Burro Bags in Jacksonville
By Brenton Crozier
Matt Bort and Chris Williams had a need. After filling their need with ingenuity, practicality and some sewing chops, they had a business. Burro Bags has fans, they may call them paying customers, from all over the world. Their start-up began by offering handmade messenger bags made with recycled materials from such items as old sails, couch leather, convertible tops and even highway billboards and have expanded their line to include backpacks, wallets and T-shirts among other products.
Pedaling Their Innovative Product to the World at Large
This Jacksonville, Florida, based business can barely keep any inventory . . . economic downturn need not apply. Whether you want something that nobody else has or want a well-constructed, environmentally-friendly product, you can have them build you a custom bag, land an artist exclusive series bag or choose from their popular standard offerings.
Their blueprint could necessitate recalibration for struggling entrepreneurs or simply a return to what once was such a successful formula, effectively filling a need with a novel concept and keeping it in the community. Matt was kind enough to answer some questions for us and you can follow up for yourself at their shop in Jacksonville’s historic Springfield or by visiting them online at www.burrobags.com.
SOTRU: What was the inspiration and/or concept behind Burro Bags?
BB: Chris and I were commuting to and from downtown Jacksonville to the suburbs for college and work, somewhere around 9 to 15 miles a day. Jacksonville’s spring showers are notorious for destroying cargo, so we both needed weather resistant bags on a budget.
I had been looking for a bag months before when I was working as a bike courier downtown. I wanted to replicate a few bags that I found interesting by incorporating qualities from all of them into one bag, but at the time was not familiar enough with sewing.
Chris had prior sewing experience, upholstering with his father, Wayne Williams for 5 years. He has since apprenticed me, and Wayne has given us great advice along the way. We created a few prototypes and came upon some that we were happy with. Soon after, our friends noticed our product and began putting in orders. It developed very organically, we never even had an initial business plan.
The concept of recycled material was born out of budget constraints. I’m not exactly sure how Chris tripped on the idea of reusing retired highway advertisements, vinyl billboards, as fabric, but it’s been a great both financially and even more so ecologically. We’ve reused 1000+ square feet of billboard last year alone that would have otherwise failed to decompose in our city’s dump or oceans.
SOTRU: What makes Burro Bags different?
BB: We are owner-operated and obviously made in the USA with materials manufactured in the USA. We incorporate recycled/reused materials in our product. We’re also extremely dependent on the cycling industry.
SOTRU: Did you start with a certain demographic in mind? How has that changed? Are you surprised how well they have resonated in particular demographics? If so, which ones?
BB: We started with our friends. They gave us a good groundwork to work with and manageable criticism. We now consistently ship nationally and do some sporadic shipping overseas. We were solely targeting cyclists in the beginning, primarily college students and bike messengers in larger cities that have befriended us. Our newest demographic is an audience solely concerned with being green, customers seeking out alternative options for their messenger bags and we’ve come across two substantial commercial opportunities. Our local organic grocer, Native Sun, contracted us to manufacture 100+ reusable grocery bags made from one of their retired billboards. We screen printed their logo and included an interior pocket for keys as well as a small tag with our name along the binding. They released them this year, fittingly on Earth Day and did very well selling many of them on that one day.
The Internet has had a great affect on business, as people find us from all stretches of life and lately, mothers have taken to having a great affection for us, regularly replacing their hideous diaper bags for a more functional use even after maternity.
SOTRU: Can you discuss the construction process of your bags? All custom? All handmade?
BB: Chris Williams and I, construct every bag in our shop located in Jacksonville’s historic district, Springfield, in our warehouse that we’ve coined the BBB (Bags, Bikes, Beats). On larger jobs or when the pressure is really on, we receive help from our screen print side of the shop, John O’Brian and Josh Dunn. Zombie Bike’s Joe Gaskin and Bert Griffin are also great assets, always willing to lend a hand. Olivia Williams, Chris’ sister, who also learned under their father, helps out immensely. She whips out our wallets and smaller bags when she isn’t in school.
The majority of our bags are fully custom and are all handmade in house. We make attempts at boosting our inventory, but seem to sell them quickly or are stocking our retailers. Not too bad of a problem, except for our customers that are on time constraints. Our usual turnaround for a custom bag is 2 to 3 weeks.
SOTRU: How has this economic cycle affected Burro Bags?
BB: We don’t know anything other than this recession, but having been living solely off our product for more than a year now and are very lucky and happy to be doing this.
