Category: Central

2021_L’Auberge Provençale

L’Auberge Provençale

Clark County inn survives the pandemic

Secured $231,000 in grants and other income.

Forty years ago, Alain and Celeste Borel used ingenuity and hard work to convert a “broken down Virginia farmhouse” into a first-class French country inn. That ingenuity, along with support from the Lord Fairfax SBDC, helped the Clark County innkeepers survive a pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, our inn shut down like everybody else,” Celeste says. About that time, Celeste received a call from Lord Fairfax SBDC Center Director Christine Kriz. “The SBDC had grant money to help small businesses with marketing and advertising,” Celeste recalls. “Christine contacted me to see if she could help. We accepted her offer and worked with the SBDC on several marketing projects.” The marketing strategy included a video and flyers. “We used flyers to get the word out,” Celeste explains. “Yes, we’re open, and we’re COVID safe!”

The innkeepers literally turned the tables to reassure guests. “We put tables from the restaurant in guest rooms so people would feel safe while enjoying our amenities,” Celeste relates. “We also put tables in the grass, on the terrace, and on the porch. We changed up the way we did things to make people feel comfortable.”

Pandemic challenges, Celeste notes, were reminiscent of the obstacles the couple faced 40 years ago, when they purchased what was then known as Mt. Airy. “There were ‘groundhog condominiums’ all over the place when we bought it,” she says, referring to the vast underground networks the vermin had created over the years. “Basically, the whole property was in need of loving care.” Undeterred by the many renovation challenges, the couple transformed Mt. Airy into an intimate, 11-room inn with dining space, featuring three- and five-course meals. The result was, as one reviewer described it, “a true French countryside experience right here in America.”

The many challenges and final success of Mt. Airy helped remind Alain and Celeste that all was not lost. Yet, closing the inn because of the pandemic was still difficult for them. Fortunately, that shutdown was short-lived. “We closed in March, but by June we were doing very well,” Celeste says. “Advertising a COVID-safe experience in the country brought guests back. We’re very appreciative of the SBDC’s help.”

In addition to marketing assistance, the SBDC offered tutorials on applying for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other government assistance. “The SBDC kept us informed on how to weave our way through all the US Small Business Administration requirements,” Celeste notes.

Celeste continues to value her SBDC connections. “The SBDC knows people, and if you need a project done, they will connect you,” she says. “I think that’s very valuable.”

That value was apparent in the inn’s year-end financial report. “By the end of the COVID year in 2020, we recovered more than we made the previous year,” Celeste concludes. “The SBDC definitely helped make that happen.”

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Delany Products

SBDC networking connects Delany Products to future success

Received COVID financial assistance; featured in Virginia Business.

Delany Products, a plumbing products manufacturer since 1879, needed a makeover. “We had multiple issues as we entered the 2000s,” Scott Delany says of his company. “We had not adapted well to globalization, and as a result our business had started to dwindle.”

Adding to Scott’s problems, the price of copper, a major component of plumbing products, rose dramatically. “We started to lose money hand over fist,” Scott continues. “We closed our foundry and laid off three quarters of our workforce. It became obvious that the only path forward was restructuring.” That restructure involved a complete shift from manufacturing to outsourcing.

“Currently, Delany Products does research and design in house and depends on outside suppliers to make product components,” Scott explains. “We still do 100 percent of the assembly and final operational testing.”

The company was moving ahead with its outsourcing model; then COVID hit. Fortunately for Delany Products, when the pandemic arrived, so did the Central Virginia SBDC. “When the pandemic struck, Rebecca Haydock at the SBDC called to see if she could help,” Scott recalls. “We immediately said — ‘sounds great!’”

The Central Virginia SBDC Center Director put the Delany team in touch with a marketing firm to assist with the launch of its new product, TruStop, a patented innovation that reduces maintenance costs for institutional toilets. “The Fellows Group, now our marketing firm, did a complete update of our website,” Scott says.

In addition to the marketing assistance, Rebecca connected Scott with Aaron Miller, the Virginia SBDC’s Director of International Business Development. “Aaron had students from George Mason University do a study of potential markets,” Scott says. “We’ll explore those markets once we build our sales for TruStop in the United States. We really believe TruStop will be a game changer for us.”

Rebecca also offered help with applications for COVID assistance. “We applied for everything we could to keep us afloat during the pandemic,” Scott notes. “Rebecca helped us through all the confusion. Additionally, she put us in touch with Lisa Wood at the Procurement Technical Assistance Center who’s trying to locate government contracts for us.”

