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Meals on Wheels

John Grossman and Dawn Cordeiro of Holyoke Hummus

John Grossman and Dawn Cordeiro of Holyoke Hummus

As the operator of one of the region’s more popular food trucks points out, food-truck culture in the Pioneer Valley is different than it is in metro areas like Manhattan, where the trucks are a constant street-corner sight. Here, they’re more common at fairs, music festivals, and community gatherings, in addition to city streets. And a few have morphed into brick-and-mortar locations as well, which operate in synergy with the mobile kitchens, giving patrons even more opportunities to experience new tastes.

John Grossman has told the story often about the year — it was 2013 — he attended the Holyoke Brick Race, an annual stock-car event in the Paper City. Organizers arranged for food vendors, but none showed up.

“I had been traveling to New York for work, and I was used to seeing falafel trucks on every other corner, and I really wanted to see food like that here,” he recalled. “I told the mayor, ‘next year, I’m going to be here with a falafel cart.’ He said, ‘go ahead, John, you do that.’ That’s all the inspiration and shoving I needed. Our first gig was the race a year later.”

Grossman calls his food truck the Great Garbanzo, and has since added a smaller trailer called the Little Chickpea. He and his wife, Dawn Cordeiro, have turned their enterprise, Holyoke Hummus, into a staple at events like Food Truck Fridays at MGM Springfield and Abandoned Building Brewery, as well as community events, music festivals, and other gatherings across the region, like last weekend’s Run the Runway 5K at Westover Air Reserve Base.

Festivals and other public gatherings have been key to the success of most regional food trucks, he said, as opposed to places like Manhattan, where they’re a constant sight on city streets.

“There isn’t the urban density to support food trucks” lined up along streets, he noted, adding, however, that MGM and others have done well to create buzz around weekly food-truck events.

“It’s not the people in the casino coming out to that; it’s the people who work downtown who say, ‘hey, there’s a bunch of food trucks,’” he told BusinessWest. Making food trucks a regular sight along city streets outside of festivals and events, he added, requires permitting and parking tangles that can be difficult to navigate, although many have done so in Western Mass.

Like Sun Kim, who launched her food truck, Sun Kim Bop, in Amherst in 2014, but eventually decided downtown Springfield would bring more traffic, so she set up shop in front of Tower Square in downtown Springfield.

Bop is cooked rice molded into a bun and grilled; it’s the foundation for her Bop Burger, a seasoned rice bun with dry seaweed sprinkles, sauteed kimchi, and pork, beef, or chicken in between.

“It’s a tough business, but exciting. It’s a good way to get to know people,” she said. “During the warm season, people want to go outside to eat, or have an outing with their employees, and the food truck can go anywhere — in a field, in a park.”

At events, she added, “so many restaurants come with a tent to set up, and they take quite a while, but with the truck, we can set up within 10 minutes and start to feed people.”

Her authentic Korean street food soon developed a following, but there was a problem: what to do during the cold months?

“We had a long break during the winter, from November through April, when we closed. Food-truck season is quite short — maybe two-thirds of the year — and I felt like people might forget about us during the winter. I felt like we were starting our business over every spring,” she said. “But with a restaurant, we could stay connected to people. They could keep coming back to the same place and remember us.”

So, two years ago, she opened a Sun Kim Bop restaurant on Main Street. And she’s not the only one who turned mobile success into a storefront; Holyoke Hummus opened its restaurant on High Street, across from Holyoke City Hall, two years ago, starting with lunch service and adding breakfast this past January.

Sun Kim says her restaurant patrons will often seek out the food truck

Sun Kim says her restaurant patrons will often seek out the food truck, and vice versa, bringing synergy to her two-pronged business.

For our annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest checks in with a few local food trucks, and learns how that model has evolved for them, or will, into brick and mortar sites that coexist along with those kitchens on wheels.

Local Flavor

Jake Mazar and Will Van Heuvelen both come from a farming background, and both worked at Brookfield Farm in Amherst when they got an idea.

“Will’s background is in cooking and baking, and mine is in business management,” Mazar said. “But we both came to the Valley to pursue agriculture and had a passion for local food.”

Brookfield Farm had no commercial kitchen, though, and the pair wanted to take their food passions further. So they launched a food truck called Wheelhouse.

Jake Mazar (left) says he and Will Van Heuvelen

Jake Mazar (left) says he and Will Van Heuvelen want to take concepts that resonate with the agricultural movement and make them more accessible to the public.

“We wanted to take a lot of the same concepts that resonate so strongly with the local agricultural movement and make them more accessible to the public,” Mazar explained.

Wheelhouse got rolling in 2015, bringing the wheeled kitchen to food-truck events, farmers markets, festivals, and fairs over the first couple of years. It still takes part in some 75 events per year, but mixed in with music festivals, like the Green River Festival, and other public gatherings is an increasing number of private, catered events.

“For some of those, we don’t actually use the food truck,” he said. “Or, sometimes we bring the food truck to a wedding and do a family-style dinner, followed by late-night tacos from the truck. We do a lot of private events, and generally, we don’t do as many public events as we used to.”

That evolution has brought them to the next step, and they’re in the process of purchasing a property in Amherst to — much like Holyoke Hummus and Sun Kim Bop — open up a brick-and-mortar version of Wheelhouse.

“Will and I both think the Valley is such a unique place, in large part because of the agricultural heritage here, and the amazing small farms and growers — and large farms and growers. We can get grain here, dairy, fruit, vegetables, meat, mushrooms, fish — you name it, there’s a different place for it,” he said. “And it’s sort of our mission to highlight the amazing work these growers are doing. The farms contribute in a big way to the culture of our communities, and we want to shine a spotlight on them.”

It’s a shifting spotlight, to be sure, as the menus at Wheelhouse are constantly in flux, based on what’s coming out of the ground locally that month — from spring vegetables to summer fruits to root vegetables when the weather cools down.

“We change the menus basically every week based on what’s fresh, what’s going to be in season,” he said, noting that will be a feature at the brick-and-mortar restaurant, too. “That’s a big challenge, to accommodate what’s available in a given week.”

Dawn Cordeiro are among a handful of food-truck operators

John Grossman and Dawn Cordeiro are among a handful of food-truck operators who have translated their success into a brick-and-mortar restaurant — or are planning to do so.

What helps is that the Pioneer Valley is home to a progressive, multi-cultural, and culinary adventurous population that’s open to new tastes, and that means opportunity for truck owners who can carve out a niche, as Grossman has with his creative takes on falafel and hummus.

“People in Holyoke are interested in a wide variety of foods,” he said.

As for the restaurant, “it has a fun vibe,” he added. “We always knew lunch and dinner would be the bread and butter. But we started breakfast at the beginning of the year, and we also went to seven days a week. We were able to grow the restaurant in ways we weren’t even thinking about.”

He wasn’t sure High Street was ready for a seven-day operation, he noted, because it’s a largely commercial district that clears out after business hours.

But we heard people telling us, ‘I live in Holyoke but work in Springfield, and I can’t get back from work in time to eat at your place. Weekends would be great.’ And weekends are going nicely; people are happy we have food available every day.”

Rolling On

Still, food trucks are still about getting into plenty of outdoor events and raising their profile — usually for one type of food, as Grossman has done, and as Kim has done with Korean street food.

She told BusinessWest she’s relieved to have the Main Street shop, as a food-truck-only business was problematic in some ways. Simply put, it’s not easy to prepare everything without a commercial kitchen, with limited space and always having to supply electricity, gas, and water to the vehicle.

“It was tough; we were working without a real kitchen, like a restaurant has. That’s why we started thinking, ‘if I opened up a restaurant, we could prep all those things in the restaurant’s kitchen.’”

In fact, the truck and restaurant have boosted each other, Kim noted. “Sometimes people who find us at the truck come to the restaurant, and the restaurant people come to the truck. They both have the same logo and colors, and they can make a connection. Rather than having only a restaurant or truck, that really gives us synergy.”

Cordeiro has been out front with marketing Holyoke Hummus — both the food truck and the restaurant — especially online. “We’re mobile, and people are mobile, too, and that’s how you reach them,” Grossman said. “She’s been a great voice for us, explaining who we are and reaching people who’ll want to follow us around and be a part of this.”

As for Mazar, “I like to joke that we started this business just so we get to eat more of Will’s food,” he said. “At the end of the day, we just love food. We’re not trying to be pretentious about it; we just want to make it accessible.”

When asked what he enjoys about the mobile food lifestyle, he was quick to respond.

“It’s the people — well, the combination of people and food. Food trucks are a great interaction between the natural world and the human world. That’s a great inspiration for Will and me. We work with amazing farms — it all starts with them — and we get to see people experience the natural world in an incredibly delicious and satisfying way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Travel and Tourism

Fun in the Sun

Summertime is a great time to get away, but in Western Mass., it’s also a great time to stick around and enjoy the many events on the calendar. Whether you’re craving live music or arts and crafts, historical experiences or small-town pride, the region boasts plenty of ways to celebrate the summer months. Here are a few dozen ideas to get you started.

June

Granby Charter Days
Dufresne Park, Route 202, Granby, MA
www.granbycharterdays.com
Admission: Free
• June 14-16: This annual town fair celebrates the adoption of Granby’s charter in 1768. This year’s event promises an array of local vendors and artisand, arts and crafts, contests, tractor pulls and an antique tractor show, an oxen draw, helicopter rides, a petting zoo, live music headlined by Trailer Trash, midway rides, a pancake breakfast, fireworks, and more.

Worthy Craft Brew Fest
201 Worthington St., Springfield, MA
www.theworthybrewfest.com
Admission: $35-$45
• June 15: Smith’s Billiards and Theodores’ Booze, Blues & BBQ, both in the city’s entertainment district, will host two dozen breweries, live music, and food served up by Theodores’, Thai Chili Food Truck, and Nora Cupcake Co. The event will also feature a home-brew contest; Amherst Brewing will make the winner’s beer and serve it at next year’s Brew Fest.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
358 George Carter Road, Becket
www.jacobspillow.org
Admission: Prices vary
• June 19 to Aug. 25: Now in its 86th season, Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, featuring more than 50 dance companies from the U.S. and around the world. Participants can take in scores of free performances, talks, and events; train at one of the nation’s most prestigious dance-training centers; and take part in programs designed to educate and engage audiences of all ages.

Out! for Reel LGBT Films
274 Main St., Northampton, MA
www.outforreel.net
Admission: $7-$12
• June 22: Out! For Reel LGBTQ Films celebrates National Pride Month with a mini film fest at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton. This year’s theme is “This American Lesbian Life: Uplifting (and Fun) Stories in Short Films.” Out! For Reel invites everyone in the community to enjoy these entertaining, inspiring, and award-winning films.

