Strong Field of Small Business Owners Highlight 4th Annual Entrepreneur Awards

North Alabama entrepreneurs generate major business in the region while also creating jobs and opportunities for residents.

To salute their efforts and work, the Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship is hosting the fourth annual Entrepreneur Awards on March 1. The event is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Campus 805, 2620 Clinton Avenue.

The awards luncheon is the grand finale to Innovate Huntsville Week. Voting continues through Friday, Feb. 15. Visit www.innovatehsv.com/entrepreneur-awards.

“This event honors the skill, courage, and determination it takes to create a business from an idea,” said Katie Williams, Women’s Business Center Program Director for The Catalyst. “The awards focus on celebrating the talented entrepreneurs right here in our community and highlight their importance to our region’s economy.”

The top entrepreneurs were chosen by a panel of business leaders and entrepreneurs. There are eight awards to be presented: Entrepreneur of the Year; Emerging – Creative – Female – Veteran – and Youth Entrepreneurs of the Year, along with Entrepreneur Champion of the Year and People’s Choice.

“The Entrepreneur Awards aren’t just for aspiring business owners,” said Michelle Stark, a member of The Catalyst’s Board of Directors. “This event is for the community – those looking to invigorate their entrepreneurial spirit or connect with up-and-comers in our area.”

For tickets and information, visit http://www.innovatehsv.com/entrepreneur-awards/

Matt Curtis counting his blessings after a stellar year

The real estate market is booming and, as a result, Matt Curtis has a lot of blessings to count.

Over the past 13 years, Matt Curtis Real Estate has grown rapidly. In 2018, the agency received the following distinctions: Huntsville Chamber of Commerce Service Business of the Year, Nationally Ranked Website by Real Trends and, for the past two years, Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Companies in the Nation (No. 17 in 2018).

“2018 has been one of the best years – inventory is at an all-time low; growth rate is up at 10 percent,” Curtis said. “Although nationally the market will start to slow down, Huntsville-Madison can anticipate 5 to 10 years of solid growth. This has been the busiest January we’ve ever had.”

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in computer engineering, Curtis started out selling test equipment for National Instruments to the Army and NASA. Then, after landing his biggest sale, he was offered a job at Woodland Homes. During his stint at Woodland, he honed his business acumen for real estate.

For Curtis and his team, giving back is important.

“For the past three years, we have been building homes in Nicaragua,” he said. “For every 100 homes sold, we build a home in Nicaragua for a family living in unsafe conditions.

“2019 will be our fourth year. There have been 65 houses built to date, with the 20 more being built this year, that’s 85 houses by the end of the year. Habitat for Humanity is also involved with the mission. The way it’s been usually, is that half the funding comes from donation, the other half coming from builders.”

However, this year there will be no building.

“We usually go once a year and I was planning to take my family this year,” Curtis said. “But due to safety concerns, we had to cancel our trip. It was sad not to be able to go.”

In addition to the Nicaragua effort, the Curtis team supports local community projects.

“We have funded numerous charitable initiatives including 88.1 WAY-FM’s local concerts and a new gym for Madison Academy,” Curtis said.

And, there is also a love of sports and supporting the local teams.

“It’s a good, fan-based experience for the family,” Curtis said. “Huntsville Havoc, Rocket City Trash Pandas, we are big fans.

“We have already bought our box seats for the 2020 (Trash Pandas) season.”

Strong Economic Numbers, Distinguished Service Highlighted at Chamber Meeting

Someone said that looking back, 2018 was a year for the record books for Huntsville and Madison County …. “off the charts” and “epic”.

That someone was Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. His remarks came Wednesday at the 83rd Annual Chamber Membership Meeting.

According to real numbers, his proclamation was not overstated.

Huntsville finished 2018 ranked sixth in the nation for job growth according to 24/7 Wall Street. In all, five new companies broke ground, bringing more than 4,200 jobs to Madison County. They made capital investments of $2.3 billion while 13 current companies made capital investments of just under $350 million and nearly 1,000 jobs.

