than 12 hours. Having excellent self-preservation instincts, Marc graciously offered me the opportunity to fill his shoes. Join me as I A) Attend a media event for the first time, to check out the new line of KEEN Utility boots and tour their facilities; B) Relay my attempts to tell you about what KEEN is up to via Twitter, my second attempt at Tweeting; and C) As Marc promised, attend a happy hour or two – finally, something that’s in my skill set!

On Your Feet

I’ve worked on my feet pretty much my whole life. During this time, I have long since learned that it’s not easy to find a good pair of work shoes. I’ve also learned (the hard way) that a cheap pair of shoes is rarely a bargain. I’ve had steel-toed shoes that pinched my toes, and some that actually dug into the top of my foot. Chafing caused by a poor fit, crappy arch or ankle support, detached soles, “water-resistant” shoes that didn’t put up much of a fight, eyelets that pull loose – these are just a few of the shoe-related ills I’ve experienced over the years. Even when I’ve found a good pair of work boots, I first have to survive the break-in period, making me a cranky individual for several days.

So how – and why – did KEEN Utility get into the work footwear niche? According to a recent press release, KEEN Inc., manufacturer of original hybrid footwear, bags and socks was founded in 2003. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, KEEN offers innovative hybrid products, enabling outdoor enthusiasts to live an active lifestyle. KEEN footwear was founded as a solution to protect toes. They realized their footwear was the most comfortable and durable out there, and that they could change the way people looked at safety work boots. In 2010 KEEN Utility was created.

The same comfort and unparalleled KEEN classic fit is combined with safety standards and advanced durability and innovation. Patent-pending innovation and surpassed standards keep KEEN Utility a leader in safety toe work boots. KEEN Utility boots were founded on protection, with the goal to make better boots for every job.

Not Your Daddy’s Office

On arrival day, we got a look at the KEEN Utility executive offices. This was my first clue that KEEN does things a bit differently. They’re housed in an old industrial building that was bought and rehabbed by KEEN. When they purchased the building, their overall goal was to be as environmentally responsible as possible. Their specific goal was to send no more than one dumpster of debris to the landfill – for a five-story (plus basement) building! The kicker? They did it, recycling 25 tons of wood, 25 tons of drywall, and 5 tons of metal in the process!

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One dumpster later, a sweet office building!

The KEEN Utility offices are a pretty big step above any office building I’ve ever been in. High ceilings, lots of open space, natural finishes, plenty of light…and then there are the extras. Portland is a very bike-friendly city, and many of the folks who work there take advantage of that by biking to work. The KEEN Utility office building has a dedicated bike storage room, where employees can stash their rides and know they’re dry, secure, and in good company. Not far from Bike Central is the employee playroom, where anyone can go to kick out the jams on the resident piano or drums, or give the foosball table or other games a workout. They also use the room as Party Central, for employee birthday parties or just for the hell of it!

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The employee lounge/game room/party central!
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Even the bikes have a place to hang out…

KEEN’s offices are housed in the same building as the KEEN Garage, which is the retail outlet for all things KEEN. It’s a cool space, with funky custom decorations, high ceilings, a merchandise retrieval roller system whose momma must be in an amusement park, and a great assortment of KEEN shoes, sandals, clothing, and other KEEN stuff. The staff is super friendly and helpful, and if there’s something you want that’s not in stock, they’ll help you get it ordered and shipped to you for free.

So What’s (Gonna Be) In Store (And Online)?

The design team at KEEN Utility is constantly innovating, trying to improve the quality, functionality and appearance of their current products, while introducing new ones to offer an even wider variety. There is something in the KEEN Utility lineup for even the most demanding customer. And that holds true whether your demands are for safety, durability and comfort, or for all of the above plus some STYLE!

If you’ve never seen the assortment of work shoes KEEN offers, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. Many of the low and mid-height models look like hiking shoes, or even leisure footwear. And while the traditional brown and black models are still there in force, many of the shoes in the KEEN Utility lineup offer the opportunity to add a dash of color to your day. Some of the available colors include Gargoyle, Shitake, Bossa Nova, Forest Night, Peacoat and Burnt Henna. Just to confuse things, they also have a color known as “Green.”

