In the early 90s then Mayor, Pat McMahon, once told Matthew Grogono that recycling was not something that would be done in the Northwest Territories.
“We’re a mining town. We make it, we break it, we throw it away. We are at the end of the road,” Grogono quotes McMahon. “You can’t recycle in the North, you can’t even recycle glass.”
At this point Grogono wanted to demonstrate that you could in fact take a material like glass, divert it from the waste stream and add it back to the economy.
“At the time, city councillors were using anywhere from three to twelve Styrofoam cups,” said Grogono. “There are eight city councillors, a mayor, half a dozen administrators and you can calculate that they were using somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 cups a year in that office.”
After council he was having a drink with long time friend Gary Vaillancourt, and the glasses they were drinking out of were cut down rum bottles, so he had the inspiration to give council a dozen of these glasses for a Christmas present to demonstrate they could in fact recycle and divert the use of styrofoam and “enable the councillors to drink more water with less effort so when they make decisions, their microprocessors are working better.”
A lot of city councillors have come and gone since then, but those glasses remain.
At the time Grogono was an automotive mechanic and out of work and with a bit of time on his hands. He drafted a business plan and strategy in 1994 for what would become Old Town Glassworks.
“For about a decade, I lost money,” Grogono said. “I spent my RRSP and all the money I could find before I stumbled upon glass-making workshops and discovered that people love DIY (do it yourself) art activities.”
Grogono started experimenting with about three workshops a week and the idea took off.
“Now we can sell three or four workshops a day, seven days a week during our busy season,” said Grogono.
“We’ve gone from a recycling business to an environmentally friendly entertainment business with a focus on recycling.”
In 2006 they became a workers co-operative where the shareholders are the employees.
“Now the decisions that are being made are being made in favour of sustainability and the needs of the employees,” he added.
“It’s about a social envelope. We were a B corporation for a decade, which is a type of corporation recognized for ethical practices, but it wasn’t worth our while.”
Currently, Old Town Glassworks has a fluctuating number of employees, depending on the season but usually has four full-time employees and six part-time.
Emily Lawson has been an employee of Old Town Glassworks for six years and says she loves the atmosphere and community involvement she finds working there.
“It truly is a positive atmosphere and there’s a lot less hierarchy in a place like this,” said Lawson.
“You get to see people grow as artists and nurture their talent while reusing materials that might have otherwise been wasted.”
Lawson said it’s a true family businesses that’s heavily involved in the community while providing quality work from artisans.
“It may be expensive to some people, but we’re not trying to be a Walmart or a factory,” she said. “We create unique art and provide a good wage to those who make it.”
“We’ve also gone from $29,000 per year to a half million in gross revenue,” said Grogono. “Though those profit margins are nowhere to be found. We still pay our bills.”
The process of creating this glassware is entirely unique as the tools used include a one of a kind modified 1955 Hoover washing machine which is now a glass grinding station and a $10,000 sandblaster Grogono won from NASA in 2012.
“During that contest, which was a people’s choice trade fair, people would vote on one of five contestants and the audience would choose who had the ugliest sandblaster in America,” said Grogono. “I convinced them that North America was close enough.”
At the time, Old Town Glassworks was using a “Franken-blaster”, a homemade blaster assembled from spare parts from around town and various trips to the dump, much like the unique Hoover grinding station which was built with Vaillancourt, who periodically assists with mechanical and problem solving expertise.
The week of the contest was the week that NASA had landed on Mars and named the landing site Yellowknife Bay, which Grogono attributes to putting them over the edge to win the contest and the new sandblaster.
“That’s what revolutionized the company,” said Grogono.
In addition to creating glassware for its gift shop, doing custom ordered glass and workshops Grogono said they are working on diversifying and creating iconic pieces of work which include a range of trophies for the Chamber of Commerce and for events such as the Canadian Championship Dog Derby.
“We make presentation products,” he said. “People want to celebrate something and they come to use to create the artwork and do the engraving.”
The classic workshop Grogono puts on is two hours long which starts with a history of the buildings, two Hudson Bay Company log cabin staff houses, one built in 1946 and the other in 1942, and the company itself before guiding customers along the process of turning an old wine bottle into glassware.
“The peachiest customers we have are the ones who create a glass to convey a message or remember a good time,” said Grogono.
“If your making a glass and maybe last night you saw the aurora, the forest and some ptarmigan and you want to make a glass to remember all of the things you saw, you’ll always have the memento for the good time you had or spent with a loved one,” he said.
“There aren’t that many things to do in Yellowknife, but as a group you can come down here with your sister, daughter or dad or whatever and have a predictable activity with a coach and they love it,” said Grogono.
In a way he said his workshops act as art therapy and if a professional or a family can come to these workshops to spend a few hours having a good time and relieving stress, “that’s more valuable to me than the money.”