New England Food Truck Festival
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield, MA
www.nefoodtruckfest.com
Admission: $6-$35
• June 22-23: The New England Food Truck Festival, on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition, is the largest event of its kind in New England, featuring close to 50 of New England’s premier food trucks, live music, and family fun. An array of entertainment is slated throughout the weekend, from local bands to face painting, to enjoy along with a taco, grilled cheese, or hundreds of other tasty options.​

The Capitol Steps
55 Lee Road, Lenox, MA
www.capsteps.com
Admission: $49
• June 28 to Aug. 30: Since they formed in 1981, political satirists the Capitol Steps have recorded more than 30 albums and can be heard four times a year on NPR during their “Politics Take a Holiday” specials. They will release their new CD, The Lyin’ Kings, in time for their annual summer residency at Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort. Cranwell performances are nightly excluding Tuesdays throughout the summer.

July

Old Sturbridge Village Independence Weekend Celebration
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge
www.osv.org
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
• July 3-4: At this celebration of America, visitors can take part in a citizens’ parade, play 19th-century-style ‘base ball,’ march with the militia, make a tri-cornered hat, and sign a giant copy of the Declaration of Independence. Children and families will enjoy some friendly competition with games, and a reproduction cannon will be fired. On July 4, a citizen naturalization ceremony will take place on the Village Common.

Monson Summerfest
Main Street, Monson
www.monsonsummerfestinc.com
Admission: Free
• July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community. The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event — now celebrating its 40th anniversary — has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year.

Berkshires Arts Festival
380 State Road, Great Barrington
www.berkshiresartsfestival.com
Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10
• July 5-7: Ski Butternut may be best-known for … well, skiing, of course. But the property also plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 18th year. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 175 artists and designers, and take in a performance by ‘chamber-folk’ trio Harpeth Rising on July 6.

Brimfield Outdoor Antiques Show
Route 20, Brimfield
www.brimfieldshow.com
Admission: Free
• July 9-14, Sept. 3-8: After expanding steadily through the decades, the Brimfield Antique Show now encompasses six miles of Route 20 and has become a nationally known destination for people to value antiques, collectibles, and flea-market finds. Some 6,000 dealers and close to 1 million total visitors show up at the three annual, week-long events; the first was in May.

Yidstock
1021 West St., Amherst
www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock
Admission: Festival pass, $236; tickets may be purchased for individual events
• July 11-14: Boasting an array of concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2019: the Festival of New Yiddish Music brings the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College. The eighth annual event always offers an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots, music, and culture.

Green River Festival
One College Dr., Greenfield
www.greenriverfestival.com
Admission: Weekend, $139.99; Friday, $44.99; Saturday, $69.99; Sunday, $64.99
• July 12-14: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with hot-air-balloon launches and Friday- and Saturday-evening ‘balloon glows.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 35 bands slated to perform.

Northeast Balloon Festival
41 Fair St., Northampton, MA
www.northeastballoonfestival.com
Admission: $7.50-$15; free for children under 13
• July 12-14: This annual event, held at the Three County Fairgrounds, features balloon rides, walk-in balloons, nighttime balloon glows, and pilot meet-and-greets, as well as a vendor expo, craft beer, live music, and more. More than 30 of New England’s top food trucks will offer an array of tastes, while amusement rides and a petting zoo have been added for the first time.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival
300 North Main St., Florence
www.glasgowlands.org
Admission: $5-$18, free for children under 6
• July 20: Celebrating its 26th anniversary this year, the largest Scottish festival in Massachusetts, held at Look Park, features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries.

Celebrate Ludlow
Ludlow Fish & Game Club
200 Sportsmans Road, Ludlow, MA
Admission: Free
• July 27: Celebrate Ludlow began in 2000 as an extension of a parade and picnic in 1999 to celebrate the town’s 225th anniversary, and has continued annually ever since. The event, held at Ludlow Fish & Game Club and put on with the help of numerous local nonprofit organizations, typically features live bands, food, games, activities for children, and fireworks to cap off the evening.

Hampden County 4-H Fair
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
www.easternstatesexposition.com
Admission: Free
• July 28: More than 200 youth from Hampden County, and 4-H members from Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Worcester counties, will showcase projects they have made, grown, or raised during the past year. Events include a horse show and other animal exhibitions, a fun run, a talent show, a scavenger hunt, raffle drawings, arts and crafts, and more.

August

High Hopes Music and Arts Festival
One MGM Way, Springfield, MA
www.mgmspringfield.com
Admission: $25-$35
• Aug. 3: Paddle Out Productions is partnering with MGM Springfield to bring a day of music, food, and arts to the Plaza at MGM Springfield. Renowned Queen tribute band Almost Queen will headline the bill and will be joined by Roots of Creation’s Grateful Dub, a reggae-infused tribute to the Grateful Dead; the Eagles Experience; and local acts Atlas Grey and Joon.

Kids Safety Expo
1000 Hall of Fame Ave., Springfield, MA
www.kidssafetyexpo.com
Admission: Free
• Aug. 3: Children and parents can combine fun activities with critical safety education during the 11th annual Kids Safety Expo at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Attendees will have meet-and-greets with area law-enforcement officers, popular characters, and local mascots, and the first 500 children who attend will receive complimentary bicycle helmets.

Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield
www.springfieldjazzfest.com
Admission: Free
• Aug. 10: The sixth annual event will offer a festive atmosphere featuring dozens of locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend. This internationally heralded festival has become a powerful expression of civic pride, uniting the region’s diverse cultural communities through music, arts, education, and revelry.

Downtown Get Down
Exchange Street, Chicopee
www.chicopeegetdown.com
Admission: Free
• Aug. 23-24: Downtown Chicopee will once again be transformed into a massive block party. Now in its fifth year, the event — which typically draws some 15,000 people to the streets around City Hall — will feature live music from nine bands, as well as attractions for children, local food vendors, live art demonstrations, and a 5K race on Aug. 24.

Celebrate Holyoke
Downtown Holyoke
www.celebrateholyokemass.com
Admission: Free
• Aug. 23-25: Celebrate Holyoke is a three-day festival that made its return in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus. This year’s festival, expected to draw more than 10,000 people downtown, will include plenty of live musical performances, food and beverages from local restaurants, activities for children and families, and goods from local artists, crafters, and creators of all kinds.

Red Fire Farm Tomato Festival
7 Carver St., Granby, MA
www.redfirefarm.com
Admission: $5; free for children under 8
• Aug. 24: When the tomatoes are ripe and delicious in the August fields, Red Fire Farm hosts its annual Tomato Festival. Attendees can taste (and buy) a rainbow of tomato varieties grown on the farm and vote for their favorites. Bands play out back while visitors snack on food from local vendors, go on a wild edibles walk, pick cherry tomatoes, listen in on a cooking workshop, and more.

September

Glendi
22 St. George Road, Springfield
www.stgeorgecath.org/glendi
Admission: Free
• Sept. 6-8: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and more.

Mattoon Street Arts Festival
Mattoon Street, Springfield
www.mattoonfestival.org
Admission: Free
• Sept. 7-8: Now in its 47th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination.

FreshGrass Festival
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams
www.freshgrass.com
Admission: $48-$135 for three-day pass; free for children under 6
• Sept. 20-22: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the Fresh Grass festival is among the highlights, showcasing more than 50 bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Greensky Bluegrass, Calexico and Iron & Wine, Andrew Bird, Mavis Staples, Kronos Quartet, Tinariwen, Steep Canyon Rangers, and many more.

All Summer Long

Valley Blue Sox
MacKenzie Stadium, 500 Beech St., Holyoke
www.valleybluesox.com
Admission: $5-$7; flex packs $59-$99
• Through. Aug. 1: Western Mass. residents don’t have to trek to Boston to catch quality baseball. The Valley Blue Sox, two-time defending champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, play close to home at MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke. Frequent promotional events like postgame fireworks and giveaways help make every game a fun, affordable event for the whole family.

Westfield Starfires
Bullens Field, Westfield, MA
www.westfieldstarfires.com
Admission: $7-$10
• Through. Aug. 4: The newest baseball team to land in Western Mass., the Starfires, a member of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, is playing its inaugural season at Bullens Field in a city with plenty of baseball history. The league itself has been expanding and growing its attendance in recent years, and 30 of its players were drafted last June by major-league organizations.

Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Road, Stockbridge, MA
www.berkshirebotanical.org
Admission: $12-$15; free for children under 12
• Through. Oct. 11: With 15 acres of public gardens, Berkshire Botanical Garden’s mission is to fulfill the community’s need for information, education, and inspiration concerning the art and science of gardening and the preservation of the environment. In addition to the garden’s collections, visitors can enjoy workshops, special events, and guided tours.

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting
2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont
www.crabapplewhitewater.com
Admission: Varies by activity
• Through. Oct. 14: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters.

The Zoo in Forest Park
293 Sumner Ave., Springfield, MA
www.forestparkzoo.org
Admission: $5-$10; free for children under 1
• Through. Oct. 14: The Zoo in Forest Park, located inside Springfield’s Forest Park, is home to more than 175 native and exotic animals representing a large variety of species found throughout the world and North America. Meanwhile, the zoo maintains a focus on conservation, wildlife education, and rehabilitation, while offering special events like Zoo on the Go, guided tours, and discovery programs.

Six Flags New England
1623 Main St., Agawam, MA
www.sixflags.com/newengland
Admission: $46.99; season passes $75.99
• Through. Oct. 27: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Cyborg Hyper Drive, a spinning thrill ride in the dark. Other recent additions include Harley Quinn Spinsanity, the Joker 4D Free Fly Coaster, the looping Fireball, and the 420-foot-tall New England Sky Screamer swings. And the Hurricane Harbor water park is free with admission.

Historic Deerfield
84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA
www.historic-deerfield.org
Admission: $5-$18;
free for children under 6
• Year-round: This outdoor museum interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850, and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. Summer activities include educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period items and art.

 

Construction

Shining Example

Sean Callahan and James Jaron didn’t expect the level of competition — make that outright opposition — they faced when they decided to enter the field of lighting distribution, which is dominated by a handful of huge, national players. But through patience, persistence, and adherence to a customer-first philosophy, they broke through, and gradually expanded their locally owned firm into a major regional player. And they’re not done lighting the way to further growth.