The groundbreaking of the $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant at Greenbrier Road and Old Highway 20 was the biggest economic story of 2018. The plant is expected to create 4,000 jobs by 2021 when it opens.

Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research park in the nation, is at 91 percent occupancy, marking three groundbreakings and 10 ribbon-cuttings in 2018.

To provide some perspective, the Economic Growth Index, which reflects combined employment, GDP, and wages, shows Huntsville with a 38 percent growth rate in 2018. Compare that to 23 percent nationally and 15 percent growth for the state of Alabama, and Huntsville more than doubles statewide economic growth!

Keynote speaker Chris Voss, author and founder/CEO of the Black Swan Group and a former international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, used humor and intrigue in speaking to the membership about the art of business negotiation.

Before passing the gavel to 2019 Chamber Board Chair Kim Lewis, outgoing Chair Gary Bolton honored Alicia Ryan of LSINC with the Distinguished Service Award for her volunteer work serving as the vice chair of the Board of Directors for the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering, a statewide magnet school created by the Legislature in 2018. She also serves as the chair of the Board of the Foundation supporting the school, which will be the first of its kind in the nation to address the growing demand for cyber and engineering professionals in the workforce.

Huntsville received several significant media recognitions recently. According to The New York Times, Huntsville is one of 52 Places to Go in 2019; Huntsville ranks No. 7 in the Best Places to Live in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report; and the city is No. 3 on the Wall Street Journal‘s Where You Should Move to Make the Most Money list.

Bolton, vice president of Global Marketing at Adtran, presented a $10,000 donation on behalf of his company to the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering.

Love by The Numbers: This Business of Valentine’s Day

If you were shopping for Christmas swag in hopes of scoring big post-season discounts, you might have taken notice.

In almost a blink of an eye, retailers moved quickly in preparation for Valentine’s Day. By the end of the first week of the new year, inventory on the shelves had magically transformed from tinsel and tree lights to pink and red hearts.

Valentine’s Day is a BIG deal in the United States. From all walks of retail, customers are faced with an endless array of love-inspired offerings to suit every taste and budget.

Each year, Valentine’s Day spending in the U.S. for sweethearts, kids, friends, coworkers, and even the family pet translates into billions of dollars. BILLIONS.

According to the National Retail Federation, last year’s Valentine’s Day spending contributed roughly $19.6 billion to the U.S. economy. Those numbers were the second-highest since 2013; topped only by a record $19.7 billion spent in 2016.  Given a stable economy, Valentine’s Day 2019 spending could easily match or exceed $20 billion.

Who’s Buying?

There’s nothing like the blush of young love. Whether it’s to impress a mate or to woo a potential one, 60 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 and 67 percent of those between the ages of 25 and 34 celebrate Valentine’s Day with gusto, spending more than the older folks. In fact, just half of those between ages 55 and 64 and only 44.7 percent of those 65 and older celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Most Valentine’s Day gift purchases are for a spouse or significant other. The other top gifting categories include family members, kids’ classmates and teachers, coworkers, and pets.

The $19.6 billion spent in 2018 translated into an average of $143.56 per person.  All Valentine’s Day gifting is not created equal, however. Men spend almost twice as much as women do. On average, guys spend $196.39 on their beloved, while the ladies spend only $99.87.

Where Are They Buying it?

As the first gift-centric holiday of the new year, big spending on Valentine’s Day provides a hefty boost to the economy. Despite the ease and convenience of the Internet, only 29 percent of shoppers order Valentine’s Day gifts online.

For Valentine’s Day in particular, shoppers seem to prefer the in-store “brick and mortar” approach to gift buying: 35 percent visit department stores, 32 percent shop at discount stores, 19 percent prefer browsing specialty stores, and 17 percent will stop by the florist’s shop on their way home from work. Even if it means waiting in a line that circles the building.

What Are They Buying?

The top five categories of Valentine’s Day gifts are candy, greeting cards, dining out, flowers, and jewelry.

