Life after the Bison
Five companies that have turned craft fair gold into a lasting business
by Cory Haller
The Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair has been the home of many young and talented retailers looking to test the market. For some, it’s just the push they’ve needed to take the leap into turning a craft fair dalliance into a full-fledged business. Here are five that have found success at the Bison and beyond.
Thirty-year old Mathew Garrett and 27-year old Andrea Yacyshyn of Heritage Baked Goods made their debut last year at the 124 Street Grand Market in Edmonton. When their baked, uniquely flavoured, (sometimes) vegan, doughnut venture gained popularity, the pair applied to the Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair to experiment with a different customer base. “We sold out half way through the first day,” says Garrett, “and [sold] about 700 throughout the show.” The push was just enough for the duo to decide to go into the doughnut business on a full time-basis, and have recently focused on making their baking into a full-time catering venture with the newly re-branded Moonshine Doughnuts.
Bison vendor Matt Heide already owned and managed Concrete Cat Design House, a business that designs, hand casts and installs concrete counter tops, fireplaces and home décor, when he decided to indulge his artistic side. He spent his evenings conceptualizing small décor pieces, like clocks, vases, sculptures, dishes and the like, and under the banner of Concrete Cat Handmade Goods made his debut at the Bison’s December 2012 show. “It was all about market research for me. If the product sold at the Bison, it went up for sale on our website.” And sell they did. Sales at the Bison proved to Heide that his artistic experiment was a potential money maker, and he’s since supplied his products to retailers like Barber Ha, The Art Gallery of Alberta gift shop, the Alberta Craft Council’s gallery gift shop, The Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and Harbinger, a dealer in Los Angeles.
Rachel Bingham of BangBang Bijoux is a longtime vendor at the Royal Bison. After graduating from university the jewelry designer took the risk of pursuing a career in designing and hand-crafting jewelry made from discarded vintage materials. “The Royal Bison was valuable because it was encouraging. It validates what you’re doing when you find that resonates with you also resonates with other people.” Bingham now works with her line full-time from her studio on 104 Street and Jasper, and although her jewelry is available at retailers such as Bamboo Ballroom, C’est Sera, The Beauty Parlour and Ponytails and Horseshoes she returns to the fair each year, “At a show I expect to make about a month’s salary, which really takes the pressure off – especially after tax season.”
Sometimes a push in the right direction is all you need to make an idea a reality. For the pair behind Offal Goods, the December 2012 Royal Bison was that extra push. Peter Nguyen had an idea when his girlfriend Karen Sweet bought him a bow tie – one that she believed was overpriced and poorly made. Nguyen suggested that Sweet, who has been sewing since the age of 7, could do it better. With the Bison right around the corner, the pair scrambled to set their project into motion just in time for the Royal Bison’s call for vendors. It was an experiment that paid off. The ties sold out over the weekend, custom orders were made, and the small idea turned into a web-based business shortly thereafter. Now the Bison is one of many markets the duo frequents, but the fair that gave them their start is the one that always yields the best results. “Customers visit us there all the time.” says Sweet. “They get to check out the product before deciding on their order.” Spurred on by consumer requests, the duo have moved into making pocket squares, with their sights set on straight ties and ascots in the near future.
Ashley Benson of Bloom Cookie Co. found her debut at the Royal Bison in 2011 to be something of an unexpected success. And so, as she found herself sold out of some of her favorite vegan cookie flavours such as her London Fog recipe, Benson recognized the potential for online ordering. She now encourages consumers to pre-order their favourites before the fair even starts. “When people make orders over Twitter or Facebook, I can put them aside. Everyone gets what they want, and I figure out just how many more (cookies) I need to make.” It was only natural that, having established an online ordering system, Benson expanded her business to craft and farmers’ markets throughout the city. And places like the 124st Grand Market, The Mercer Collective, the 104 Street Farmers’ Market aren’t just for wooing window shoppers. They’re now her storefront, and they free her from having to pay for things like rent and insurance. Still, Benson has a soft spot for the market that made her start. “I love all the markets year round,” she says, “but the Bison is where the really talented people in this city get to experiment.”