Author: Kathy Dahlkemper (Page 2 of 5)

Laser Creations and Windtek

Laser Creations operates out of a sprawling facility next to railroad tracks in Platea. Decades ago, when Platea was known as Lockport, the building was home to a lumber mill on the banks of the Erie Extension Canal.

It’s fitting, then, that today Laser Creations operates a full wood shop, creating custom wood products for laser engravings.

“We’re still working with lumber, from rough cut to finished product,” says owner Mark Youngs.

Those products range from wooden plaques and key chains to ring boxes and decorative keepsakes, all engraved with custom logos, designs or seals.

But the wood work is only a portion of the business. About 40 percent of Laser Creations’ business comes from doing jobs for other companies, Youngs says. That includes creating laser-cut items for advertising and other uses.

The job-shop work dates back to the company’s beginnings, when it was founded as a business services company in 1969 by Youngs’ father, Walter Youngs – a man that Mark Youngs describes as “a constant entrepreneur.”

Mark Youngs must have inherited some of that entrepreneurial spirit: Laser Creations isn’t the only enterprise in the family.

Another Platea business, Windtek, is owned by Youngs’ wife, Wendy.

Windtek, less than a mile down the road from Laser Creations, constructs and sells windsocks and runway lights.

In the small shop run out of the Youngs’ garage, Wendy Youngs oversees the company founded by a family friend – and fellow aviation enthusiast. Today, Windtek takes pride in selling quality equipment to airports and airfields, as well as oil rigs and other facilities.

Wendy Youngs, who has run the business for 17 years, handles the business side, while other employees work on stitching the heavy-duty windsocks and constructing other products.

“It’s an opportunity for a little retirement business,” Wendy Youngs says.

About Laser Creations and Windtek: Laser Creations had its start on the city of Erie’s east side before Mark Youngs’ father purchased the property in Platea. At one point, the bustling company had 50-plus employees working two or three shifts. Today, about six employees work at Laser Creations – though Mark Youngs believes that the company has the potential for growth, with some added marketing. Laser Creations is largely a regional operation, contracting with a Butler-based company. Windtek, which has four part-time employees, mainly sells to aviation customers who see ads in trade publications. Wendy and Mark are engrained in the aviation culture, and as a result are friendly with Windtek’s competitors. Windtek sources its heavy-duty premium windsock fabric from the mills in the South – “We’re all-American,” Mark Youngs says proudly.

Why Erie County: For the Youngs family’s businesses, Erie County presents a good geographic location – even in the mostly rural Platea area. “At one point, we were the best kept secret in Erie County,” Mark Youngs says. Erie County is not too far from major metropolitan areas, with travel easily accessible, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges of Erie County are really on a broader level, Mark Youngs says – foreign competition is a challenge for his business, with lower-quality, mass-produced items made overseas available for less than the hand-made products created in his shop. He also sees federal and state regulation and red tape as a detriment to encouraging the entrepreneurs that are badly needed to restart the economy. He sees a need to build up Erie County’s economy as a whole, as smaller businesses like his feed off larger businesses.

Fun fact: Mark and Wendy Youngs also own the Green Roof Inn in Platea.

Address: Laser Creations, 10043 Peach St., Girard, PA 16417 or www.lasercreations.com. Windtek, 10451 Peach St., Girard, PA 16417 or www.bestwindsocks.com.

Port Erie Plastics

My visit to Port Erie Plastics, in Harborcreek Township, was a reminder of how prevalent plastics are in our daily lives.

I was sitting at a table talking with some of the company’s managers about the business when Jon Connole, the sales and marketing manager, suddenly took notice of my keychain.

“That’s one of ours,” he said.

It turns out, he was right. My keychain is from Erie’s Munio, and it was made right there in Harborcreek.

As we toured Port Erie Plastics, I saw more everyday items coming off the production lines: Christmas tree stands. Storage bins. Pill boxes.

In a room tucked away in a corner of the 300,000-square-foot facility, specialty items were being imprinted by a laser printer. This division handles products made for a company run by Jim Kelly, the Buffalo Bills legend.

The broad range of products, serving a variety of industries, bear out the plastics-driven future that founder Henry Witkowski foresaw when he launched the business in 1953.

The company has grown since its founding, moving from Erie’s east side to its current site in Harborcreek in 1966.

