With the help of The Addison County Independent, ACEDC was able to highlight a few of the many success stories we have from helping local businesses whether it is through our Revolving Loan Fund, receiving business advice, or guidance for grant writing.
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BRISTOL — Kevin Harper started out as a hopeful entrepreneur in 1977, making organic lip products in his kitchen in Ripton. Over the next 24 years, Harper expanded his idea into what became Autumn Harp, a multi-million-dollar company with more than 75 full-time employees.
Autumn Harp was relocated from Harper’s kitchen to a larger space in 1982, and again to a facility on Pine Street in Bristol a decade later. Finally in 2010, Autumn Harp Incorporated and moved to its current location in Essex Junction.
Although Harper was pleased to see the growth of his start-up, he ultimately decided to sell the company in 2001 to its current owner, David Logan.
“Twenty-four years was a long time,” Harper said in a recent interview. “I was 50 years old and wanted a change. It was time to give myself and my investors a return on their investments and for me to try something else.”
Harper’s new project was taking over the Bristol Bakery on Main Street in Bristol, and opening another branch of the restaurant in Hinesburg. During his time as owner of the Bristol Bakery, Harper decided to open a commercial-grade bakery in a portion of what had been the Autumn Harp facility on Bristol’s Pine Street.
In 2010, Harper partnered with three other local investors to buy the 5.5 acres of commercial space and redevelop the property.
From there, Harper served as the managing partner of Bristol Works!, a project aimed at transforming the former Autumn Harp campus into a business park. Harper began leasing a 12,500-square-foot portion of this facility in 2010 and transformed it into a commissary kitchen.
The location at 74 Munsill Ave. in Bristol was initially used to supply baked goods for Harper’s restaurants, though over time the commissary expanded to serve other institutions throughout the state before becoming a private label production company.
BAKERY TO PRIVATE LABEL
Harper explained the transition from supplying his restaurants to a standalone business.
“We were a commissary to supply our own restaurants (for several years), and then we were a wholesale bakery that was selling to Hannaford’s, Middlebury College,” he said. “A few years ago we committed to what’s generally referred to as a private label manufacturing business in the baked goods category.”
Harper’s company became known as Bristol Bakery Wholesale, though the company is currently looking to rebrand after Harper sold the Bristol Bakery & Café in Hinesburg to new ownership in early November.
“Calling this wholesale factory ‘Bristol Bakery’ is kind of a misnomer,” said Harper, noting that the company is currently raising funds in part to finance this rebranding mission.
The switch from commissary kitchen to private label company was made in part due to the challenges of running a commercial bakery. In order to keep up with demand as a bakery, employees needed to work long hours through the night to supply his two bakeries for the breakfast rush and Harper struggled to find people willing to do the work.
Making the switch to private label manufacturing allowed Harper’s employees to work easier hours and specialize in making specific types of baked goods.
Bristol Bakery Wholesale chose to specialize in cookies and crackers, with the company’s first customer being Castleton Crackers, a mom-and-pop business based in Castleton. The wholesale facility continued to work with small, family-run businesses throughout New England, but Harper said ultimately Bristol Bakery Wholesale needed to expand past working with small businesses in order to grow.
LOOKING FOR GROWTH
“It became clear to me in 2019 that they’re great friendships and relationships, but we’re not making any money,” the 69-year-old business owner said. “We became extremely focused on finding customers who were at that next level. Companies that are better financed, that can afford to grow, and who are already at higher volumes and have opportunities to go much higher still.”
Today, Bristol Bakery Wholesale specializes even more exclusively in non-traditional, gluten-free baked goods. The choice to do so was made in part because the gluten-free baked goods market is less competitive than its gluten counterpart, and Bristol Bakery Wholesale is able to offer its customers ingredients that are non-GMO certified and organic.
Four years after transitioning into private-label manufacturing, Harper says Bristol Bakery Wholesale is growing rapidly and looking to hire more employees.
“We now have manufacturing contracts with some very fast-growing brands and we are reconfiguring our entire facility with additional automation in order to meet these needs. We will likely be tripling our sales in 2021 and have grown to over 40 staff already,” Harper said. “We are currently raising capital to accommodate that growth trajectory and are hoping to attract additional staff members in the near future to grow with us.”
Due to this growth, the bakery has had to purchase additional equipment to keep up with the demand. Harper said the business has shifted toward automation, purchasing machines to do the monotonous tasks that were previously done by employees. Trained machine operators are needed to work alongside these machines, and Harper said he is looking to hire employees that are able to fill that role.
