Rail Ryder

Rail Ryder’s back story is a classic tale of entrepreneurial thinking.

Dale Hofius identified a need and invented a solution. Then he and his wife, Susan, started working their way through the hoops needed to launch their business.

“It started with Dale and I sitting at the kitchen table,” Susan Hofius says. “We were doing Google searches like ‘How to design a logo.’”

That was then. Now, Rail Ryder is in its eighth season, and is continuing to grow.

Rail Ryder designs, manufactures and sells trolley systems – the “rail” in the company name – that allow cars to be easily loaded into trailers. It eliminates the problem that many owners face when they transport their cars by trailer – they have to drive the car into the trailer, then try to squeeze out, usually through the car window.

“My best friend races vintage cars, and I’ve watched the guys getting bigger and grayer trying to get out of these cars,” Dale Hofius explains. “I thought I could come up with a solution.”

His solution is the now-patented trolley system that allows a car to be tied down outside and then pulled into the trailer using a winch system. The framework is self-adjusting, meaning it can accommodate any car, whether a Hummer or a Honda, Dale and Susan Hofius say.

Steadily, the device is catching on among car enthusiasts. At the start, Rail Ryder made and sold about two systems a year. Now, that number is up to 50 – and the owners have an eye on expansion.

They’ve outgrown their Belle Valley workshop, and are looking for a new location. They’re interested in adding staff, too – now, it’s Susan, a part-time teacher, keeping the books and Dale, a former GE machinist, handling the assembly, with some part-time help.

“We choose which 90 hours a week we work,” Susan Hofius says jokingly. “That’s the nature of being in business for yourself.”

About Rail Ryder: Most of the company’s customers are car collectors or racing enthusiasts who live far from Erie County. Rail Ryder has shipped to Los Angeles, Colorado and Canada, among other places. Rail Ryder works with trailer companies to customize the trailer with the patented system – “your imagination and your wallet are the only limitations,” Dale Hofius says. The Rail Ryder system remains unique, which means the company doesn’t have a real apples-to-apples competitor. The closest competition comes from transporters who pack six or eight cars onto a truck – but that method means car owners sacrifice control of their valuable vehicles, Dale Hofius points out.

Why Erie County: Dale and Susan Hofius say they can operate their company anywhere – in fact, at one point they considered moving it to Indiana to be closer to trailer manufacturers. What stopped them? A lack of potential employees. Here in Erie County, they benefit from skilled workers, including from GE, who have welding ability or machining skills that are needed to construct the Rail Ryder systems. But Dale and Susan Hofius have also found valuable resources here in Erie County as they worked to build their business. At the start, they had to figure out the ins and outs of business on their own. Since then, they’ve worked with local resources like the NWIRC, Gannon University’s Small Business Development Center and, in particular, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners – which the Hofiuses describe as “a phenomenal resource.”

Challenges of Erie County: One of the biggest challenges facing Rail Ryder is getting the word out about the product. With the help of the NWIRC, they’re reaching out to dealers, who could promote the product to customers buying cars or trailers. They’re also looking to expand their social media profile, since a good part of their customers can be found online. But cultivating a social media presence isn’t something that Dale and Susan Hofius have the time to do, so they’re hoping to hire someone to handle that aspect of the business for them.

Fun fact: Dale and Susan Hofius have never met in person about 75 percent of Rail Ryder customers – they were long-distance transactions.

Address: www.railryder.com

Metalheads

Metalheads might be a perfect blend of art and industry – with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit thrown in.

Metalheads began with Adam Stempka, a welder who was laid off from GE. He had always been artistic, and had even thought about going to art school before starting his career as a welder.

Tinkering at home, he created a metal sculpture of a deer head and posted a photo on Facebook. It gained attention and attracted customers – including one who requested a battle-worn flag made of metal.

That was enough to get Stempka’s creative juices going, and he created an American flag, tattered yet resilient. More photos went up on Facebook, and more customers clamored for their own version of that flag.