“We were the only thing out here then,” said William Witkowski, Henry’s son and the current owner and CEO.

The Harborcreek facility, which has steadily grown in the decades since, is ready for another expansion (more on that later), in order to accommodate the steady growth of business.

The company, which has hired more than 30 people in the past few weeks, is looking to hire about another 20, said John Johnson, the company’s president.

“It’s new customers and new products,” he said of Port Erie Plastics’ recent growth.

About Port Erie Plastics: The company, which started with one injection molding machine, now runs 90 machines and specializes in custom plastic injection molding.  The company also offers other services to customers, and runs its own in-house tool room and engineering facilities. The company has more than 400 employees, both in its main facility on the east side of Troupe Road and at its 275,000-square-foot warehousing facility, just a bit south on the west side of Troupe Road. The company has been in growth mode for the past 15 to 20 years, Johnson said, with an extra boost coming in the past several months.

Why Erie County:  The leadership team at Port Erie Plastics sees many positives in the quality of life that the community offers for workers. That includes community assets, recreational opportunities and a relatively easy commute. In addition, the company has seen the advantages of having Penn State Behrend’s  plastics engineering programs in their backyard. In fact, the Witkowski family joined with other Erie-area plastics companies to help initiate and develop the program at Behrend. As a result, Port Erie Plastics and other local plastics companies enjoy the benefits of Behrend-trained interns and employees.

Challenges of Erie County: While Port Erie Plastics is able to find workers for its plastics engineering positions, filling general employment positions remains a challenge. The company struggles to find qualified workers. As that demand for workers is only expected to increase in the next decade, Port Erie Plastics identified a need for more pathways to manufacturing jobs – whether in high school or through a community college. Another challenge of being located in Erie County is even more pressing, however: Port Erie Plastics has been frustrated by delays in getting a permit to add on to their existing facility. The plans originally called for work to begin in the spring; due to delays, now the company is worried about getting the work done before winter sets in.

Fun fact: The Witkowski Building, part of the Engineering Complex at Penn State Behrend, was named for William Witkowski.

Address: 909 Troupe Road, Harborcreek, PA 16421 or www.porterie.com.

E.A. Mundkowsky Finishing

Elsie Mundkowsky might not be a conventional finishing-shop owner, but she’s a textbook entrepreneur.

Mundkowsky is self-taught in both business and deburring work. Family photos and a granddaughter’s artwork adorn the walls of her West Springfield business, E.A. Mundkowsky Finishing.

But Mundkowsky’s story is one of a true entrepreneur.

In 1993, as a mother in her 40s, she was looking for some extra money. When her husband brought home some metal pieces that needed filing, she took on the challenge, setting up a station in their garage.

The work was new to her. At first, she says, she looked at those 2,000 pieces and cried. And then she picked up a hand file, figured out the process, and got to work.

“I fell in love with the work,” she says. “I fell in love with the challenges.”

That love – and a passion for the business – pushed her to expand. She used her $83 paycheck from that first filing job to purchase a machine to make the work easier.

She continued to take on work and invest in equipment, eventually outgrowing her garage. She purchased a neighboring plot of land and built a shop, then added on to that facility to accommodate growing orders.

Today, the work has slowed from its heyday in the early 2000s. Mundkowsky is ready to retire, and is interested in finding the right buyer who will build on the business that she is proud to have created.

“I’d like to be able to watch this place keep going from across the yard,” she says.

About E.A. Mundkowsky Finishing: The business specializes in deburring and secondary machining. As Mundkowsky explains, “We don’t make anything. We make it better.” In the shop, we watched as metal pieces were added to a large drum – like a giant washing machine, Mundkowsky said – and were agitated around in tiny ceramic pellets. When they emerged, they were put into a second drum to dry and then were ready to go, smooth and polished. Today, the work is done by Mundkowsky and her husband, down from a staff of about 15 when the shop was at its busiest.

Why Erie County: Mundkowsky sees a lot of benefit in the people of Erie County. “Most people are good people,” she says. And she credits a lot of those good people with helping her along the way as she created, and then expanded, her business.

Challenges of Erie County: Mundkowsky has experienced not just the struggles of running a small business, but the challenges of doing so as a woman. It hasn’t been easy to make a name for herself in a field normally dominated by men, she says.