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The Detroit Low ESD in “Green”

By my count, there are 72 different versions of KEEN Utility shoes in the men’s industrial line, plus 10 in the women’s, and 8 more in the service lineup. For fall of 2015, KEEN Utility has 12 new styles in the men’s offerings, and one in the women’s. We’ll take a quick look at three of them.

Want to stand out a bit, but still want protection for your piggies? The asymmetrical aluminum toes on the brand-new Durham AT ESD in red should do the trick. You may be shocked to learn that the Durham is part of the Electro Static Dissipative (ESD) footwear lineup, which are constructed to reduce excess static electricity.

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What could be safer than a red shoe?!

Want a beefy, more traditional looking work boot, with a touch of style and a ton of features? The brand-new, American Built Mt. Vernon, available in both a 6” and an 8” version, has pretty much everything you could ask for in a work boot. It’s made with a Nubuck waterproof leather upper, and it’s available in your choice of colors, as long as your choice is Cascade Brown.

It also features (take a deep breath): KEEN.DRY waterproof, breathable membrane; A TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) shank for mid-foot support; Left and right asymmetrical steel toes; A removable metatomical (metatarsals + anatomical design) dual-density EVA footbed (which helps keep your feet supported and comfortable); Oil- and slip-resistant non-marking rubber outsoles; Locking metal lace hooks; A lining with Hydrophobic/Hydrophilic two-zone comfort technology; And a direct-attach PU (polyurethane) midsole, for long lasting comfort. The KEEN Mt. Vernon also meets ASTM non-slip and EH (Electrical hazard) standards (all the letters and numbers and other gory details are available on their website).

The KEEN Mt. Vernon is the boot the guys got to try out. It’s not available in a women’s version, but they each got a pair of the sporty American Built Logan hiking-style shoes to evaluate. The women’s line has some good-looking shoes, in both low and mid-height, including the new steel-toed Flint Low, which is available in regular and ESD versions.

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The women tried out the American Built Logan shoes
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The women’s Flint Low, with steel toes and electric shock resistance

After receiving the boots at the end of the factory tour, we went out for lunch in Food Truck Heaven – I’ve never seen so many trucks and stalls, with pretty much every type of ethnic food you can imagine. Some of us kept the boots on for lunch, and the two-hour walking tour of Portland that followed. The Mt. Vernons fit great, right out of the box; no break-in required! They had great support, and despite being a good-sized, substantial boot, didn’t feel heavy and clunky at all.

The new lineup of boots is being rolled out in the fall, and in my experience, fall is frequently followed closely by winter. If you live in an area with harsh winters, like I do, and you frequently work outdoors, the new Minot Insulated 600G was designed with your feet in mind. This asymmetrical steel-toe boot was built to work hard and keep you comfortable, even when the weather’s at its worst. KEEN.Dry waterproofing seals out the elements, while a 600g KEEN.Warm insulated lining and three-layer footbed add all-around warmth. Abrasion-resistant Tough-Tec leather ups the safety factor, and the lightweight outsole is designed for maximum traction in slick conditions.

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The KEEN Utility Minot Insulated 600G keeps your feet safe AND warm

After our grueling office tour and KEEN Utility product briefing, naturally we were exhausted. And thirsty. Fortunately, the sharp-minded execs at KEEN had anticipated this, and produced an excellent variety of beer and wine from the fridge strategically located in the conference room. After quenching our thirst, we strolled over to Henry’s Tavern for happy hour and dinner. With over 100 brews on tap, it was a VERY happy hour! After dinner, most of us headed out for an after-dinner drink or two. Portland claims more microbreweries than anywhere else in the country; we were unable to disprove this. My fellow journalists and the KEEN reps were a very sociable group, and we had a very enjoyable evening.

