Meet the Small Business Contest finalists
Introducing our 9 amazing finalists!
When we set out to celebrate Small Business Month with a contest to reward local businesses, we had no idea what an amazing response we would get. We asked you to nominate businesses demonstrating resilience, innovation, and community spirit and got over 1,000 entries!
The inspiration, gratitude, and pride we felt reading all the nominations is truly immeasurable. Our panel of judges managed to narrow down the entries to nine finalists (in no particular order):
- Rooted Oak Farm
- Versa Fitness
- PUR Yoga Toronto
- The Lake Report
- The Bookshelf
- Withrow Park Farmers’ Market
- Northern Village Inc.
- Grounded Kitchen, Coffee & Bar
- Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing
Here are their stories.
Rooted Oak Farm
Young farmers Nikki and Stuart Oke are passionately dedicated to local farming, sustainable agriculture, and equal access to quality local produce. Their dream is to help create a sustainable, regional food system that can feed the community it calls home.
The last two years have been full of challenges, like pandemic business losses and perilously unpredictable weather. Even so, many members of the Rooted Oak community told us that Nikki and Stuart navigated each new obstacle with grit and grace, never failing to deliver healthy, delicious produce. Their flexible payment options also make it possible for people of all incomes to access healthy, local food.
Rooted Oak’s resilience, innovation, and community spirit also extends beyond their day-to-day operations. The Okes both hold leadership positions in national farming organizations. This November, Stuart represented the National Farmers Union at the UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow, speaking up about the disproportionate effect climate change has on farmers and how they can be part of the solution.
When hearing stories from clients of Versa Fitness, we lost count of how many people described owner Chris Parillo as generous. Faced with huge challenges, he and his team adapted at the speed of light, finding innovative, personal ways to coach their clients and support their community.
Versa Fitness was ineligible for government assistance and subsidies that helped differently-structured businesses during the lockdown. That didn’t stop Chris. During the lockdowns he and his team emptied the gym, lending all their equipment out to members. They also reinvented their classes and training programs so members could do them at home. Once allowed to re-open outdoors, Versa Fitness transformed. Each morning, members and coaches would bring hundreds of pounds of equipment outside, and then back inside every night. In their outdoor gym, this resilient community braved everything from rain, wind, and extreme heat for months.
It wasn't enough just to keep the gym going, though. Coaches and members also came together to support communities in Niagara Falls, raising money through several fitness challenges. Their 4x4x48 fundraiser (run 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours) raised over $13,000 for Women’s Place of South Niagara!
PŪR Yoga Toronto
While other yoga studios were closing down, cutting back on classes, and reducing hours for teachers, Liz McGregor created PŪR Resilience. Deeply committed to honouring her clients and community, she built an entirely new platform for at-home yoga practice, community support, and physical, mental, and spiritual resilience.
Out of concern for her clients' health, Liz closed her yoga studio before it was mandated, immediately pivoting to online classes. She lowered prices to accommodate the lockdown and made sure not to charge clients a penny more until the value of their online classes equaled what they’d already paid. At great cost to her finances, she also kept her teaching staff on at full pay, and introduced a sliding payment scale so that all her clients could still afford to practice.
Beyond building a new online platform to support her clients and teachers, Liz extended her reach into the community. She gives so much of herself: free classes every Saturday, free memberships to frontline health and emergency service workers, free consulting to other women studio and small business entrepreneurs – the list goes on and on. Led by Liz, PŪR Yoga has also run several fundraisers, like pay-what-you-can classes to raise money for Out of The Cold.
The Lake Report
Over 50 local papers across Canada have closed since the pandemic began. Their reliance on advertising from local businesses has decimated their revenue, leaving many communities without a reliable source for local news. When it seemed like all news was bad news, though, The Lake Report created its own good news.
A weekly newspaper in Niagara-on-the-Lake, The Lake Report is a longstanding beacon for quality journalism and community spirit. When advertising revenue stopped coming in, the team made huge sacrifices and continued to print, bringing town residents the local news they relied on. Seeing the devastating impact to the local economy, they also created their own media campaigns to give back to their community.
Over 10 weeks, the paper featured 40 local businesses. Each week, four businesses enjoyed free promotion that highlighted their offerings and encouraged readers to support local businesses. The Lake Report’s second community spirit campaign highlighted local heroes going above and beyond to help others during the pandemic. For 15 weeks, they ran profiles of local residents not only to recognize their generosity, innovation, and resilience, but also to inspire the entire community to make a difference – in big ways and small.
The Bookshelf has been a landmark – and a leader – in the Guelph community since the Minnet family founded it in 1973. This incredible space hosts book events, plus everything from LGBTQ2S+ dance and drag nights, Guelph Black History Society events, Salsa and Spoken Word nights, First Nations and Inuit events, and much more. Canada’s first bookstore café, The Bookshelf has expanded to include a performance space, restaurant, and repertory cinema.