With a restructured business model in place and a new product on the market, Scott is hopeful about the future. “Right now, our backlog list is huge because of supply-chain issues,” he comments. “Once that clears up, things will change. Business is already better than last year.”

Scott says Rebecca and the SBDC team were at the right place at the right time to make things happen for his company. “The SBDC helped us out at a very critical time during the pandemic,” Scott concludes. “Rebecca Haydock and the SBDC are a great resource.”

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Wall-Lift Inc.

Wall-Lift Inc.

Innovation leads to international business for Wall-Lift

Achieved more than 100% growth in domestic and international sales

When Mark Helmuth first invented the Wall-Lift in 2005, it was purely out of necessity. As a contractor, he needed a safer and more efficient way to raise walls, so he built a device to do the heavy lifting for him and his crew, literally.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” Mark says. “I had a need to set walls, and the methods that were out there didn’t quite meet my specs. I thought about it, went out and got the components, and within a week and a half I had it all together. On the first job, it worked great.”

That first use quickly turned into dozens. After his fellow contractors saw the machine in action, requests to build more began to filter in. At the urging of a friend in 2016, Mark filed for a patent and began exploring the process of setting up Wall-Lift as a business. His banker referred him to the SBDC center in the Shenandoah Valley and Rockingham area where Allison Dugan’s team helped Mark establish Wall-Lift Inc.

“The SBDC walked me through a lot of things,” Mark says. “I took a lot of the courses they offered, they hooked me up with some shipping guys, and they helped me put together some brochures and marketing,” he adds. He also participated in the Virginia SBDC Network’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP) to learn about customer discovery and how to match your product to your customers’ needs.

But Mark’s partnership with the SBDC didn’t end there. This past spring, Mark discovered a video of his Wall-Lift posted by what Mark wrote on Instagram, was “an icon of the framing world.” The SBDC was there to help Mark double down on the power of viral marketing in this unique situation.

That video, which has since generated nearly 400,000 views, led to an exponential increase in orders for Wall-Lift almost overnight. Mark has nearly doubled sales from last year already and, with help from the Virginia SBDC Network’s International Business Development Director Aaron Miller, he has shipped as far as Australia, England, Norway, and South Korea. The distribution channels the SBDC helped him establish have paid dividends during that growth — as have partnerships the SBDC helped him secure with two dealers who now sell Wall-Lift.

“I got a large United States map, and I put pins where every sale went so I can see what’s going on,” Mark recalls. “Early on, I saw that if I made one sale in one area, it’s not long before you have two or three more in that same area. That’s when I realized this wasn’t a bad product because it’s selling itself,” adds Mark.

As Wall-Lift continues to grow, Mark finds the SBDC to be a reliable ally in his corner. Sales for the product have doubled every year, ballooning from fewer than 10 in his first year to more than 200 units already sold in 2021. He sold eight in one day and 52 in a single month — records he says he wouldn’t be surprised to see broken.

“[The SBDC] asked me, how big do you want to go? I said that if we got to the point where we could sell two a week, that would be great,” Mark says. “Now we’re way past that.”

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SPARC Research

Aerospace firm takes off with the SBDC’s help

SPARC received a $5.5 million SBA and bank loan.

When the company Dr. Patrick Hewitt worked for relocated outside of Virginia, Patrick didn’t want to leave the “for lovers” Commonwealth. He decided to stay behind and start his own business, and SPARC Research, formed in 2017, was the result.

Four years later, Patrick’s aerospace engineering firm is literally taking off in Fauquier County. “We’re excited to have a leader in advanced missile and rocket propulsion development like SPARC Research in our commonwealth,” Governor Ralph Northam commented in a May 2021 press release.

It’s obvious that Patrick knows the rocket propulsion business well. “I had the advantage of being involved in the industry for 34 years at my previous company,” he notes.

SPARC Research started operations in 2018 in a leased office in Warrenton. “We outgrew that office last year,” Patrick says. Currently, SPARC Research is operating in a temporary location, awaiting the construction of a 20,000-square-foot office and manufacturing facility in Fauquier County. “We’re designing 10,000 square feet as an open manufacturing space,” Patrick explains. “The other half of the building, with 50 offices, will be engineering.”

Securing a $5.5 million loan from the US Small Business Administration and The Fauquier Bank for the project was also a major undertaking. That’s when Patrick turned to the Lord Fairfax SBDC for assistance.

“I had drafted a business plan, but I’m an engineer,” he says. “The plan I put together was not something a banker would appreciate. Cort Maddox, business advisor at the Loudoun SBDC, helped put it together in a more accounting-type form,” Patrick adds.

