14 October 2017
Greg Hennes
Hustle and soul collide in Joseph, OR, at the Jennings Hotel—one of the many brainchildren of Greg Hennes.

Grovemade customer since 2016.
The tile flooring is straight Americana. Standing on it, looking up, all you see is the old stairway. You can almost hear the creaks before you start walking. This is the entrance to the Jennings Hotel, the grand yet humble endeavor that Greg Hennes has been slowly distilling into a reality over the last 3 years, within spitting range of the majestic Wallowa mountains.

The main street of Joseph, Oregon, runs in front of the Jennings. Joseph boasts a population of ~ 1000—and an elevation of 4000. I spent time backpacking in the Wallowas a decade ago, turned on to their majesty by a high school classmate. Since then, I hadn’t been able to get back. But the Jennings, and Greg, made for an easy excuse to finally make a return visit.
Greg and I first met at the Portland Bazaar years ago. He’d invited Grovemade to hold a booth, and his own booth for Campfire Cologne was across the way. Our paths have meandered and intersected over the years since. I’d heard of his work to create the Jennings Hotel, and it inspired me to reconnect. The concept for the hotel is brilliant, and a testament to hard work and good friends. Each room in the hotel has been designed and outfitted by one or more of Greg’s friends. He happens to have a lot of friends with excellent design/build pedigrees! Each room is different, yet they’re united by the quality of the design, the attention to detail, and the intention with which they’re assembled. We’re honored that he wanted to include our products in the concept!

Initially, we were planning to stay for two days. Hours into our visit, I checked my work schedule and extended our trip two more days. The place has soul. It couldn’t exist without Greg’s spirit and hustle.
Greg played host for two days of our visit, before jetting to the (even more remote) cabin he built in northern Minnesota. His entrepreneurial streak runs from camera rentals to Campfire Cologne, an ingenious product, part goofy, part serious, all together brilliant. Perhaps that’s a fitting description for Greg as well. Before he left, we had a chance to sit down and chat about his story.

Thanks so much for the hospitality Greg!

- Ken Tomita CEO & Co-founder
Greg: I grew up in Central Minnesota in a town called Sartell. Kind of a nowhere place and in more or less the middle of the state.

I think my folks just filled me with the belief, the lie that everyone tells their kids which is that, "You can do anything. You can do whatever you want to do." Except I think I actually believed it instead of taking it as an allegory.

They were just always really supportive of whatever I was doing. In this case, I wasn't really doing anything. I was just being a kid. Most of the time I was just getting in trouble and fucking off.

I left Minnesota when I was 19. I came west.
Ken: What did you do?

Greg: I had started shooting photos when I was 14 or 15 probably. I started [at Ritz Cameras in Minn.] and when I moved to Vancouver, WA, I contacted Kits Camera which was the Western U.S. version of Ritz and they hired me. And so I was working in the photo lab there which was very boring, stupid, dull work.

[Then] I started doing some snowboard filming with this guy, Kurt Heine, who was a snowboard cinematographer. He's a legendary dude in that world. That was a sweet spot. That's where I was really psyched and said, "Yes, I'm doing the thing that I want to do." And then I sold computers, and then I sold cars. I'm selling stuff. And then I started selling cameras at Pro Photo Supply and then they moved me into the rental department and then that's where entrepreneurism I think really hit.
Ken: What was the spark? You saw an opportunity?

Greg: The spark was … being poorly paid and under appreciated and realizing that what I was already doing for someone else and making them gobs of money, I could do for myself and do better. There it began. So I started reading, picking up books on how to start a business, doing research and whatever, reading stuff and talking to people and asking people for money which is always awkward the first few times you do it, especially as a 26 year old with no proven track record.
"I think my folks just filled me with the belief, the lie that everyone tells their kids which is that, 'You can do anything. You can do whatever you want to do.' Except I think I actually believed it instead of taking it as an allegory."
Ken: My former business partner, Joe, was really fascinated by how you and your partner would alternate. Joe and I are going full on. Right? Long hours both of us. I think he really was curious about that. Could you expand on how that developed?

Greg: Well, I think when Justin and me started Clutch [Camera Rentals], our main concern was free time, not money. And so having agreed on that and then having reached a point in our business where we realized we didn't both need to be there all the time—there simply wasn't enough physical work to be done to justify both of us being there—we were able to start splitting weeks. And then as I said before, when I decided to build my cabin in 2010 which was at that point already four years after we'd started Clutch...
Ken: This is the cabin up in Minnesota?

