Sonoma County firm ‘upcyles’ discarded hoses from North Bay wildfires into household products
When Steffen Kuehr looks at discarded fire hoses, he envisions belts, dog leashes and drink coasters.
When he looks at vinyl event banners and all those billboards along highways, he sees totes, wine carriers and messenger bags.
Kuehr, through his Santa Rosa company TekTailor, takes other people’s garbage and repurposes it into functional items. It’s called upcycling — the transformation of waste into a product people want.
Among his most ambitious undertakings was to look at what might be done with thousands of pounds of fire hose from the 2019 Kincade Fire that burned in northern Sonoma County and the 2020 Glass Fire that ravaged parts of Napa and Sonoma counties. Once a hose has been damaged it cannot be used for another fire.
“The fire hose was not easy to work with because it’s thick and hard,” Kuehr, 46, said. “We have to create products around the characteristics of the material. With the fire hose we soak it in a tub with natural cleaning liquid, power wash it, and hang it to dry.”
The company had 4,700 pounds of hose from the Glass Fire and another 2,500 from the Kincade Fire.
The width and pattern in the hose help determine what it will be in its next life.
During the holidays the biggest seller for TekTailor was the coasters made from the fire hose. A set of six costs $20. To date nearly 700 have been sold.
Recology Sonoma Marin was the waste company responsible for disposing of those fire hoses.
“Steffen opened my eyes to all the reuses instead of burying (the hoses). It has awesome markings. He has made it into floor mats, into belts, dog leashes and wallets,” General Manager Fred Stemmler said.
The primary reason Recology wanted to partner with TekTailor was to keep the hose out the landfill. A bonus was not having to pay $560 to get rid of the material.
“Our company’s focus is on zero waste even though we are a garbage company,” Stemmler added. “I wish more people were thinking like (Kuehr) and making goods with resources that we think of as trash today.”
The business side
Kuehr doesn’t pay for the material he receives from a company. He makes his money by reselling the new products via the retail store in Santa Rosa and on the company’s website, as well as selling product back to the companies which gave him the reusable goods.
He shies away from putting products in other stores because at some point they cannot be reordered. That’s the nature of a constantly changing supply chain. Is the business financially successful?
“With regards to company revenue, I'd rather leave that information out. Not big enough yet to brag about it unfortunately,” Kuehr said. Plus, he is also into philanthropy, with some of the proceeds from fire hose sales being given to a nonprofit that benefits firefighters.
Kuehr admits what he needs to do is better tell his story and that of the products.
“Every project, every material, every banner has a cool story. That is what gets people’s attention,” he said.
To help tell that story most of the end products come with a tag showing what the original discarded item looked like and the company it came from.
For now, most of what TekTailor works on is from the North Bay. Kuehr would be willing to expand his territory if the business with the goods paid for the shipping. He also needs to know he can do something with the product and then sell it. He doesn’t want a lot of material hanging around either to be made into something or ready to be bought.
He is willing to experiment. Kuehr took a roll of artificial turf from Sonoma Raceway and didn’t ask for more. “It was so dirty there was not much we could do with it.”
TekTailor’s 12 employees have access to more than 60 industrial sewing machines in the 20,000-square-foot Sonoma County warehouse.
“We have a lot of different machines here,” Kuehr explained. “We have machines to set snaps and grommets on products. We have a heat stamping machine so we can do leather labels with embossed logos.”
Kuehr took over the company in 2010 from his in-laws. The Sonoma-USA arm of the company is being phased out to have all of the upcycle activities under the TekTailor brand.
A variety of products
Billboards, burlap sacks, vinyl banners, old linens and more are all products the seamstresses and tailors at TekTailor work with.
“Billboards tell part of the marketing story of a company,” Kuehr said. His background is in marketing so his creativity comes from that standpoint, not as someone who sews.
Clover has bought some of the mini-shopping bags made with its billboards as gifts for employees. The general public has access to the product via TekTailor’s website.