For a lot of small business owners, a little money can go a long way, especially in the early stages of their companies’ development. COSE’s annual Business Pitch Competition provides a total of $40,000 in prize money for business owners to take their business from start-up to established small business.
In the following profiles, winners talk about how the competition helped them achieve greater sales, enabled them to add more employees and changed their business operations.
Founder: Kevin Suttman
Former life: Sales exec for an international company
Start-up: Seven Brothers Distilling Company, 2011
Product: Vodka, rum, gin, whiskey, infused liquors
Tag line: World-class liquors made in Ohio
Growth: Added gin, whiskey, private-label liquors and retail sales
COSE: $20,000 first-place winner, 2012
It’s been rapid growth for Kevin Suttman of Seven Brothers Distilling Company since 2012 when he won the $20,000 first-place COSE Business Pitch Competition award.
After winning the competition, Suttman built a new still and tasting room at his Lake County microbrewery. He added gin, Ohio wheat whiskey and several flavor-infused vodkas to his original line of vodka and two rums. He also started private label production (now up to nine liquors for three companies) and expanded Seven Brothers’ distribution by three states.
The microbrew began monthly tastings and formulated new, infused liquors — a complicated process that needs federal approval for formulas and labels. Today, Seven Brothers has a dozen infusions approved or in development.
Suttman is also planning to move his distillery from a 1,000-square-foot building in LeRoy Township to one twice its size. The move, near the end of May, means he can hold two tastings a month and roll out new flavors of liquor.
“I’m excited,” he said. “The new building is more on the Ohio winery and Ohio wine tourism trail and should do well.”
So, what makes Seven Brothers’ process unique? Suttman uses a vacuum distilling process he developed to infuse flavors such as cinnamon and espresso into vodka and other liquors.
“I distill under vacuum, which lowers the boiling point,” he said. “I can pull out flavors that others can’t. Distilling this way is a lot more time-consuming, but the results are worth it.”
Until eight months ago, Seven Brothers liquors were sold only at Ohio state stores (Vodka is $33.10; Erie Island Silver Rum is
$25.80) and now distribution has been added to Indiana, Illinois and Georgia. Suttman sells his gin exclusively out of state, to test the waters. “Our gin is great and gin is an up-and coming liquor,” he stated.
Now Suttman, once a one man operation (with help from his wife and children), is hiring. First he plans on adding staff for the new tasting room and then managers as he begins to turn over some responsibilities to concentrate on his core business. An independent sales woman is introducing Seven Brothers into more bars and restaurants to help grow his brand recognition.
“With the move, I’ve been developing a new organizational structure with new roles and, little by little, will start adding people,” he said. “We are always working on new products, equipment and techniques so that we can bring new flavors to our customers.”
Person Powered Success
Founder: Michael Stanek
Other life: CFO for Hunt Imaging, Berea
Start-up: Cleveland Cycle Tours, 2012
Product: Two-hour pub tours on 15-person bicycle
Tag line: The Ultimate Group Party Bike
Growth: Full weekend bookings, may purchase second bike
COSE: $5,000 third-place, 2012
Cleveland Cycle Tours (CCT) was still in the start-up stage in 2012 when it won thirdplace and $5,000 in the COSE Business Pitch Competition.
Michael Stanek had purchased a 15-person party tour bike and was going through the city vendor permitting process for CCT.
“The city didn’t know what to do with us,” he said. “At one point we were licensed under horses and carriages.”
The COSE win helped in several ways. From talking to COSE members, Stanek realized that his plan to operate downtown was not as good as offering bike pub crawl trips to Ohio City and Tremont bars. And he was having a hard time finding affordable garage space near downtown for his $40,000, custom-made vehicle (18 feet long, eight feet wide and nine-and-a half feet tall), moved by the peddle power of party-goers heading to pubs.
COSE contacts helped CCT work through the City Hall licensing process and put Stanek in touch with owners of warehouses, and before long, he found garage space near the West Side Market.
He recently moved to a garage at 2135 Columbus Road in the Duck Island part of Tremont, sharing space with the new Forest City Brewery. “It is a great symbiotic relationship,” Stanek said. “We can start or end our pub crawls at Forest City.”