“Prior to buying that (pouch-filling) machine, we were hand-filling trays. You have to take 15, or however many, cookies, fit them on a tray, and you put it on a scale,” said Harper. “Automation is our answer ultimately, as is a more sophisticated, specialized workforce that wants to learn this stuff.”
EXPENSIVE MACHINERY/USEFUL GRANTS
The machinery needed to automate Bristol Bakery Wholesale’s assembly line is expensive, but Harper and his team had built a solid relationship with one of their customers who gave them a commitment to a certain volume of baked goods and agreed to pay 30 percent upfront to help finance the pouch-filling machine.
That commitment gave Harper the confidence needed to invest in other equipment through help from the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC). The ACEDC won Harper’s business a $15,000 Buildings and General Services (BGS) grant from the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services’ Building Communities Program.
These grant funds must be used “for capital and construction improvements that support Vermont towns and regions,” an easy goal for the bakery as their rapid growth has created increased value in its buildings as well as added employees.
A ROLE FOR ACEDC
“The business was a good candidate for the BGS grant because they are an established business with a growth plan that involved specific capital investments (renovations and equipment) that would make the business more competitive and able to add jobs,” explained Fred Kenney, executive director of the ACEDC. “Again, timing was key. They had a capital investment requirement at the time the grant became available.”
Harper’s firm also tapped the Restart VT Technical Assistance program and direct consulting services through the ACEDC. This collaboration has provided professional consulting for Harper’s business in terms of accounting, financial management and continuous process improvement or LEAN management.
Harper said ACEDC’s help setting up Quickbooks Enterprise for bookkeeping has been particularly helpful. The software allows the firm to keep track of incoming demand, inventory and invoices. Introducing the software system, however, was a long process and Harper credits the ACEDC for critical help, particularly recognizing Elizabeth Burdine, the ACEDC’s director of finance.
The new bookkeeping system has been extremely helpful this year when huge losses were followed by steep jumps in business.
“It is the pandemic that has caused such a surge in demand for the ‘better-for-you’ snacks that we produce and the online purchasing that has become the preferred way to buy these specialty food products,” said Harper. “In May, we had the worst month in our history, an 80% drop in sales. Then June came back better than we’ve ever had, and then July was bigger, August was bigger, September and October were still way up there.”
FUTURE SEEMS BRIGHT
Looking ahead, Harper said he is hoping to hire more employees to help with the growth they’re experiencing. Harper said above all, he can offer employees the opportunity to grow with the company and learn key skills.
“I think our biggest selling point isn’t what we pay or our benefits, because we have minimal benefits since we can’t afford them yet. It’s the opportunity to grow into a career,” Harper said. “We have a dozen or so people who are learning and they’ll take that wherever they want to go. They can get a job anywhere.”
ADDISON — At age 14, Jacob Birchmore began working on cars just a mile down the road from where he would open his own shop in Addison, Birchmore Sales & Service, seven years later.
Learning the ropes from Justin Almedia, Addison-based diesel mechanic and owner of Just Fix It, Birchmore said those early experiences are what began his love for auto mechanics.
“I enjoyed the fact that there was always a different job to be done and so much to learn, then the satisfaction when the job was complete,” said Birchmore.
Throughout high school, Birchmore continued to work on cars through the Future Farmers of America’s AG Mechanics program at Vergennes Union High School. After graduating from VUHS in 2016, Birchmore went on to study automotive and diesel mechanics at Universal Technical Institute in Norwood, Mass.
Owning and running his own auto mechanics shop was always part of Birchmore’s plan, though achieving that goal took several years before opening his shop this past January.
“In high school, my goal was always to have my own business and own a shop. Once I finished school at UTI, I started making a plan to start the business and looking around for properties to purchase, which is tough to find the right spot in Addison County,” said Birchmore. But first, he needed money so he went to work at New England Kenworth dealership in Shelburne where he spent the next couple years learning more about mechanics.
Though it took a while to find the right long-term space, Birchmore began renting a shop in Addison in October of 2018. Doing so allowed him to pursue his own business two days a week while still working at Kenworth. Birchmore continued this set up for a year, but said he ultimately craved the freedom to structure his own workday.
“At Kenworth we would have to shut down, even if I wanted to work longer. I couldn’t work longer and I wanted to put in more hours,” said the 23-year-old mechanic.
While pursuing both jobs, Birchmore also kept looking for a facility he could call his own, but financing any place was a big hurdle.
That’s where help from the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC) allowed Birchmore to get his business up and running. Birchmore contacted Fred Kenney, executive director of the ACEDC, in February of 2019. Kenney was able to refer Birchmore to the ACEDC’s Vermont Small Business Development Center (VTSBDC) advisor and get the young entrepreneur the help he needed to apply for a loan.