Fun Fact: Elsie Mundkowsky’s shop is located on land that once was home to another woman-run enterprise. She purchased the land from the great-grandchildren of a woman who used to grow onions in that field.

Address: 14415 West RidgeRoad, West Springfield, PA  16443 or www.eamf.net.

A. Caplan Co.

Anyone who’s driven through Waterford on Route 19 is probably familiar with A. Caplan Co.’s slogan: “If you cook, stop and look!”

As Luke Caplan describes, the slogan was a spur-of-the-moment creation from his father, Aaron, who founded the business in 1981.

The slogan, which now graces the sign of the Waterford Township business, perfectly sums up the draw of the kitchenware store.

On the retail side, at least, the store has become almost a destination of sorts for at-home cooks, Luke Caplan says. In the storefront, all manner of kitchen gadgets and gizmos jockey for space. There are stacks of gleaming silver pots, rows of coordinating china, racks of spoons and spatulas for any purpose.  There is also a collection of vintage items, including quirky or collectible kitchen tools and serving pieces reminding shoppers of days gone by.

But the retail side only represents about half of what the business does. A. Caplan Co. also serves commercial kitchens, supplying equipment to restaurants, taverns, schools, clubs and churches. That equipment, which A. Caplan Co. sells both new and used, runs the gamut: Huge commercial ovens and refrigerators, stainless steel sinks for proper sanitation, other devices like rice cookers, bread slicers, mixers and meat grinders.

The business has evolved over the years into its current form, with the Caplans tacking on extra room as needs required. They’ve grown slowly but steadily over the years, Luke Caplan says – and that was the intention. “Dad never was in it to make a ton of money,” he says. “Just to make a living.”

Today, that living supports a second generation of Caplans – Luke and his brother, James, as well as 10 other dedicated employees – and has carved out a comfortable niche for itself in Erie County. Even so, the Caplans are cognizant of their main competition – the Internet – and have had to make their mark as a unique presence.

“We know we have to get out there and sell the experience,” Luke Caplan says, “and sell ourselves.”

About A. Caplan Co.: Aaron Caplan started his business in the former Dog N Suds, and the drive-in’s old awning remains. Today, the commercial side of the business serves customers in a fairly wide radius, serving customers as far south as Pittsburgh and delving into eastern Ohio and western New York. The retail side of the business has been bolstered by a nationwide trend of home cooking, evidenced by the variety of cooking shows and competitions. In addition to supplying equipment, the business offers services as well – including installing equipment, advising customers on kitchen layout, and even professional knife sharpening.

Why Erie County: A trend in Erie County to support locally owned restaurants has proved beneficial to A. Caplan Co., Luke Caplan says. In addition, A. Caplan Co. enjoys a good relationship with other restaurant equipment dealers in the county. “There’s a camaraderie” in their industry, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: As previously mentioned, one of A. Caplan Co.’s biggest challenges as a retailer is from the Internet, in the form of online shopping. However, the company also sees challenges here at home, particularly when it comes to attempts to expand the business. The company might have the resources to expand, but not necessarily the time or money to invest in the process – including permitting – that must be undertaken before the expansion can actually take place, Luke Caplan says. The obstacles can be disheartening, he says, for a company that is trying to grow.

Fun fact: Luke Caplan might just be destined to work in the restaurant supply business. His father’s parents were in the restaurant equipment business, long before his father opened A. Caplan Co. And his mother recently found a paper from his elementary school days that revealed his childhood hopes for this future. “It said, ‘When I grow up I want to sell restaurant equipment,’” Luke Caplan says with a laugh.

Address: 12607 U.S. Route 19, Waterford, PA 16441 or www.caplancookware.com.

Locust Grove Nursery

Greg Fuhrer tells a story that illustrates the deep roots of his family’s business, Locust Grove Nursery.

He was working in a field recently alongside son Doug, who also works at the nursery. “You realize,” he told his son, “that we’re doing just what my dad and granddad did.”

Greg Fuhrer and his wife, Sharon, started Locust Grove back in the 1980s, selling mums from roadside stands. As customers began requesting different kinds of plants, the Fuhrers took the initiative and started growing new varieties to meet the needs.

Today, they’ve gotten out of the retail business and now work as a wholesaler, supplying plants to landscapers, schools and garden centers. But the business remains firmly in the Fuhrer family, with several family members intrinsically involved in the operations.

