The story of Canada-based boutique, custom co-packer Recurve Solutions is one of innovation and optimism in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s a story of identifying like-minded entrepreneurs and developing a business tailored to their unique needs.
Recurve, located in Calgary, Alberta, is a newly minted division of Bullseye Packaging, a co-packing company with a 14-year history that provides secondary packaging services to a range of food and beverage, liquor, and other Consumer Packaged Goods companies. Bullseye serves national accounts with orders by the truckload from its two facilities, located in Chilliwack, British Columbia, and Calgary.
Bullseye was founded in 2008 by Stephen Peters to address the lack of professional co-packing businesses providing specialty and custom pack formats in Western Canada. Says Eira Braun-Labossiere, Customer Care Leader at Bullseye, “With the introduction of Bullseye Packaging, we have filled the gap in services in this region and continue to grow each year as a result.”
Over the years—and especially through the pandemic—Bullseye recognized another white space: the need for a co-packer that could help small, startup businesses navigate the world of packaging. “We noticed that the entrepreneurial spirit Western Canada is known for was growing exponentially,” explains Braun-Labossiere. “That meant more small businesses springing up that had a huge learning curve before them.”
Leveraging Bullseye’s considerable co-packing experience along with its network of resources, in late 2021, Braun-Labossiere, along with Peters, Adrian Houser, and Darren Bolko co-founded Recurve. With Peters at the helm as CEO, Houser serving as Director of Operations, Bolko as Plant Manager, and Braun-Labossiere as Customer Care Leader, Recurve addresses the needs of growing to medium-sized businesses for customized, flexible, small production-line co-packing and fulfillment services.
Pandemic spurs growth in startups
While there’s no doubt the pandemic had a crushing effect on many small businesses, particularly in apparel, foodservice, and hospitality, at the same time it also provided the perfect conditions for new businesses to arise. In the U.S., a report from research initiative GoDaddy Venture Forward found that there were 2.8 million more online “microbusinesses,” or businesses with 10 or fewer employees, in 2020 versus 2019. According to the report, there are several reasons for this. Among them, unemployed workers looking for new income streams, pandemic relief checks providing the funds for new businesses, and greater digital fluency lowering the barrier to entry for online marketing and sales. Another factor: The Great Resignation.
In Canada, it was much the same. Says Braun-Labossiere, “The pandemic forced a work-from-home situation wherever possible. For many, this allowed for deeper evaluation of their current work; a realization of what could be accomplished in business from home and also what it was we could offer the world when we set our own boundaries and goals,” she says.
“I think many people re-evaluated their work happiness and lives in general, leading some to the decision of making a shift to something they felt they could own, something they could manage on their own terms,” she adds. “They started investing their time and money into side-hustles or a homegrown business they could throw themselves into completely.”
Even before the pandemic, however, Canada’s small- to mid-sized businesses (SMEs) dominated the environment. According to the Government of Canada’s SME statistics, as of December 2019, of the 1.23 million employer businesses in Canada, 1.2 million (97.9%) were small businesses and 22,905 (1.9%) were medium-sized. Within Canada, Alberta ranked within the top four provinces, with 160,000 small businesses and 2,936 medium-sized businesses.
Establishing relationships is key to Recurve
In October 2021, Bullseye began accepting smaller-volume projects and/or more detailed projects through Recurve, officially launching the new company website in March 2022. For growing and mid-sized businesses, Recurve provides the same secondary packaging services as sister company Bullseye. This includes repackaging, rainbow/season/specialty packs, hand assembly, shrink-wrapped bundles, club packs, product samplers, POP displays, and many other services. In addition, both companies hold their own Excise and Warehouse License and AGLC (Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis) License, which allows them to handle beer and liquor products. Both companies also hold a Food Handling License, follow GMP Guidelines, and have the same Standard Operating Procedures.
What differs is the project size and the complexity of the jobs handled by each. Whereas Bullseye produces orders by the truckload on six assembly lines in its combined 50,000 sq ft of space, at its 12,000-sq-ft Calgary location, Recurve handles Work in Progress (WIP) jobs amounting to less than 20 pallets per production run.