Candy

More than 80 percent of consumers love their chocolate and it’s not surprising that candy is the No. 1 Valentine’s Day gift of choice.

The great thing about candy is that it can be purchased practically anywhere, at any price point – from grocery stores to high quality confectioneries – yet it’s still inexpensive when compared to flowers, fine dining, or jewelry.

For the past six years, sisters Caitlin Lyon and Michelle Novosel Pennell have owned and operated Pizzelle’s Confections at Lowe Mill.

“Valentine’s Day is literally a line of guys, lined up at the door,” said Lyon. “It’s also the one time of year where we can pre-box a variety of candy and it will sell.”

Pennell said, “Valentine’s Day is one week of craziness! We hope that people will come out and enjoy.”

Cards

Valentine’s Day cards are still popular and represent close to 45 percent of sales. Greeting card purchases include fancy romantic cards for one’s sweetie, as well as those packs of cards parents often buy for their kids’ teachers and classmates.

Despite being a high-volume item, Valentine’s Day cards are very inexpensive, thus generating a mere $1 billion in revenue.

A Night on the Town

Valentine’s Day dining translates into 35 percent of purchases and approximately $4 billion in generated revenue.

Tastes and budgets may vary, but most couples will spend a romantic evening out on Valentine’s Day, whether it be savoring fine wine and a fancy meal at an upscale restaurant or a sit-down meal without the kids at a fast food establishment.

Flowers

With close to $2 billion in revenue generated from domestically cut flowers, bouquets represent 38 percent of Valentine’s Day sales in the U.S.

“Valentine’s day is probably the busiest single day of the year for us. Men buying for their wives or girlfriends; if there’s a child, they buy a valentine for them, too,” said Karen Bowers, longtime sales clerk at Albert’s Florist in Huntsville. “People often wait until the last minute, so it gets pretty hectic.”

Co-worker Carol Moore said, “The phones ring off the hook, there’s a line out to the street. If Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend, it’s even busier.”

Jewelry

Despite representing only 19 percent of Valentine’s Day purchases, jewelry generated nearly $5 billion in revenue in 2018.

“Valentine’s Day is a big day for us,” says Karen Boehme, co-owner of Meyer and Lee Fine Jewelry. “But it’s not an anniversary gift purchase, where thousands might be spent on a special piece of jewelry, like a diamond necklace or ring. It’s usually less expensive, like a pair of earrings, a bracelet, or a necklace.”

Jewelry remains mostly a traditional, gender-based purchase –a man buying jewelry for his lady love.

“Men will often tell us that their wife doesn’t like jewelry,” Boehme said. “This is where we might suggest more traditional ‘staples,’ pieces that have timeless appeal and can be worn as part of an everyday look or for special occasions, such as a strand of pearls or diamond studs.”

To dispel the bad rap of husbands being last minute shoppers, she said there is a strategy to their purchase habits.

“Wives often manage the household budget so, to avoid suspicion, men will come in beforehand to place the order, then make the actual purchase closer to the date.”

Don’t Forget Fifi or Fido

In 2018, Valentine’s Day statistics show that man’s best friend is getting even more love over the past decade. According to a recent NRF survey, about 20 percent of US consumers plan to give their pets a Valentine’s Day gift.

It’s no secret that pets are already a big business 364 days of the year. Add $6 million in heart-shaped squeakies and dog treat sales on Feb. 14 and that’s a significant heart-shaped boost to the economy.

Grand Reopening: Trash Pandas’ Renovated Emporium Includes Season Ticket Center

It’s time once again to start talking Trash.

That’s right. Trash with a capital “T” – as in Trash Pandas.

The Rocket City Trash Pandas are holding a grand reopening of the team’s Emporium and Season Ticket Center on Friday. Doors open at the newly renovated store at Bridge Street Town Centre at 10 a.m.

Fresh on the heels of record-setting sales, the Trash Pandas will be selling never-before-available team apparel and novelty items. The first 250 fans who make a purchase of $25 or more will receive a commemorative “Stadium Groundbreaking” baseball.