Opening a business — and keeping it going — isn’t an easy proposition. Still, Sean Callahan and James Jaron had no idea what obstacles lay before them when they decided to open Ion Lighting Distribution Inc. in 2016.

Jaron owned Zap Electric in Chicopee, and Callahan worked for Needham Electric Supply. “One day, we decided we needed to perfect one area of the distribution business, and that was the lighting,” Jaron said, noting that, in the large, corporate-owned stores, “the guy across the counter knows nothing about lighting, so he has to call somebody to call somebody to get some rep to talk to you” — and that adds layers of cost.

“So we established a distribution company from scratch, against all odds,” he said.

Those odds included a full-court press by those aforementioned large companies, he recalled. “They made a big effort to make sure we failed by cutting off our supply houses and manufacturers, telling them, ‘we’re multi-million-dollar companies; don’t sell to these guys, or we’re going to cut you off.”

Callahan remembers it well. “The day we started the company, I reached out to people I’d known for 15 or 18 years. All the manufacturers’ reps, literally 100%, across the board, all of them said ‘no.’ I was leaving a perfectly good job, I had customers ready to buy, and when I started reaching out to our manufacturers, it was ‘no,’ across the board — because our competition was trying to squeeze us out.”

He went so far as to e-mail the CEOs of those companies, saying, “‘I’ve been selling your products for 15 years.’ And they would look into it and say, ‘we’re not taking on new distribution at this time.’ It was very difficult to get started, but it’s nice to have people coming to us now saying, ‘hey, we screwed up. We didn’t think it was possible you guys would last. We want to do business.’”

Today, the Chicopee-based firm covers the state of Connecticut and Western and Central Mass., and extends into Rhode Island and New York City as well — and is looking to move into its fifth different facility in four years, all to accommodate Ion’s growth. How Callahan, the company’s president and CEO, and Jaron, principal and treasurer, managed that feat is a lesson in persistence.

Early on, Callahan said, “we flew to Hong Kong and China and met with manufacturers. Through that process, we found most major companies were buying overseas. So we got set up with container companies there and here and opened our business. As we got traction, more vendors started jumping on board because they saw we weren’t giving up. But it took a little while.”

Today, Ion purchases only in the U.S., he noted. “But it was tough getting started, and that was our only option at that point. It took a little more capital getting started than we would have liked, but eventually, we got our first vendor here — a small company we never would have thought about.”

Sean Callahan (left) and James Jaron

Sean Callahan (left) and James Jaron are looking for a larger headquarters — it would be their fifth in four years — to consolidate their warehouses and accommodate more growth.

Electricians are busy this summer installing 14,000 LED lights in the Du Bois Library building at UMass Amherst, one example of a large project for which Ion distributed products. But it deals with small businesses, too.

“Little by little,” Callahan said, we started picking up more and more work, and now we can sell top-of-the-line lighting on a big UMass project or commercial job, but we also have affordable lights for someone with a machine shop or small business who doesn’t want to pay top dollar when they can buy a fixture for $50.”

Green from Green

Ion is not an installer, Jaron emphasized; rather, it sells lighting to businesses, municipalities, and schools, as well as contractors, which is the ideal client.

Today, the company is a top-five distributor for Mass Save, a rebate program for using energy-efficient products; all the states Ion distributes in have similar initiatives. But the pitch isn’t just about cost savings.

“Think about the impact we have on the environment — it’s mind-boggling,” he told BusinessWest. “When we think about LEDs, we think about rebates and electric bills, but really, it’s an environmentally conscious thing to do.”

At the same time, the goal is to give customers the best solutions for the best price. “Our products are tested. If it doesn’t pass my scrutiny as an electrician, we don’t put it out,” he said, noting that Energy Star-rated products automatically imply that the fixture has a five-year warranty and has been through a rigorous quality-assessment process.

Jaron also noted that some of the large distributors won’t always explain the Mass Save rebate to customers and pocket the savings themselves.

“We put that savings in your pocket. We’re not doing anything hocus-pocus; we’re just being fair and giving customers what they need. We take care of our customers and talk to them like human beings,” he said. “Companies out there don’t want people to know. They’re gouging the end users. We said, ‘no. Make your margins, make money, but play fair, be a human being.’ You’ve got to do the right thing, and that’s what we’re doing, and that’s why our competition hates us. We’ve disrupted their little game. And our customers are very happy.”

A lot of people don’t understand the Mass Save incentives, Callahan said, so Ion makes a point of helping people maximize them. Jaron added that Ion has no commitment to any manufacturer’s rep, which makes it fairly unique in the upper tier of the industry — and allows for more cost savings.

“When the big supply houses have a commitment, they have to use their product. So when you come in buy a fixture, they’re obligated to use these certain brands for $120 or $130, where we have the same fixture, with the same manufacturer — apples to apples — and we can sell it to you for $80. Then add the Mass Save rebate, and it goes down to $40. Think about that for a second. No wonder they were terrified — because we’re not handcuffed to use certain brands.”

In many cases at corporate-owned distributors, Callahan said, the end user saw the inflated price and often decided not to buy because they didn’t have all the facts and options, and that was frustrating.

“But we found all these little offshoot manufacturers’ reps, all these other companies that we can work with, and can offer good, solid products that I would put up against any mainline manufacturers, and we were able to have stuff people could afford.”

Ion has a presence throughout Southern New England and New York City

Ion has a presence throughout Southern New England and New York City, and a forthcoming e-commerce website aims to expand sales nationally.

Take auto garages, for instance, which use big, 400-watt fixtures that stay on for long hours. Many shop owners have seen the long-term savings of LED lighting — typically knocking off two-thirds to three-quarters of the old cost — and were willing to make the shift. But Mass Save also, in many cases, brought the initial cost of the new fixtures down to nearly nothing.

“And the maintenance is almost none; you can go 10 to 15 years without changing a bulb,” Jaron said. “With the price, the maintenance, and the environment, it’s just a win-win-win.”

Seeing the Light

When Callahan and Jaron went into electrical distribution, they decided early on it would be in everyone’s benefit — theirs and customers’ — to focus on lighting. “That was our niche, that’s what I had a passion for, and it’s what I gravitated toward throughout my career,” Callahan said. “We decided we could do lighting better than anyone else. So that’s all we do.”

It’s a model that has worked. Counting outside salespeople, Ion’s team numbers about 15, and sales have grown significantly every year. After opening in an office above Main Street in Northampton, the firm has relocated three times in the mill district of downtown Chicopee, and is looking to expand again, in order to consolidate all its operations, including its additional warehouses currently located in Palmer and Springfield.

Callahan isn’t worried demand for LED lighting will dry up anytime soon, with so many businesses and municipalities still in need of a changeover. “You can drive down any street anywhere, and you’ll find opportunities.”

Meanwhile, he noted, Ion is getting ready to launch an e-commerce website. “We’re excited to bring it to a national level and start selling to everyone in that way as well.”

He and Jaron are gratified by stories like a big job they supplied lights for in Worcester. They later received letters from the thankful customer, noting that electricity costs had dropped from almost $120,000 a month to around $68,000 — with the savings essentially paying for the project cost in year one.

“Three years ago, it was tough. We’re one of the only privately owned companies like this, because every other supply company is owned by a multi-million-dollar corporation somewhere,” Jaron said. “Now, these reps that didn’t want to talk to us, they’re coming through the doors, apologizing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Implanted Thoughts

Dr. David Hirsh

Dr. David Hirsh says mini dental implants can hold a bridge or crowns in place without requiring surgery and months of recovery.

Early in his career, Dr. David Hirsh used to perform dental work for the then-Springfield Indians, and even back then, there was a clear generational divide among hockey players — one measured by how many teeth they had.

“Everybody used to talk about hockey players having no teeth,” he told BusinessWest. “But the young players grew up with helmets, facemasks, and mouthguards, and they came to the office here, and they had beautiful teeth. Their older counterparts would smile, and there would be nothing there.

“It was a matter of education,” he went on, comparing it to how today’s athletes have a better understanding of concussions for the same reason.

But that focus on education holds true among all dental patients, Hirsh added, not just athletes. Simply put, dentists are seeing people make it past their childhood and young adulthood with healthier teeth than in decades past. “We see a tremendous difference in the younger population, which is very satisfying.”

Since launching his practice in downtown Springfield in 1981 — he has expanded the Bridge Street office four times since then — Hirsh has seen plenty of change in the way care is delivered, particularly in the realm of implants, especially the mini implants he has become known for regionally (more on that later). But some of that change has to do with improving habits.

“We’re here to restore teeth and fix teeth and help patients smile and look good. But we would much rather get these people when they’re younger — meaning children or young adults — and guide them and help them to maintain their teeth,” he explained.

“There’s no fun in making someone a denture,” he went on. “There’s no fun in having to restore a full arch with implants. We do it because there’s a need. But that’s not the goal of dentistry. The goal of dentistry is clearly prevention. My goal has always been having a strong hygiene program, a strong prevention program, and helping guide people — and helping parents guide their children — to better oral health so they won’t have to be in a situation where they need a root canal, bridges, partials, dentures. Those things aren’t the goal. That’s not what we want.”

“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to have a patient come in missing teeth, and they leave here with a beautiful smile, and they have tears in their eyes.”

But because there will always be a need for restorative dentistry, Hirsh — who practices with Dr. Kelly Soares under the umbrella of PeoplesDental — has taken advantage of plenty of innovations in the world of implants, with the goal of restoring not only teeth, but quality of life to patients with less recovery time than ever before.

Tooth of the Matter

When implants first came on the scene a half-century ago, Hirsh said, they were designed differently, and didn’t exclusively use titanium as they do today, so a membrane would form between the metal and the bone, causing the implants to loosen up.

“Today, every implant system is based on titanium technology — all of them,” he explained. “Titanium is the only metal that fuses directly to bone without forming a membrane around it.”

Implants are typically a surgical procedure, placed into exposed bone after the gums are opened up. “A hole is drilled, the implant is tapped in or screwed in very gently, and then the gums are sutured closed, and you have to wait anywhere from six to eight months in the lower jaw — four to six months in the upper — for that titanium implant to fuse with the bone.”

While traditional implants do a good job of anchoring crowns, bridges, and other structures over the long term, mini dental implants, or MDIs, have been a game changer for Hirsh’s practice.

MDIs are solid, one-piece, titanium-coated screws that take the place of a tooth root. They are much thinner than traditional dental implants and were originally designed to hold dentures in place. However, they have other benefits, including the fact that they stimulate and maintain the jawbone, which prevents bone loss and helps to maintain facial features. In addition, they are stronger and more durable than crowns and bridges that have been cemented into place.

