Portland Oregon: A Lesson In Purple Cows 

Have you ever had a Blue Cheese and Pear Ice-cream cone? How about a Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper Ice-cream cone? Or maybe you have tried Carrot Cake Batter & Pralined Hazelnuts Ice-cream? That’s not a typo, Salt & Straw has been making Ice cream like this since 2011 in Portland Oregon. And people freaking LOVE it. 

You must be asking now, why the hell do they sell such weird Ice cream? The answer is simple, because people LOVE it. They don’t “like” it, most people “like” Ice cream. But if you are going to travel across the city, pay for parking, wait in line, there’s something special about the Ice-cream. People who go to Salt & Straw LOVE Ice cream and they can hardly wait to try the next crazy concoction the Ice cream gods can think up.

I’m telling you about Salt & Straw because every time we past one in Portland there was a lineup outside the door 15 minutes long at the very least, an hour long at peak times. The Ice cream was priced reasonably, $3-10 cones and bowls. That was the most unique quality that we saw again and again; businesses don’t charge an arm and a leg for unique products in Portland, they’d rather charge an honest price and create mass amounts of demand.  After all, a lower allows many more people to try your creation!

(Yes I spoke with a women who got the Blue Cheese and Pear combination, she loved it, weird.)

Salt and straw portland

But it wasn’t only Salt & Straw that had a completely ridiculous lineup every time we walked by, the famous Voodoo Doughnut was just as bad.

The famous Voodoo Doughnut was a very unique experience. We waited in line for 20 minutes, finally at the front we look at the menu expecting you know, $10-20 maybe? Like you know what you’d find at a fancy Doughnut Delicatessen? Nope, most were under $2 other than the fancy ones.

How peculiar! Any MBA worth half their education would say, “Raise your prices! You could be making WAY more cash money!”. The obvious response to the MBA: “then it wouldn’t be special anymore!”

The reason Voodoo Doughnut is so good is that it isn’t easy to get. You can’t just go buy one from any old store. You must wait in line. But the price point is so anyone can afford it! A brilliant concept, charge an honest price, do something amazing. 

The best part about the entire experience was the box (shown below). The box is a piece of art you want to put on display. You don’t pay extra for it, everybody gets one and as soon as you leave Voodoo it turns into a Social Object (people talk about it).

Voodoo Doughnut Portland

“Good things come in pink boxes”.

Next was the advertising. Some amazing displays of creative work, travelling through Portland will have you kinking your neck a lot. The Lyft billboard shown below was a monstrosity in downtown Portland, our Uber driver pulled over so I could take this picture!

The elephant in the road

Portland is going through a change. You don’t see a lot of super cars. You don’t see a lot of suits or people looking down their nose at you. It’s a very laid back, friendly, west coast vibe. They like to have fun and businesses are not afraid at using humour in their messaging. See below.

Marine Layer Portland

Marine Layer is a clothing company started on the coast. They have fun (like this sign), staff is really friendly and “it’s an Airbnb. (seriously)”. My favourite part.

Welcome to “Nike Biketown USA”

Nike Biketown Portland

A week before we arrived in Portland Nike and the city had arranged a $10 million bike share program in the downtown core. You sign up online or on the app, connect a credit card, and you have a bike for $2.50 per hour. What a brilliant idea! They have stations all over so you don’t have to return your bike to the same place you rented it. Amazing.

I believe they stole this one from Europe, what an amazing service. 1,000 bright orange Nike bikes are all over Portland.

The vast majority of these weird Purple Cow places had several things in common

  1. The best ones had a unique characteristic (Superpower) that they are now known for
    Unconventional Ice-cream, best chicken and waffles, completely original doughnut flavours, and entire library full of whiskey.  
  2. They weren’t expensive
    The restuarnts that had a wait time (Mother’s, Pok Pok, Voodoo Doughnut, Salt & Straw) were very affordable if not considered “cheap” price point to other establishments close by.
  3. They were inclusive; you see all walks of life frequenting the best places
    One of our Uber driver summed it up for us; “you don’t see many suits anymore, people don’t care about the money, they would rather be comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, big money isn’t looked up to here.”

So what did this little ol Canadian from the prairies learn? Location isn’t an excuse. Portland has never been a major tourist destination until the last decade. They are forward thinking with government policy (this attracts the young people). Without the young people you aren’t growing. But the to attract young people it has to be affordable, Portland is. And finally if you want to be a world renown place, company, or even Airbnb, find your superpower. Embrace your superpower.

All the best places in Portland had something special about them, something weird.

Now go find your Purple Cow, your social object or superpower, whatever it is don’t be afraid to be different.