“As most people know, our original plan was for a ‘pop-up’ store to stay open only through the
holidays,” said Trash Pandas Executive Vice President Jenny Askins. “But, the demand for our
products from throughout North Alabama was so intense that we complied with our fans’ wishes and will keep the store open at least until we move into the new stadium.

“Our customers were very specific as to the types of merchandise they prefer, and we have restocked and added new items based on their requests.”

The restocked Emporium will feature all sizes of the most popular Trash Pandas merchandise that could not be kept in stock during the holidays, including the ultra-popular New Era 59FIFTY authentic fitted cap; the one worn by all Minor League Baseball players.

Among the new merchandise available Friday will be tank tops, sleeveless tee shirts, and new colors and styles of infant “onesies.” Coming soon will be items such as pop sockets, pennants, wall art, pet supplies, and new styles of hats from New Era.

The store will host the official Trash Pandas Season Ticket Center. There will be seating samples from the ballpark for three premium areas: Home Plate Luxury Field Boxes, Legacy (drink rail) seating and High Tops. A new feature will enable potential seat holders to view the field from any seat in the ballpark.

While two sections of the new stadium have already sold out for the first three seasons (Reserved Seating Stadium Club memberships and the half-moon shaped Four Tops), new reduced-price Stadium Club memberships that do not guarantee an outside seat will be available.

“I continue to be amazed at how this community has accepted and become excited by our team,” said
Trash Pandas’ CEO Ralph Nelson. “Our industry measures brand acceptance by merchandise sales,
and it’s hard to go very far in North Alabama or southern Tennessee without seeing folks in Trash
Pandas apparel. Our fans told us what they like and we think the new items to be introduced this spring are going to start a whole new wave of excitement.

“It made all the sense in the world to keep the store open so that the Trash Pandas Nation will just continue to grow.”

Geeks and Nerds Acquires Q-Track

Geeks and Nerds has acquired the assets of Q-Track in a purchase between two Huntsville high-tech businesses.

“We are excited about incorporating the technology and management team of Q-Track into Geeks and Nerds,” said GaN CEO/CTO Dr. Jonn Kim. “Our combined knowledge and experience position us well for advanced research and technology in the areas of electromagnetics, wireless communications, position and location, cyber electromagnetic activity, and radar.

“The talent and tenacity of Q-Track’s management and employees have created innovative product lines and unique intellectual property. Their success as a R&D company will complement GaN. I can’t wait to make magic happen.”

Q-Track CEO Stephen Werner said the two companies will make a perfect match. The company provides indoor location, safety, and RF solutions.

“I’m delighted by the enthusiasm with which GaN has embraced the opportunities offered by Q-Track’s capabilities and technology,” he said. “GaN’s culture of ethics, innovation, and creativity mirrors our own.”  

Q-Track co-founder and CTO Dr. Hans Schantz will serve as principal scientist of GaN and will help in the transition process.

“We’ve always been geeks and nerds at Q-Track,” Schantz said. “This just makes it official.”

Stovehouse to Offer Mediterranean Fare al “Fresko”

An all-new, fast-casual restaurant will add Mediterranean flavor to the food garden of the Stovehouse development on Huntsville’s Westside.

Fresko Grille, created by local chef Abrahim Hassan, will open a 760-square-foot space in the development and serve dishes such as beef and chicken shawarma, falafels, baba ghanoush and much more, made with traditional Mediterranean ingredients and preparation methods. The eatery is scheduled to open early this spring.

“Fresko Grille is a family business where guests can see the food being cooked and prepared right in front of them,” said Hassan. “Thanks to its open-kitchen concept, Fresko will give patrons the option of choosing their desired protein, fresh veggies, sauces and sides so that each order is customized to their liking. Vegan and vegetarian options are readily available, and the menu will include rotating specials so you can always come back and try something new.”

The menu features a list of Mediterranean favorites such as falafels, beef and chicken shawarma, Kafta kebabs, baba ghanoush, fresh veggies, homemade hummus, tahini and tzatziki sauce. The restaurant will also have vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.

