A decade ago, pretty much the only people buying paper drinking straws were the moms who would someday post pictures of their kids' birthday parties on Pinterest.
Dave Hooe saw an opportunity to serve that niche market, so he created Aardvark Straws.
It wasn't much of a stretch because the president and CEO of Precision Products Group was able to rely on the 1888 original paper straw patent received by the company's founder, Marvin Stone.
What Hooe didn't realize was that he had captured lightning in a soda pop bottle. In the past year, demand for paper straws has skyrocketed amid growing concern that plastic straws harm wildlife and pollute the environment. Aardvark ramped up production to three shifts, started hiring almost weekly but still can't keep up.
The company's trajectory took another sharp turn Monday morning, when a Wisconsin firm that makes premium paper napkins and other disposable dining items acquired Aardvark Straws for an undisclosed sum.
Hoffmaster Group Inc., which is owned by New York private equity firm Wellspring Capital Management, sees the business as a natural extension of what it already produces. Hooe, who was approached by multiple companies, agreed.
Andy Romjue, Hoffmaster's food service division president, said the first step is to expand capacity, which means bringing in more equipment. Officials are examining the existing layout in space leased in International Park, site of the former historic International Harvester truck plant.
And they aren't wasting time.
“We need to aggressively ramp capacity up over the next six months,” he said during a phone interview.
Although Romjue was reluctant to disclose hiring projections, he said there's potential to more than double the current workforce of about 60.
Hooe, the former Aardvark executive, will leave the business. But production workers will remain.
“I love the brand. I love the employees, and they have a great future ahead of them,” he said during a phone interview.
Numerous companies, including Starbucks, Walt Disney and McDonald's have announced plans to stop buying plastic straws. Some communities have also banned their use, including Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver.
Romjue said Aardvark's contracts with some major customers include terms that prevent disclosing their names. But Hooe said sales lines there have been jammed.
“We've had inquiries from just about any large, multinational corporation you can think of,” he said, adding that Aardvark produces millions of straws each day and ships to customers throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Asia.
A local public service announcement discourages people from using plastic straws. In the televised spots, some local people are shown being hit in the face by a rubber fish while drinking from a plastic straw.
The victims include Stephen J. Bailey, a local marketing executive. He said Jodi Leamon from Allen County Department of Environmental Management dreamed up the spots.
“She is really trying to raise awareness about how a small change (not using straws) can have a big change on our local and global environment,” Bailey said in an email.
Precision Products Group Inc. will continue to employ about 185 in plants in Fort Wayne, northern Ohio and southern China, Hooe said. The industrial-focused company makes square and rectangular tubes for transformer cores and electrical-grade fuses.