Soon he teamed up with his father, Ray Stempka, a welding engineer who retired from GE.

Now, less than a year later, their business is booming. They ship to customers around Erie County and nationwide, all based on word of mouth, local festivals and Facebook. They’re building a website, expanding their workshop and working feverishly to keep up with demand.

“This thing keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ray Stempka says.

For Adam Stempka, this new venture is a perfect fit – it uses his creative side and his mechanical skills, and it satisfies his need to make something new.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “It’s not work for me. I just love doing this.”

About Metalheads: Adam Stempka still creates his more intricate metal sculptures, though the business for the battle-worn flags has really taken off. Now they offer a variety of flags, including some specifically for police officers and firefighters, as well as illumination options for the flags. They make flags as small as a license plate and as large as 4 feet by 8 feet. But while business is busy, the Stempkas are keeping their focus on providing products that their customers are looking for. “We’re just taking it slow and trying to grow organically,” Adam Stempka says.

Why Erie County: The Stempka family is not only deeply rooted in Erie County, they are deeply rooted in the welding industry. Their connection to their community is apparent in every facet of the operation. They support shopping local, and they feature Erie-centric flag designs, like a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag. “Erie means a lot to us,” Ray Stempka says. That pride is on display on the flags, which all bear the stamp “Made in USA – Erie, PA” on the front.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges facing Metalheads are not unique to new businesses. For example, the Stempkas say that startup costs have posed a challenge, as has learning the ropes of running a business – even to the extent of how to find the best deals on shipping costs for their far-flung customers. Luckily, however, the Stempkas are finding great resources in Erie County, including working with Gannon’s Small Business Development Center and the Innovation Collaborative.

Fun Fact: Adam Stempka and Metalheads have been nominated for a 2017 Disrupt Erie Award.

Address: Facebook.com/astempka83

Radius CoWork

It’s appropriate that Radius CoWork is located in the Renaissance Center. As a company, Radius typifies the innovative spirit that is essential to Erie’s renaissance.

You might have heard the story by now – after all, it has been featured in the national media. In a nutshell, Radius CoWork was co-founded by Erie natives Sean Fedorko and Bill Scholz.

Fedorko returned to his hometown after working in Washington, D.C., and intended to use a coworking space for the few months he planned to be here. Finding no such place, he joined forces with Scholz, who had recently returned from the U.K., where he’d completed masters work in the economic logics of entrepreneurship. The two decided to organize Erie’s first coworking community.

In doing so, Fedorko, Scholz and the dozen other initial coworking members tapped into a youthful, vibrant energy that is gaining traction in Erie. A new generation of professionals feel – and are helping to fuel – the momentum that is creating an urban movement toward a revitalized Erie.

Radius has emerged as a key catalyst in that effort. With more than 80 members now in the community, Radius is thriving, just two and a half years after its founding.

The hum of activity is evident on the ninth floor of the Renaissance Center, where the members – freelancers, remote workers and small-business owners alike – work independently but in a shared space as peers and friends. They share expertise and resources, but they also share interests and social events. It’s that mix that is not merely appealing to the younger workforce but, according to Fedorko, is essential.

The coworking model gives people a freedom to work anywhere in the world without working alone. It’s an economy of scale so that people can afford offices and services needed to operate a business, but more importantly it connects passionate, talented, ambitious peers. It’s a place to find connections to experts and information, to exchange lessons learned from experience, and to find new solutions together that will support one another’s business growth.

As Radius is helping its community members succeed in their professional pursuits, they are feeding into the energy that is making the business thrive. And that, in turn, works in concert to fulfill the founders’ vision of making Erie into a city they want to live in – and the city they know it can be.

About Radius CoWork: The company, which opened its doors in May 2015, offers several membership options. Depending on the level of membership, community members can set up at an open desk for a day, a month, or secure a own dedicated workspace 24/7. But membership comes with more than just a flat surface to rest a laptop on. Members also can tap into a secure network, receive postal deliveries, make use of meeting spaces, attend classes hosted by other organizations – and, more than anything, be part of a community of peers. To that end, Radius works to build a sense of community both within the workspace and with the community at large, hosting Lunch & Learns and other public events.