Although there will be no tables within the restaurant, guests can take their meal to the many areas of the Stovehouse food garden to enjoy indoors or outdoors around live entertainment and games.

“Stovehouse’s food garden will be a place where everyone in the family can enjoy an assortment of food options, outdoor games and entertainment,” said Stovehouse developer Danny Yancey. “Even more important than the variety at the garden is the quality of restaurants that it houses. We invite everyone to experience the incredible talent behind the many eateries at the development.

“They are a showcase of some of the best restaurateurs in and around Huntsville.”

The decor will draw inspiration from Mediterranean prints and patterns while incorporating wood furnishings and warm colors.

“When leasing a project like Stovehouse, it’s important to consider not only what works well within the development but also what the people are asking for,” said Anusha Davis, leasing agent at Crunkleton Commercial Real Estate Group. “Mediterranean food was a popular request, and Abrahim is delivering a product that stands out when it comes to flavor and authenticity.”

For information, visit www.freskogrille.com or follow on Facebook and Instagram.

Ad4! Group Celebrates 15 Years

Ad4! Group has turned the big 1-5!

The Huntsville-based full-service advertising and marketing agency is celebrating 15 years in business.

Owner Felica Sparks opened Ad4! Group in 2004 with one goal in mind, to change the reputation of marketing agencies. Sparks said the agency’s focus would be the return on investment of every client.

“That’s why at Ad4! Group, the focus is ‘Communication that Counts!'” she said. “My goal is to be able to provide our clients with top-notch strategies and products that help bring customers in their doors and, most of all, increases their bottom line.

“We want to help make your marketing dollars work for you.”

Since its opening, Ad4! Group has worked with all facets of the business community including non-profits, small businesses, large businesses, and community initiatives.

“We have been blessed over these past 15 years to have had the ability to work with such an amazing
variety of people in this community,” said Sparks, “and we look forward to what the next 15 years have in store.”

For information, visit www.ad4group.com.

The Dessert Fork: A one-of-a-kind experience with one-of-a-kind creations

MADISON — Using cake as a canvas with frostings as her medium, Pauline McFarlin’s artistic creations are always sweet, inspired and one-of-a-kind.

More people now have an opportunity to experience McFarlin’s made-from-scratch baked goods at the Dessert Fork, in the Medical Park Station shopping area off U.S. 72 in Madison. It’s between the Beef Jerky Outlet and Hollywood Feed.

“People will come here for something to eat out of the case, ready made,” McFarlin said.

That will include brownies, lemon bars, cookies, gourmet caramel dipped apples, and pies, to name a few.

Then there will be off the menu seasonal or exotic items from time to time.

“I may decide to do a bread pudding one day or I may wake up and want to poach some pears,” McFarlin said.  “There will always be the possibility of a surprise in store when you come here.”

She knows she has to have to have people’s favorites, but also offer some variety.

“There are two types of people,” McFarlin said. “There are those who love what they love and they always get the same thing. Then, there are those who always want to try something new.”

Now that she has an established bakery, more people will get to know McFarlin’s specialty — artisan cakes. She will have a small staff to help with baking, but decorating cakes is McFarlin’s passion.

“I like cakes that give me a challenge,” she said. “If you’re looking for simple and plain, I’m not your girl. I can do it, but I like to tell a story through the cake and make it really special.”

Getting a custom cake from McFarlin is not as simple as filling out a piece of paper with cake and icing type. She likes to get to know the person or situation.

For example, one of her most memorable cakes involved a photographer who was celebrating her 40th birthday. McFarlin said she had the client provide a picture of her camera and send her four of her all-time favorite photographs. The result was a square cake topped with a smaller cake, which was crafted into a replica of the camera. The four photos were place around the bottom layer, connected by a sugar string that resembled a darkroom string with each of the four photos hanging off it.