They were first used in the ’90s and have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for long-term use for fixed crowns and bridges and removable upper and lower dentures.

PeoplesDental in Springfield is now certified among a group known as Mini Dental Implants Centers of America — the only one, in fact, in a region that stretches from the Berkshires to Worcester, and from Vermont to Hartford. The organization is associated with the Shatkin Institute, the largest training center in America for MDIs.

“For reasons I don’t understand, mini implants in this area in New England are not widely utilized,” Hirsh told BusinessWest. “I think we’re a little slower than other areas of the country to experiment and do new things. When we have something that works, we don’t like to change. When traditional implants began in the late 1960s, early ’70s, the biggest negative voices were from dentists themselves — ‘you can’t put metal in somebody’s bone.’ Then, all of a sudden, by seeing what could be done, they came around.”

The same may soon happen with MDIs, he went on. “More people around the country are learning that minis are a very, very good alternative to traditional implants. The mini implants are not shorter, they’re just narrower; the largest minis today are equivalent to the thinnest traditional implants. The difference is basically the placement of them and what’s involved from a patient perspective.”

Most notably, no surgery is involved. Rather, the dentist makes a small hole through the gum tissue and into the bone, and screws the implant in.

“It gets its retention from the screwing effect, so you don’t have to wait six to eight months,” Hirsh explained. “That very day, you take an impression and make your final crown or bridge or whatever you’ll use it for.”

He likened the procedure to drilling a thin screw into a piece of wood. “You drill a pilot hole first, then put a screw in that’s a little bigger than the hole, so it bites into the wood. The same thing happens here, except it bites into the bone. It’s about half the cost, it’s less invasive, and there’s less chance of infection and the many types of sensitivity and soreness afterward because that usually comes from the cutting and the stitching.”

Quality of Life

More important, however, is the impact of mini implants on patients’ quality of life, Hirsh said, particularly for those wearing lower dentures.

“Lower dentures float all over the place. Nobody’s ever happy with their lower denture. It sits on a ridge like a horseshoe, and their tongue hits it and lifts it up, and they use pastes and powders that are uncomfortable and taste bad. And at restaurants, they can only eat what their teeth permit them to eat.”

With mini implants, however, a dentist can place four implants into the arch and corresponding attachments into their denture, and the denture can snap into place that same day. When they are used to stabilize upper dentures, the palate portion of the denture can be cut away, which makes it more comfortable and improves the taste of food.

“They can take it out to clean it, but it’s not going to move around,” he said. “There’s no paste or powder, it’s cost-effective, and it changes their life. I’ve done commercials with patients who bite into apples or corn with dentures, and they feel it’s rock solid.”

That’s gratifying for someone who has spent nearly 40 years helping people find solutions to dental issues that stem from genetics, accidents, environmental factors, and plain old bad habits.

In his earlier days, he explained, before dental insurance became more widely accessible, it was more common than today for families to avoid the dentist because of cost — or, if a tooth went bad, just opt for an extraction over a root canal.

“They were in a bad financial situation, or they weren’t educated to take care of their teeth, or a combination of both,” he told BusinessWest. “One tooth goes bad, and they need a root canal to save it, but they don’t want to spend the money, or don’t see the value in it. So they have that tooth extracted, and a year later, another one hurts, and it’s the same thing. All of a sudden, you’re looking at half a mouth of teeth, and half a mouth can’t do the work of a full mouth.”

Sometimes it’s a long process — decades, perhaps — to get to that point, or perhaps something happened suddenly, like a car accident or being struck in the teeth, but without insurance, it can be a challenge for families to get the work they need, at a time when procedures have become less invasive, in many cases, and more cutting-edge.

That’s changing, he said, not just on the insurance front, but as the result of decades of education and advertising the benefits of healthy oral habits. “When I see today’s young people, I don’t think, in the future, we’re going to see the amount of restorative need we see today.”

Until then, Hirsh aims to continue fixing what he can and helping young people forge a path to a future without implants. He’s scaled back to three days a week as he approaches retirement, but says the leisure activities of those coming years may not make him as happy as his current work does.

“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to have a patient come in missing teeth, and they leave here with a beautiful smile, and they have tears in their eyes,” he said. “I’m not a golfer, but I fully understand hitting a great golf shot is very satisfying — but no one can convince me it’s as satisfying as doing something like that for a patient.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Passion for Practice

Last week, Western New England University School of Law graduated its latest class, all of them surely thinking about the road ahead — specifically, the bar exam and the planned first stops on their career paths. But they’re also reflecting on long-term goals and the experiences and mindsets that have shaped those ambitions, in a field of law as broad and diverse as it is challenging. BusinessWest spoke with four of them to put a face — several, actually — on the WNEU Law class of 2019.

Stand Up and Represent

Sometimes, a work experience is more than that, because it sparks a passion. For Kate Malone, she found that passion interning for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), a public-defense organization, in Northampton.

“I really admired the attorneys I worked with and the people who put such effort and compassion into what they do every day, regardless of the client,” she said. “I really like being in that role — even when the facts are against me, I like being able to stand up and represent somebody.”

An interest in work that serves the public interest wasn’t new for Malone, but she had been searching for the right role.

“I initially wanted to find some way to use my degree working in the community, and I started doing work in the immigration clinics,” she said, noting that, during her first summer away from WNEU, she traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish in an immersion program, then came back and split time between school and the public-defense work.

“I’ve always found a way to relate to people I serve and trying to find ways to give them not only a great defense, but the best opportunities going forward.”

There was a time when Malone had envisioned herself across the aisle, in a prosecutor’s role, especially during her undergraduate years at Smith College, when she interned in the Victim/Witness Unit of the Northwestern District Attorney’s office. “I knew that I wanted to be a trial lawyer after spending my summer in court with the victim witness advocates,” she said, adding, however, that her work with CPCS led her in a different direction. She did credit the DA’s office, however, with lending her the sensitivity she finds necessary for her work as a public defender.

“I developed a passion for public defense after observing the challenges people accused of crime often face that I did not fully appreciate before,” she went on. “The issues that my clients experience — namely, poverty, substance-use issues, and mental-health disorders — often contribute to them cycling in and out of court.”

As for her immediate plans, Malone will continue working for CPCS — and helping to fill what she sees as a desperate need for public defenders. “I’m happy to be joining CPCS to help fill that gap, and also helping serve the people in the community I grew up in,” she noted.

Kate Malone — pictured, at center

Kate Malone — pictured, at center, with fellow grads Veronice Santana and Claribel Morales — says an internship sparked a passion for public defense, specifically standing up for often-marginalized people.

“I’ve always found a way to relate to people I serve and trying to find ways to give them not only a great defense, but the best opportunities going forward,” she went on. “The way their cases get resolved matters — it has an impact I’d never even considered before law school.”

Taxing — but Fascinating

Emily Eash entered law school with an interest following in the footsteps of her aunt, who operates an estate-planning practice. But she soon stumbled across a different passion — although ‘passion’ might not be the first word most people would use to desribe it.

That field is tax law.

“When I took my first tax course — it wasn’t required, but I was curious — I was hooked, and I wanted to take all the tax courses they had to offer,” Eash said.

She found out she was good at it, too, placing second in the Young Lawyers Tax Challenge, a national annual competition, held in New Orleans this past January. “I was already interested in tax law, and that cemented that I was fairly decent at what I do.”

“Tax is always a puzzle; there are moving parts and different ways you can create a plan or figure out the puzzle to best suit a client’s needs and wants.”

It helps that she considers the wonkier aspects of the discipline, well, kind of fun.

“Tax is always a puzzle; there are moving parts and different ways you can create a plan or figure out the puzzle to best suit a client’s needs and wants. To get the best outcomes, it takes a lot of moving pieces and interacting with the client to help them achieve their goals.”

Eash isn’t sure where her first landing spot will be — she’s still interviewing for jobs, and would like to land in a small to medium-sized firm to start out — but she’s been impressed by the sheer range of opportunities, both in the tax-law discipline and across the legal realm in general.

“Some of my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do and stayed on that track,” she said. “Others, like me, were thinking they’d do something else and found a different branch off the main tree.”

One thing many young lawyers have in common is a desire to help people, and they don’t wait until they’re out of school to do it.

“I’ve done a clinic with the Housing Court in Springfield, and that’s been very gratifying, helping people access the system. Well, it’s not so much helping them, but giving them the tools they need to access the system and have a fair outcome,” Eash said. “That’s been really nice — I’ve been in the Housing Court for seven months, and it’s been a very fulfilling experience, with a lot of courtroom time and client triage.”

Emily Eash

Emily Eash was surprised at how much she enjoyed her first tax-law course — then turned it into a potential career.

From that perspective, the entire field of law may be seen as a series of puzzles to solve — not just intellectual exercises, but challenges with real stakes, and an opportunity to make a difference.

Broad Outlook

Zac Broughton is a bit of Renaissance man when it comes to the law. At least, he’d like to be.

“I think my favorite part about law is that I don’t have to stay with one thing for the rest of my life,” he said. “As law continues to evolve over time — with new technology, new situations, new philosophical debates to participate in — my desire is to be part of that conversation in whatever area of the law I’m working in.”

Broughton, who will be clerking at Connecticut Appellate Court later this year, honed his multi-faceted approach as editor in chief of the Western New England Law Review.

“I loved working through different areas of the law, but also helping other people find their voice to help advance one area of the law or another — and inspiring my staff and reminding them that we’re stewards of the law, and they should help advance it any way they can. What’s the next legal challenge we can help the legal world solve with the piece we were publishing?”

Broughton has dreams of running for public office someday — or at least being involved in the political scene — but he also wants to work in the public sector with underprivileged populations, particularly individuals with disabilities. That’s a passion that started in his undergraduate years at UMass Amherst — specifically, in the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, which runs an organization called the Ability Experience, whose purpose is to raise money for people with disabilities.

Zac Broughton

Zac Broughton says he’s excited to explore myriad areas of the law — and perhaps run for political office — during his career.

That’s a lot of goals, but there’s nothing wrong with exploring myriad paths in the law, he said. “To say I’ve settled on one area of the law right now is not true. But that means every day, I go to work excited and interested in what comes next.”

Broughton understands that a law degree doesn’t have to mean working in what people might consider traditional legal settings. For instance, at UMass, he earned a master’s degree in higher education administration, and can envision himself someday working in the higher-ed field.

“Today, there’s a host of outside things impacting how higher education operates in law, such as funding Title IX; it’s an incredible time to be working on a college campus and seeing how that intersects with the law.”