“You can’t just jump in and do a loan application. You have to have a business plan and projections,” Kenney explained. “I referred him to our VTSBDC advisor to help him develop a business plan and projections. Once they had that, we could start working with him on the financing.”
Together the ACEDC and VTSBDC advisor Sarah Kearns helped Birchmore get in contact with potential lenders, finalize the business plan and projections, and set up his Quickbook files. Kenney said this collaboration with the VTSBDC was part of what made Birchmore’s project a good candidate for an ACEDC loan.
“Even though this was a start-up by a young man, the project was a good fit because Jacob had worked with SBDC to produce a business plan and projections, he had some equity to contribute to the project, the project had adequate collateral, Jacob had a substantial customer list from his previous part-time work, and he showed that he was willing to work hard to make the business succeed,” said Kenney.
TERMS OF THE DEAL
Birchmore received a $50,000 loan with a 5% interest rate from the ACEDC. Though this loan could not be used toward residential property, Birchmore was able to get a mortgage through the National Bank of Middlebury to purchase a farmhouse he had found in Addison. This four-bedroom farmhouse at 1513 Jersey Street South had a detached garage, which was a perfect fit for Birchmore’s new shop. The ACEDC loan was used to fill his new space with a tire machine, car lift, and other necessary equipment.
“Getting the equipment in here was huge,” Birchmore said. “There’s no way to start the business without it,” explaining that the shop he had been renting came equipped and he knew he had to be able to buy equipment of his own. “Filling a shop with the equipment gets pricey quick,” said Birchmore. “I had my toolbox and that was it, so everything else I bought once I had the shop together.”
With the help of the ACEDC loan, Birchmore converted the 1,700-square-foot garage into his new shop and moved into the farmhouse with his dog, Peyton. Birchmore Sales & Service has been open full time since January 2020, and Birchmore said he’s been keeping busy.
“With mechanic work you always get a couple of slow weeks and then you pick right back up,” he said. “This is always a busy time of year, with winter tires and now the under-coatings. I’ve been staying pretty busy.”
Since opening Birchmore Sales & Service, the area community has been quick to support one of their own, and with the encouragement of friends and family members, and a Facebook page with over 300 followers, he’s seen a lot of new customers in his first year. Looking ahead, Birchmore said his current goal is to hire at least one employee to help mitigate some of the challenges he faces running the business by himself.
“I’d love to have someone else working with me,” said Birchmore. “There are a lot of challenges I have being in here alone, where it takes two people to do something. Right now I’m kind of improvising to make it work with one,” adding that even with those challenges, he’s happy with the move and excited to grow a business that’s his own.
MONKTON — Ben Raphael’s passion for woodworking began long before he started Monkton-based Wooden Hammer, his carpentry business that specializes in custom cabinetry and furniture.
As a young boy, Raphael made tree houses in the woods near his childhood home in nearby Panton, and was obsessed with building Lego projects — key experiences, he said, that led to his love of building and woodworking.
“I always loved building stuff as a kid, of course starting with blocks and Legos,” said Raphael, who also credited his father, David Raphael, who founded and ran Middlebury-based Landworks for decades, for instilling a similar love of built structures. “I liked to help my dad with the various projects he was always working on, like building bridges for his network of cross-country skiing trails” out behind his Panton home.
Raphael, now 39, graduated from Vergennes Union High School in 2000, then went to Colby College. His passion for building persisted into adulthood, competing with his literary aspirations, which had led to writing gigs for such magazines as Skiing, Backpacking and Men’s Journal. But he found the sedentary act of writing wasn’t the right fit for him, he said, and he got back into building things as a full-time builder in the Boston area for three years.
“I worked fairly briefly for a couple of different contractors before starting a business with a friend, who was a house painter, doing painting and light carpentry. We worked our way up to some pretty big renovation jobs that involved custom built-ins and cabinets,” recalled Raphael, adding that he enjoyed the jobs involving custom cabinetry so much that they soon would become his focus for his own business.
He started Wooden Hammer in 2009.
“At that point I was doing renovation work as well. But I really loved shop-work in particular, and I tried to get jobs that involved that,” he said.
About six years after founding Wooden Hammer, Raphael decided to make woodworking projects his specialty.
“I decided that I'd rather be spending my days in my shop instead of on job sites, so I slowly made the transition to just doing cabinetry and furniture. I really like the controlled environment in the shop, where I can have all my tools set up just right. And I love the puzzle of building different kinds of cabinets and furniture with different requirements for joinery, etc.”
As his business grew, Raphael hired an assistant and built a workshop on his property in Monkton. Although he originally planned for that shop to be a long-term location, his business eventually outgrew it, and in 2017 he began looking for a place to relocate.