Greg: Yep.

Ken: Gotcha.

Greg: When I decided to do that, I was like, "Hey, what do you think about switching over to two weeks at a time because I'm going to need more than a week to fly across the country and work." That's how the two week, the bigger alternative, alternation schedule started. And then from that point forward, even after I finished the cabin I was like, "This is working. Should we just keep doing this?" And then yeah, we just kept doing two weeks at a time.
Ken: So your business partner shares the same value set?

Greg: Totally. We're already earning nothing working at Pro Photo Supplies. It was like, "Well, if we can earn at least what we're earning now, but have half of our time off, that seems like a pretty good deal." So that's where it started.

Ken: Damn. It's really interesting to me that these other businesses you started are still running. What's been the secret to keeping that business going this long?

Greg: I think whenever I look at a business probably the biggest and most important question I ask myself is, "Can I walk away from this and still have it continue to operate?" And the answer with Clutch was yes. We just had to hire an employee because it's not rocket science what we're doing... the same is true here with the hotel. At some point when I'm done, I don't have to be cleaning the rooms and cleaning sheets. I can have someone else do that work and I don't need to be here anymore.
Ken: I kind of see the pattern. In the beginning, you do everything. Boots on the ground, on your knees like scrubbing or whatever. You get the thing going. So how long did it take for Clutch to be like, "Okay. I can step away?"

Greg: I guess when Justin and I first started splitting our schedule, that was the first hint of that. We started both there all the time, everyday, all week. And then eventually we're like, "Well, how about we go three days on, two days off?" That was within the first probably five or six months we started splitting our schedule. And then it was almost four years later before we went to the two week on, two week off schedule, but we were also super flexible. It's like, if I want an extra two days, take it and I'll make it up on the back side.
Ken: I think it's important to know though it doesn't happen overnight.

Greg: For sure. It does not. It took me eight and a half years to be able to walk away from that business completely. And then I'm still involved in some level.
The Cabin
Ken: So, going back to the cabin, you went back and forth to the cabin every two weeks. First of all, why did you build the cabin?

Greg: It's every man's dream. The most apt thing I can liken it to is women, obviously, have the ability to have children which is magical and special. Men can't do that. So the next closest thing they can do is take something in their brain and make it into a shelter which is also one of the most important human needs. That idea came when I was on a sailing trip in 2004. I started thinking about my cabin. I was on the ocean for a very long time and the only thing I wanted was to not be on the ocean anymore.

The cabin 100% came from reading Thoreau while I was sailing. That was the thing. The tipping point was that what I thought was about seven days worth of sailing left, and I so told myself I was going to read 100 pages of Thoreau, "Walden" and other writings, 100 pages a day and then we’d be at shore. Over the course of that, I started sketching ideas for Bogus cabin, and the idea was to do it on property I knew my cousins owned way up in the northern part of Minnesota, but I'd never been there.

After I got back from my sailing trip, a year or two later I was like, "Hey. Can I build a cabin at your property?" Guess I finished that in 2004 and then built the cabin in 2006, so it was another couple years.
Ken: That's another barrier for people to actually do things they talk about is not having the ability to do it, the skills. With the cabin, did you already have the skills or did you learn that? And if so, how?

Greg: I had some of the skills I guess. It's mostly just basic carpentry and stuff. Measure and cut. Then I took a timber frame class and so the cabin was a timber frame. And that was something that I got interested in some point along the way. And then I started researching classes. Came across this school in northern Minnesota, North House Folk School. Learned how to use sketch up and made plans for the cabin. And then I consulted with the instructor of the class about joinery reconsideration and then took a class and built the frame. And then did the raising and then spent the rest of the summer back and forth building the cabin.
Campfire Cologne
Ken: And where did campfire cologne come out of all of this?

Greg: It was just words really. I had written it down in a notebook, or in my notes on my phone, or it was in a journal that I was writing.

