As Tobbi Stager puts it, JS Print Group is bigger on the inside. And it's getting bigger.

The owner of the unassuming print shop on Superior Street in Lincoln Park has invested more than $1.3 million in technology and employees in recent months as the business has expanded across the entire building at the corner of 20th Avenue West.

Things are moving quickly, and that's not just the flexo printer spinning out labels for Blacklist beer cans or stickers for Northern Waters Smokehaus sandwiches. JS Print Group is also now a union shop, and its in-house capabilities have grown dramatically.

"We used 400 pounds of ink last month — that's a lot of ink for a little shop," Stager said. "We're very fortunate."

Stager's vision is to be a responsible employer — "careers, not just jobs" — and to set high standards for the printing craft in the Lincoln Park Craft District. Though the business is now in its seventh year, in many ways things are just getting started.

"We just turned on the electricity in March," said plant manager Shane Simonette. "We're still learning every day and getting up and running."

Almost everything

On Tuesday afternoon, stacks of envelopes printed for the St. Louis County Attorney's Office awaited the glossy mailers around the corner — all printed and designed in-house.

For much of its first six years in business, JS Print Group was primarily a broker, connecting projects with manufacturers elsewhere.

Now JS Print Group can do nearly all of what clients ask for, Stager said as he walked from one machine to the next, most of them acquired this year.

"It's not about being the biggest, it's about being the absolute best at what we can do," he said.

He's quick to point out that the shop still can't quite handle everything, but with his and Simonette's experience in the business they know where to get jobs finished.

"We still broker a lot, but we had a million impressions last month," Stager said. "The biggest thing is you want to work with a company who's going to treat you the way you want to be treated."

JS Print Group owner Tobbi Stager talks about the business while standing behind some of the print jobs the firm handled. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
JS Print Group owner Tobbi Stager talks about the business while standing behind some of the print jobs the firm handled. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Local work

A dozen employees buzzed around the office Tuesday as Scout and Teddy announced the arrival of the occasional visitors. The diminutive doormen — dogs that combined weigh maybe 16 pounds — are part of the office culture that takes the job seriously, with a smile.

One part cubicles, one part manufacturing floor, a passerby may not be able to guess what goes on inside. They've said as much.

"We recently put up the sign, and already we've had people come in and say, 'We didn't even know you existed,'" Simonette said.

Some window decorations are planned to bring some color and visibility to the corner — in addition to the mural on the avenue side of the building. The building itself will remain a work in progress as the work takes precedence, Stager said.

Pushing aside a box of donuts from Johnson's Bakery, Stager spread a number of work samples on the conference table — many of them from local accounts like the Duluth Grill cookbook and the Duluth Whiskey Project labels.

Those labels, made possible by the new flexo printer, represent a new opportunity for JS Print Group and for breweries and other businesses who want to keep their printing local.

"Printing is not a commodity," Stager said. "Our little business is here to make a positive difference in our area."

Already Stager is thinking about growing and sustaining his workforce by reaching out to high school students, something manufacturers of many stripes are increasingly doing in a tight labor market that Baby Boomers are retiring from in droves.

"We're going to teach you how to respect the craft, make a living and be proud to live here, to support a family and have a good quality of life," Stager said. "I'm proud to cultivate the industry."

JS Print Group owner Tobbi Stager recently purchased the two-story building (left) on North 20th Avenue West behind the mural-decorated building that houses his print company. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
JS Print Group owner Tobbi Stager recently purchased the two-story building (left) on North 20th Avenue West behind the mural-decorated building that houses his print company. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Elsewhere in the Craft District

Stager and a business partner recently purchased a nearby building on 20th Avenue that is now home to DLH Clothing, graphic designer Bree Thompson and, soon, Lake It.

"It's fun to be in the middle of it all and be right there," said Thompson, who moved in last month. "Within the year I've been in the area at least 11 other businesses have opened up."

While much of the business boom in the Lincoln Park Craft District has been concentrated in one part of one block, the growth is spreading down the street and up the avenues.

"So much of the activity in Lincoln Park has been centered on the 1900 block because that has had such a radical change," said Shannon Laing, director of partnership development at Ecolibrium3. "Lincoln Park is more than just West Superior Street."

Stager is renovating the four apartments above his new building and looks with pride at his contribution to the resurgent business district.

"I'm trying to develop that in a positive light," he said. "It's come a long ways. The whole area has. It's getting better every day."