Why Erie County: The company has filled a niche in Erie County, as there was no dedicated space for coworking before its creation. And as one of the businesses at the forefront of the revolution that is growing in Erie, Radius is poised for growth. “We’re unfinished, but we’re rapidly developing,” Fedorko says. “There are still many opportunities we’re pursuing as Erie’s coworking community evolves. We see tremendous untapped potential here.”

Challenges of Erie County: Radius CoWork’s founders realize that there is still a risk-averse and cost-averse mindset in Erie County that is gradually adapting to new national trends in workstyle, lifestyle and business investment. A new risk tolerant, ambitious and adaptive attitude is the sort of thinking that Radius hopes to foster – and one that the owners see as inherent in the modern attitude of professionals. As the generation that grew up adapting to rapid changes in social trends and technology, they likewise are adaptive in their business models, creating value so that people can mutually serve one another productively to meet the needs of the communities they live in.

Fun fact: A third of Radius CoWork’s community members work remotely for employers outside of Erie County.

Address: 1001 State St., Suite 907, Erie, PA 16501 or www.radiusco.work

McInnes Rolled Rings

McInnes Rolled Rings, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, isn’t the only manufacturer of seamless rolled rings in the country. To stay competitive, then, they had to find a way to set themselves apart.

“We differentiate ourselves by being faster,” says Tim Hunter, president and CEO.

That means the company zeroes in on getting products made for its customers, and getting those products delivered in a timely manner. That turnaround time is even touted on the company’s website: “We ship in as few as five days.”

McInnes keeps the operation focused on that work, rather than branching into other services that would funnel away resources, Hunter says.

It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off for McInnes. The company serves more than 1,000 customers in North America – from Canada to Mexico, coast to coast – and is the fastest producer in its size range, Hunter says.

Part of that efficiency in service can also be attributed to advances in manufacturing. Thirty years ago, Hunter says, we could produce eight to 10 rolled rings in an eight-hour shift. Today, we can turn out 20 in an hour, thanks to modern equipment and procedures.

The old process “was used for thousands of years,” Hunter says. “But the technology changed dramatically.”

About McInnes Rolled Rings: The company produces seamless rolled rings – “just like your wedding ring, but bigger,” Hunter describes – that that can withstand high stress. The rings are used in products and equipment in a variety of industries, including oil and gas, aerospace, construction, mining and even healthcare. The smallest rings, which are about 10 inches in diameter, might be used in aircraft equipment, while the largest, 12-foot rings – which can weigh 8,000 pounds – might be used as flanges on oil and gas pipelines. McInnes’ employment has stayed fairly steady at around 80, even during down times in some industries.

Why Erie County: One of the greatest advantages of being located in Erie County is proximity to raw materials, Hunter says. About 90 percent of the company’s materials are within 100 miles. This helps McInnes keep to its efficient production schedule.

Challenges of Erie County: One of the biggest challenges that McInnes Rolled Rings is facing echoes something I’ve heard from other employers, particularly manufacturers, in Erie County – securing a trained and capable workforce for the future. Hunter has identified a need for a pipeline to ensure that younger workers get the training they need to fill the gaps that will be left by retiring employees, who often have a deep skill set. “We have wonderful people working here now,” Hunter says. “The question is 10 years from now.”

Fun fact: McInnes operates the sixth-largest press in the nation – a press that was built just a short drive down 12th Street by Erie Press Systems.

Address: 1533 E 12th St, Erie, PA 16511 or www.mcinnesrolledrings.com.

Berry Global

For a plastics company that stays on the cutting edge of beverage packaging trends, Berry Global’s Erie plant has a definite sense of history.

