Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Michael Bainbridge and Brigitte Gall, who run The Occurrence, a puzzle manufacturing company in Haliburton, Ont.
What is The Occurrence?
The Occurrence is an artisanal jigsaw puzzle manufacturer and retailer. We have a puzzle machine press that cuts the puzzles, but essentially everything is done by hand and they’re all our own unique designs.
How did the business get started?
My background is a gem and mineral photographer who specializes in gems and minerals for museums and private collectors. The discussion for the last several years between Brigitte and I has been what to do with the library of pictures I’ve built up over the years.
We got the idea for making them into puzzles on New Year’s Eve, 2018. We had a bunch of friends over that night, but the temperature was negative 46 degrees Celius. It was colder in Haliburton than the daytime high of Mars. None of our friends’ cars would start. And even if they could leave, it wouldn’t have been wise. So, we ended up hosting eight people for three days, and we started running out of things to do. We pulled out some jigsaw puzzles, and at one point, we had eight people circling the kitchen island working on this Starry Night jigsaw puzzle.
That’s when the light bulb went off. We started making puzzles out of my pictures. Originally, we were outsourcing, but the intent was always to start a small manufacturing business in Haliburton. In October 2019, we took possession of the space we’re in now and we’re gearing up for a launch just after Christmas. But then we stopped hearing from our suppliers in China—right as the pandemic was getting started. It wasn’t until June 2020 that we were finally able to open our doors at full capacity. Now we have our manufacturing in the back and a little retail shop in the front.
What inspired the name?
The occurrence is a geological term. It’s a concentrated mineral deposit. With my background in minerals and gemstones, I’ve always used that name for my website. Then when we started talking about the puzzle factory and what to call it. We liked the different meanings of the word “occurrence.” It’s a happening, an event, something that’s exciting and interesting. But it also has a sort of cult feel to it, like a ye old book shop. Our branding is all based on the idea of an occult book store.
How do you make the puzzles?
We start by printing out the design we want on photo printers, the same thing you’d use in a high-end photo lab. We use pigment inks and museum-grade paper. The photographic print is glued onto cardboard. Then we have a roller die press for cutting the puzzle. It’s like two giant rolling pins turning in sync with each other, and we’ve got a steel rule die that’s like a cookie-cutter. You run the puzzle through the two rollers and it pushes the cardboard into the blades and cuts it.
We have different dies for different sizes or shapes of puzzles. Every one of our 500 piece puzzles has exactly the same cut, but we have different dies for the 77-piece, 192, 504, and 1,008. So, each one of those dies is different based on size. After the puzzle’s cut, we have the highly technical process of scrambling, which involves taking the puzzle apart so that you can put it back together again.
We’ve done our best to source all of the materials from Canada, and always recycled materials. It’s a fine balance between getting the very best materials and the most local. We do import our cardboard from the Netherlands. It’s 100 per cent recycled. But our boxes are made in Markham, from recycled Canadian cardboard.
How do you choose the designs?
It started with designs based on my photographs. Originally, I had a ready market with the gem and mineral shows I’d go to, like the Gemboree in Bancroft. We started selling the puzzles there.
Then the next design we added was the Haliburton County road trip. We drove around the county for two days taking pictures of actual road signs and then designing them into a fun collage that represents a tour of the county.
We wanted to do it for other places as well, like Muskoka and Lanark. We thought it would be a simple matter of swapping out some names for different places, but when we went, we discovered that there was a really unique culture of place that was evident in the road signs. It wasn’t transferable. So, we did the whole thing over again for Lanark and Muskoka.
We also have artists’ puzzles. We wanted to feature Canadian artists and not ones that were typical or expected. Artists like Kurt Swinghammer, Wendy Wood, and our most recent one, Mary Anne Barkhouse, an Indigenous artist who lives in Haliburton—also a friend of ours. She’s really well known as a sculptor, so we wanted to get one of her works done. We actually launched it for orange shirt day.
Brigitte’s really keen on the nostalgia pieces. The old Canadian ephemera, so we’ve started a series of old covers from the Eaton company’s catalogues and we have the cover of Canada’s first sci-fi pulp fiction magazine.
We also do custom puzzles. It’s one of the side benefits of having brought production in-house. If you want a puzzle of your sister’s wedding or a picture of your dog, you just have to email us the picture and within a week or so, you’ve got a puzzle. All of the other designs come from Brigitte and I. We choose based on what kind of puzzles we’d want to do.
How often do you make a new puzzle?
In two years, we’ve gone from five designs to 27. There hasn’t really been any regularity to that, but by bringing production in-house, we can do whatever we want. There are no minimum orders or turnaround times. What we’re learning, though, is that there are seasons to the puzzle industry, similar to the way tourism in the area is. We always try to get new designs out for the spring, when cottagers start coming up again.
There’s also the Christmas puzzle peak. For that, we try and get new stuff out in September, October. Then there’s the February blahs. Nobody’s going outside and there’s nothing to do but puzzle. We have a long list of design ideas that we’re keen to do. It’s just a matter of how much time and resources we’re able to dedicate to the process.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Anybody who’s picked up a newspaper or a magazine in the last year has heard of the puzzle trend as a result of COVID. Canada is actually a puzzle capital of the world. We have two of the world’s top five puzzle manufacturers with Eurographics and Cobble Hill, but they both manufacture in the States. As far as we know, we’re the only Canadian puzzle manufacturer that actually makes everything in-house in Canada—aside from some very small, custom businesses. But this has been a real boon for us during the pandemic. People like that we’re Canadian. We’ve no doubt gotten a sales bump as a result of the pandemic, but it’s hard to compare since we opened in 2020.
We did encounter problems around the beginning of January 2020 when, all of a sudden, our manufacturer in China stopped returning our phone calls. We planned to order our roller die press from China, but this forced us to do some more searching. We found a machine company in Montreal that was able to build a custom machine based on what we knew we needed from the Chinese machine. So, even the machine we use was made in Canada.
COVID did delay our opening by about six months, but in the end, I think it worked out well because the machine that we have is undoubtedly better made, and it’s easier to get service. There have been other supply chain issues that continue to haunt us. For example, there’s a worldwide cardboard shortage. It’s been going for almost two years now. It’s caused our box supplier’s turnaround times to go from 10 days to 30 days. And we had a shipment go missing because the driver got COVID and had to park the truck for a month.
What we didn’t anticipate is that because COVID has slowed down the supply chain, we’ve become the manufacturing source for a number of small, craft puzzle brands. We manufacture puzzles for lifestyle brands in Montreal, Muskoka and Toronto. So, there’s been ups and downs.
What does the future look like for The Occurrence?
We’re in an 800 square foot manufacturing space, which includes the retail storefront. It’s getting pretty crowded. I mean, we’re small, but we’re outgrowing the space quickly. There are certain limitations to the manufacturing process. Over the next year, we’re going to be charting out our growth, how much space we need, and what kind of automation we can introduce. Ultimately, in a year, we’d like to be in a facility that is at least twice as big with a second production line that’s more automated.
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