Greg: These two words, Campfire Cologne. It's something that I think everyone has experienced before. It's quite possibly the most nostalgic and powerful scent in the human world because virtually everyone has had an experience around a campfire and most of those experiences are good ones. For most people, it's a really great scent. The house that I used to own in Portland I heated almost exclusively with wood. And so I'd go out places and people would be like, "You smell like campfire. It's so nice." And it's like, "You're right. It does smell good. I love the smell of campfire." So that's I think where the seed was planted and then those words came up and I was like, "How can I make Campfire Cologne? How is that possible?" And then I realized you can't really synthesize that smell. You can't bottle that. Liquid smoke does not smell like campfire.
I decided to say fuck it and not synthesize it and just have a box with sticks in it that you light on fire and make a campfire. It was a bundle of sticks with a die cut sleeve that was going to have a little piece of birch in the bottle and a match so you can light the whole thing on fire and then just basically start a little mini campfire and then stand down the wind of it and you'd smell like campfire. Okay. Cool. Great. As a product it wasn't going to work. There are so many things about that that weren't going to work. One of them chiefly the fact that a bundle of sticks with a die cut band of some kind is not going to stay together. It's going to fall apart in shipping and it's going to be a nightmare.

So then I started thinking about the form and the form was a box of kitchen matches, a box of Diamond kitchen matches that everyone in the world has touched which also whenever you see it, is always sitting horizontally. When they're on shelves, they're never placed vertically. But that box is very similar to the size of a box of cologne that you might buy or perfume when you tip it up onto its side. So that was like, "Well, it's both of those things. It's both a thing that you make fire with and the perfume that you buy.

The first batch, I did a batch run of a thousand and I cut and split every last stick for that thousand boxes myself. I got scraps from the side of the road which they happen to have been milling cedar. So I picked up all the cedar scraps and I brought them back to the shop when we were still on 15th and I broke out my miter saw and I cut them all to length and then I brought them home and took my hatchet and split it. There was hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds.
Ken: Without cutting yourself.

Greg: Without cutting yourself. It doesn't take a lot of force to split cedars.

Ken: I've seen a guy put a hatchet into his knee though.

Greg: You're not supposed to swing that hard. Then I started the bazaar and I was like, "This is the perfect outlet for Campfire Cologne." And so I invited a bunch of friends over and I was like, "Hey, guys. You want to help me put sticks in a box?" And everyone was like, "Sure." So I got pizza and beer and everyone stuffed boxes. And we put the small boxes of Diamond Matches in there and my sister was here at the time. She was boggled.
"I decided to say fuck it and not synthesize it and just have a box with sticks in it that you light on fire and make a campfire."
She was like, "This is insane. You really think you're going to sell sticks in a box?" "I'm going to sell so many fucking sticks in a box. You have no idea." That first day, I sold like $1,500 for it. She was like, "Are you kidding me?" I was like, "I told you, Breeze. Americans will buy anything." So that was it. And then through that was how I met Mark and Karina who produced my first video, the Campfire Cologne video. They had just moved to town from New York and Mark approached me after the Bazaar. He was like, "Hey. I think your product's really interesting. Would you be interested in making a video?"

I was like, "Sure. That sounds awesome." So if anyone gets credit for Campfire Cologne being anything more than the dumbest thing I've ever done, it's Mark and Karina because that video was really the reason that anyone knows about Campfire Cologne. And of course, that whatever, it went viral if you will, and tons of people saw that.
Ken: My mom bought the Campfire Cologne.

Greg: Awesome. Smart lady.

Ken: It’s killing it—what's the magic ingredient?

Greg: In some sense it's really beautiful. Campfire Cologne can either be taken seriously or taken as a joke. That is the sweet spot that it sits because I know people and myself included where I've actually used it to try and impart the scent of campfire on me because I do like that smell. And then, of course, there is the novelty jokey like, "Oh my God. This is hilarious. Sticks in a box." And that I think is the bigger portion of people who buy it.
Talk is Cheap
Ken: A lot of people have that dream or ideas like that, 99% of them don't do anything about it. So what's different with you?

Greg: Talk is cheap. Everyone talks about stuff and it's great that you have to start with a dream, right? It's nothing but an idea and a dream, but that dream will hopefully turn into something. It's cool to imagine something and it's cool to think about something and dream about it and get yourself excited about it, but it's much cooler, from my perspective, to actually do that thing and make it a reality.

I don't like to wait for people to twiddle their thumbs and make decisions. I'm like, "Listen, you can sit there and think and talk about this. I'll be over here doing it. And then when you want to actually do it, you can come catch up with me where I'll be doing it."