The facility itself, in the heart of Erie’s Little Italy neighborhood, got its start in 1895 as Heisler Locomotive Works, a maker of steam locomotives. It changed hands over the years, turning to metal stamping and metal crowns before transitioning to plastic caps in the early 1990s.

That history is apparent in the sprawling factory. In some areas, original wooden beams are evident. Other parts of the building are new, the result of a recent $4 million expansion.

What has remained constant through the years is a focus on quality – a focus that has made the Erie facility a standout in Berry Global’s network.

“We’ve made a conscientious effort to focus on the quality of the products that we’re putting out for the customer,” says Bob Guthrie, the Erie plant manager. “Because without the customer, you’re nothing.”

Erie plant leaders speak with pride about how customers have been known to request products made in the Erie facility. That attention to detail is a credit to the employees – some of whom have been there for decades, and have proved themselves to be resilient problem-solvers during the years of ownership changes, Guthrie says.

The Erie plant also prizes its focus on safety, which includes something that I haven’t seen at any of the other businesses I’ve visited – a circle painted on the floor that guides workers about forklift safety.

The Erie facility’s leaders are likewise proud of their commitment to their Little Italy neighborhood – a pocket of the city that has undergone its own share of changes over the decades. But Berry’s Erie leaders embrace their role as a positive influence on the neighborhood.

“We have the opportunity to stay here and help give it a new stability,” Guthrie says.

About Berry Global: Berry is committed to its mission of “Always Advancing to Protect What’s Important,” and proudly partners with its customers to provide them with value-added customized protection solutions. The company’s products include engineered materials, non-woven specialty materials and consumer packaging. Berry’s world headquarters is located in Evansville, Indiana, with net sales of $6.5 billion in fiscal 2016. Berry, a Fortune 500 company, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (BERY). The Erie facility, with about 150 employees, is part of Berry’s consumer packaging division, and is on track to produce more than 5.9 billion plastic caps this year. The Erie plant also runs engineering services for its division, serving 12 Berry facilities. The Erie products can be seen in bottle caps for soft drinks, juice and water, in addition to some condiments. “You can barely go anywhere without seeing a Berry product,” Guthrie says.

Why Erie County: For Guthrie and the Erie plant’s leadership team, the appeal of Erie is clear – a low cost of living and a wealth of activities and entertainment options. But the county also offers an appealing atmosphere from a business perspective. There are plenty of opportunities for community involvement, particularly in the Little Italy neighborhood. And in addition, the wealth of manufacturers and smaller tool shops in Erie County creates a support network for Berry Global. “If we need something, it’s miles away, it’s not hours away,” says the Erie plant’s Ben Atkins.

Challenges of Erie County: One challenge that Berry Global faces in Erie is not unique to that company, or to the plastics industry. Rather, it reflects a reality that many manufacturers have discussed – the imminent retirement of longtime, highly skilled candidates. Christen Brown, HR manager for Berry’s Erie plant, expects a wave of retirements in the next 10 years, and says the company will face the challenge of finding new candidates who can fill those roles. Having adequate training opportunities for those new employees will be key, plant leaders say. It’s important, for example, to find a candidate with some mechanical awareness, a hands-on ability and a willingness to learn. In addition, Guthrie says, it’s increasingly important for that candidate to have “an awareness of how the digital world interfaces with the mechanical.”

Fun fact: The current workforce of 150 employees at the Erie location have a combined tenure of more than 1,900 years of service.

Address: 316 W. 16th St., Erie PA 16502 or www.berryglobal.com

Velocity Network

Joel Deuterman started his business by building PCs for customers from his house on East Sixth Street. Today, he’s focused on a different kind of building – building up his customer base, and building out a fiber optic network throughoutErie County.

Deuterman is CEO of Velocity Network (VNET), a Millcreek Township company that provides internet, technical support and IT consulting services. Much has changed since he founded the company formerly known as SOFTEK. In 1996, he began Velocity.Net, which offered dialup internet access in 1996. In those days, he recalls, the internet was “like magic.”

“You hit a button and suddenly had the world available to you,” he says.

