The first backpack Michael Hudecek ever made says it all: It bears an image of a smokestack and the words "BelieveLand."
"I wanted to be a cheerleader when no one else wanted to be," says the man behind Forest City Portage, whose inventive handmade bags can be spotted on the hips and backs of bicyclists around town. "I never had this struggle internally about how great [Cleveland] could be."
Hudecek's enthusiasm was passed on from his parents, who both worked for community development corporations in the city. But after graduating from Miami University in fall 2005 with degrees in political science and urban planning, Hudecek still wasn't sure what he wanted to do for a living. He just knew he didn't want to do it in a cubicle. So he traveled as much as possible and financed his trips by bartending.
He also gave up his car in favor of using a bicycle to get around when he was home. One day, Hudecek looked at his weathered courier bag and decided he wanted to make a new, Cleveland-themed one for himself.
"I was young and naive and thought, How hard can this be? I've got a sewing machine and some fabric; I can figure out how to do it on the Internet," Hudecek recalls. "It was a shock to realize how much skill it took and how little sewing experience I had."
He started with just two rolls of fabric, two spools of thread and 10 buckles. One year and countless broken sewing-machine needles later, he invested in an industrial sewing machine.
"I didn't make any money for the first two years," he says. "I was essentially subsidizing my existence and trying stuff out."
He got the travel bug again in 2009 and went to Costa Rica to teach English. But the opportunity wasn't what he thought, and Hudecek returned home with a renewed interest in his bag business. He rented a studio at the Screw Factory in Lakewood and has spent the past three years there perfecting his craft.
Joy Machines Bike Shop in Ohio City and Blazing Saddle Cycle in Cleveland started selling Hudecek's bags last summer, and Forest City Portage started turning a profit soon after. Work has been steady for the past six months, and cyclists and noncyclists alike have become fans of the bags, which sport rich colors and are made with sustainable or repurposed materials.
For example, Hudecek tries to stay away from using nylon, which is made from petroleum, instead opting for fabrics such as canvas. He also uses sailcloth, scrap vinyl and old seat belts.
"Part of my not owning a car is trying to shift from petroleum dependency," Hudecek says. "The bag that you're carrying on your back is one way to switch over."
MORE INFO forestcityportage.com
12:00 AM EST
November 17, 2011