In short, it’s good to have options.

“I still want to run for office; I want to work in government,” he said. “It’s all interesting to me.”

A Passion on Hold

Sara Idris was on the cusp of middle school when 9/11 changed the complexion of the country, in many ways for the worse.

“Soon after that, the Patriot Act came out, and I was hearing about these people imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without cause,” she recalled. I wrote a lot of research papers on that, and it became my passion to go to law school and get justice for people who can’t get justice for themselves.”

As a student of Pakistani descent, she was sometimes harassed in school in the coming years, but the perpetrators were never disciplined, which further solidified her resolve to be an advocate for victims of persecution — or worse.

“I knew the injustice done to me wasn’t on the level done to people all over the world, and I saw a future for myself in human-rights law.”

She’s not sure when that future will arrive, however. As she works to finish her education — she has one class left to finish and will take the bar exam in February — she continues to work as a form filing specialist at a local intellectual-property law firm.

Sara Idris

Sara Idris says it can be difficult to match one’s passions to financial realities coming out of law school, but she intends to reach her goal of advocating for victims of social injustice.

“I really enjoy this, and I can see myself working here long-term,” she said. “I have a passion for public interest, but given the amount of loans I have, I don’t know if I can risk working in public interest for the next 10 years at a salary that’s probably lower than I’m making now.”

But Idris and her fiancé have a career plan that involves methodically paying off those loans and perhaps navigating her law career toward the issues she’s most passionate about.

She also realizes that a juris doctor degree doesn’t necessarily mean taking the title of lawyer at all. In fact, many law-school students enroll in order to use the JD to move up in the worlds of education, business, finance, nonprofit management, journalism — the possibilities are endless.

“I spoke with my supervisor here, and she talked to me about how other people have moved up in different departments not working as lawyers, but utilizing the skills they’ve learned in other ways.”

That’s one value of the degree, she went on. “While I want to practice law, I don’t necessarily have to.”

Still, it’s not hard to imagine Idris, down the road, standing up, as she put it, for people struggling to defend themselves against all manner of injustice, and could use a passionate advocate.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Women Supporting Women

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild

When Meghan Rothschild launched Chikmedia as a two-woman operation five years ago, she was determined to build a successful marketing firm that focused heavily, if not exclusively, on women and brought a fierce attitude and a sense of fun into the work. Five years later, as the head of a small team with an ever-growing clientele, she says those philosophies haven’t changed — nor has the need for a company that reminds women of the power they wield when they lift each other up.

Marketing has come a long way in the 21st century, Meghan Rothschild says, in ways many companies struggle to understand.

Take social media.

“When we first started, social media wasn’t what it is today — it was something that businesses absolutely used, but it wasn’t this intricate skill set you have to educate yourself about in order to be up to date on the latest trends. That’s been one of the biggest advances,” said Rothschild, whose marketing firm, Chikmedia, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

“We’ve learned how to use social media from a business perspective in a really successful way,” she went on. “Our social-media management is much more comprehensive, and includes graphic design and creating custom content, and using the live features and story features on all the platforms. That’s evolved quite a bit. But other things about this business are the same, like writing press releases and helping people have grand openings at their businesses.”

“You have all these places that have ample budgets, or have a staff person dedicated to marketing. We like to work with the companies that don’t have that. Marketing is such an important part of business ownership that people forget about.”

Chikmedia is unique in other ways, though. For one, Rothschild — who gives herself the title “chief badass” — says she started the business to put an emphasis on female-run organizations and women business owners with an “edgy, fierce, and authentic” approach.

At its inception, Chikmedia focused mostly on social media, graphic design, and public relations. However, the firm has expanded its services outward, with branded events (more on that later) and a series of educational workshops that aid businesses with social media, personal branding, PR 101, and crisis management, to name a few topics.

While not all clients are female-run companies, the average client, Rothschild explained, is a woman who owns a small to medium-sized business who isn’t sitting on a six-figure marketing budget and, therefore, needs to be creative with her efforts.

“We sort of thrive in that space, finding unique and creative ways to engage audiences that aren’t going to cost you $100,000,” she said. “You have all these places that have ample budgets, or have a staff person dedicated to marketing. We like to work with the companies that don’t have that. Marketing is such an important part of business ownership that people forget about.”

Among its newer clients are the region’s new Futures Collegiate Baseball League team, the Westfield Starfires. Chikmedia also worked with Square One, a Springfield nonprofit that provides a range of early-education and support services, in launching a new service line that expands childcare to all hours of the day. The company has also partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts in sponsoring several events.

In short, it’s a varied clientele, which means a lot of education going both ways.

It all feeds into a “fierce” attitude she further describes as “bold, empowering, having confidence, and positioning clients in a way that they are the experts on their subject matter.”

In fact, Rothschild said, empowering women is at the core of everything she does, having been harassed and encountered inappropriate treatment many times in the corporate world — and not only by men.

Educational workshops

Educational workshops have become a staple of Chikmedia’s services — and a way to put more autonomy in clients’ hands.

“It’s one thing to walk into an environment and not be supported by your male peers, but to encounter that from your female peers is really something. It’s frustrating,” she said. “I said, ‘this is going to stop with me. I’m going to start a company whose mission and sole purpose is women lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.’

“As a culture,” she went on, “it’s really easy for us to give each other a hard time and drag each other down and be super competitive, but we want to be the complete opposite of that — women supporting women.”

Choosing a Path

Rothschild had been in marketing for eight years — with stints as marketing and promotions manager at Six Flags, development and marketing manager at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and director of marketing and communications at Wilbraham and Monson Academy — when she teamed up in 2014 with Emily Gaylord, who brought a strong design skillset to the partnership they called Chikmedia.

With about two dozen clients coming aboard in the first few months, including Bueno y Sano, UMass Dining, Papa John’s, ArchitectureEL, Energia Fitness, SkinCatering, and Lioness magazine, they were, frankly, overwhelmed with the early response and realized they had something that was more than a “side hustle,” as Rothschild put it.

Gaylord eventually left the company to pour more of her time and passion into the Center for EcoTechnology, where she works as Communications and Engagement director. Meanwhile, Rothschild was balancing ownership of Chikmedia with a full-time gig at IMPACT Melanoma. A survivor of the disease who had built a national platform for skin-safety advocacy, she was working for IMPACT as Marketing and Public Relations manager when he realized she had to make a choice.

“I spent about four years at IMPACT, and last year, the success of Chikmedia was getting to the point where it wasn’t sustainable — I couldn’t do both. And I felt like Chikmedia was the right path.” Today, she still serves as a spokesperson for IMPACT, which is among Chikmedia’s clients.

As the company has grown its client base, Rothschild said, so has its emphasis on education and training, both one on one with clients and in the community.

“We’ll do a training for anyone. We did one-hour training for a client on Constant Contact; she was new to the software, so she brought me in, and I walked her through,” she recalled. “If you have someone in your office that’s supposed to be managing Instagram and they don’t know how to use it, instead of giving them a month or two months to learn all the intricacies of it, bring us in for an hour, and we’ll educate them on what to do. That way, we’re putting the power back into corporate hands. A lot of people would love for us to manage their social media, but it’s not the most cost-efficient thing as opposed to us coming in and training your staff how to do it.”

“I’m going to start a company whose mission and sole purpose is women lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.”

She also teaches personal branding and social media at Springfield College, calling education a “side passion” alongside marketing and helping firms grow. Often, she takes what she’s done in those classes and packages the material into condensed workshops for clients and other audiences, like a three-part series she recently conducted on navigating one’s personal brand — what it is and why it’s important.

“It’s super relevant,” she said. “Think about social media. Even though universities are starting to adapt, starting to insert it into the curriculum, it’s definitely not a standard part of the curriculum. So I’m helping to fill that void until everyone catches up.”

While teaching, though, she’s often learning — specifically, about each client and industry she takes on.

“Our specialty is learning the industry, and we’re working with everything from financial investment firms to UMass Dining, Dunkin’ Donuts, local spas like SkinCatering and Beauty Batlles, nonprofit organizations, event-planning companies … we’re sort of a mix. I always say to clients, if we don’t know something about this subject matter, we’re going to learn it.”

She tries to be honest with each potential client, too. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘this is what I need,’ and I’ve said, ‘I don’t think we’re the right fit for you; I think you should go to XYZ.’ Or, ‘I don’t think you’re ready for marketing yet; I think you should see a business advisor first.’ We’re not going to put a square peg in a round hole. We want the right fit.”

Fun with a Purpose

In all those efforts, she’s also passionate about keeping the emphasis on making marketing and branding fun. When BusinessWest sat down with Rothschild and Gaylord five years ago, after the launch of Chikmedia, they said if they’re another stressor in a client’s day, they’re not doing their job right. Today, as the sole business owner, Rothschild has not abandoned that philosophy.

“I can be hard to stay true to that because, as an entrepreneur, you’re trying to stay afloat and get all the work done. But I made a promise to myself when I made this a full-time job I was going to continue that path and have fun in everything I do. You spend the majority of your waking hours at work; you’d better enjoy what you do and be passionate about it.”

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, was one of many women business owners show-cased at Chiks’ Night Out.

Part of that sense of fun comes out during the firm’s branded events, such as Chiks’ Night Out event, which took place in Springfield in March to promote the spring line of Addy Elizabeth, a chic clothing boutique.

“All the focus is on women entrepreneurs, so all the models and sponsors are women entrepreneurs. We’re not calling them models, but women business owners. When they walk on runway, we describe their outfit — and their business. So women are learning what women on the runway have to offer them in terms of services.”

Then there’s a bus tour called Chiks’ Day Out, a sort of shopping trip where every stop is a female business.

“That’s how our events are positioned,” Rothschild said. “We want leave them tingling, saying, ‘oh my God, there’s such a need for this — for women to connect in a fun way.’ It creates a sense of community.”

Chikmedia promotes connections through its strong social-media presence as well, on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as its own blog — not to mention its line of branded merchandise, like T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like ‘Boss Chik.’

“I see women wearing our T-shirts, hats, and sunglasses, and I’m not sure if there’s another local firm that has that kind of presence,” she told BusinessWest. “I really am proud of that, how we’ve been able to leverage our own brand to help our clients.”

Besides its core team of four in Western Mass., Rothschild has an intern in Providence, a part-time accountant, and contractors spread out over its service areas, which extend beyond this region into Boston, Cape Cod, Rhode Island, and Charlotte, N.C. In today’s high-tech world, she said, there’s plenty a company can do remotely for clients, although she needs to be in front of them for certain tasks, like running events and producing video content for social media.