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Helpful directions are available at the KEEN Garage…

American Built By KEEN Utility

On Thursday morning, it was off to explore the KEEN Utility factory. When they opened the factory in 2010, KEEN’s factory space occupied about 15,000 square feet. They’ve since expanded to 30,000 square feet, and when they’re going full-bore, they can kick out 1,000,000 pairs of KEEN Utility shoes a year! The current setup, which creates and bonds the soles onto each pair of shoes, has about 50 – 60 employees a day working the line. They set production goals each day; the goal was 800 pair the day we toured, and they beat it by 15 pair.

The factory is spacious, bright and clean, relatively quiet (for a manufacturing facility), and kept at a very comfortable temperature. The KEEN Utility soles are produced using a direct-injection process; no glue is used, and no VOCs are produced. This translates into no nasty fumes to breathe. All the scrap material, polyurethane and otherwise, is recycled.

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Getting ready to mate soles and uppers…

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The final touches…
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Ready to box ’em up and ship ’em out!

KEEN produces more than 20 styles at their Portland factory, and plans to dramatically increase the quantity and range of production over the next few seasons. Right now, it’s all about the work – only KEEN Utility footwear is made here. In the future, they plan to start cranking out some sandals here, too, so at the end of the workday, you’ll be able to transition from boots to sandals that might have been made by the same employee!

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When it’s time to slip into something more comfortable, KEEN has a few options…

According to the folks at KEEN, they believe in the future of local manufacturing. They’re proud to be providing jobs, and supporting the area economically and through their charity efforts (more on that shortly). KEEN’s American Built products are the result of a significant investment and commitment that allows them to be 100% devoted to quality, fit and comfort. Additionally, their Portland factory doubles as a learning and test center, where they can have quick and easy access to test and sample new products. They are exploring opportunities to increase sourcing of American-made materials, and hope to begin doing so over the next few years.

Give It Back – Hybrid.Care

If I had to come up with a one-word description of everyone we met with at KEEN Utility, it would have to be “Enthusiastic!”. They clearly love their jobs, and are passionate and excited about coming up with new products and innovative ways to improve the quality, appearance and performance of everything they make. As evidenced by their establishment of a local manufacturing facility, they are also committed to enhancing the quality of life in their community. Beyond that, KEEN is an enthusiastic supporter of numerous charities and social and environmental projects, both locally and around the world; here are a few examples.

Close to home, we toured the Our United Villages ReBuilding Center. The ReBuilding Center is a huge, warehouse-like facility that accepts the region’s largest volume of used building and remodeling materials. Their goal is to keep as much of this material as possible from ending up in a landfill. They even have their own DeConstruction Services unit, which can dismantle pretty much any building, salvaging up to 85% of its major components for reuse. Some materials, such as cement and drywall, end up getting crushed and recycled. Much of the remainder is available to the public at a very reasonable price. Everything from a small piece of trim to a huge timber beam from an old industrial building, plumbing fixtures, doors, windows, mantels, hardware…if it was in a building, you’ll probably find it here.

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Just a fraction of what’s avalable at the ReBuilding Center
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Recycled materials as art at the ReBuilding Center

KEEN Utility partnered with Our United Villages in 2014. After donating 28 pairs of boots to the center’s full-time volunteers, they donated another 40 pairs of steel-toed shoes to establish a Volunteer Shoe Library. DeConstruction volunteers can check out a pair, sort of like you would at a bowling alley, only without the big heavy balls, cheap beer and greasy pizza. This keeps their tootsies safe and comfortable while they spend the day de-nailing lumber, stacking and bundling materials, grading lumber, and so on.

KEEN Utility funds will also support The Wilderness Society (TWS) and 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC) efforts through the implementation of “Project Build.” Project Build is a program that supports the hard work of America’s conservation corps, and builds upon the legacy of dedication to protecting our treasured landscapes through citizen stewardship. In addition to funds, 300 corps members have been outfitted in KEEN Utility work boots.