More family members work at the business, including another of Greg and Sharon’s sons, Jason, who is Locust Grove’s co-owner. He sometimes takes his own son, 5-year-old Caleb, along for the ride when he makes deliveries. “He’s getting to know the customers,” Jason says.

The strong family connection is apparent as Greg and Jason show us around the business – and so is the pride they take in their work.

The Fuhrers grow 45,000 to 60,000 plants – including trees, shrubs, perennials and bedding plants – across their 13 acres in Waterford Township. Nearby, they lease 14 acres from a neighbor to grow arborvitae and boxwood.

They make their own potting soil, taking care to ensure a proper level of nutrients. They try to be earth friendly, using coconut husk for weed control.

And above all, they try to serve the needs of their customers – following the same drive that expanded their business from a small roadside stand. They study trends and keep tabs on what customers will be looking for. The latest trend, they have found, is edible landscapes, like berry bushes and herb gardens.

For Locust Grove Nursery, change is necessary – changing seasons, changing customers, changing plants. What remains constant, though, is the dedicated family behind the business.

About Locust Grove Nursery: The business has four full-time employees and a handful of part-time workers – often high school students. The nursery, which primarily serves customers around northwestern Pennsylvania but also in neighboring areas of New York and Ohio, is strict about sticking to the wholesale business and not selling to the general public. If the general public asks to buy plants, the Fuhrers refer them to one of the local garden centers that they supply. Locust Grove does not sell to big box stores.

Why Erie County: The Fuhrers say they enjoy having their business in a place like Erie County, which is a welcoming home for their multigenerational family. They also enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere in general, and they see Lake Erie as an enormous asset for the county. In addition, they find that at least in their business, there is a strong support network. They have good relationships with other nurseries in Erie County, and even help each other out. If Locust Grove doesn’t have something a customer is looking for, the Fuhrers will send the customer to a competitor – just as the other nurseries will send customers to Locust Grove.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges that Locust Grove faces are just part of the nature of their business – literally. They constantly work to keep deer, rabbits and woodchucks from eating their plants. And they also grapple with the most unpredictable challenge, the weather. They work outside as long as they can, until the snow flies. And over the winter months, they propagate plants, service equipment, and rest up for spring, and the launch of their busy seasons. In addition, they see Erie County’s distance from the state capital as a challenge. Officials in Harrisburg sometimes forget about this corner of the state, the Fuhrers say – so it is up to Erie County residents and businesses to keep fighting to get recognition.

Fun fact: The Fuhrers start about 80 percent of their plants themselves, either from seeds or cuttings. They are not permitted to start some patented plants.

Address: 2291 Old State Rd, Waterford, PA 16441 or www.locustgroveplants.com

Hoffman Industrial

Hoffman Industrial is in the business of moving things.

It’s fitting, then, that the company is continuing to move forward, even with a 171-year tradition in Erie.

Hoffman was founded in 1846 by using horses to move houses. As manufacturing rapidly advanced in the industrial age, however, the company leveraged its rigging and moving skills and moved into machinery. Today, Hoffman Industrial – the oldest rigging and machinery moving company in the United States – no longer moves houses, instead focusing on the specialty skills of moving heavy and hulking pieces of machinery with a deliberate and even delicate touch.

President and owner Art Hammond, who bought the westside Erie business about three and a half years ago, is focused on ensuring that his company is the best at what it does, and that it has a strong – and satisfied – customer base to prove it.

He’s working to build that base by promoting the advantages of Hoffman Industrial – emphasizing that Hoffman workers have the equipment, the experience and the proper insurance to safely move big machinery.

It’s dangerous work, he points out, and it’s not for amateurs. There are angles and math calculations to figure out, and new circumstances with every job. “There’s so much to worry about,” Hammond says. “You have to have patience.”

Hoffman Industrial has further been investing in its equipment and in its employees – making sure workers have necessary training and skills – and has touted that experience in efforts to increase business.

Hammond has added some advertising and is working to expand the marketing and online reach – “We realize that even with a niche business like rigging and machinery moving, an online presence is essential for growth,” he says – and he’s also making sure his employees know of the company’s efforts.

A sign in the employee breakroom spells out the company’s philosophy fairly clearly: “Hoffman Industrial Co. will only employ and promote people who support and satisfy customers.” And upstairs, in a small office, a list hanging on the wall keeps a running tally of new businesses added so far this year – more than a dozen to date.