Once the business loan was secured, the SBDC advised Patrick on advantageous ways to work with state and county agencies. “The county offers incentives for permits and fees,” Patrick continues. “The SBDC helped us maximize those incentives. Christine Kriz, Center Director of the Lord Fairfax SBDC, was the consistent thread in this.”

Patrick continues to appreciate the assistance received from the SBDC. “The SBDC helped us make sure we had everything in place when we approached the SBA for our loan,” he says. “The SBDC also provided advice on how to work with state and local governments to get our project off the ground and make it successful,” says Patrick.

Patrick is already looking to the future. “We have a strong intern program in place,” Patrick says. “What I see for the future is mentoring — bringing up the next generation in propulsion.” Also, in that future, Patrick sees the SBDC.

“I have a good grasp of my own industry but welcome help on the business side,” Patrick admits. “The SBDC has been extremely responsive — I would absolutely recommend them.”

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Wooden Spoon

The Wooden Spoon

The Wooden Spoon: Feeding the body and nourishing the soul

Received a $50,000 small business loan.

Yvette Daniel opened The Wooden Spoon in Richmond in 2018, motivated by one unflinching principle: to provide cuisine that was as healthy and nourishing for her customers as it was tasty.

“When you feed the body, you nourish the soul,” Yvette explains. “All of the food here is made from high-quality, organic ingredients — all of it. I grew up in Spain, and food there is all about being authentic and clean and is made from very good, quality ingredients. Everything is made from scratch. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love.” For Yvette, that includes everything from imported Spanish olive oil and butter, to locally sourced meat and organic eggs from free-range Virginia farms. While these ingredients are the hallmark of The Wooden Spoon’s unique cuisine, they aren’t cheap.

Early on, as a fledgling small business committed to quality, The Wooden Spoon struggled to keep up with expenses. That’s when Yvette got in touch with the Capital Region SBDC, and her advisor, Rodney Williams, scheduled a site visit.

“I ended up writing Rodney at the SBDC, asking how they could help, and he wrote back saying that he was at my restaurant two weeks ago and it was amazing,” Yvette says. “He came in, we met, and he helped me with everything. He very quickly got me approved for a small business loan of $50,000, which helped a lot.”

That loan provided Yvette with the capital to keep The Wooden Spoon afloat in its early days while also allowing her to maintain her commitment to providing fresh, high-quality meals. “The small loan was amazing,” she adds. “It helped me cover some very important expenses I had, so I was super grateful for that grant.”

Now, more than three years after opening, The Wooden Spoon has built a loyal customer base, which Yvette believes is heavily influenced by her restaurant’s emphasis on quality over quantity and the sanctity of a good meal shared among friends and family.

“I teach my staff to learn our customers’ names. We don’t rush people,” she explains. “Our customers can stay as long as they want. I don’t want to turn over tables; I want people to enjoy themselves.” As word gets around about Yvette’s health-focused cooking, more people can do just that at The Wooden Spoon.

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Caroline Thomason Nutrition Consulting

Nutrition coach uses new business model for the win

Sales increased from a low six-figure to high seven-figure range in five months.

On a whim, Caroline Thomason called the Shenandoah Valley SBDC last year. Today, she’s operating a nutrition coaching practice in the five-figure range. “On paper, all the odds were against starting a business during the pandemic,” Caroline admits.

She decided to do it anyway. “Somehow I just knew the time was right,” she adds. “I’d always wanted my own business. My plan was to go full-fledged into private practice with nutrition coaching.”

Caroline called the Shenandoah SBDC, and Business Analyst Don Crawford returned her call the same day. “We’ve been talking every other week since then,” Caroline says.

Early on, Caroline learned not to follow her inclination to jump the gun. “From the start, Don hit home by emphasizing the importance of having an organized financial plan,” Caroline says. “He helped me lay the foundation for the systems I use in my business today.”

Starting a business during the pandemic, Caroline notes, did have one advantage: telehealth. “Virtual visits were very accepted at that time, which was amazing for me,” she marvels.

Caroline began by developing a plan she believes helped her business grow so quickly. “I started doing memberships — like monthly gym memberships,” Caroline explains. “That gave my clients a more personalized service, and it was more flexible for all of us.”

It was, in Caroline’s words, “a huge hit.”

“Don and I crafted the membership plan together,” Caroline relates. “The SBDC helped me understand the membership model and how it was used in other industries. With the SBDC’s help, I was able to grow my business from a low six-figure to a high seven-figure range in five months.”

“I really think the SBDC’s help with my membership plan allowed the business to take off so fast,” Caroline says. “I was able to leave my full-time job after five months.”