And there’s plenty of room for the firm to grow, she noted, adding that its success in its first five years has been a gratifying challenge — in every sense of both words.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t I say I enjoy being my own boss,” she said. “Of course, as an entrepreneur, you say, ‘I’m going to manage my own schedule and take vacations,’ and the reality is you never take vacations. Even when you go on vacation, you’re on the phone. When you’re a business owner, you’re the business. It’s my burden to bear; its not someone else’s. It’s not someone telling me to do something; it’s me being accountable to myself.”

Still, she added, “I love marketing and PR, I love social media, I love writing. Having control of my own company makes me happy, and my team makes me happy — they’re smart, awesome people. I genuinely love what I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Building a Pipeline

Joe Marcelino with some of the 90 devices on the machining floor of the center’s 2017 expansion

Joe Marcelino with some of the 90 devices on the machining floor of the center’s 2017 expansion.

With much of the manufacturing workforce starting to age out and a dearth of young people entering the field, companies have been struggling for some time to find the skilled employees they need to grow. One successful model changing the equation is the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Asnuntuck Community College, which is placing students with a one-year certificate to work in good-paying careers — while meeting area companies’ critical talent needs. It is, in short, a true win-win.

When Joe Marcelino spoke to a group of Hartford Public High School students recently, he came armed with some numbers — and a common-sense pitch.

Among the numbers was the starting salary for students who earn a one-year certificate at Asnuntuck Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC): typically, in the $45,000 to $50,000 range, and sometimes higher.

The pitch involved the country’s student debt crisis.

“I stressed to them that the opportunity coming through our program is priceless because a lot of the manufacturers actually pay for their continued education,” said Marcelino, an instructor at the center. “So not only do you come out of our program with a decent income, but you have the opportunity to go to school at night without debt — and student debt really follows you.”

The main pitch, of course, is the job itself, and how the center has partnered with manufacturers — in both Connecticut and Massachusetts — to create work opportunities for both young people and career changers, and address what has been a persistent lack of qualified employees these companies need to grow.

“We can almost promise you a job coming out of our program,” Marcelino said, “while if you get a four-year degree in, say, English, you might not have a job coming out — but you’ll have all that debt.”

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has been around for 20 years, but it received a major overhaul two years ago with the opening of a 27,000-square-foot addition, more than doubling its space. It includes an 11,000-square-foot machining lab with 90 computerized numeric control (CNC) and manual machines, an additive-manufacturing lab equipped for both plastic and metal 3D printing, a metrology lab featuring computerized measuring machines, and state-of-the-art computer labs — and a whole lot more.

“I stressed to them that the opportunity coming through our program is priceless because a lot of the manufacturers actually pay for their continued education.”

But the center’s most impressive offering may be those partnerships with area manufacturers, who have guided ACC in crafting the certificate program as a way to get skilled workers in their doors.

“With manufacturing booming in Connecticut again and all over the world, demand for skilled labor right now is really high,” Marcelino said during a recent tour of the facility with BusinessWest. “When I was in high school 25 years ago, a lot of the counselors and teachers were deterring us from getting into the trades. That’s partly why there’s such a shortage now in the industry.

“A lot of contracts are being signed by some of our largest manufacturers, like Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, and Electric Boat,” he went on, “but because of what was happening 25 years ago, there’s a shortage now because a lot of people are leaving the industry and there’s nobody qualified to fill these positions.”

Normally, advanced manufacturers are looking for people with three to five years of experience. But ACC students are interning during their second semester and being hired for jobs immediately after, at good salaries. The reason is that the curriculum is customized according to industry needs.

Mary Bidwell

Mary Bidwell said the national conversation is changing around student debt and careers — like many in manufacturing — that don’t require massive loads of it.

And that foundation, he explained, is something companies can build on, hiring certificate holders, further training them up, and often providing additional education opportunities along with that full-time paycheck.

“A lot of the companies we partner with pay tuition reimbursement, so it’s a real win-win,” said Mary Bidwell, interim dean of the AMTC. “You can get a certificate, start working, and chip away at a degree.”

That makes sense at a time when exploding college debt has become a worrisome economic drain, and a national story.

“The conversations are changing,” she said. “You don’t need all that debt. You can do this and still get that engineering degree later; a great engineer still needs the hands-on training in how a part is made and what the machines can do. In fact, engineers come here to take classes.”

And that certificate doesn’t even need to result in a job on a manufacturing floor, she added, noting that some have used the training, and continued education, as a springboard into manufacturing sales, teaching, and management, to name a few pathways. “We give them a good, rounded foundation where they can get a career and then grow from there.”

A Different Floor

While perceptions are changing about today’s manufacturing floor, Bidwell said, there’s still some work to be done to get young people — and their parents, who grew up with different ideas — interested.

“A lot of parents, when they think of manufacturing, think of a dark, dingy, dirty environment, so when they hear their kids want to go into that, they say, ‘no, don’t do that.’ They haven’t seen manufacturing as it is today. It’s very clean and technology-driven. And from where you start to where you can advance is unbelievable.”

That’s the message ACC is sharing not only with parents, but with guidance counselors and teachers, some of whom are invited in during the summer to see the facility and learn about career opportunities. “It’s about educating the people who educate the students,” she explained.

Those efforts are working. While student ages can range from 18 to 65, the average age at the center during the Great Recession, when many more people were looking to switch careers, was around 45. Today, it’s 28.

The center’s mechatronics lab

The center’s mechatronics lab gives students experience in the growing world of robotics.

“We give them a great foundation to build upon,” Bidwell said, “and the pathway is there to do whatever they like.”

That foundation begins with a hands-on approach to learning the machinery and techniques — from 3D printers, lathes, and surface grinders to welding and robotics labs, Marcelino said. And it’s a healthy mix of manual and CNC machines.

“The companies tell us the students still need to know the old-school skills; they need that foundation in order to make the transition into the CNC world, which are machines you write a program for in a computer, and then set up the machine to run the part for you. You need to know both ways.

“There’s no such thing as close enough in this industry,” he added. “The parts have to be made right. Precision is precision. I like to call this a work-ready program because our job is to get them the skills to get them a job.”

Those skills include — actually, the center emphasizes — ‘soft skills,’ especially punctuality.

“We’re really high on attendance and punctuality because that’s what the employers say is the biggest issue they have,” he said. “The other big issue we’ve been encountering is cell phones. Cell phones are a big distraction. We don’t allow them in class or in the shop. Some employees don’t even want them in the building, so we implement that here.”

Those second-semester internship opportunities — two days a week, with the other three days spent back at Asnuntuck — are based partly on grades, but mostly on attendance.

“The employer gets to feel out the student, and the student gets to feel out the company, and they’re getting a real training in what they’ll be doing,” Marcelino said. “Ninety percent of the time, that ends in a job offer. So we’re doing a lot of the training for the companies, and that’s what the companies are looking for. When they hire off the streets, the employees don’t always get it.”

Even in a healthy economy, the AMTC still attracts a good number of mid-life career changers who see opportunities they don’t have in their current jobs. Meanwhile, high-school students can take classes at ACC to gain manufacturing credits before they enroll, and a second-chance program gives incarcerated individuals hands-on experience to secure employment once they’re eligible for parole.

It all adds up to a manufacturing resource — and, thus, an economic driver — that has attracted plenty of public funding from the state and from Aerospace Components Manufacturers, a regional nonprofit network of aerospace companies that has long supported the center’s mission, most recently with a $170,632 donation on May 15. The investment arrives, Marcelino said, because the results of the program are evident.

“Students aren’t going to learn everything, but they’re going to have that foundation they need to make an impact right away in the industry,” he explained. “They’re getting the basic skills. There are programs out there that specialize in this or specialize in that. But in our program, we’re giving them a little bit of everything.”

Demand Continues

From what he hears from companies that partner with ACC’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, Marcelino doesn’t expect any dip in opportunity for students — young and old — who want to explore the modern manufacturing world.

“We can’t keep up with the demand employers have, which is a good problem to have,” he told BusinessWest. “We just need to keep getting the word out about the opportunities in manufacturing. People think, ‘manufacturing, oh, it’s dirty, oily, stinky,’ but times have changed. Technology has changed. And as technology changes, more doors open. The medical industry for machining is booming right now.”

That said, it’s not an easy job, although, for the right candidate, it is a rewarding one.

“They have to want to be here. It’s not for everybody, and you’ll get out of it what you put in,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that the program works, but you have to want it. But the ones that do, they take off. It’s phenomenal what they do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Adding It Up

It’s no secret that too many Americans make poor borrowing decisions, fail to save for retirement, even lack basic budgeting skills. That financial-literacy deficit begins early, say local bank and credit-union officials, which is why area institutions offer programs and classes to help people — both teenagers and adults — forge better strategies for making their money work for them, not drag them down.

So much, Lena Buteau says, comes down to tiny decisions that add up.

Take that morning coffee. If someone spends $2.69 at Dunkin’ Donuts every morning, that comes out to well over $900 a year. Spend $7 or $8 on lunch five times a week instead of packing a lunch at home, and you’re looking at around $2,000 a year.

“When you think you can’t afford something, look at your daily expenses,” said Buteau, vice president of Retail Administration at Monson Savings Bank, while explaining the importance of MSB’s financial-literacy programs, many of which target students, but which are needed by many adults, too.

For instance, people of all ages often struggle to understand the long-term impact of buying on credit, she noted, using the example of someone who buys a $650 laptop at Best Buy but takes a $150-off deal to put it on a store credit card at 25% interest, then pays only the minimum every month. At that rate, that laptop would be paid off in seven years — eventually costing more than double its original price tag.

“When you explain this, the kids are shocked at the numbers,” she said. “It really touches home.”

Because so many habits and philosophies are forged early, Buteau said, “we go in and teach students about saving, lending, credit scams, how to keep your money safe, and much more.”

And it’s not just schools, she added. “We want to go to church groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, anybody that will give us an hour of time for a financial-literacy class.”

“No disrespect to the schools, but they’re not preparing kids for real life — how your credit score affects your insurance and buying a car, how to handle a checkbook.”

Michael Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, said his institution has an internal focus on financial literacy.

“No disrespect to the schools, but they’re not preparing kids for real life — how your credit score affects your insurance and buying a car, how to handle a checkbook. People don’t go into banks anymore; they do stuff online, and you can get ripped off if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

For that reason, Arrha has worked with high schools in the past on financial-literacy programs and is currently planning another program for local students.