With so much activity, it’s clear that this moving business is not content to stand still.

About Hoffman Industrial: The company, with 11 workers, has a mix of seasoned and younger employees. Hoffman sends younger workers out for training and certification, since the rigging work is dangerous, and a strong skillset is imperative to employee safety. The company serves businesses in about a 250-mile radius of Erie, largely focusing on manufacturing but also serving other industries, including health care. Here in Erie County, Hoffman is the approved primary rigging company for GE Transportation.

Why Erie County: Hammond sees a lot of positives in Erie County, including its livability. He also says that Erie County still has a strong manufacturing presence – which is essential for businesses like his. When manufacturing is robust, he says, manufacturers “do a lot with their money. They invest in new machines.” And when that happens, Hoffman Industrial is there to move out the old machines and move in the new ones.

Challenges of Erie County: Hammond does, however, say that it is vital that Erie County shore up its manufacturing sector to help stave off future decline. “We have to grow the manufacturing base so that ancillary businesses like us grow. Anything that hurts manufacturing hurts us,” he says. In addition, Hammond would like to see a greater effort from Erie County companies in supporting local businesses. “Nothing irks me worse than an Erie company hiring an out-of-Erie company,” he says.

Fun fact: Hammond is only the second owner of the company to have come from outside the Hoffman family.

Address: 1510 Irwin Drive, Erie, PA 16505 or www.hoffmanindustrial.com

Rudy’s Shoe Repair

In a small corner storefront on the City of Erie’s west side, Rudy Rodriguez is doing more than repairing shoes – he’s living the American dream.

The El Salvador native and his wife, Adriana, have run Rudy’s Shoe Repair since 2015 – a decade after Rudy came to the United States.

His path to becoming a business owner is, as Adriana describes, “quite providential.”

After experiencing problems with his feet, he saw a local podiatrist and then was referred to Walk Rite, a local store that offers footwear and other services for people with foot problems. There, with the help of Walk Rite owner Nathaniel Zimmerman, Rudy started training to learn how to make custom orthotics – and thus the dream began.

“As soon as I started training, I just fell in love with it,” says Rudy, who worked as a tailor in El Salvador. “I saw so much potential.”

Soon, he was working full-time out of the Walk Rite shop, filling a need for shoe repair in Erie.

Before long, Rudy’s Shoe Repair expanded into its own space, at the corner of West 26th and Myrtle streets.

Since then, business has been steadily growing, mostly by word of mouth.

Now, looking around the workshop, crowded with shoes in for repair, Rudy and Adriana see another possible move in their future – an expansion of their successful enterprise to a larger storefront, maybe one with living space above for their family.

When asked if he ever expected to be an entrepreneur – “empresario,” or businessman, as Adriana explained in Spanish – Rudy’s answer is clear: Never. He never pictured himself owning his own business.

But now, with his shop doing a steady business by filling a niche in Erie, perhaps he has realized a dream he never knew he had.

About Rudy’s Shoe Repair: Though the shop started out by only repairing shoes, now they take on all manner of leather products – purses, jackets, luggage, belts, saddles, even furniture. The workshop features a mix of old equipment, picked up secondhand, and new machines that the owners have invested in. As business has grown, so has the need for help. As a result, Rudy’s is no longer a one-man operation. Though Adriana also works a full-time job, she also helps out at the shop, and they also have two part-time employees. Rudy’s Shoe Repair also recently joined the Erie Regional Chamber & Growth Partnership.

Why Erie County: Rudy and Adriana both say that Erie County – and its people – have been very good to them. That includes the training and guidance Rudy received in starting the business, and it carries through today, when they exchange referrals with other local businesses and rely on a network of mentors to help them as they continue to learn the trade. In addition, they have found it is simply a good place to raise their two children, ages 2 and 6. “A lot of people say there is not much in Erie – but there is. You just have to look a little, and you’ll find great things,” Rudy says.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that Rudy’s Shoe Repair faces are not unique to the county, or unique to shoe repair. Rather, it’s the burden of any small business owner who wears many hats – greeting and helping customers, filling orders, doing the finances, etc. In addition, Rudy says he works hard to adjust to the differences in culture and language that distinguish his new home from his native country.