“That was supposed to be my forever home, but then I just kept growing,” said Raphael. “I had probably been looking for a new space for at least two years. I really wanted it to be just the right space.”
Raphael found his ideal space in April 2019 and, after 10 months of renovations, moved in this past February. The building at 140 Monkton Road had caught Raphael’s eye 10 years before, but it wasn’t until the property was relisted on the market in 2019 that the timing worked out and Raphael was ready to take the leap.
“When I first built the shop on my property, this building was for sale then too. I didn’t really feel like I could buy a whole other building at that point, but I kind of always dreamed about it,” he said. “So when I saw this place come back on the market, I was really excited about it and made it happen.”
A BIG TRANSITION
The shop was originally a creamery, then served as the town’s recycling center and garage, and finally was a storage shed for a roofing company just before Raphael purchased it. After closing on the property in September 2019, Raphael began the necessary renovations.
Grants and loans through the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC) were essential to converting, then moving into, the 2,848-square-foot space.
“This was a huge project,” he said. “I spent more on renovations than I did on buying the building. It didn’t have any windows. It was down to the studs. As far as electric there was pretty much one light bulb and one outlet.”
The ACEDC helped Raphael finance renovations for Wooden Hammer in addition to receiving a $15,600 Buildings and General Services (BGS) grant from the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services’ Building Communities Program. Businesses must use the grant “for capital and construction improvements that support Vermont towns and regions.” Raphael said Wooden Hammer qualified for the grant by providing more jobs and by creating a demand for local lumber.
“Growing my business will support local businesses because we buy all of our lumber from the local lumber yards in Bristol, and part of the expansion was going to allow me to employ more people, which it has,” said Raphael.
His new shop can easily accommodate four people, which would be been a tight squeeze, if not impossible, in the old shop.
“Ben’s project was a good candidate for financing because he had an established business with a good reputation, he had a good business plan and solid projections, and the project provided appropriate collateral,” said ACEDC Executive Director Fred Kenney. “There was also a timing issue: Ben’s need to make improvements to his new facility coincided with the timing of the program application and funding availability.”
In addition to the BGS grant, Wooden Hammer received a $25,000 loan from the ACEDC to help pay for facility renovations at a commercial interest rate.
ACEDC also helped Raphael prepare documents to apply for additional loans from Opportunities Credit Union and the Vermont Economic Development Authority, and helped him get his financials together to pay back all of the loans.
“The ACEDC was definitely a big help,” said Raphael, adding that it took a lot of the stress off of him and allowed him to focus on growing his business in a more visible location.
“My last shop was a quarter-mile down my driveway, so I had no road visibility,” Raphael recalled, noting that he already knows “a few people have driven by, seen the sign, and contacted me… Now we’re busier than we’ve ever been.”
PANTON — After a couple of years of raising two dozen pigs, and trying to make a go of selling pork locally as a hobby farmer, Alessandra Rellini knew two things: she needed to get bigger to make her business work and she needed some help from a person who had expertise in the field.
So, she wrote a classified ad for a farm assistant and sent it afar on a wing and a prayer.
As fate would have it, the ad reached Stefano Pinna, who had just finished his Masters degree in Agricultural Science at the University of Torino in Italy and was looking to travel to see how people farmed around the world. He was offered a position in Kenya but passed that up when he saw the advertisement for the position on an Italian farm in the middle of Vermont raising livestock on pastures using Italian traditions. He decided to come to Vermont through a post-graduation working visa.
With his knowledge of soil science and animal welfare, the two formed a partnership and began growing the farm with a focus on sustainable farming.
“I knew I needed to grow, and I had no formal training in agriculture,” said Rellini. “So, I put out an advertisement for a farm assistant to grow my little farm team and somehow it arrived to him [Pinna] in Italy… We went from a smaller farm to a much more developed farm.”
HOBBY TO A BUSINESS
Relinni had started the 56-acre farm as a hobby in 2012 with 20 pigs, a dozen sheep, and around 40 chickens. She loved the farm life but knew to develop it as a business she had to seek a farm assistant who had more knowledge about farming and finding a marketable niche.
It’s been working.
Today they raise 160-180 pigs, some Icelandic sheep, ducks, chickens. They also grow a variety of Italian vegetables and herbs. Most recently, they’ve ventured into the cured meats industry with the help of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC). They now have a full-time and a part-time employee at the Middlebury plant as well as themselves at the farm. They recently received a $200,000 grant to help market and expand sales of their cured meat largely with the help of the ACEDC.
