Oveja Negra: Then and Now
During our recent trip to Salida, Colorado, we popped into Oveja Negra’s workspace to see what they have cooking. Here’s a full gallery and an interview with owners Monty and Lane Willson…
Ironically, one of our favorite recurring features that we create on this website is our offsites, aka Bricks and Bikepacking. These posts are dedicated to visiting and getting to know other people and businesses making a splash in the bikepacking community. One of the first in this series was Cass’ beautiful portrait of a young and growing bag maker based in Salida, Colorado. Back then, it was just the two founders, Monty and Lane Willson, busy creating interesting and unique bags that can now be found on bikes all over the western United States, and even beyond our borders. I passed through Salida this fall to take in some of its excellent mountain bike trails and bikepacking routes, and had a chance to stop in and see Oveja Negra’s “new” and bigger workspace, and to ask them how the growth of bikepacking has changed their business. Here’s a full set of photos of their space and team hard at work…
Back in 2015, you had just two employees. How many do you have these days?
Lane: Our team consists of 13, including Monty and me. Around half of our employees are part time. A lot of folks who move to Salida do so for the recreational opportunities and spend more time playing in the mountains than at work. We have a number of employees who work really hard for a few months and then take off on adventures for a month or more.
With that many hands on deck, Oveja must be a well-oiled machine. How do you make it all work?
Lane: We have a detailed protocol for every task, from ordering materials, to cutting, sewing, inspecting, and every other step along the way. This helps to insure consistency and lets one team member pick up right where the other left off, which in turn keeps inventory stocked, orders filled, and riders happy! We like to think of the entire process as a ball bouncing from one court to the next. Growth also seems to necessitate change, so our production system is definitely dynamic and evolving. Our team is very much a family. While we work hard to keep things efficient and product standards top quality, we do our share of cutting up and keep the shop a lively place to work.
You also moved into this different, bigger building… with some history. Tell me a little bit about it!
Lane: We currently manufacture in Colorado’s last operating brothel, owned and run by Madame Laura Evens. She was a smart, tenacious, and generous woman with quite a bit of Old West character. After finally being shuttered in 1950 by edict of Salida’s town council, and Laura’s subsequent death in 1953, the old brothel set decrepit for a number of years. The building was then occupied by the Mon-Ark Shriners Club, who turned the first floor into a dance hall for Shrine events. We are the first to inhabit the building since the Shriners moved out. After unboarding the front windows and ripping out the old stage, we gave the dance hall a good scrub and moved our machinery in. The second floor is still the original ladies’ rooms, complete with rosy wallpaper, albeit the rooms are in need of some serious TLC. In the couple of years we’ve been here, many of us have had encounters with Laura and her soiled doves. Right when we start to forget about the ladies, they change settings on machines, lock the doors, or even give us a little peep show… which keeps us feeling connected to Salida’s rich entrepreneurial past.
Would you attribute the company’s growth to the increased popularity of bikepacking?
Monty: Short Answer: Yes. While there are other factors that have led to growth, we’ve been spurred along by the increased popularity of the sport. When we started selling bags in 2012, bikepacking was still in its infancy, so we’ve definitely been riding that wave.
Do you think there’s a false sense of growth with bikepacking? Something that’s fueled by the popularity of bags used for commuting and trail riding (i.e. the top tube bag)?
Monty: There’s no doubt that bags in general have become more commonplace on shorter rides, whether commuting, riding local singletrack, or just kicking around town. But the growth of the sport as a whole is palpable. We’ve seen a huge uptick in cyclists coming through Salida on bikepacking missions. We’re also lucky enough to hear about some of the radical trips our customers are gearing up for, so rest assured bikepacking is alive and well.
Is there anything else that helped spur the growth of Oveja Negra?
Monty: We would like to think our attention to detail and quality have been two fundamental elements in helping our brand grow into what it is today. But, an awesome customer base is our number one reason for growth. Without word of mouth, and folks out there rocking our bags and supporting the brand, we wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on. We wholesale to a number of top notch bike shops as well, and they end up doing a lot of the work getting our bags in the hands of customers. While our main focus is to make a well-designed, quality product right here in the USA, we owe everyone out there riding with an Oveja Negra bag for the growth we’ve experienced.
You’ve released a couple new non-bikepacking-related products, like the hip pack and backpack. What led you to create these products?
Monty: Necessity. We wanted a backpack for around town use, as did a number of local customers. All Oveja Negra products are manufactured in our own shop right in downtown Salida. We wanted to offer something for the folks who stop in and see our operation and are not necessarily in tune with bikepacking, but still want to support the brand. The hip pack/fanny pack/bumbag should be available late fall, and is a product we’ve been asked to make time and time again, so it’s time. We’ve been dialing it in for most of the summer and feel really good about the design.
What is your most popular bag these days?
Monty: Snack Pack top tube bags and Chuckbucket handlebar bags. Getting back to the popularity of bags for everyday use, we sell a lot of accessory bags, as they’re employed on a broad spectrum of bikes.
Any new products or ideas new in the hopper? How about those new stickers?
Monty: Lots. All top secret. Stay tuned! Except the stickers, those are available on the site.
What’s the most interesting piece of customer feedback you’ve received? And have you gotten any odd requests for custom work?
We’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback on the volume of beer and wine our bags are capable of holding. We did recently have a particularly surly and comedic customer let us know he was not happy with the algorithm of our wack pack color mix up. There were references to “Fisher Price blue”, “toxic lime green,” and he noted that the bag, “looks like a tiny elementary school lunch box.” He did go on to say it was “undeniably well constructed” before trading for a gray bag. We get a few odd requests here and there, including a built-in gun holster, and autographing the inside of a backpack.
We reckon Oveja Negra has some of the best color combos of any packs on the market. Who’s your arbiter of style?
Thanks! We try hard to offer up something for a variety of palates. When we started making bags, you could only find stock bikepacking gear in black, and we wanted to expand that market and add some colorful options. It’s definitely quite a bit more work keeping everything in stock when you have a range of colors. I think that’s the main reason companies only offer a few colors, especially if they’re not manufacturing in house. We generally come to a consensus on new colors as a team, but at the end of the day our customers are probably our biggest arbiters of style. We get a lot of customer requests for new colorways, and are always interested in hearing what everyone wants to see next!
Salida has grown as well. And it seems like a bikepacking Mecca. The GDMBR passes through, the Colorado Trail is nearby, we just rode the Vapor Trail while we were here, Cass’ Aspen Ridge route starts and finishes in town, and I understand there are a few more. What’s your local favorite? Any others in the pipeline?
Monty: We’re fortunate to be surrounded by public lands with a near endless potential for bikepacking routes. The CT is always a favorite, and there are many other tracks nearby that you can link up for a grand adventure. Looping the Sangre de Cristos has been a mission we’ve been working on this fall. It won’t be a perfectly polished route, but we have a special place in our hearts for the range and its unique nature.