Project Build will take place in cities across the U.S. including Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, and New York with projects that range from urban farm construction in former housing projects to building miles of trail in our country’s wilderness. Through this partnership, KEEN expects to help protect up to 500,000 acres of land, 100 miles of rivers, and dedicate roughly 1,000 hours of volunteer time from KEEN employees. Together, KEEN, TWS, and 21CSC will continue to build a life-long connection to the outdoors for the next generation of public lands conservancy, and ultimately inspire more young Americans to actively work on and care for the outdoors.

Another very worthy recipient of KEEN’s support is the Homes For Our Troops program. Homes For Our Troops is a non-profit organization dedicated to building specially adapted homes for severely injured veterans, at no cost to the recipient. Through in-store retail sales programs, KEEN Utility helps to raise funds to support the ongoing home builds in local communities and nationwide.

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A homemade sign displays KEEN’s corporate philosophy…

KEEN Utility is also a proud sponsor of the ABC National Craft Championships. I was pretty excited to hear this, since I love a good craft brew. Turns out the championships are actually an intense two-day event, where men and women compete in one of 13 competitions, representing 11 trade crafts. The event is hosted by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), and the competition is designed to foster growth and excellence in training among future workers in the shop construction and construction-related fields. Good stuff, even without the beer!

Ready To Re-Boot?

After spending a couple of days experiencing the KEEN Utility culture, I’m a convert. The company operations and culture reflect a stand-out commitment to building a strong community and a healthier planet, and I appreciate the fact that they’re bringing some manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

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American Built pride on display…

Since they design their products from the ground up, their various boots and shoes are uniquely tailored to specific purposes. Many workers don’t really need the extra protection of steel toes, for example; KEEN states that over half the work shoes sold in the U.S are soft toed models. Everyone needs a comfortable shoe with good support, though, and many workers may need some of the other features, such as good slip protection or the ESD feature.

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KEEN Utility offers a great mix of style and safety.

After wearing the Mt. Vernons for a few weeks, I’m very impressed. It was sweet being able to skip the usual break-in period; they were comfortable right out of the box, and the fit and finish is excellent. I plan to go online and browse through their selection to get a lower pair of shoes, for warm weather, and when I don’t need the protection of the larger boot. Maybe the Atlanta Cool, previously reviewed here on Home Fixated…

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The Atlanta Cool: Steel-toed protection, but light and cool.

KEEN Utility has also started making other items, including backpacks and clothing. They make some very comfortable and sturdy socks, some of which are also made in the U.S., and some of which are guaranteed for life! Their products are widely available online, directly from KEEN (with free shipping and returns) and from numerous other retailers. They’re also available at over 5,000 retail locations in more than 60 countries, as well as in KEEN Garage retail stores in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

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Take a seat and try on a pair!

More Info - via Keen

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About Phil

Phil’s path to the pinnacle of success as HomeFixated’s Senior Writer was long and twisted. At various stages of his life, he worked as a framing carpenter, attended motorcycle mechanics school, served as an Army MP, did a hot and itchy stint installing insulation in Phoenix, owned and operated a small contracting firm doing residential renovations, and worked as an employee of a major airline (Motto: We’re not happy ‘til YOU’RE not happy). He is currently semi-retired, but continues to take on little projects, such as the total renovation of an old farmhouse. Yes, he is a slow learner. Future projects include a teardown restoration of his 1965 BMW motorcycle, and designing and building a kick-ass playhouse for his grandsons. Phil loves spending time outdoors, hanging out with family and friends, cool tools, and a cold IPA when beer o'clock rolls around.

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4 thoughts on “KEEN Utility Media Event – Keeping Marc From Getting The Boot”

    • Thanks, John. I’m going to invest in a pair of the Atlanta Cools, too. It doesn’t get up to a hundred-and-holy-crap! here in PA like it does in Phoenix, but we get our fair share of hut, muggy weather – and we don’t have a beautiful pool to cool off in! I enjoy your site, by the way, very entertaining!

  1. Very nice story! I have lots of Keen hiking shoes, and about a year ago bought my first pair of work shoes – Pittsburg model. Love ’em all!!!

    • Thanks, Thomas. I guess I’m going about it backwards – I’m so impressed with the work shoes, I’m going to try out their hiking shoes. Definitely good stuff!


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