At one point, they were building 40 or 50 PCs a day, and Deuterman himself would deliver computers to customers’ homes on Saturdays. It was in the name of good customer service – he would connect the cords and set up the modem, so the customer would be ready to go, and be happy with the purchase.

Today, that commitment to good customer service remains, though Velocity Network focuses on providing knowledgeable, responsive and comprehensive tech support instead of building PCs. And it extends to the company’s development of a fiber optic network, now nearing 500 miles of optical fiber throughout Erie County.

The company has leveraged its services into steady growth – from three employees in 1993 to more than 63 now, and with projections calling for more than 100 by 2022.

That growth has led Deuterman to focus on still another type of building – rebuilding. Velocity Network purchased the former Rothrock building in downtown Erie and is in the process of renovating it.

Ultimately, Velocity Network will be headquartered in the heart of downtown Erie and will be a core partner in Erie’s Innovation District – a collaboration that signals an emerging effort to create a vibrant hub in the city.

It makes sense that VNETwould be a key partner in the Innovation District – after all, change is nothing new to a technology company.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves several times,” Deuterman says. “That’s the nature of the industry.”

That experience will be useful as Erie looks to reinvent itself as well.

About Velocity Network: VNET serves commercial customers with managed IT services and fiber optic internet services and is now beginning to service the residential market with VNET Fiber, their fiber to the home (FttH) service. The company sees fiber optics as the best option for high-speed internet service both now and into the future, and is working diligently to get all areas around the region connected. That’s not just a convenience for customers – it’s also a boost to economic development in Erie County, says Matt Wiertel, Velocity Network’s director of sales and marketing. The availability of broadband is essential to attracting businesses looking to relocate to any region, and VNET is providing that network with its fiber, he says.

Why Erie County: Deuterman has found a successful niche in Erie County to build and grow his company, and he has appreciated the relationships that he has been able to form in the community. That includes finding funding partners for the purchase of the Rothrock building – including a $1 million loan from the Erie County Redevelopment Authority, another $1 million loan from the City of Erie, and a $2.25 million PIDA loan from the state. Looking ahead, Deuterman sees a time when businesses in Erie County will be working together to attract and retain workers and create a more collaborative culture across industries.

Challenges of Erie County: Education, in several forms, can be a challenge. For one, the company has been working to inform the public and municipal officials about the benefits that fiber optics will bring to the community. Internally, the company must focus on ongoing training to ensure that their support staff is keeping up with rapidly changing technology, and looking ahead for future problems that customers might face. And, in turn, it means educating the public about technology and potential security threats, like phishing attempts. “A lot of it is educating people to not click on that link,”says Brad Wiertel, director of operations. “You can’t stay ahead of (hackers) – you just have to look at the patterns” and take advantage of security resources to thwart the bad actors on the internet.

Fun fact: The company launched its Velocity.Net dialup internet service in 1996 at a rate of $9.95 per month. That was half the cost of the national average at the time. Today, VNET Fiber offers speeds up to 1 Gigabit per second – that’s approximately 17,000 times faster than dialup!

Address: 2503 W 15th St #10, Erie, PA 16505 or www.velocitynetwork.net

Institute on HealthCare Directives

We’ve been talking a lot lately about entrepreneurism and how it is a necessary component to revitalizing Erie County’s economy. It seemed appropriate, then, for me to pay a visit to Dr. Ferdinando Mirarchi, a physician who has used his research into patient safety risk to launch an innovative healthcare-related startup.

Mirarchi, the founder of the Institute on HealthCare Directives, created MIDEO – or My Informed Decision on Video. The medical ID card utilizes technology to allow patients to clearly state what treatments they wish to receive – or not receive – in the event of a medical emergency.

Like a true entrepreneur, Mirarchi identified a need and worked to create a solution. Existing advance care directives, such as living wills, do-not-resuscitate orders or physician orders for life-sustaining treatment, might be well-meaning but can create confusion, he says.