Caroline is happy to recommend the SBDC to others considering a business venture, and plans to continue her relationship with them for the foreseeable future. “I feel like Don Crawford at the SBDC is my best friend,” Caroline concludes. “The SBDC has been with me from the beginning; just knowing they are there is extremely comforting.”

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Great Harvest Bread Company

Baking A Miracle: Bakery brings hope during pandemic

Received a PPP loan and retained 29 jobs

The happiest day of Pablo Teodoro’s life was the day he was fired. “I was overwhelmed with happiness, because I was sure it was the beginning of something really exciting,” he says. “I had this strange certainty that I was going to start a business and that it was going to be amazing.” Little did he know that this day would lead him to giving life-saving help to his community in the midst of COVID-19.

Already seasoned in management and inspired by his own ideas, Pablo spent roughly two years focusing on running a small farm, learning about monoculture farming and sustainable agriculture, and exploring the ins-and-outs of selling his products to local farmers markets. Then fate led Pablo to discover the Great Harvest Bread Company. Founded in Montana by a free-thinking, free-living couple, according to Pablo, the company’s values mirrored his own, and the freedom and flexibility it offered its franchisees is what drew him.

“We get to become a community bakery. We get to sell food that people in Warrenton want to eat,” Pablo says. “We have a stone mill in the basement, and we mill our own flour. Just like eating a fresh apple or drinking a fresh ground cup of coffee, everything here tastes rich, full, and exciting in a way that other bakeries cannot reproduce.”

Pablo and his new franchise, Great Harvest, have developed a relationship with Lord Fairfax SBDC Director Christine Kriz, powered by mutual motivation and excitement. “Christine understands our struggles. She made a big difference by making practical and inspirational differences in our local business community,” he adds. She connected Pablo with Cort Maddox, a business advisor at the Lord Fairfax SBDC, and they meet monthly for business coaching. “I will give Cort an update,” Pablo explains. “He will point out things, provide statistics, and tell me if he thinks I am on the wrong track.”

When the pandemic hit, Great Harvest found itself in a very difficult spot. On the verge of closure, Pablo made a bold move: he continued to bake bread. Then a viral Facebook post opened the gates to a demand for over 5,300 loaves of bread for food banks and others in need. Donations to offset the cost of ingredients began to roll in, and things began to turn around for the small corner bakery. “We were baking hundreds of loaves of bread a day. Customers were coming in droves. People were also requesting the ingredients — which gave us the money to afford to bake bread for the food banks.”

Finding a warm heart in the midst of the strange times has grown Pablo’s business and especially his spirit. “Although I know that COVID is overall a tragedy in terms of illness and death, it has also provided unexpected miracles and unexpected blessing,” Pablo says. “We are on a better footing than we’ve ever been.”

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Local Eats, Palmyra

Local Eats

Foodies in Fluvanna feast on local foods

Increased sales by 40%

Amy Myer wanted to open her own local food store and restaurant in Fluvanna County, but she knew she needed help figuring out the details. She connected with the Central Virginia SBDC and Diane Arnold, an experienced SBDC Business Counselor, who helped Amy with market research, resource connections, and acted as someone to bounce ideas off of. “She was awesome,” Amy says. “She knows her stuff, and she wants to see her people succeed.”

Diane helped Amy make her dream a reality. She reviewed the lease, visited the prospective site, and helped Amy write her business plan. “There were so many little things I wouldn’t have known,” Amy enthuses. “She knew all the ins and outs.”

Local Eats, which carries locally-sourced foods from Fluvanna and across the region, has definitely become a success. Amy has developed quite a following among the foodies in Fluvanna, particularly in Lake Monticello, the major subdivision nearby. She now has two part-time employees, and has even expanded to delivery service. 

Even after the intensive support in the start-up phase, Diane continued to add value for Amy. “She has all the connections,” Amy says. “Anytime she comes across opportunities or gets her hands-on information that can be helpful, she always reaches out to me.” That included scheduling Amy for a meeting with a retail specialist from the Virginia SBDC State Office and connecting her with the SBDC Quad County Pitch Competition. 

Amy continues to refine her vision of expanding, and when the time comes, she plans to call on the wise advice of Diane and the resources of the SBDC.

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Rappahannock Hunt, Culpeper

Rappahannock Hunt

Getting a good rapp

Received over $40,000 in SBA loans

Baying of hounds rings out across a rich, green field. A deer and her fawn, surprised, raise their heads from a nearby stream, before quickly slipping into the woods. From the forest, a pack of yelping and panting dogs splash into the stream, followed shortly by riders on horseback dressed in scarlet coats and small black hats.