“When we were kids, we had home-ec class, and they used to explain how to do a checkbook. They don’t do that anymore, and I don’t know why,” Ostrowski said, before offering one possible reason. “With all the regulations schools are under, for MCAS and other things, they’ve bailed on programs like this, but they’re absolutely critical for kids’ development and future life.”

Jon Reske, vice president of Marketing at UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, pointed out that financial literacy, and education in general, has long been part of the credit-union culture.

“Why? Because, unfortunately, your parents and my parents probably never taught us anything about personal finance, especially if things weren’t going well in the household,” he told BusinessWest. We take the opposite approach — we say your kid should be involved in understanding how the budget works in your house.

Jon Reske says even good budgeters can be tripped up by a bad loan — with long-term consequences.

Jon Reske says even good budgeters can be tripped up by a bad loan — with long-term consequences.

“We also do workshops on a regular basis — everything from homebuying 101 to how to create a budget to understanding credit,” he added, noting that the latter is especially critical, as the average American, between the ages of 21 and 65, will borrow about $1.5 million, and bad decisions can compound quickly and have a long-term impact. “You can be the greatest budgeter in the world and be smart about your pennies, but if you make bad borrowing decisions, you can be overwhelmed by debt.”

Monson Savings also conducts workshops for adults, such as first-time homebuyers, and offers a Credit Builders loan program, which is an effective way to, as the name suggests, build credit without going into unmanageable debt. The customer borrows a certain amount from the bank, which is deposited into a savings account and cannot be accessed until the loan is repaid. Not only does the borrower build positive credit through on-time payments, but at the end, the balance, plus interest, is available for a down payment on a car or home, a cushion for emergencies — anything, really.

In short, area institutions understand the deficits that exist when it comes to financial literacy and how that impacts the decision-making process — and how bad decisions can turn into years of heartache. And they’re doing something about it.

A Matter of Confidence

A new national survey by Junior Achievement USA and Citizens Bank shows that more than 30% of teens do not believe they will be financially independent of their parents by the age of 30. Sixty percent believe they will own a home by that age, 44% believe they will begin saving for retirement, and 43% think they will have paid off their student loans.

“With a strong economy, you would think teens would be more optimistic. It just demonstrates the importance of working with young people to help them better understand financial concepts and gain confidence in their ability to manage their financial futures.”

“These survey findings show a disconcerting lack of confidence among teens when it comes to achieving financial goals,” said Jack Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement USA. “With a strong economy, you would think teens would be more optimistic. It just demonstrates the importance of working with young people to help them better understand financial concepts and gain confidence in their ability to manage their financial futures.”

Financial literacy has long been a cornerstone of Junior Achievement, but there’s no shortage of educational programs available at credit unions and banks.

“Money is very emotional. It’s one of the hardest things to talk about, even with your spouse,” Reske said. “And it’s hard to be objective. That’s why it’s nice when people come to our workshops and say, ‘I’m not emotional now; I’m looking at the objective side of it. I wish I’d taken this before getting that loan.’”

While money issues can seem overwhelming at times, he added, financial-literacy tools are much more accessible than they were 10 years ago if people know where to look. He also outlined a number of concepts people attending UMassFive’s workshops might learn. For example:

• If you’re able to pay bills weekly, as they arrive, do it. It reduces the risk of missing a deadline and winding up with a late fee, which is easy to do when you pay the whole pile of bills once a month.

• Start building an emergency fund. According to a U.S. News & World Report study, two-thirds of Americans would struggle — and often do — to come up with $1,000 for an emergency, like an urgent car repair or medical procedure.

“So what happens? You put it on a credit card, and now you’re paying 21% interest, and soon $1,000 turns into $1,200,” Reske noted. “And an emergency fund can keep you from missing a rent payment or not getting something fixed on your car, which could lead to a bigger repair in three to six months.”

• Check out your credit report on an annual basis, if only to make sure everything is correct. “If the activity on your credit report is inaccurate, you’re getting an inaccurate score, and most rates you get are based on your score.”

• Put every credit card on a minimum automatic payment so you don’t miss any payments — and then pay more principal when the bill arrives in the mail. Also, it’s not a bad idea to dedicate one credit card to online purchases only, to more easily identify instances of identity theft.

• Finally, it’s never too early to start saving for retirement. According to Forbes, 33% of adults have zero saved for retirement.

“Social Security will pay a portion of your expenses, but not all,” Reske said. “Time is more valuable than money because of compounding interest. If you start planning at 50 or 55, you just don’t have enough time; you’ve wasted 20 years. And if you have a 401(k) at work with an employer match and you’re not on it, you’re being foolish.”

Budget Battles

UMassFive also conducts a workshop for high-school seniors in which they choose a career, get a salary, and then go from station to station filling out a budget in different categories, from housing, transportation, and food to luxury items and student loans — and trying to stay within that budget.

“Kids say, ‘I never knew how expensive things are,’” Reske said. “People wonder why a 40-year-old can’t come up with $1,000 for an emergency; it’s because they weren’t taught that the key is to get in front of problems as early as possible” with smart budgeting followed by spending discipline.

Monson Savings runs a similar program in local schools. “One thing I build in there is student debt. If you want to spend $30,000 a year on college and go for a $30,000-per-year job, you’re not going to be able to pay that back,” Buteau said, stressing the importance of making smart decisions about college — if college is even the best option.

In fact, she said, many kids today are so focused on college — because it’s what their schools push — that they may not be aware of careers in the trades that offer robust salaries and no long-term debt.

One thing is for sure: whether in high school, college, early adulthood, or beyond, there’s no bad time to learn more effective strategies for handling money, budgets, and credit — in other words, to become more literate.

“If you’re sick, you go to the doctor,” Buteau said. “If your car is broken down, you go to a mechanic. If your pipes are broken, you call a plumber. But if you have trouble budgeting or financing, no one thinks to go to the bank for advice or a class. And it’s free.”

And when it comes to finances, there’s nothing wrong with free.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Driving Forces

Peter Picknelly says Peter Pan is taking steps

Peter Picknelly says Peter Pan is taking steps that make the company more agile, a necessary trait in a changing bus business.

Peter Picknelly says the higher prices that consumers are experiencing at the gas pump are a fairly recent phenomenon, with the surge coming over the past few months or so.

But in the bus business, such changes to the landscape can, and usually do, have a quick and profound impact. And Easter weekend provided ample evidence of this.

“Business was up 18% over the same period a year ago — we were really busy over Easter weekend,” said Picknelly. “When gas prices go up, we see an increase in ridership, and they’ve been going up.

“It’s almost instantaneous — when fuel prices go up, it hurts our customers, and they look for alternatives,” he went on. “Meanwhile, holidays are generally a pretty good barometer of how business is going overall, and we saw that Easter weekend.”

Elaborating, he said that fluctuating gas prices — they come down as often as they go up — are just one of the reasons why agility is perhaps the best quality a bus company can possess these days, and also why Springfield-based Peter Pan is currently taking a number of steps to become even more agile.

“It’s almost instantaneous — when fuel prices go up, it hurts our customers, and they look for alternatives.”

Indeed, the company is expanding its fleet — five new buses were recently delivered, and 10 more are on order, far more than the number replaced in what would be considered a typical year — and also adding new routes, hiring more drivers, and utilizing technology (a revamped website and a new app) to make it easier to know where all those buses are going and to buy seats on them.

Meanwhile, Peter Pan will soon have its own ticket counter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, a long-awaited, very expensive, and logistically complicated undertaking that Picknelly said will give the company invaluable visibility in the city where it does its highest volume of business.

All these steps, as noted, are designed to make the company more agile and better able to thrive in an always-changing marketplace, but one where bus travel is seemingly as popular as ever, and perhaps even more so as younger generations eschew the automobile and look to other — generally simple and inexpensive — ways to get from here to there.

Peter Pan is currently in an expansion mode, adding new buses, drivers, and routes.

Peter Pan is currently in an expansion mode, adding new buses, drivers, and routes.

“What the buses specialize in is high-frequency service at very reasonable fares — and that’s what people are looking for,” said Picknelly, who described Peter Pan as “once again the fastest-growing bus line in America,” meaning it has held that distinction once, if not a few times, and he believes it does again, especially as he watches many competitors scale back.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Picknelly about why he feels he can make that claim and the specific steps that back up that boast.

Route Causes

Picknelly told BusinessWest that as part of the process of ordering those new coaches he mentioned — each with a price tag of roughly $550,000 — he a few other team members (his wife, Melissa Picknelly, vice president, and Marketing Director Danielle Veronesi, to be specific) spent a considerable amount of time recently trying out some options for the seats in those vehicles.

Decades ago, there probably wouldn’t have been a need for such an exercise — a seat was a seat. But that was then. These days, as with seemingly everything else you can buy, there are options, and lots of them.

“The average ride on our buses is three and a half hours, and we’re looking to make it as comfortable as possible,” he explained. “There’s a lot to look at with these seats — how the seatbelt clicks, how they adjust, how comfortable they are … the one I think we’re going to go with is actually an inch and a half lower than others, which we think will provide for a better ride.”

That attention to detail with seats speaks volumes about the overall mindset driving the company — pun intended. It’s a customer-based approach that is spawning a number of new initiatives, starting with the new buses and why they’ve been ordered.

Picknelly said the coaches the company buys, like workhorse planes bought by the airlines, can be in service for decades. But eventually they need to be replaced, and in a typical year the company will cycle out a least a few.
But this year’s order placed with Motor Coach Industries (MCI) is especially large and includes not only replacement buses, but ones needed to cover new routes and expected heavier traffic on some existing routes.

In that first category are new routes on Cape Cod and between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

On the Cape, the company, which in the past only brought riders as far as Hyannis, now services just about every community between there and Provincetown, said Picknelly, an aggressive expansion effort that began at the start of this year.

“We’re expecting that to be huge,” he said, adding that bus service can and should be viewed as an alternative to trying to drive to those communities, especially in the summer. “We’re running express service and we’re connecting in from Logan Airport, downtown Boston, and New York City — those are our biggest destinations to Cape Cod.”

Elaborating, he said the company currently runs eight buses a day between Boston and Hyannis, and will expand that number to 12 in the summer. Meanwhile, it currently runs two a day between Hyannis and Provincetown, and will at least double that with the summer schedule.

Further down the coast, the company recently (meaning just last week) expanded service between three of the biggest cities it serves — New York, Baltimore, and Washington — to essentially provide more options for customers.