MIDEO, however, simplifies and streamlines the process. And, vitally, it serves as a translator of sorts to bridge the gaps between legal jargon, technical medical terms and language that patients can understand.

Mirarchi’s TRIAD Research Series – that is, The Realistic Interpretation of Advance Directives – led him to identify the problem and create his solution. Soon after, he began working with several local organizations designed to help startups, including Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Gannon University’s Small Business Development Center and the Innovation Collaborative.

Now, his goal is to grow the business and expand its reach to patients – he has had about 100 people register for a MIDEO card so far, but he’d like to see 100 people per day register. And someday, he’d like to see the business grow into an operation that could provide jobs to Erie County residents.

A large part of that growth will be advocating it to health insurers, who could then offer it to their members as part of a benefits package. That work is underway, as is the effort to spread the word about the advantages of the MIDEO system. It’s all part of the work of a startup – and Mirarchi is ready for the challenge.

About the Institute on HealthCare Directives: The institute aims to serve patients by helping them create effective advance care directives, namely through the MIDEO tool. MIDEO works by embedding technology directly into a medical ID card. A medical professional can use a smartphone to scan a patient’s card, launching a video with the patient’s video testimonial along with clear, easy-to-follow instructions for care. For Mirarchi, the service is vital to ensuring that patients receive the care they want – particularly when they are unable to speak for themselves because of a medical condition or emergency. This also helps families and caregivers, offering them peace of mind that an ailing loved one’s wishes are being honored. But there are also advantages for physicians and hospitals, as having clear directives could eliminate lawsuits that arise over end-of-life care or medical errors.

Why Erie County: Mirarchi started his business in Erie County because he had made his home here – he is the medical director of UPMC Hamot’s Emergency Department, though his company is separate from his work at the hospital. But while some have pointed to Erie County’s aging demographic as a cause for concern, Mirarchi sees that population as a group that might be in the most need of guidance on healthcare directives.

Challenges of Erie County: As Mirarchi is trying to make inroads with providers and insurers in Erie County, and he is also facing the challenge of a slower rate of growth and development in this region, when compared with other areas.

Address: 900 State St., Erie, PA 16501 or www.institutehcd.com

American Tinning & Galvanizing

If you’ve driven along the city of Erie’s West 12th Street corridor lately, you probably know American Tinning & Galvanizing.

The brick building at West 12th and Cherry streets has been adorned with a new mural every year since 2011. Robin Scheppner, company president, commissioned the first mural in honor of the company’s 80th anniversary. In the years since, the mural has changed to celebrate other aspects of the community, including the Perry 200 festival and the United Way of Erie County.

The current mural celebrates Erie’s manufacturing industry, proclaiming “Rust Belt? No way, think Robust Belt.”

The exterior murals might be new additions, but the business has operated from the same block since it began in 1931 – that is, since Scheppner’s grandfather, Fred Carlson, left his previous plating company and opened his own just down the street.

Carlson started his tinning business with just one employee, but growth soon followed – both in terms of expansion into different areas and into a larger portion of the space at 12th and Cherry. Today, the company’s divisions operate under third-generation owner Scheppner, who is the fifth family member to run the company.

The plant hums with activity, with workers busy using specialized techniques to provide protection on metal parts. In one room, aluminum pieces receive an acid bath. In another, heavier steel pieces are treated. The company no longer offers the tinning that remains in the name, but it has become a leader in galvanizing – using up to 40,000 pounds of zinc per month.

In the hot-dip galvanizing room, skilled workers use ropes and pulleys to send metal pieces through a vat of molten zinc – heated to over 835 degrees. This work is done by hand – not by automation, as it is at many other galvanizing companies, Scheppner says.

“This is a craft. It gets to the point where it’s almost intuitive” for the workers to tell when a piece is ready, she says.