You haven’t been transported in time. The year is 2020, and this is one of Rappahannock Hunt’s regular hunts.

Rappahannock Hunt (RH) was formed in 1926, and the year 2020 marks its 94th birthday. Officially considered a 501(c) (7) social club, RH includes Culpeper, Madison, and Rappahannock counties in its territory of about 384,000 acres. According to club treasurer Mary Foley, “The club was formed in the Old English tradition. It meets several times a week to ride our horses and work the hounds.”

Even without a formal brick-and-mortar location, costs are involved. RH leases space on a large farm to house and feed all the hounds. They also pay a full-time caregiver to look after the animals.

The hunts themselves are held throughout the breathtaking foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “We hunt on various land at the invitation of the landowner,” Mary explains. “We are always careful to follow the boundary of the plowed land. We only go where we are invited to go. We have established ourselves as a familiar sight to landowners, and we want to make sure that they want us to continue to come.”

Mary says the fox hunting rituals of the club are a huge part of the draw for many. “We have traditions and certain apparel that we wear. It’s organized and civil. Fox hunting follows a very specific protocol. Because it’s a club, people are of like background and enthusiasm.” 

Despite its outdoor, socially-distanced nature, COVID-19 still delivered a savage blow to RH by debilitating its capacity to hold any fundraisers. In a typical year, the club’s income would be comprised of half club dues and membership fees, and half fundraising from events. But with the rise of COVID-19, events like the hunter pace, trail rides, and even the signature steeplechase event had to be called off. 

RH reached out to the Culpeper SBDC and Advisor David Reardon for a much-needed lifeline. Dave helped Mary and Rappahannock Hunt successfully apply for Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster (EIDL) loans.

Mary says the sense of relief and reassurance she has felt working with Dave was palpable. “It was a relief and a godsend to be able to participate in those loan programs,” Mary says. “Dave and his family are grounded in the community. He is just a delightful man. The leadership he brought was appreciated, and we enjoyed the soup-to-nuts service. He was truly a real godsend.” 

Knowing that 50 foxhounds will be well kept in their kennels and cared for because the ongoing monthly expenses are covered is no small thing for Rappahannock Hunt. “To have the SBA loans in the bank is a godsend. Because there are too many unknowns in the future, we are not taking any of this for granted.” 

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Mercury Communications LLC, Cross Junction

Mercury Communications LLC

Connect the call: Communications company sees success

Increased sales by 284%

You could say that Norman Thompson is used to having his head in the clouds —  it’s his specialty. 

After 17 years in the Air Force as a Satellite Communications Craftsman, Norman worked 13 years as an engineering manager for satellite giant Echo Star. It was clear that Thompson had found his niche, but he “just didn’t want to stagnate,” Norman recalls. “I really wanted to figure out a way that I could go my own way with the skills and abilities that I had.” 

Norman began to explore the possibility of starting a business. He sought help at the Lord Fairfax SBDC, where he was connected with Center Director Christine Kriz. With so much technical knowledge in so many areas, Norman struggled with which services he should highlight. During a conversation with Christine, Norman hit on what would become the true focus of Mercury Communications LLC.

“Christine was saying something about how poor her cell service was and how it was like that for many of her friends and neighbors. She says ‘If you can do something about that, it would be huge,’” Norman relates. Installing passive Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) in residential, commercial, and areas with large-scale operations became Mercury Communications’ business model. Passive DAS systems are essentially cellular-signal-boosting infrastructures that are built on-site. During COVID-19, with thousands learning and working remotely, this moment has been well-timed for Norman. “It’s caught on fire,” he says. “Christine helped me to focus on what the client wanted and needed.”

Christine provided what Norman calls a “very flexible way of thinking” that was quite helpful. As a result, Mercury Communications has increased sales by 284% in 2020. Christine also helped Mercury establish critical GSA contracts. 

In addition to residential and commercial, both the government and military felt the brunt of COVID-19 in unexpected ways. It became another area where Norman has stepped in. He enthusiastically describes installing a DAS system on an aircraft carrier where soldiers were quarantined, which provided working cellular connections to the outside world for servicemen and women who were away from their families. 

When he reflects on life before Mercury, Norman says, “I wasn’t feeling challenged. Satellite communications is more like Formula One, and cellular is more like NASCAR. There’s more passion in it.” 

As the modern world rushes toward a more virtually-integrated society, the sky remains the limit for Norman Thompson and Mercury Communications. Since he’s a pro at navigating the sky from below, he’ll be ready for what comes next. “We’ll see what the future holds,” Norman says with a smile, “and go from there.”

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