Address: 263 W. 26th St., Erie PA 16508 or www.rudysshoerepair.com

 

Coming up next week: We visit Hoffman Industrial, the oldest rigging company in the United States.

 

American Cruising Sails

Anyone who’s ever gazed from our shores during the summertime can see that Erie loves its sailing – and, as a result, has a market for sailmaking.

Several years ago, a group of entrepreneurial-minded local sailors decided to fill that niche, and American Cruising Sails was born.

As two of those founders – company president AJ Miceli and general manager Kim Yamma – showed me around their workshop recently, it was evident that they are not just knowledgeable about the wind and the water, but are dedicated to their craft.

“Erie has a fine tradition of local sailmakers, and we hope to be the next generation,” AJ said.

American Cruising Sails has been in business since 2014, benefitting from both mentorship and referrals from longtime Erie sailmaker Dave Bierig.

Now that their reputation is growing, with orders coming both locally and online, they are looking to grow – eventually hoping to add an additional staff member as well as looking for a larger physical space.

Currently, they are located in the basement of a building on West Eighth Street in the City of Erie – a space that, interestingly enough, once housed another local startup, Erie.net. The location served the needs of the early days of American Cruising Sails, but now they are looking for room to grow.

In the existing space, a giant, 28-foot table nearly fills the workroom. As crisp white material runs the length of it, passing under the busy needle of the sewing machine, it is clear why a table of such size is warranted – and, when hearing about a recent order for a 52-foot sail, why an even larger table is desired.

The room hosts more than sewing – a chalkboard details new orders, and a computer helps with the design and plotting. Across the table from where Kim operates the sewing machine, AJ works on cutting out shapes that will be pieced together.

Elsewhere in the space, bags of sails are ready for repair or, when finished, delivery to customers. New rolls of canvas await their future as new sails. And a small display showcases the Vela line – totebags, pillows, placemats and even Christmas stockings – repurposed from retired sails.

Though a small operation, American Cruising Sails is committed to providing the best service for their customers – something that big-business competitors, whose products are often made in Sri Lanka or China, can’t touch.

“We’re sailors,” Kim says. “We know what we would want in a sail.”

About American Cruising Sales: The company’s small staff is still made up of the four original owners – AJ and Kim, along with vice president Mark Platteter and partner Rosemary Briggs. Like with any startup, the partners began by chipping away at the work on evenings and weekends, before eventually transitioning AJ and Kim to full time. Mark and Rosemary still work at the business part-time. Though about 85 percent of American Cruising Sails’ work is local, they’re also growing their national footprint, having shipped sails to Texas, Florida, Maryland, Vermont and elsewhere.

Why Erie County: A sailmaking business is, of course, a perfect fit for Erie County, with its miles of shoreline and natural bay. But in addition, American Cruising Sales’ owners say they see plenty of potential for their business in Erie County. “We see nothing but opportunities in Erie County,” A.J. says, with Kim adding, “We’re big fans.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that American Cruising Sails faces are universal among small startups – not enough hours in the day, the owners say. But the owners are also seeing a challenging in finding a new space for their loft. They are looking for something of the right size, at the right cost, that is convenient to the bay.

Fun fact: A sailmaking workshop is known as a loft – even if, as in American Cruising Sails’ case, the shop is located in a basement.

About: 1640 W. Eighth St., Erie PA 16505 or www.americancruisingsails.com

Burton Funeral Homes & Crematory

My recent visit to Burton Funeral Homes  & Crematory revealed how the business has embraced both tradition and change.

The tradition aspect is readily apparent in the owners, who represent the fifth generation of the Burton family to run the business. The business was founded in 1876, and there are now four Burton locations around the county. The location that we visited, on West 10th Street in the City of Erie, is located in a historic building that has been home to Burton since the 1950s.

As Karen Burton Horstman spoke about the business, however, it became clear that it is now as much about changing times as it is about that deep-rooted family tradition.

The business has adjusted to meet the expectations of modern customers. That might mean offering more ways to personalize a funeral service – including through things like specialized casket accents, a unique urn, or a custom memorial. They’re also keeping an eye on new technology that other funeral homes have used to personalize funeral services.

And, in addition, they find themselves changing to fit contemporary sensibilities – which sometimes treat the grieving process differently than previous generations.

“We’re becoming a less traditional society,” Horstman says. “People are not valuing funeral services the way they used to.”