According to Braun-Labossiere, jobs handled by Recurve also require more production steps and attention to detail—such as kitting activities and unique-order e-commerce fulfillment—than those of Bullseye. Another unique aspect of Recurve is that it is designed to support growing businesses by introducing them to complementary vendors that clients may not be aware of yet. This can include co-packers that offer primary packaging services.
The secondary co-packing services most sought after by Recurve’s customers are the assembly of variety packs, assembly and loading of retail prepack displays and pallet displays, pick-and-pack order fulfillment, and kitting, including assembly of monthly subscription boxes and conference swag bags, for example. “We can—and have—also performed manual primary co-packing of foodstuffs that are not intended for human consumption, such as pet treats and hardware,” Braun-Labossiere adds.
Recurve’s operations are primarily manual, with the exception of the use of forklifts, inkjet coders, pallet wrappers, and automated box tapers for production flow. Manual operations allow the co-packer the flexibility to handle each custom project and mean less downtime resulting from machinery issues such as broken parts, wear and tear, and redundancy over time.
While Recurve’s rule of thumb is job sizes of approximately 20 pallets or less, Braun-Labossiere says that the company isn’t as concerned about the size of each production run. “It’s more important to us to establish long-term relationships with clients that need weekly, monthly, or regular project support,” she explains. “As such, we typically quote for projects based on annual volumes instead of looking at just the project in front of us at any one time.”
Spice variety pack is in Recurve’s wheelhouse
One great example of Recurve’s capabilities is its work with The Spice Age. Based in Toronto, Ontario, The Spice Age was founded in 2020 by Rebecca Perkins, who originally launched the business on Etsy. The company offers a variety of seasoning blends, specialty salts, and dip mixes sold in colorful, 60-g flexible pouches.
According to Perkins, when The Spice Age first launched, Etsy provided a valuable opportunity to collect feedback on which spices customers loved and what they wanted to see more of. “This helped us create a brand completely developed by our customers,” she says. “Within six months, we shifted to Shopify and partnered with a variety of shops throughout Canada.” The brand, known for its playfulness and “pun-ny” labels, is now available in 300 locations across the country, as well as online.
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With experience gleaned from having worked at a CPG in her former life, Perkins initially led The Spice Age team in the packaging, assembly, and fulfillment of products for the company’s e-commerce site. However, when the spice maker got a large order from a national banner company in fall 2021 for its Favorite Seasoning Kit variety packs, she looked for a specialty co-packer to handle the job. She found Recurve through Google. “I had recently moved to Calgary, and I wanted to work with a local company so I could be more involved with the process,” she says. “There aren’t many co-packers in Calgary!”
Recurve embarked on the first production run for The Spice Age in February 2022. It involved hand-loading three pouches of three different spice blends into a preprinted paperboard sleeve, supplied by The Spice Age.
“We started by working on a smaller volume of finicky samples,” says Braun-Labossiere. “We found efficiencies in that first trial run so that we could package larger volumes and turn the project around for The Spice Age much quicker.” Since then, Recurve has done one more production run of the variety packs and “stands at the ready,” as Braun-Labossiere says, for new orders.
Says Perkins, “Recurve fits the bill not only for our large order of variety-pack assembly, but they are also genuinely interested in supporting our growth. Eira is wonderful, she truly wants to see The Spice Age thrive. She goes out of her way to check on me and The Spice Age and has even connected me with one of her contacts that in turn helped grow my business.
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“I have worked with other co-packers in the past. I have seen sloppy work, deadlines missed, lack of communications, you name it. Recurve is quick and efficient and communicated their timelines well, and their work has been perfect so far.”
When asked what startups such as hers are looking for from potential co-packing partners, Perkins says, “honest communication, being quick to respond to emails or phone calls, and quality work, including meeting deadlines.”
Sister company lends expertise
While also technically a startup, Recurve has had the benefit of drawing on Bullseye’s experience and seasoned managerial team. Says Braun-Labossiere, “We haven’t experienced much of a learning curve in our business because we follow the same exacting process as ‘big sister’ Bullseye does.”
Having the backing of Bullseye also means Recurve has been able to take more risks and invest in smaller projects that may not otherwise be successful—an advantage other, larger co-packers don’t have. “We are in a unique situation where we can draw on an exceptionally talented leadership team and staff with specific experiences in this industry,” concludes Braun-Labossiere. “We couldn’t imagine starting over without these resources available on each project.”