“We currently serve Philly to New York, Baltimore to New York, and D.C. to New York,” he said, prior to the expansion of the schedule. “We’re now going be serving Philadelphia to Baltimore and Philadelphia to D.C.; we’re expanding our route to connect those cities together.”

The reason for such expansion is obvious — demand, he went on, adding that the company will start with seven buses a day to each city, but those numbers could rise.

And there could be still more additions to the schedule after the Encore Boston Harbor casino opens its doors next month, said Picknelly, adding that the company is in discussions with ownership about running buses from the casino to South Station and other connecting points, shuttles, and other work.

As he talked about all this growth and the potential for more to come, Picknelly said technology has played a big part in it. As one example, he cited a revamped website that went live just before Easter, one that not only heightens awareness of routes and schedules, but greatly simplifies the process of buying a ticket online.

And the buying public is moving increasingly in that direction, he said, noting that today, 80% of tickets are purchased online, a number that moves higher with each passing year, although there are still many who still walk up and buy at the counter — especially in New York, which explains the company’s huge investment at the Port Authority.

This heavy volume of online sales brings benefits for the customers, obviously, but also for Peter Pan, said Picknelly, adding that they take a lot of the guesswork out of scheduling and staffing buses.

“In the olden days, for lack of a better term, we would have a consistent schedule, seven days a week the same schedule,” he explained. “Now, because people buy tickets in advance — it’s a reservation and it’s a guaranteed seat — we know exactly how many people are going to be on the bus, and we modify our schedules accordingly.

“In many cases, our schedules are different on Tuesdays and Wednesdays than they are on Thursdays, and very different from what they are on Fridays, Saturdays, or Mondays,” he went on. “We adjust our schedule product based on consumer demand on a daily basis; before it was guesswork and ‘set it and kind of forget it.’ Now, we have staff looking at the numbers and the trends, and we adjust every day.”

Elaborating, he said that, if the 2 o’clock bus to Philadelphia is filling up, the company may well add a 2:30 run. And with a new app the company is rolling out in a few days, a customer can, among other things, change his or reservation from the 2 to the 2:30, if they know well in advance that they’re going to be running a little late.

The app will also make buying tickets even easier, because it will log previous purchases, recognize trends, and enable the consumer to rebook a schedule with one click, said Picknelly, adding that many of these developments are unique within the industry.

Also unique will be the ability to buy what Picknelly called ‘commuter tickets,’ 10 tickets at once, for example, at a discount price that consumers can load onto their phone and use whenever they want.

“No one else is doing that in our industry,” he said, using that phrase to refer to many of the recent innovations. “And these are things that we think are game changers.”

The Ride Stuff

Returning to the subject of online buying and the benefits it brings, Picknelly said the company can make adjustments for weather, holidays, special events, and, yes, soaring gas prices.

“If we know there’s a snowstorm coming, we can cut schedules and combine them,” he explained. “We’re able to forecast much better and adjust our product based on consumer demand. We’re much more agile than we used to be, and the consumer benefits from that.”

There’s that word again, and it’s a word you didn’t hear much when it came to transportation in general and bus companies in particular. But you do now, and Peter Pan keeps finding new ways to be agile and benefit from that important quality.

That’s a big reason why Picknelly believes that, once again, this is the fastest-growing bus company in the country.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A rendering of the rail station expansion and renovation, scheduled to be completed this summer.

A Knowledge Corridor study before the Amtrak Vermonter line opened four years ago projected 28 riders per day at the Northampton station. In fact, the average is 59 for the two trains per day — a southbound run that arrives at 2 p.m. and a northbound train at 4 p.m., noted Masterson, the city’s Economic Development director.

“And that’s inconvenient service, in the middle of the afternoon,” added Mayor David Narkewicz. “If they made it convenient — get on in the morning, go to Manhattan, and come back the same day — it would be interesting to see the numbers. Even now, on the weekend, there’s a line around the parking lot, with students and other folks trying to use the service.”

The proposed broadening of the Vermonter service, which would bring two morning trains to Northampton and two more late in the day, will be supported by the expansion of the rail platform at the station. The project to lengthen it and bring it up to ADA code is expected to be completed this summer.

That’s been complemented by a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade, making the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians, to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

Currently, Valley Community Development Corp. is building a $20 million, mixed-use project called the Lumberyard, which will feature 55 residential units, 3,100 square feet of retail space, and 2,200 square feet of office space.

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon at the opening of Conway School of Landscape Design last fall.

“We’ve seen lots of development on Pleasant around the rail,” Narkewicz said, and with good reason. “Millennials and younger people want to live in a place where they don’t have to own a car — they want Uber, car share, bike share, access to rail, access to good bus service. And businesses and housing developers see that and are interested in locating here.

“The whole entrance to the city has been upgraded and improved,” he went on, “and in a way, it helps grow the downtown and creates another corridor for Northampton.”

It’s just one example, Masterson added, of the ways public and private investment spur each other, pumping new life into a city already known for its vibrant economic and cultural life.

It Takes a Village

Take, for instance, the impressive volume of work that continues in the Village Hill neighborhood, including a new, $4.1 million headquarters for ServiceNet and the $1 million renovation of a long-vacant Northampton State Hospital building that now houses the Conway School of Landscape Design.

“They used to be in Conway,” the mayor noted, “but they basically decided that students that want to go to a landscape school want to be in a more urban environment, so it’s a perfect fit, and we’re excited they’ve moved to Northampton.”

Meanwhile, the $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place transformed another long-dormant hospital structure into a 25-unit residence, with 12 units currently sold, five leased, and eight available. Behind that is Christopher Heights, an assisted-living facility that opened in 2016, and Village Hill Cohousing broke ground last fall.

“So you have this whole diversity of senior living, independent living, and you’ve got some commercial redevelopments, which is very exciting,” Narkewicz said. “And the campus itself has walking trails, open space, community gardens, and it’s only a 10-minute walk from downtown. So, from a sustainability standpoint, it fits the model of not wanting people building subdivisions way out on the edge of town that require roads, services, and more car trips. There’s even a bike-share station there, so you can hop on a bike and go downtown.”

In addition to the usual ebb and flow of small businesses, the Atwood Drive Business Park is fully open just off 1-91 exit 18, boasting a 60,000-square-foot building for the Family Probate Court and other judicial tenants, and two 40,000-square-foot buildings with a host of healthcare tenants, including Cooley Dickinson Health Care and Clinical & Support Options.

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place transformed a long-dormant building into a 25-unit residence, one of many recent developments at Village Hill.

Meanwhile, the venerable Autumn Inn on Elm Street was sold last year for $2.25 million to Saltaire Properties, which specializes in breathing new life into outdated hotels. At 60% occupancy, the 32-room inn — which has been renamed the Ellery — would generate annual guest spending of $500,000 and room revenues of $1.1 million, in addition to $34,000 in property taxes and $66,000 in hotel taxes to the city.

And, of course, the cannabis trade continues to be an economic driver. Masterson noted that the city’s 0.75% meals tax brought in $171,000 from November 2017 through January 2018, representing taxes on $22 million revenue. Over the same three months a year later, following the launch of adult-use cannabis sales at New England Treatment Access (NETA), the figure was $187,000, a 9.3% increase that reflected $24 million in revenue.

“One can fairly assume that people who came to NETA also spent some money in the city, and a number of store owners recently said they had seen an uptick in business, so we’ll see if that continues.”

The mayor has been quick to temper people’s long-term expectations because, for most of that recent three-month period, NETA was one of only two recreational marijuana retailers in the state. Since then, INSA in Northampton began selling, and other communities, like Amherst and Chicopee, are expecting businesses to open soon.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the market shakes out once there are more available — and Connecticut and New York are moving quickly to legalize, too,” he said. “We definitely see a lot of Connecticut and New York plates.”

What he hasn’t seen is an uptick in crime or other negative impacts. NETA has been diligent in paying police officers to help manage traffic and renting parking from surrounding businesses and property owners to manage the rush, which was especially significant early on.

That bodes well for other cannabis businesses that have approached Northampton, not only on the retail side, but also manufacturers making food products, a testing lab, and a major cultivation facility to be located at a former gravel pit in Florence.

“For whatever reason, Northampton is viewed as a good place for the cannabis industry,” Narkewicz said. “We’ve been very open and welcoming, our zoning is straightforward and not discriminatory toward cannabis, and we did not put any caps on the number of retailers we would allow here, like many communities have.

“I think people feel Northampton has a kind of built-in visitorship and vibrancy and is a regional destination,” he went on, “so I think they feel like cannabis will incorporate well into the rest of the retail and cultural market here in Northampton.”

Show Time

Speaking of culture, Northampton continues to thrive on that front, thanks to successful developments like CLICK Workspace, which has melded co-working with a robust arts calendar at its Market Street location since 2016, and the purchase of 33 Hawley St. by the Northampton Arts Trust, which is spending $6.8 million to convert it into a multi-dimensional arts, cultural, and education center.

“That’s one reason tech entrepreneurs want to be downtown,” the mayor said. “They want to be in a place that has culture.”

Meanwhile, annual visitorship to the Academy of Music, Three County Fairgrounds, the Paradise City Arts Festival, Smith College Museum of Art, WEBS, Thornes Marketplace, the city’s hotels, and its major one-day downtown events totals nearly 1.24 million annually.

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.29
Commercial tax rate: $17.29
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

Northampton has seen a number of generational business transactions in recent years, as entrepreneurs who were part of the city’s original renaissance 30 to 40 years ago are retiring and passing their enterprises to family. The downtown also sees continual lateral moves, and vacancies fill quickly.

“We are still viewed as a very vibrant destination downtown where people want to locate their business,” Narkewicz said. “And they’re local businesses. We do have a few national chains, but mostly locally owned businesses.”

They’re drawn by the city’s low single tax rate — $17.29, which falls well below the commercial rate in nearby communities — but also by a culture of local loyalty, he added.

“People here support local businesses. Our neighbors are running these businesses, and the people who work in them are our neighbors, too, and when you spend money in these stores, it has a multiplier effect in the community.”

He said editorial writers have occasionally written the city’s obituary over the years, or at least wondered when the decline will occur, but when he attends conferences with other mayors and municipal officials, the feeling he gets is that everyone wants to be like Northampton.

“We’re proud of what we have here, but we don’t take it for granted, and we don’t rest on our laurels,” he told BusinessWest. “We continue to do what we can to promote local businesses and make strategic investments that will help our local economy grow and thrive, and provide jobs and revenues the city needs to provide the services we want to provide.”

It’s a cycle that keeps chugging along, like the morning trains that could start pulling into Northampton’s station later this summer.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]