Courtesy of the Brandon Sun.
By Colin Slark
A local business formerly run as a student-led enterprise at Brandon University took a step forward late last month when it opened a brick-and-mortar retail outlet on Rosser Avenue.
According to founder Parker Easter, ReNu Hygienics — which opened at the 15th and Rosser Mall on July 31 — saw its fair share of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic but is ready to ramp up production.
ReNu was created in 2019 through the Enactus program at Brandon University, the local chapter of an organization that encourages post-secondary students to try their hand at innovative entrepreneurship.
The company’s first product was created by picking up used bars of soap and bottles of shampoo from local hotels, melting them down and adding new ingredients to create new upcycled soap bars.
For every bar of soap the organization sold, it pledged to donate one to a local charity, an initiative the company still honours. Easter estimates ReNu has donated a combined 6,000 bars of soap and bottles of shampoo.
That led the organization to win a first-place trophy at Enactus’ Western Canada competition in 2020.
Shortly after, Parker said, the organization went from a student-led enterprise to a private one, in part to deal with the turnover caused by students coming and going from the university to new destinations every year.
That transition was challenged by the pandemic. With activity at hotels in Brandon grinding to a halt, it cut off the source of soap ReNu uses in its upcycled products.
“Lots of people, when the pandemic hit, were looking at us like ‘oh, what a timely thing to be in the soap industry,’” Easter said. “On the face of it, that was probably really true, but what COVID showed us was just how reliant we were on hotels, like 100 per cent.”
That prompted the business to explore other products that aren’t reliant on other sources, such as lip butter.
With COVID-related restrictions now lifted, Easter said the amount of soap the business collects is returning to more consistent levels.
At the new retail location, soap, lotion, bubble bath mixture and bath bomb powder are all on display, with each variety named after a corresponding landmark in Brandon of the same colour. For instance, one green bubble bath bottle is named after the green door at the Brandon General Museum and Archives.
That naming scheme and the downtown location are ways the company is acknowledging its support for downtown Brandon, Easter said.
Many of the items are packed in aluminum wrap or tins because that material is easier to recycle.
The bubble bath mixture and bath bomb don’t come in ball form like at other bath and body product retailers, but rather in a powder.
Easter said this is for a couple of reasons. While developing the products, research indicated that women avoid items in that category because they aren’t pH balanced and can lead to urinary tract infection.
The powders on sale at ReNu are pH balanced, but because of the extra expense of assembling them into solid shapes for sale, the company has chosen to serve them in a dissembled, granular form.
One potential upside to that, according to Easter, is that in powder form, users can choose how much product they want to use rather than using an entire bath bomb in one go.
While a physical storefront is a big step, Easter has more plans in mind for the business.
Behind the front counter is a coffee machine and a few bottles of flavoured syrup.
If the attempt to get licensed is successful, ReNu will also serve as a café, with another part of the storefront set up for people to sit down, chat and even play board games.
“So often, people approach a store as an in and an out,” he said. “You’ll get in there, you know what you want, you get in, get out, life’s busy, life’s fast. I would really like for people to come into our store, notice the diffuser spouting off a nice lavender, see the coffee and hopefully a beer on tap from one of the city’s breweries, and they come and hang out for a little bit and just enjoy themselves and on the way out, pick up some goods.”
Though Easter is no longer at Brandon University, the business administration graduate is still a student. This summer, he came home from studying law at the University of Calgary and has been working to establish the retail outlet during his summer break.
In less than a month, he’ll be flying back for his last year of studies and is getting ready to turn day-to-day operations over to his three staff members.
» Twitter: @ColinSlark