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Subscription boxes offer specialty goods--and surprises

Buyers are taking to subscription boxes for a variety of reasons, from getting hard-to-find, unique and local products, to just getting a surprise in the mail (a goody box can even make a visit to a garden a special occasion).

When Calgary real estate agent Joel Semmens peered into the stylishly wrapped box delivered to his door two months ago, he was an instant fan. He’s now giving the subscription box, created by local entrepreneur Karen Anderson, to select clients.

“She’s used beautiful labelling and packaging--really boutique styling,” said Semmens, who has since sampled Anderson’s pancake-making box as well as the chocolate edition.

Ten years after Semmens helped Anderson sell her home, she got in touch to let him know about her new venture and that it might be a good gift for his clients. 

“Everything is Alberta-made," said Semmens, who reports that giving an Eat Alberta First subscription box to a client builds rapport and gives them a taste of what's available in Calgary. 

“It’s cool for an Alberta company to support our local proprietors and products, especially when things are opening again,” he said.

An award-winning cookbook author and food writer, Anderson had started Alberta Food Tours in 2006 to support local businesses, food growers and the artisans who help sustain them. Then the pandemic hit and “our beloved business ground to a halt”, explained Anderson on her website.

“Seeing people isolated and no longer able to connect guests with Alberta's food scene, our idea for good old-fashioned care packages came into being,” she said, pointing to the Eat Alberta First online store she created to fill boxes with Alberta ingredients and recipes for pickup or mail delivery. Her latest edition--the 'Foraged Flavours' box, includes Pei Pei Chei Ow's haskap berry jam and Fifth Gen Gardens of Wetaskiwin's garlic dip mix, among other local goodies.

Subscription boxes have seen a surge in popularity in the past decade and the pandemic has only amplified that. Ontario based Lee and Maria’s, for instance, increased its farm produce deliveries to 26,000 subscribers in 2020 from 12,000 the year before.

Likewise, Quebec-based Trouvailles has found success with pandemic-stymied travelers through its bi-monthly subscription box highlighting a travel spot. Six to eight authentic local items from a destination (Indonesia, for example) offer food items, accessories, home decor etc.

According to, U.S. online retail sales were almost 10% of the market in 2018. Canada’s was 2.8% and growing. Mallory Yawnghwe's Indigenous Box, launched a few months ago, is part of the surge.

After getting her business degree at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Yawnghwe's consulting work for Indigenous Enterprises made her recognize an untapped potential. 

“I saw an opportunity to champion Indigenous products and entrepreneurs,” said Yawnghwe, who is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in east central Alberta. “Also for our kids; that they could see the opportunities there.”

Though still a small venture, Indigenous Box is flourishing. The 'summer celebration' box went on sale June 1 and sold out within four days.

While attending the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership program in Nova Scotia last fall, Yawnghwe connected with Indigenous artisans and entrepreneurs from around the country. After winning a $5,000 startup award through the Young Entrepreneurs Symposium in B.C. in early 2021, she got a business license by March and was shipping boxes soon afterward.  

“We hit the ground running," Yawnghwe said of the seasonal boxes, each filled with five to seven products from Indigenous small businesses. Ojibway Natural of Ontario, Bangin' Bannock of B.C. and Mother Earth Essentials from Edmonton are some of the makers showcased.

“The Indigenous demographic is the fastest growing in Canada, four times the general population, with many more Indigenous businesses starting up. This helps promote them," said Yawnghwe. 

For a box that shouts picnic in the sun, the University of Alberta’s Botanic Garden is the place to go. During the pandemic, staff brainstormed on ways for people to get together safely. The result is The Brunch Box, which extends a garden visit experience and promotes Alberta business at the same time.

“How can we make a visit to the garden go from great to spectacular? Delicious food is one way to increase that happiness quotient,” said Kerry Mulholland, Botanic Garden communications and marketing coordinator. 

Popular items in the Brunch Box are a ham and gruyere croissant and mushroom and asiago quiche, while desserts include fruit yogurt parfait and chocolate passionfruit choux. Creations are from Chocorrant, Arno’s Fine French Pastry and Country Market Gourmet Foods, with box proceeds going to the local producer or supplier.  Visitors to the Botanic Garden can pre-order the Brunch Box online and pick it up near the entrance to enjoy anywhere in the garden.



Some winners of the 2020 Canadian Subscription Box Awards include: Simply Beautiful Box (BC Living Magazine), Naked Snacks (Richmond BC), Sweet Reads Box (Ontario) and Extraordinary Man Box (BC Living Magazine).


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