There was a groom’s cake that looked like piano keys. A 21st birthday party cake that looked like a gift box and featured a martini glass filled with Jell-O. She’s made a Mine craft cake. And a baby shower cake that featured a map with pinpoints marking the baby’s geographic heritage, complete with a baby on an airplane over Alabama carrying a banner saying “Hello, World!”

“I don’t like to do the same thing twice,” McFarlin said. “I’ve done it one time when someone saw a cake on my website that they really wanted but that doesn’t happen too often.”

To McFarlin, each cake is as individual as the person.

“I like to interact with them, I take a lot of time to get to know them and what they want,” she said. “A lot of times, after they receive the cake they are so happy they give me hugs and we have a relationship that was built with the common thing being cake.

“This is what I do. Cake is my canvas.”

Over the past 10 years, McFarlin went from baking cakes for church gatherings, which lead to church members asking her to bake a cake for their family’s different special occasions. It got to be a regular thing.

Alabama’s Food Cottage Law came about in 2014, allowing her to get training and start a business out of her home. More training, business coaching, and guidance from other local bakers helped her step out and open The Dessert Fork.

“Well, it’s the only fork you’re going to need,” McFarlin said with a chuckle as she explained why she chose the name. It represents her cakes but other treats she’ll offer as her business grows.

McFarlin, 44, said her husband and three kids moved to the Huntsville area from Maryland in 2008. She says her family has been supportive as she left real estate to become an artisan cake designer.

She wants The Dessert Fork to be a nostalgic place to create fond memories.

“People used to bake a lot and enjoy eating something made from scratch,” she said. “Here, they can have a seat with a friend in a place with a happy atmosphere … a good, feel good place.”

So out of all of the delicious treats coming from the oven, what is McFarlin’s favorite?

Believe it or not, I’m a pie person,” McFarlin said. “Apple pie is my favorite.”

Irons One Whiskey: A Personal Touch Every Step of the Way

In a small, second floor suite at Lowe Mill, there’s a highly personal, downright magical process taking place daily – the distillation of Irons One Whiskey.

Distiller Jeff Irons and his wife Vicki work together to create a preciously delightful adult beverage – one that’s meant to be savored slowly.

For over 40 years now, Irons has cultivated his love affair with whiskey, starting as a New Jersey teen crossing the state line with his buddies into New York state, because of the lower legal drinking age. Once over the border, drinks were pricey, and New York and New Jersey’s finest had a keen eye for drunken teens on the road.

As the group’s official designated driver, Irons selected whiskey because it could be savored, as well as it being cost-efficient.

While an engineering student at Virginia Tech, Irons had his first taste of “homemade” whiskey, later followed by samples obtained from his brother-in-law’s dad, who was a physician in West Virginia. When the good doctor’s patients couldn’t pay him with cash, they paid him with home-distilled whiskey.

Despite the long romance, the NASA engineer became interested in opening his own distillery only within the past few years.

“It has been a long and difficult process and it is expensive,” he said. “Regardless, my love of whiskey and my sincere desire to be able to offer a superior bourbon and bourbon mash whiskey to my friends and to our community will be well-worth all of the effort.”

Irons’ business model is to remain small and personally involved in the distillation process. 

“I love making whiskey,” he said. “From mashing to fermenting, to distilling, to aging and bottling – I love this process. The only way I know how to make the best whiskey is to be totally involved in every step of the process.

“I can only do that if I stay small enough in size to manage each step.” 

The love, patience, and commitment are evident in the final product. Irons One was recently judged as the Double-Gold winner by “The Fifty Best” in the category of bourbon whiskey, which is quite an honor.

In the selection, strict tasting rules are applied to the “blind” tasting of 46 bourbon whiskeys; all ranked by members of “The Fifty Best” spirits judging panel. Double-Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze medals are also awarded, based on the final point scores received from the judges.

“Irons One is the small batch, single-hand crafted whiskey for those who savor a rich, smooth flavor –served neat, with a little water or over ice,” Irons said. “This is truly a whiskey from my hands to yours.”

For more information, visit  www.ironsone.com or email ironsonewhiskey@gmail.com