Ken: I think a lot of people are innately creative. Most people only have dreams. I think there's a fear that prevents them from reaching their potential creativity.

Greg: Oh, yeah. I just am not scared of failure.

Ken: Why is that?

Greg: I just don't care. Well, first of all, I guess part of it is that I haven't failed very often in terms of business and ideas. I should say I have failed many, many times at other things in life.

Ken: On a smaller scale when you're remodeling a room and you put a drill through the water pipe or something?

Greg: Exactly. Those types of failures, the small failures are happening constantly. But I think it goes back to my parents being supportive and telling me, "Oh, yeah. You can do whatever you think. You can believe in yourself. You can do it. Yeah." That's a stereotypical thing for parents to tell their kids, but I think life often beats it out of people. I guess I feel like failure is a part of success. And if you do fail at something at some point, you learn a lot from it. And so why be scared of it? Why let it cripple you?

Ken: It all seems like this self-fulfilling prophecy because if you believe and do everything, then you can.

Greg: Totally. It's the cheesiest thing in the world, but it's true.
The Jennings Hotel
Ken: Having stayed here only one night, it feels like just an extension of who you are naturally, especially the concept of this communal kitchen. This place isn't a hotel. You have to participate. I'd love to hear about the conceptual side of the feel of the experience you wanted to have here.

Greg: Well, I think conceptually, hotels are boring. Most of the time people don't interact or have conversations or make new friends when they're at hotels and that seems dumb. [I wanted to create] the opportunity to interact with other people here—hence, the community kitchen and the living room. This library space was always an important part of that concept.

Ultimately I'm more interested in making friends and creating opportunities and helping to inspire people than I am about running a hotel. It felt like just a catalyst or a way to bring those things together to hopefully take money that I'm earning from the hotel and be able to pour it into these other projects that are things that really interest me.
Ken: Why did you do it yourself versus...or mostly yourself versus hiring people?

Greg: Out of necessity. I didn't and don't have the money to pay other people to do the work.

Ken: You get super into these projects because that's just the kind of guy you are. But then eventually you wanted to be able to walk away from that and then it's another one, and then you want to walk away, and then another one.
"I'm more interested in making friends and creating opportunities and helping to inspire people than I am about running a hotel."
Greg: I think the thing that drives me is unrealized potential. I can't look at something that I know can be amazing and watch it not be amazing. It just kills me to see it. Like when I walked in here I thought, "Wow. When this building was built 100 years ago, it was so fucking beautiful and it was so awesome and such an important part of the community and people over the last 100 years have fucked it up beyond recognition. And that just kills me. Why would you do that to something that started so great?"
One of the most interesting things about this project is the people I've met over the course of it and through it. You just never know who's going to show up. I've had such awesome conversations with so many people and that's what makes it super rewarding. And that was the whole thing is like I don't think that would typically happen in just a standard hotel.

Ken: And it's not complicated. I just called you up and said, "Hey..." That's the way I want to keep my business, too. When you can't do that anymore, it's just not fun.

Greg: I think also it's about attitudes, you know? It's finding the people who want to do cool shit and don't have bad attitudes about it. Work for your friends. Do the stuff you want to do. Don't work for assholes. It's not worth it. In my case, I'm almost always my own client so that's...I think that I've been really fortunate in that regard.

Ken: You have this really high level talent that you pull together and all these people you're friends with. And it gets back to them, too, because you're always giving them the props.
Greg: Yeah. No. I guess in some sense that's the grand bargain because since I don't have money to pay these people, the very least I can do is either give them a place to stay and then also do whatever I can do to promote what they're doing and help them grow their business. That's the least tiniest, littlest, ittiest bit of thanks that I can give for all the help I've received.

Ken: I really believe that you can transcend physical products or even physical space by this kind of thing. When I come in here and I see the spirit and I feel the spirit behind how everything was built, I'm taking that out of the physical space and into me. That’s what’s magical about it.

Greg: Thank you. I agree with you. The places that I've been where I get that feeling, that's inspiration. Right? You go somewhere and you feel that thing. And it's not everywhere in the world and it's not every place, but when you do feel it, it's pretty magical and to get to carry that with you certainly is a really awesome thing, I think.
To learn more about Greg's projects, check out The Jennings Hotel and Campfire Cologne.

Featured in This Story

Further Reading