SOTRU: What are some of the more interesting bags you’ve created?
BB: Food delivery backpack for Ryan in Orlando. Ethos Vegan, and Orlando restaurant, hired on a courier to deliver their food by bike. The bag is fully insulated, large enough to contain a drawer from a filing cabinet and sectional in tiers, to divide orders accordingly.
Burrito Gallery, our favorite restaurant, got with us to produce a bag capable of insulating their burritos and able to sling hot sauce at the Jaguar’s stadium on game day to the customers in the stands.
SOTRU: How many people are involved in the Burro Bags operation?
BB: Too many, a majority of the bike community in Jacksonville as well as our friends in other bike heavy cities. Our friends are our best marketing asset. They all have loud mouths and big bellies for beer. They’ll talk us up at every bar, to the bike shop or co-op, work, school, bike events…
In the shop, Chris and I are the masterminds in the front construing and constructing. John O’Brian is the brain behind our ridiculous prints and graphic designs as well as helping create our website at his daily job, Go Fresh! with our developer Katie Brown. Josh Dunn, more known as Big Dunn, is the local loose jaw that blows us up around town and main muscle behind our big screen print jobs and cutting.
SOTRU: Although you have online presence, are there any advantages or disadvantages to being a Jacksonville based business?
BB: The ups first…There are tons of opportunities for retail locations in the slums that are still close to the urban core at great rates. Free publicity is abundant and everyone knows another in this big city. Word travels quickly and we feel appreciated. We love the people here that are really making things happen while many others sit on their asses waiting for moves to be made by our half-crook figure heads. It’s easy to create your movement here without aid from the city.
Okay, now the down side…Chicago is our largest market outside of Jacksonville. It’s a big surprise, but it’s mostly from word of mouth we’ve come to find out. We also think it may because of another bag manufacturer, Chicago WIG. It’s a great feeling to know your industry brothers and sisters without animosity. We seemed to be teamed up in an effort to detract our customers from supporting businesses that employ overseas labor. Blue collar pride. But, if we were located directly in our market, our sales and publicity would be at an advantage and our textile resources would be plentiful.
SOTRU: How have other Jacksonville community members contributed to the business, process or creative side of things?
BB: There is true camaraderie in Jacksonville’s downtown small businesses. We all support each others ventures and try to involve each other in upcoming events.
We are truly lucky and retain humbled by our neighbors thoughtfulness. Our warehouse has been described as a green collar collective, composed of a non-profit bicycle recycler, vinyl consignment record shop and us. Residents in the area are consistently donating needed tools, bicycles, parts, appliances and materials that they come across. We love our city!
SOTRU: Are you a Jacksonville native?
BB: Chris is, born and raised in the South. I claim the South, but was born in Panama City, Panama and have spent the majority of my child and adulthood here. We met at our magnet middle school, which is around the corner from our shop, strange.
SOTRU: Do you see the product line evolving beyond the current offerings?
BB: It has, from messenger bags to totes, wallets, grocery bags, specialized backpacks, hip bags and our artist series, which has gained the most response. We’ll continue to collaborate with our local artist friends and work collectively. We understand the advantage of having a web of collective thoughts.
SOTRU: Who are some of the artists that you have worked with?
BB: Mostly our friends, who are the movers in town. Chad Landenberg, who developed our logo and text. John O’Brian, who’s been a huge help in getting our website developed at his work, Go Fresh Design!
Mark George, our good buddy is really fun to work with and has been a big success at our weekly arts market.
SOTRU: Do you ever plan to offer a more “economical” bag?
BB: Our initial intent was offering a bag that wouldn’t hurt your funds. It’s fittingly called the Broke Ass. It’s made of at least one layer of recycled billboard or entirely. It’s the same design as our original line, without the added features of Velcro, reinforcements and interior pockets. Its bare bones, to the point bag at a good price and give you that good green feeling. It’s almost like buying and dedicating a tree on Arbor Day, you’ve saved a portion of the landfill! Ha-ha.
SOTRU: Thanks Matt. Feel free to include anything that you feel is relevant to Burro Bags and additionally, anything about you guys in the context of a Jacksonville based business. Take care.
BB: If we’re not at our shop, we’re probably around the corner supporting our favorite boozehole, Shantytown Pub. We can’t thank all the people that have stepped foot in our warehouse enough! Tony Allegretti, most importantly, for providing us with the best time of our lives thus far and Burrito Gallery keeps our stomachs full. Mucho gracias a mi familia!