Month: December 2017

50 businesses later: What we learned

Every week since January, I’ve crisscrossed Erie County, visiting different businesses – manufacturers, offices, farms and more.

My goal was to determine what is good about doing business in Erie County, as well as what is challenging about doing business here. The answers to the first question can help us as we look to capitalize on our assets and entice new businesses to move here. And knowing the second means we can better help current businesses succeed.

As each week passed, several trends emerged – patterns that transcend industry.

For example, most of the 50 businesses I visited are family-run, and many have been in the same family for generations – some for more than a century.

But no matter whether old or new, many of the businesses started with an entrepreneurial vision. That’s the kind of spirit that helped build Erie County into a manufacturing powerhouse in decades past, and it’s just the kind of attitude that county government and others are fostering as we look to shore up our economy with solid, family-sustaining jobs.

Speaking of jobs, there was a surprise tucked away in many of these businesses. Quietly, and without making headlines, many of these businesses were growing. Some had added employees over the past year or so, and others envisioned doing so over the course of the next several months. Some were even expanding their physical buildings, or looking for new locations in Erie County that offer more space.

Overall, I am impressed not just by the depth of skill that is evident in our Erie County businesses, but by the breadth of those businesses themselves. In Erie County, we can create tiny, intricate parts and huge, hulking equipment – and everything in between. We have innovative technology, skilled artisans and savvy entrepreneurs.

As we work to strengthen our economy, we do so knowing that these businesses – and the talented workers they employ – remain a source of pride for our community, and the bedrock of Erie County.

Why Erie County: Answers varied when I asked about what’s good about doing business in Erie County. An overwhelming number of businesses said the low cost of living, compared with other cities, makes Erie County a desirable place to do business. Others pointed out that while we have a small-town feel, we are able to pair it with big-city amenities like entertainment, shopping, arts, sports teams and more.

Another key is less about quality of life and more about the cost of doing business. Specifically, many businesses pointed out that Erie County’s location is an advantage, whether because of ease in shipping goods out or getting raw materials in. Another asset comes from a support network for businesses that can provide a boost when needed – including financing, planning or start-up advice.

Challenges of Erie County: In one notable trend, many business owners reported that they struggle to find workers with necessary skills and training – so much so that most that I talked to support the creation of a community college in Erie County. The need is a concern now, but it will become more urgent as experienced workers retire.

Fun fact: Of the 50 businesses, three have “American” in their name, and two each have “Great Lakes” or “Lake Erie” in their names.

Wilderness Lodge

At this time of year, when many Erie County residents are wary of lake-effect snow, Ryan Janes has a different thought: Bring it on.

His business, Wilderness Lodge, capitalizes on winter – which, love it or hate it, is part of our makeup here in Erie County (so you might as well embrace it).

Wilderness Lodge is known for cross-country skiing, but it offers so much more. It’s also a restaurant, specializing in farm-to-table; a ranch, contributing to what ultimately ends up on the table; a local music spot; a nine-room inn; and an event venue, now branching out into wedding planning.

Ryan’s entrepreneurial spirit is a family trait. His grandfather, Jim Janes, built the lodge on his own business idea.

As Ryan tells it, Jim Janes had started off wanting to run a dairy farm, but found the soil unsatisfactory. He did notice, however, that snow remained on his Venango Township property long after it had melted elsewhere. That was enough to spark the idea for a business that made use of Mother Nature’s gift.

Originally catering to snowmobilers, the business eventually found its niche with cross-country skiers – and became the first place in the tri-state area to offer cross-country skiing.

The lodge offers skiing and snow-shoeing for novices, experts and everyone in between. It also sponsors the Wilderness Wildcats youth Nordic ski program and hosts high school ski clubs, as well as offering skiing for groups from Special Olympics and the Sight Center of Northwest Pa.

Now, the lodge is ready to evolve again – into a full-service wedding venue that can keep the business going in the snow-free months.

It’s clear that Ryan is eager to make Wilderness a year-round asset for the region.

When I remarked that Wilderness Lodge might be the best-kept secret in Erie County, his response was prompt: “I don’t want to keep the secret anymore,” he said with a laugh.

About Wilderness Lodge: The business is still a family affair. Ryan Janes took over the lodge side from his grandmother, Nansi, 11 years ago. His father, Roger, runs the ski side. The resort boasts a network of 26 miles of trails in both Pennsylvania and New York, over 1,000 total acres – some owned by Wilderness Lodge, and others that the lodge uses thanks to agreements with what Ryan calls “amazingly gracious neighbors.” Those trails are regularly blanketed in snow thanks to the area’s microclimate, which is “a dead bullseye for lake-effect snow,” Ryan says. That snow – which is easily 200 inches a season – draws regulars from Erie County, as well as many from outside the area. “For Pittburgh and Cleveland folks, we are the first great snow they hit,” Ryan says.

