Month: November 2017

Luminary Distilling

I’ve been visiting a lot of Erie County entrepreneurs lately, and Luminary Distilling continues that pattern.

This time, the business started with a hobby – specifically, brewing beer at home.

Joel Normand and his wife, Maria DiSanza, branched out from there, touring distilleries in Pittsburgh and New York state – and became intrigued by the potential for a distillery business in Erie County.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we give it a shot?’” Maria says.

Now they have lots of shots – all from the bottles of house-made spirits lining the bar in their Summit Township storefront.

Luminary Distilling has been open since March, but the process of getting the business going – and learning about distilling – has been several years in the making.

Distilling is a technical process, but there’s also a craft to it, the owners say.

“You can understand the science pretty quickly. It takes time to get the art,” Joel says. “There’s a certain taste and feel to it.”

Joel speaks knowledgably about the distilling process, explaining everything from the first grains of wheat to the smooth finished product. He details the chemistry, the origins, and the varieties – including how different flavors are formed depending on whether it is wheat or wine that is distilled.

Like their products, Joel and Maria each bring different flavors to their company. While Joel’s domain is the distillery, Maria runs the front of the house, managing the day-to-day business.

And that business is popular, drawing customers to sit, sip and socialize. Luminary doesn’t serve food, but customers are welcome to bring their own – or take advantage of visiting food trucks. Board games are available as well.

“It’s a nice little atmosphere,” Maria says, looking around the tasting room, which is warmed by the glow of mini luminaries crisscrossing the ceiling.

Other personal touches enhance the décor, including the bar, which was crafted by a local high school shop teacher, and a wall hanging that was made by one of Joel’s former students.

The decorations aren’t the only thing that’s local – so are the products that they use for distilling. Wheat comes from Troyer’s, wine comes from North East vineyards, and cider comes from Fuhrman’s Cider Mill, Bakery & General Store, right next door.

“We want to be known as Erie’s distillery. We want to be known as something that is truly Erie,” Joel says.

About Luminary Distilling: When the business opened in March, it was the first modern-day craft distillery in the county – thought it was joined soon after by another, this one in Washington Township. Owners Joel Normand and Maria DiSanza take on the bulk of the work at Luminary, though they have both have other jobs – Joel is a teacher in Sharpsville, and Maria works part time as a physical therapist assistant – as well as three kids at home. Someday, they hope Luminary will be successful enough that they can make it their full-time jobs. They started with  just a few spirits and are steadily adding more, including the popular Apple Pie Moonshine. More varieties of gin, whiskey and moonshine are coming out in December.

Why Erie County: The couple lives in Erie, and were looking to open their distillery in the city. However, they found their perfect home in Summit Township, and are thrilled with the location, and their neighbors. People who live in the area have been very supportive, Maria says – that that’s one of the best things about their business. “People stop in as first timers, then they keep coming back. We get to know them and their families,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of friends here.” Luminary also has found benefits in a relationship with VisitErie, which has helped to promote the business.

Challenges of Erie County: As Joel and Maria started their business, they first had to navigate the ins and outs of state and federal regulations in order to get licensed. Once the business began, they were faced with keeping up with production to meet demand. They also have other challenges common to new businesses, including finding money for advertising. Luckily, they have had luck promoting the business on social media – which is both affordable and convenient, they say – and by word of mouth.

Fun fact: Moonshine is just a general term for any distilled and unaged spirit, Joel says. It gets its name from distillers who made their product illegally, often at night by the light of the moon.

Address: 8270 Peach St., Suite 300, Erie, PA 16509 or www.luminarydistilling.com

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

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