New Taste Acquired

Why Patagonia is moving further into food and beverage, and how a nimble internal legal team is leading the way

Transactions, negotiations, litigation, advising, and now taste testing. It’s all in a day’s work for the leaders, lawyers, and paralegals at Patagonia. The renowned apparel company, founded in 1973, launched Long Root Ale beer in late 2016 as part of a deeper trek into the world of food and beverages. And Greg Curtis, assistant general counsel, has been working behind the scenes to support the expansion.

But why food and drink? Curtis explains that it’s a perfect fit for Patagonia. “We’ve been interested and concerned about the materials used in our products for a long time, and now we’re naturally extending that concern for responsible agriculture to other areas outside of apparel,” Curtis says. Long Root Ale is made with a unique perennial grain called Kernza that uses less water and grows without the need for annual tilling.

And while the product may appear as a deviation for an apparel retailer, Long Root is not Patagonia’s first foray outside of its primary industry. Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia in 1973 and built a commitment to environmental and social responsibility into the company’s DNA. In 1994, senior executives decided to use only organically grown cotton. The move became a key moment in Patagonia’s history, and since then, the company has sought to pursue sustainable agriculture and influence other clothing companies to follow suit.

In 2009, Patagonia Provisions—a division of Patagonia dedicated to organically sourced food made from ingredients harvested in partnership with local farmers—was born. Patagonia Provisions offers breakfast grains, buffalo jerky, energy bars, salmon, soup, and more.

Curtis, who joined Patagonia in 2014 after working in business development and mergers and acquisitions, spent most of 2016 helping get Long Root Ale to market. Patagonia’s legal team first worked with outside advisors to get educated about the laws, rules, and regulations around alcohol production and marketing. Next, they commissioned a review to demonstrate Kernza’s status as a food-safe ingredient and satisfy FDA premarket requirements. Then, Curtis and his team researched breweries and negotiated a production deal with Hopworks Urban Brewery. Finally, his team communicated all it had learned about alcohol sales and distribution to marketing and other appropriate units.

“This is all new ground for us, and legal’s job was to protect Patagonia while enabling the company to accomplish a strategic and innovative goal,” Curtis explains.

“You can’t manage or remove risk by preventing change. It’s your job to be a part of that change and find the safest path forward.”

There was still the question, though, of why Patagonia wanted to sell beer, and why it would make the investment and take on the risk. Curtis says it’s to fulfill the company’s mission and to spark global change.

“Patagonia believes in the agricultural promise of products like Kernza,” he says, adding that internal leaders have always tried to lead by example and influence other companies toward positive change.

Long Root Ale is quietly making waves in the food and beverage industry and too so is Kernza. As Hopworks began production, General Mills contacted Patagonia to learn more about Kernza. In 2017, the consumer packaged goods giant announced plans to use the grain in its Cascadian Farm organic line of cereals and snacks.

It’s projects such as these that first attracted Curtis to Patagonia. “We all get to be involved here,” he says. “People are empowered and engaged. We’re working for a mission-oriented company that we believe in.”

Work and personal lives are naturally integrated at Patagonia. It’s not unusual for Curtis to discuss business strategy or legal terms with a colleague during an early morning run or lunchtime surf session. “Working here, in-house at a benefit corporation, has been a total 180 from firm life,” he continues. “We’re doing activities we love, and we’re doing work that makes a difference.”

Curtis also appreciates the chance to earn a seat at the table and help shape Patagonia’s strategy. “In order to deliver value as a lawyer, you have to be involved, but before you can be involved, you have to be invited. You earn that by demonstrating expertise, developing strong relationships, and building trust,” Curtis explains.

He encourages everyone on his team to stay as close to the action as possible. Each lawyer under his supervision is expected to interface with business leaders, understand goals and objectives, and be present at key business meetings.

With Long Root Ale out in the market, Curtis and Patagonia are researching other applications for Kernza and other products for Patagonia Provisions. For lawyers covering new ground, his advice is simple: accept risk. “You have to balance risk as an in-house attorney. Business is always changing; it has to. You can’t manage or remove risk by preventing change. It’s your job to be a part of the change and find the safest path forward,” he says. It’s an attitude that enables both innovation and activism—and Patagonia intends to bring about both as it seeks to disrupt the way companies have produced and sold apparel and food.