Uniquely, American Tinning & Galvanizing also includes a fabrication division. The fabrication business got its start in the 1950s, when the entrepreneurial-minded Carlsons recognized that there was a market for the equipment – including racks and tanks – that was needed in the plating processes. That operation, Carlson Erie, lives on within American Tinning & Galvanizing today, and supplies not just internal operations but many external clients as well.

“Almost all of our competitors are also our customers,” Scheppner says.

About American Tinning & Galvanizing: The company specializes in anodizing, electroplating and galvanizing –all of which are metal finishing techniques used to prevent corrosion. In the fabrication department, the company is branching out and using plastics to create equipment for customers. The shelf life of plastic tanks is ten-fold that of the old steel tanks, Scheppner says. The company serves businesses in the Erie area but also competes for contracts, particularly in aerospace, from outside the region. ATG has been accredited by the National Aerospace Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP), after a rigorous certification process. This accreditation “levels the playing field,” Scheppner says, when it comes to competing for aerospace contracts because it assures clients that ATG has met the very precise specifications mandated for aerospace equipment.

Why Erie County: For Scheppner, one of the best parts about Erie County is the culture – generally friendly and helpful, with an emerging sense of a community coming together. There’s evidence of that in her latest initiative to boost the 12th Street corridor. Colorful signs have popped up along the street in recent months, thanks to a joint campaign by a group of 12th Street business. In addition, Scheppner appreciates that Erie County offers “the opportunity to make a great living” – and for her, that also includes the opportunity to “give a great living to 69 other people.”

Challenges of Erie County: Scheppner says that finding qualified middle managers is one of the largest challenges facing her business. She says that the company requires someone with both management skill and a knowledge of the metal finishings industry – a combination that is difficult to find. She is hopeful that in the future, a training program can be developed to teach both required skillsets.

Fun fact: When Scheppner’s grandfather left his previous company to open his own, he chose the name “American” so it would be listed first in the phonebook.

Address: 552 W. 12th St., Erie PA 16501 or www.galvanizeit.com

Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards

At many of the businesses I visit, turnaround time is an important factor. The company’s bottom line depends on how quickly they can get orders out to customers, or how many products they can manufacture on a particular day.

Not so at Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards, in North East Township. There, it’s all about the process – and that process sometimes sets its own pace. “You can’t hurry it,” owner Jeff Ore says.

He’s owned the winery since 2004, when he left his job in the corporate world and moved back to his hometown of North East.

He came home to plant roots, both figurative and literal. He grows about 3 acres of grapes – “it keeps my fingers in viticulture so I know what’s going on, but it lets me focus on the business,” he says – and runs the winery, including making the wine.

Though he grew up among the grape fields, he had to learn the winemaking business – including the details and chemistry that go into the process. Now, however, he speaks knowledgably about each aspect of his operations.

In Penn Shore’s Champagne room, he details the two-year in-bottle fermentation process, holding bottles up to the light to display the sediment and explaining the features that help the bottles withstand the high pressure contained within.

Next door, in the barrel room, he describes the variations in oak – he uses Pennsylvania and French oak – that affect the taste of the wine. The barrels, he explains, are for drier varieties, which the winery does make despite the fact that Erie County wines are better known for being sweet. About 80 percent of Penn Shore’s sales are sweet varieties, Ore says, with the top seller being their Pennsylvania Lambruscano – a red that he describes as starting sweet and ending a bit drier.

He walks us through the bottling process, describing the difference between corks and caps – corks, he says, allow the wine to age, while caps (used mainly for sweet and white wines) are used to seal the bottle so the taste of the wine doesn’t change.

Finally, he leads us to the back patio, where rows of grapevines fan out in a vista that is distinctly North East.

It’s a view that Ore has come to appreciate.

“If I have a bad day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine,” he says. “And if I have a good day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine.”

About Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards: Penn Shore is the oldest licensed winery in Pennsylvania. It received the second license ever issued by the commonwealth after the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act was passed in 1968 (the first licensee never opened, Ore says). Today, Penn Shore is a popular spot for wine tasting and sponsors a well-attended annual summer concert series, Music in the Vineyard. Though Jeff Ore and his daughter are the only full-time employees – Ore’s wife, Cheryl, is semi-retired – they do hire staff for the concert series and to assist with the field work.