“We strongly believe in the importance of processing your own meat, because you learn more as a farmer,” said Rellini. “The cost of owning your own facility, however, is really high and, for us, we wouldn’t be able to survive with just fresh meat.” The grant, she said, was a critical piece of the pie to allow them to expand their farm in that direction.
Rellini has been curing meats for several years. Up until 2018, Rellini processed cured meats on a smaller scale at the Mad River Food Hub in nearby Waitsfield. During that time she heard about a training grant through the ACEDC and decided to look into it. Although she ultimately didn’t apply for the grant, Rellini said this is how she became connected to the ACEDC and its executive director, Fred Kenney, who encouraged her to pursue the cured meats business.
“I heard about a training grant, where the state gives you money to pay part of the salary for more employees. I wanted to learn about it. I didn’t qualify, but they [the ACEDC] didn’t let me go,” said Rellini, “They said ‘aren’t you making cured meats, because you really should be making more.’”
A year later, Kenney and the ACEDC helped Rellini and Pinna establish their current meat processing facility at 656 Exchange Street in Middlebury, in the town’s industrial park, and provided them with business advice and application assistance for some of the loans and grants they’ve received. Most recently, Agricola Farm won a $200,000 USDA/Rural Development grant, to which the ACEDC made a $20,000 loan as part of the match. Rellini said loans such as this one provided the capital needed to afford necessary equipment and rent at a time when their growing business wasn’t yet profitable.
The Rural Development grant was in addition to an earlier regional economic development grant of $14,000; a Working Land Grant of $50,000; and a Vermont Community Loan Fund SPROUT loan of $60,000. With that money, they’ve purchased, among many other things, two Pagani curing cabinets imported from Italy, two aging chambers, a meat grinder and a meat stuffer. The most recent grant also provides funding for marketing and a sales effort, while the $14,000 award helped them renovate, flip and equip the facility on Exchange Street.
Kenney said their willingness to work hard, create an adaptable business plan and stay persistent were qualities that made them good candidates for the grants.
“We noticed in Alessandra and Stefano a persistence and an ability to overcome adversity and roadblocks,” Kenney said. “Even before COVID, they showed that they had what it takes to succeed with a start-up and then during COVID they continued to pivot to make it work. We encouraged their pursuit of pork products cured in the Italian tradition because they exhibited the talent and know-how to bring this new product to a marketplace that is demonstrating demand for locally produced cured meat products.“
Kenney also noted that timing is critical in the grant-approval process.
“Agricola Meats, and the needs they had at the time, made them eligible for the grants. That is, timing is often critical,” Kenney said. “… they were willing to put in the hard work to generate basic business documents and complete the applications. Two key elements: be willing (and persistent enough) to do the work up front to generate a good business plan, business projections, and a project budget; and stay in touch with ACEDC so that as grant and loan programs become available, we can match projects and programs together.”
MAKING IT POSSIBLE
For their part, Rellini and Pinna were just grateful for the financial assistance to make growing possible.
“Cured meats take a long time, and you’re just sitting on your meat for six weeks before you can even sell it,” said Rellini. “Those grants have allowed us to get to know the facility and get to know the new equipment to then have a higher quality product.”
Going forward, Agricola Farms is hoping to establish an out-of-state consumer base, as the market for cured meats in Vermont is not large enough to support their business. Rellini said Agricola Meats has already begun selling its products in specialty stores throughout Vermont and Massachusetts, and plans to continue selling to restaurants and specialty shops, in particular, throughout the region.
“We’re working towards restaurants, but more so specialty stores,” said Rellini. “Stefano has contacted many of the specialty stores in Vermont, but we can still expand.”
Producing cured meats also allows Rellini and Pinna to support local farmers by purchasing pork at a premium. Rellini said their current goal is to be able to support at least 12 local farms.
While Rellini and Pinna are business partners, over the past five years they have expanded their business to include a large social component. They host dinners within the community, sell specialty foods, and with the new curing and processing plant they hope to bring even more high-quality foods to the region as a way to share part of their Italian culture with the community while growing as a business.
Pinna summed up their five years together on the farm succinctly and with insight into what’s to come.
“After several months of working together we realized we were more than business partners and our values, goals and ways to face difficulties lined up perfectly. We complemented each other in everything,” Pinna said.
“So we decided we wanted to continue our path together and build something bigger than our farm, something that could tie our cultural heritage with our passion for sustainable agriculture, and that something became Monti Verdi Salumi, a meat manufacturing facility that specializes in the production of cured meats such as salame, but soon also pancetta, guanciale and coppa. A facility that leverages the value added of pastured pork raised in Vermont and is able to pay a premium to farmers allowing them to engage in sustainable agricultural practices.”