Why Erie County: Of course, there’s that climate aspect that is so crucial to the business. But that climate is part of the broader appeal of Erie County, Ryan says. “Erie County has the absolute best that four seasons has to offer,” he says. “We live in a place that has beaches and skiing, and they’re not too distant. … Not too many places can claim that.”

Challenges of Erie County: Like any business, Wilderness Lodge would be bolstered by an improved overall economy in Erie County. Having more businesses come in with good-paying jobs would put more money in people’s pockets, therefore boosting business at Wilderness Lodge and other local venues.

Fun fact: You can ski from Wilderness Lodge to Peek’n Peak Resort in nearby Findley Lake, New York. Trails from Wilderness Lodge connect to the upper golf course at the Peak.

Address: 13488 Weeks Valley Road, Wattsburg, PA 16442 or

Custom Engineering and Lamjen

One of the first things I learned during my visit to Custom Engineering is that it was a two-for-one visit. I was able to tour Lamjen, which also operates at the McClelland Avenue site.

Custom Engineering and Lamjen, along with Venango Machine Company in Wattsburg, operate under the Custom Group Industries umbrella.

Together, they help Custom Group provide a diverse range of products, as each has its own specialty: Custom Engineering, the largest of the three, is known for designing and manufacturing heated platens, as well as hydraulic presses and contract manufacturing. Lamjen focuses on precision machining, often with smaller parts. And Venango Machine produces smaller platens.

That range of services was apparent on my tour of the businesses. Dave Tullio, Custom’s president, pointed out the variety of equipment – from older, manual machines to sophisticated computer-operated machines – that is used to keep the companies competitive. And Jim Ohrn, Custom’s vice president, points out some of the company’s unique capabilities, including drilling through the plates.

The array of products also gives Custom Group an advantage in a sometimes-unpredictable market, by allowing it to serve a diverse group of customers.

“I’d like to say that some of that is management strategy,” Tullio says with a laugh. “But some of it is luck.”

About Custom Engineering and Lamjen: Custom Engineering has been around since 1954, and Lamjen since 1970. Current owner Tom Hagen purchased Custom in 1997, and picked up Lamjen in 2000. (Venango Machine, which opened in 1954, was purchased in 1999.) Combined, the three have about 170 employees. They serve a range of customers, including mining, oil and gas, defense and water management, and their products can be found in everything from airplane interiors to amusement park rides. The company does business at a global level, and identifies China as a major competitor. “The global economy both helps and hurts us,” Tullio says.

Why Erie County: The company’s leaders are active in the community, which they say helps them know where to find resources. Some of those resources have come in handy in the past, Jim Ohrn points out, as the company has found funding through the city, the county and the state.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of Custom Group’s challenges center on the national policy, requiring changes to encourage customers not to go offshore for their business, Tullio says. But some of the challenges are at a more local level. For instance, the company’s leaders see a benefit in having more large, multinational corporations doing business in Erie County, helping to strengthen the overall economy. In addition, the company has found it a challenge to find qualified workers, particularly welders. As a result, the company has worked to create its own welding program internally. “Our claim to fame is the quality of our welding,” Tullio says.

Fun fact: When Custom Engineering began, its largest customer was Formica.

Address: 2800 McClelland Ave., Erie, PA 16510 or

Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro

The day I visited Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro, the weather in Erie felt far from Southern.

But inside, the warmth of the restaurant made it easy to forget the snowstorm brewing outside.

The welcoming space and friendly staff are as important to the restaurant’s success as its delectable menu – and maintaining that warm atmosphere is a priority for everyone on staff, from the owners on down, says Karen Thomas.

Karen co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Matt (an Erie radiologist), and her sister and brother-in-law, Adrienne and Jean Paul. Karen and Adrienne have hospitality backgrounds, and Jean is a chef.

The sisters named the restaurant after their father, whose nickname was Eddie and who ran a catering company in Brooklyn. The women had always wanted to have their own business, and the death of their father in 2008 was the catalyst to them acting on that dream, Karen says.

That dream came to fruition with Pineapple Eddie, which opened in spring 2012.

By that time, both women, who were raised in New York City, had made their homes in Erie – Karen and her husband were here first, and then Karen persuaded her sister’s family to move to the city. They had been active in the Erie community and gained a sense for what would work here and what wouldn’t, and that knowledge informed their strategy for their restaurant.

Today, Pineapple Eddie is a thriving spot for lunch and dinner, known for its flavorful fusion of Haitian and Southern cuisines – a tribute to Jean’s Haitian heritage and the Southern roots of the sisters’ parents.

It’s a winning combination that complements the cozy atmosphere – much like Southern culture itself, Karen says.

“That combination of the hospitality and the food, that’s what has been drawing people in here,” Karen says.

About Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro: Pineapple Eddie, which has 12 to 15 employees, is truly a family business – Adrienne and Karen greet guests out front, and Jean is the creative force in the kitchen. Karen also creates the array of heavenly desserts at the restaurant, though she is training her nephew to take over those responsibilities. The restaurant’s location on West 10th Street means it is not part of the downtown footprint that is getting attention for revitalization plans – but, as Karen points out, the restaurant is close enough to still be a draw. In fact, she says, the restaurant always knows what events are happening by the weekend crowd. For example, they see a surge in customers who are attending a show at the Erie Playhouse. The restaurant also sees customers from other cities, like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, who have heard about the restaurant. “I try to make it my business to walk the dining room, and I find out who’s here and what brought them in,” Karen says.

Why Erie County: To the restaurant’s owners, Erie County is just the right size. It has a small-town feel but still offers amenities like the arts, shopping and convenience. Karen says that she her husband, a Pittsburgh native, are both from larger cities, and they didn’t want to live in one. That small-city feel of Erie also has proved helpful in launching Pineapple Eddie, Karen says. “The wonderful thing about Erie is the power of word of mouth,” she says. “No matter what, if something is good or bad, people are going to talk about it.”

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges that Pineapple Eddie faces come down to one thing – balance. Much like the menu offers a thoughtful balance of Haitian and Southern cuisines, the restaurant overall has had to find a balance in its identity. For instance, Karen says, the restaurant has had to find middle ground in providing an interesting and attractive dining experience for higher-income customers while also remaining affordable enough for those for who only dine out occasionally. A similar challenge comes in terms of the restaurant’s theme – which is unique without being unapproachable. “We can’t go too far off the map,” Karen says. “This is different but still relatable.”

Fun fact: The pineapple is the international symbol of hospitality.

Address: 1420 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16502 or

InnovaTel Telepsychiatry

There are many interesting things about InnovaTel Telepsychiatry – including its unique blend of healthcare and technology. But what struck me when I was learning about the business is how it could operate anywhere, yet its leaders deliberately are choosing to stay in Erie.

If you’ve never heard of InnovaTel, that’s understandable. After all, the company is based here, but it serves clients in eight states – and most of its employees don’t live here, either.

InnovaTel provides telepsychiatric care – meaning it brings together psychiatrists and clinics, no matter their location, and links them remotely through a secure video platform. The company was started by Jon Evans and Lee Penman, who both worked at Hamot and who both later helped to found Erie’s Safe Harbor Behavioral Health.

InnovaTel, their new enterprise, reflects their continued commitment to providing quality mental health care, but adds a 21st century update.

As Evans and Penman explain, there is a shortage of psychiatrists across the country, a problem that is felt most acutely in rural areas. Telepsychiatry allows those underserved areas – rural, urban and everything in between – to more easily offer mental health care to residents.

The business, now about four years old, is growing as it becomes more established – and, as Penman says, as people are getting more used to the idea of telepsychiatry and telemedicine in general.

Part of that growth is coming from an expansion into correctional psychiatry – that is, forensic evaluations and mental health care done in correctional settings, like jails. It’s just another way of enhancing care while lowering costs – a combination that InnovaTel is confident will drive future success.

That brings me back to my main takeaway from this company: A growing company that can operate from anywhere, but one that is planting roots firmly in Erie County.

According to InnovaTel’s leaders, that’s not just an emotional decision, but a practical one. As Evans describes, Erie is a “hidden asset,” where the cost of doing business is significantly less than in other cities. In fact, they see the potential for Erie to become a hub of technology and health care.

“Our goal is to really grow this company and stay here,” Evans says.

About InnovaTel Telepsychiatry: The company is making a name for itself in the telemedicine industry – it has been named a strategic partner with the National Council for Behavioral Health, and it was recently ranked as one of the 10 most promising telemedicine providers by Healthcare Tech Outlook magazine. InnovaTel now has 30 psychiatrists on its roster, and it has partnered with more than 40 clinics – and more interest comes in every week. As a telemedicine company, InnovaTel’s focus must be on the technology as well as the health care. The company is very thorough in ensuring the quality of the video and audio connections – which are secure links to a licensed facility – and also to creating a comfortable atmosphere, which includes the lighting of the walls, the color of the room, and the placement of the TV at a patient’s eye level.

Why Erie County: As previously mentioned, InnovaTel’s leaders have found a benefit in the low overhead costs in Erie County. In addition, however, they found it beneficial to launch their business in Erie, where they already had connections in the community through their previous work.

Challenges of Erie County: InnovaTel’s remote nature requires that the Erie staff make site visits, so travel into and out of Erie – including at the airport – can be a challenge. Another challenge that has less to do with Erie County but nevertheless is a hurdle for the company comes from licensing requirements. InnovaTel’s psychiatrists must receive licensing from multiple states – and each state has different procedures and requirements. Evans says that given the increasing popularity of telemedicine, it might be time to explore the idea of a national licensing standard.

Fun fact: Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a mental health advocate and son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, is a member of InnovaTel Telepsychiatry’s advisory board.

Address: 2005 W. Eighth St., Erie, PA 16505 or

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