Like most businesses, they had to close their doors when the pandemic came. In this time of uncertainty though, The Bookshelf was even more determined to support their community. Having just finished major renovations, including a new accessible elevator, they quickly pivoted to online ordering, even offering same-day delivery. Another new offering that has many loyal customers smiling is the option to pair wine with your book order, courtesy of a partnership with Niagara’s Organized Crime winery.
This is a place that encourages people to open their minds, with author events on topics like mental health (Erika Nielsen) and sexual violence (Robyn Doolittle). This is a place where people find comfort in stories and discover new dreams. The Bookshelf is a place that, especially in the last two years, acts as a beacon of hope and resilience for the Guelph community.
Withrow Park Farmers’ Market
Farmers markets are a vital to source of income for many vendors and key to providing equal access to quality local produce for communities. The small, mostly volunteer, team behind Withrow Park Farmers’ Market has supported dozens of farmers and artisans since 2006. When the pandemic came, they did whatever was necessary to keep promoting sustainable farming and bring fresh produce to the community.
Despite revenue and sponsorship losses, the Withrow Park team navigated new restrictions and worked overtime to open the market. Scaling back, they essentially became an outdoor grocery store. This didn’t limit their contribution to the local or agricultural community, though. They created an online store – now, people could pick up their produce quickly, and farmers who couldn’t travel to the market in person could take part. They also provided free blankets so customers could enjoy the food they bought in the park, safely distanced.
The market’s also found innovative ways to bring farming and sustainability into the city. In 2020, they started the Urban Grower Project, welcoming backyard gardeners to the market as vendors. They also partnered with Suppli, which creates reusable containers, giving their vendors a great opportunity to cut back on plastics. With weekly customers doubling, resilience and innovation has brought new success to Withrow Park Farmers’ Market!
Northern Village Inc.
When the pandemic closed doors across the province, many businesses and non-profits scrambled to move their operations online in order to survive. In response, web and software developer Northern Village expanded its services, increasing support for purpose-driven organizations like charities, healthcare providers, and environmentally-focused companies.
Arni Mikelsons founded Northern Village in 2002, going into business to be a force for good. Since then, the company has focused on serving clients driven by social benefit. They donate 10% of their annual hours, commit to a net zero carbon impact and hire local. They also partner with similarly-minded companies, like Animikii, an Indigenous-owned software provider. The passion Arni and his team have for supporting communities has driven them to new innovation in these troubled times. When the Guelph-Wellington Children's Foundation needed help managing their unique Adopt-a-Family program, Northern Village got to work creating new, transformational software. Now, social workers have a platform where they can register families in need so they can be matched with donors during the holiday season.
The team is also working on Access2ID, a software service that could have huge benefits for agencies helping to recover ID for people experiencing homelessness. Working in the digital space has always meant adapting and innovating quickly, but Northern Village’s commitment to helping others do the same truly sets them apart.
Grounded Kitchen, Coffee & Bar
Despite the unimaginable challenges of the pandemic, Ottawa’s Amir Rahim and his Grounded staff reached new heights. Literally. In a creative take on contactless pick-up, they created a pulley system to deliver orders to customers from their second floor window. Beyond bringing a smile to loyal customers, they found people started ordering just to see the pulley in action! And this was only the beginning.
Amir opened Grounded in 2010, and it soon gained a reputation as a from-scratch, neighbourhood kitchen serving exceptional BBQ and espresso. They maintained that quality throughout the lockdowns. By keeping all the staff on at full pay, Grounded had the resources and creativity to tackle new ideas. In addition to online ordering, they created takeout meal kits, even including a biodegradable grill customers could use outdoors at home. Plus, they donated $2 to Ocean Wise Conservation Association for every grill sold. They also gave people the option to buy meals for others, like frontline workers and people at Cornerstone Housing for Women.
Grounded is deeply committed to sustainability. It’s in everything they do – from partnerships with local farms, to sustainable packaging, even the building materials of the restaurant itself. And clearly, this spirit extends to helping their community build sustainability and resilience.
Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing
The critical need for free, supportive mental health services has perhaps never been more apparent than in the last two years. Long before the pandemic, Niagara’s Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing (ATTCH) provided free and low-cost therapy as a non-profit without government funding. Now, led by founder Lori Gill, ATTCH is busy innovating new ways heal the community.
Since opening in 2013, ATTCH has gained global recognition for its leading-edge treatment techniques. Canada’s first integrative, trauma-specific treatment centre, it focuses on holistic wellness to simultaneously calm the body and the mind, forming new neuropathways and new ways of thinking and being. When the pandemic hit, a sudden increase in referrals coincided with an immediate need to establish online services. Rising to the challenge, ATTCH transitioned services to an online video platform without stopping or impacting client treatments. They also introduced virtual training and mentoring.
In 2020, ATTCH provided support to over 300 people. More than 50% of clients pay $10 or less per session, with 40% receiving free therapy. It isn’t just clients who praise the selfless dedication to mental health and holistic well-being embodied at ATTCH, though. Their vocal supporters also include Niagara Regional Police Services, St Catherines Mayor Waltor Sendzik, and Centre de santé communautaire Hamilton/Niagara.