When CCT started, Stanek and his son did all the driving. Demand grew quickly and the company now has four part-time drivers who handle three or four outings per day on weekends. Typical bookings include bachelorette, birthday and anniversary parties and friends gatherings. Due to demand and growth, Stanek is considering a second party bike.
He used his $5,000 COSE prize money to buy a trailer so he can take the bike farther afield. During a typical two-hour pub crawl, party-goers peddle four to five miles an hour, making it to three or four bars in a two-mile round trip. That gives the bike a limited range unless you can trailer it for special events and other tours a little further away from their home base. Most of their tours stay close to near west side of Cleveland. In Ohio City, party-goers might peddle over to Johnny Mango World Café & Bar on Bridge Avenue, then to the Nano Brew on West 25th Street and end nearby at the Market Garden Brewery or Great Lakes Brewing Co.
In Tremont, a group might peddle over the Abby Road Bridge to Fat Cats on West 10th Street, then up Professor Avenue to the Flying Monkey Pub or the Bourbon Street Barrel Room and end at The South Side on West 11th Street.
Stanek said that “one of the neatest parts (of CCT) is that it is so different from my day job. And, I have been seeing the changes in the neighborhoods as Cleveland downtown food and entertainment venues have exploded over the last couple of years. This is truly fun.”
Sweet, Chewy Success
Founder: Erika Boll
Former life: Retail merchandising for Victoria’s Secret and others
Start-up: The Toasted Oat LLC, 2013
Product: Gluten-free granola
Tag line: Sprinkle, Munch, Devour
Growth: Product in some 200 stores, up from 6
COSE: $10,000 second-place, 2013
When Erika Boll entered the 2013 Business Pitch Competition, six Columbus grocery stores sold granola made by The Toasted Oat, her three month-old start-up company.
The month following Boll’s $10,000 second-place win, Heinen’s agreed to launch The Toasted Oat in all of its stores. It was the beginning of impressive growth for the company. Today, the granola’s four flavors are on the shelves of more than 200 grocers, including Kroger stores in Ohio and Kentucky, all Whole Foods Markets in the mid-Atlantic region and Kings Food Markets and Balducci’s grocers in the Northeast.
Boll said the COSE prize money allowed her to move from a shared kitchen to a leased space. “It became obvious that we needed to move,” Boll said. “After the COSE win, I signed a lease on a kitchen space, purchased an oven and sink and made all the electrical and other upgrades required by the agriculture department. The COSE money was the catalyst.”
A contract with an Akron distributor followed and Boll soon took over adjoining space to have room to hold TheToasted Oat ingredients and pallets of granola boxes she ships to grocers. Today the company has 15 employees, plus five who demo her granola in stores.
Boll intended The Toasted Oat for the gluten-free market, but she found that most stores place her granola on their regular, not gluten-free, cereal shelves.
“It’s become a cross-over product. Stores have given us great support and our brand sells 200 to 300 percent above others in its category,” she said.
Boll attributes that to the work she and her team do when The Toasted Oat is introduced into a new store.
“We understand the importance of having customers engaged. Because we are so different than regular granola, people need to try The Toasted Oat. We see people walking away with our little cups and they just stop in their tracks and say, ‘This is unbelievable,’ she commented.
In 2014, Boll won the $25,000 Excellence in Entrepreneurship award from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. She used the money to help expand beyond Ohio and to develop high-volume packaging.
“The COSE award and having the support of the Northeast Ohio community helped us in the judging for the Ohio grant,” she said.
Fans of her granola call it addictive and rivals have attempted – and failed – to duplicate her unique, chewy flavors. Boll developed her recipe from her grandmother’s version.
“When I was going on a trip one time, my husband asked me where the recipe card was….just in case,” she said laughingly. “Now I keep it well hidden.”
What’s next: She has a laundry list of new flavors to eventually add to those Toasted Oat line. All sell for $8.95 in 12-ounce, round and reusable, cardboard boxes.
And she’s aiming for national distribution and increasing her presence in the Celiac market. She is working with local and national organizations, including Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, and doing national promotions for Celiac Awareness Month in May.
This story originally ran in the March/April 2015 issue of the COSE Update.