Burton has also adjusted the business by offering services that people are valuing – including memorials and pet loss services.

For any aspect of the funeral business, Horstman emphasizes the importance of the grieving process. In fact, that’s one of the aspects of the business that she finds to be the most important. As she explains, the death of a loved one is one of the life events that has the most impact on a person.

“People ask me, ‘How do you stand this work?’” she says. “I tell them that you’re helping someone through the worst time of their life. It’s very sad, but it’s also very rewarding.”

About Burton Funeral Homes & Crematory: In addition to the main location on West 10th Street in Erie, Burton operates funeral homes on West 26th Street and on Norcross Road in Millcreek Township, and on Main Street in Girard. The funeral home employs 40-some employees, almost equally split between part-time and full-time. Burton had one of the first crematories in the area, opening its crematory at the West 10th Street facility in the 1980s.

Why Erie County: Clearly, Burton has strong roots in Erie County. And the owners see that as a distinct advantage. “We have been here a long time, so our name has a good reputation,” Horstman says. But she also emphasized that Erie County is a desirable place to live. As she describes, it has big-city assets without being a big city, while also offering advantages like the natural environment and affordable housing.

Challenges of Erie County: Horstman describes a need for a regional view in Erie County, pointing to her experience of operating businesses both inside the City of Erie and in the outlying areas. As she explains, the City of Erie is home to all manner of nonprofits and services that pay no taxes, limiting the tax base – but residents of other Erie County municipalities also use those services. She sees reginonalism as a possible solution to revitalizing the city and its public schools. “If you don’t have schools, you don’t attract people,” she says. “And then how do I stay in business?”

Fun fact: Burton was founded by A.P. Burton, the son of a shipbuilder who helped construct Oliver Hazard Perry’s War of 1812 fleet.

Address: 602 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16502 or www.burtonfuneralhomes.com

Curtze Food Service

During the daytime hours, Curtze Food Service hums with activity. Warehouse workers steer forklifts among towering shelves, and seafood cutters keep busy slicing into fresh fish.

But the real action starts after normal business hours, when that hum turns into a hubbub.

The warehouse staff hustles to fill orders as delivery trucks rumble in, ready to be filled up and sent on their way, whisking Curtze customers’ orders to points across an eight-state area.

On a recent tour during a relatively quiet afternoon, company President Bruce Kern gestures to a line of 10 bay doors.

“These doors will open and close five times a night” as trucks pull in, says Bruce, who runs the family business with his brother, company Vice President Scott Kern. The warehouse operates round-the-clock during the week to fulfill orders for grocery items, produce, fresh seafood and more.

The efficient, streamlined operation is quite a change from the company that started back in 1878, when an enterprising Curtze ancestor launched a wholesale business to serve the oil drillers and lumber camps that populated northwestern Pennsylvania.

Today, the company – now run by the fifth generation of Curtze descendents – operates three distribution centers (in Erie, Cleveland and Rochester, New York) and utilizes a fleet of 125 refrigerated trucks to serve about 8,500 customers.

And, as Bruce Kern says simply, “We’re growing.”

About Curtze Food Service: The company, which distributes all manner of food and food service equipment – everything but alcoholic beverages, the Kerns say – specializes in “center of the plate” products like hand-cut fresh seafood and meat. The company also distributes fresh produce, some of which comes from growers in the Erie region. All told, Curtze employs between 650 and 700 employees – around 270 of those in Erie County.

Why Erie County: The company’s roots long predate the Kerns, but they seem content with their company’s home. “I’m not one of these guys who is down on his hometown. I happen to think we have a lot going on in Erie,” Bruce Kern says. In addition, Curtze Food Services has found valuable resources in local organizations like the Manufacturer & Business Association and the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.

Challenges of Erie County: The biggest challenges facing Curtze Food Service come from location – both at a local level and, more broadly, at a regional level. The company’s current footprint, as Scott Kern describes, “is not a perfect fit” – surrounding properties have the company penned in, preventing expansion at its eastside Erie site. As it is, the company’s specialty meat-cutting facility is down the street from the main office and warehouse. In addition, situating a distribution center on a lake shore has its own set of challenges – namely, that it restricts distribution to a swath of territory to the north.

Fun fact: Curtze’s meat cutters must complete an 18-month apprentice program.

Address: 171 E. 12th St., Erie, PA 16511 or www.curtze.com

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