Watching a scene on a hotel elevator in Atlanta in 2016, Bend entrepreneur Matt Hughes knew that American consumers were about to become familiar once again with cork footwear.

A college-age woman had stepped onto the elevator wearing Birkenstock sandals. She noticed an older man on the elevator also wearing Birks and said, “Oh, my gosh, aren’t these the coolest sandals? I just heard about them.”

An outdoor apparel marketer, Hughes saw an opportunity for other products to ride the trend. He decided to design a cork insole for hikers and runners and founded Tread & Butter.

Hughes began shipping directly to consumers in December, and the $60 insoles are starting to gain traction with reviewers. The health and fitness site Well and Good last week credited Tread & Butter’s insoles with reducing post-run leg soreness.

“We want to be known as the cork insole company,” Hughes said. “This is our market niche, and we’re going to be good at it.”

Tread & Butter is one of more than 100 outdoor product companies in Central Oregon, according to Economic Development for Central Oregon. Hughes introduced his design in October 2017 at the Bend Outdoor Worx Venture Out conference, which showcases outdoor products. At that point he had production-quality samples and a relationship with a manufacturer in Portugal, a major source of cork.

“We still had quite a bit of work to do on the brand side, not to mention fundraising,” Hughes said. Since the e-commerce site went live, Tread & Butter has sold thousands of pairs of insoles, he said. The company’s goal is to hit $3 million in sales in three years.

Despite Tread & Butter’s narrow niche, it does face competition. Other companies, including Superfeet and Currex, make replacement insoles for runners, and there are other brands of cork replacement insoles. And at least one other company, Sole, makes cork insoles for athletes.

Not every runner replaces his or her factory insoles. “It’s dependent on a lot of things,” said Teague Hatfield, owner of the FootZone store in Bend. “It’s something they use when they’re having some kind of foot issue. It’s really hit-and-miss.”

Hughes worked for Sole for several years and was national sales manager when he left the company in 2016. “We did not sell cork products at the time, but we certainly talked about it,” he said. “I was a big advocate for it.”

From his time in the outdoor apparel industry — he also worked at The North Face — Hughes said he understood how to develop a new product. He didn’t want to follow his larger competitors’ lead by manufacturing in Asia.

“We were deliberately looking for a different way and a different place to do it,” he said. “It’s a little more expensive to produce (in Portugal), but the quality is unmatched.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

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