Why Erie County: Jeff Ore says he appreciates the fact that east county has become a destination for wine lovers. Initiatives like the Lake Erie Wine Country trail, as well as the growth of local microbreweries and distilleries, have enhanced tourism around the grape region. In addition, he likes the pace of life, saying that he loves his lifestyle. “If this was a midlife crisis, it really worked out,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Like any small business, the Ores face constant challenges of costs and cash flow. In addition, Jeff Ore says, there’s quite a lot of effort that goes into running the operation – both the business side and the winemaking side.

Fun fact: Penn Shore is legally permitted to use the term “Champagne.” A 2006 wine-trade agreement restricted the use of the word to only the bubbly made in the Champagne region of France. But because Penn Shore had been making its wine under an approved label before that, it was grandfathered in – and thus it continues to sell its Pennsylvania Champagne.

Address: 10225 East Lake Road, North East, PA 16428 or www.pennshore.com

Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill

September is Local Food Month in Pennsylvania – and there’s certainly local food in abundance at Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill in Girard Township.

There are tomatoes, grapes and other produce that are fresh from Erie County farms. There are baked goods from a Millcreek Township bakery, wine from a North East Township vineyard and beer from an Erie brewery.

And the apples? Those were picked about 200 yards from the back door.

Owner Gary Faulkner grows eight or nine varieties of apples at the business, which is named after the stream that cuts through the property. Some of the apples are sold to customers, and others go into the cider that is pressed on site.

The cider season is just gearing up – they press cider from around Labor Day to the end of the year, he says. At Godfrey Run, that process involves multiple steps, sending the apples and juice smoothly from one piece of equipment to another through the cider room. The cider is treated with UV light to prevent any potential pathogens and then is bottled up, ready to be sold.

Not all of that juice comes from Godfrey Run trees – Faulkner contracts with other Erie County growers. The business works both ways – several other operations sell Faulkner’s bottled cider.

Faulkner supports growers not just in Erie County but statewide, too. His products are designated PA Preferred (part of an initiative to support local foods), and he is active in the Pennsylvania Apple Program and the Pennsylvania Cider Guild.

In addition, he has been looking into ways to expand and find different uses and new markets for his apples and his cider.

A previous brainstorm created the cider slushy, a favorite treat for visitors to the farm market. I had a taste during my visit to Godfrey Run, and I can see why they’re so popular.

It’s a new twist on a favorite fall flavor that reminds me of how fortunate we are in Erie County, where we have family farms growing fresh produce so close to home.

As Godfrey Run Farm Market’s sign says: “How sweet it is.”

About Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill: Faulkner has been growing produce for 38 years, first part time and now full time. These days, he almost exclusively grows apples. He expanded his farm market over the years, and is now in his seventh year of making cider on site. The market draws a number of tourists, he says – particularly people who pass by on their way to camp or fish. “A lot of people don’t realize that Erie County is the place in the world – not in the state or in the county, but in the world – to go steelhead fishing,” he says.

Why Erie County: For Faulkner, Godfrey Run is an opportunity to do what he enjoys. He worked as an insurance agent for most of his career, and switched over to run Godfrey Run full time just over 11 years ago. Now, he enjoys the chance to work outside. He also is helping to keep alive a tradition of family farms in Erie County. Years ago, he recalls, family farm stands were plentiful, particularly in west county between Fairview and Girard. Now there are fewer, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Godfrey Run faces challenges from the most unpredictable source – the weather. Like any agricultural operation, it is largely at the whims of Mother Nature. That includes facing various challenges, like apple scab.

Fun fact: Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill participated in Farm Aid in Pittsburgh on September 16, representing cider makers in the local food concessions at the all-star music festival.

Address: 8958 West Lake Road, Lake City, PA 16423 or www.godfreyrunfarm.com

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