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In 2001, Syracuse native Tina Corso was a real estate agent who also enjoyed getting creative in the kitchen. The aroma of her freshly baked shortbread cookies made Tina’s open houses all the more alluring. At the time, Tina’s fiancé Peter Hess had previously run a dot-com business in Manhattan and was in Syracuse looking for a new position through a head hunter. Tina created a hand-decorated cookie bouquet as a thank you gift for the head hunter, who was so delighted that she wanted to order Tina’s cookie bouquets for all of her clients. Tina and Peter launched the startup business from their home that same year, with Tina making and decorating the cookies and Peter handling the marketing and accounting roles. After less than one year in business, Corso’s Cookies had to move from their home’s kitchen to a 500-square-foot rental space in Solvay, just outside of Syracuse, NY.
“Tina made a cookie that people fell in love with, and I realized this was amazing and it was just a matter of figuring out how to sell it. I turned to my friend Trevor Whiting, the third partner in the business, to build us a website. We quickly formed strategic partnerships with some companies that were already in the gift business. It was a natural for them to sell our product to their customers. Our philosophy was at the beginning and still is today to make a great product and let someone else sell it,” explains Peter. “You want to focus on what you’re good at. That’s where some businesses fail-they try to do everything themselves instead of looking for the right partnerships.”
Partnerships took the startup cookie company to the next level of success: their first contract was to fill 20 orders a day, at a time when Corso’s was only fulfilling 20 a week. For the company’s first Valentine’s Day on their partner’s website in 2003, orders came pouring in at a rate of 20 an hour. With just three employees on staff, Peter and Tina had to scramble to fill hundreds of orders on time, leaving the bakery only for quick showers and to mail orders. The experience was a steep learning curve for Peter and Tina, and once the holiday orders were shipped, they set about planning to hire more staff to accommodate their company’s growing production demands.
By the third year, the couple had expanded the bakery to double their production area to 1,100-square-feet. In the fourth year, the bakery was no longer large enough for their needs and Peter and Tina started looking for a new location. Their plan was to find a building in Solvay to take advantage of the town’s lower electric rates, since the business has to run air conditioning, freezers and ovens simultaneously. After months of searching, Peter found the perfect site in an empty 13,000-square-foot building located right off of State Fair Boulevard in Lakeland. Peter and Tina were able to buy the building with the partnership of HSBC and the Greater Syracuse Business Development Corporation (GSBDC) through the SBA’s 504 loan program. The company stayed in the original space for six months while Peter, Trevor and Tina’s father renovated the new building with new walls, ceilings and floors to suit the bakery business.
The move to the new location enabled Corso’s to install larger ovens, hire more staff and increase production. The increased production capacity was put to use right away when a new partnership with national company ProFlowers required Corso’s to grow exponentially to meet demand. The deal helped attract interest in Corso’s products from the Yankee Candle Company and more national contracts quickly followed. Tina and Peter’s success continues to keep them motivated, and growth plans are definitely on the company’s horizon. In 2013, participating in the SBA Emerging Leaders initiative helped Tina and Peter map out their three-year Strategic Growth Action Plan to deal with the seasonal nature of their sales as well as to plan ahead for the next level of the business.
Peter explains, “The Emerging Leaders program had been highly recommended to me by local leaders and fellow business owners who had graduated from the program. Our business was growing so fast that it made sense to me to get out of the office and focus on growing strategically. The course did a great job helping us break down the numbers behind our business and I thought the guest mentors who worked with us one-on-one were fantastic.”
In February 2014, Corso’s will be audited for its SQF Level 2 certification, regarded as one of the toughest food safety certifications, to become the only decorated cookie company in North America with the certification. The higher SQF certification would enable Corso’s to pursue even bigger partners such as WalMart, Starbucks and Target. The company expects to relocate to an even larger space with 50,000-square-feet to accommodate planned growth.
“The best part of owning our business is working with my wife. It’s great to share the whole experience together, making us much stronger as a couple. At this point, the years of 15-hour days are somewhat in the past for us and we have more freedom to spend time with our three daughters,” Peter says. “It’s great to be a contributor to the local community as well, as we now employ almost 50 people who we consider part of our extended family.”
In a baker’s dozen years, Corso’s Cookies has grown from a home-based business to the largest producer of decorated cookies in North America. Corso’s Cookies stand out in the market with proprietary decorating technology that provides enormous manufacturing capacity while maintaining a hand-made look and taste. The almond and vanilla flavored shortbread cookies come in a wide range of shapes and colors, from striped bumblebees to winking snowmen, in bouquets for almost any occasion. Their decorated cookies can be purchased nationwide, including at Barnes and Noble, Hobby Lobby, and Cracker Barrel Restaurants, at their company website, or visiting their annual NY State Fair bakery in the Dairy Barn.
In 1976, Watertown native Randy Yerden was a lab technician at the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine when he found he was unable to control cellular oxygen levels using conventional lab equipment. Necessity is the mother of invention, and when Yerden realized he could create a new design to provide a better environment for cell cultures, the first product that would eventually evolve into the Xvivo System was born.
Yerden started manufacturing and selling the device from his garage in 1982 and worked for years developing and selling improved versions of the invention. After hiring several employees the garage space quickly became inadequate and Yerden relocated the business. With room to grow in Lacona, NY, staffing levels grew to more than 20 as Yerden developed new designs for incubators, glove chambers and other laboratory equipment. The Xvivo System is a modular, scalable and custom configurable “clean room in a box” that allows for cell incubation and experimentation in a closed optimized environment. By approaching equipment design from the perspective of cellular needs, Yerden’s fully realized Xvivo System is able to offer new capabilities to any laboratory previously available only to cutting edge scientists.
“Our unique equipment means that cell therapists are no longer dependent on the limited number of multi-million dollar clean rooms, usually only found in large tertiary hospitals and research centers. The Xvivo System’s modular nature fits any cell production process, and is extremely affordable,” explains Yerden.
Though not Yerden’s intended market, medical researchers discovered the Xvivo System’s capabilities for cell research and the global demand for the Xvivo System spiked dramatically. Yerden turned to the Oswego Small Business Development Center in 2010; with their help, Yerden developed a business plan to target foreign markets and for economic development funding from the Oswego County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) for increased production capacity of the Xvivo System. The company was able to ramp up production to meet demand, and with product exported all over the world, has grown to employ 58 in a rural Oswego County town with population of 582. Today there are hundreds of Xvivo Systems currently used in biomedical research to find cures for numerous diseases, including in Hong Kong for leukemia and neuroblastomas, in Finland for diabetes, in Canada for lung injury and cornea repair, in Scotland for cancer and in Poland for skin and cartilage repair, among many others.
In April of this year the Xvivo System was used in a revolutionary operation at Children’s Hospital of Illinois to produce a tissue-engineered trachea for a 32-month-old Korean toddler born without a windpipe. The little girl’s stem cells were isolated from a simple blood draw and seeded onto a trachea-shaped plastic scaffold provided by Harvard BioScience. The new man made trachea was produced and grew inside the Xvivo System and then successfully implanted, marking the first time a child has received a tissue-engineered trachea. Avoiding donor tissue virtually eliminated the chances of her immune system rejecting the transplant. The ability to locate the Xvivo System inside the surgical suite made the innovative procedure much safer and much easier. The new trachea was only transported a few feet to the patient instead of a 150-mile flight from the nearest clean room in Chicago.
Yerden views the company’s experience in the ground-breaking surgery as pivotal: “Our company was able to quickly build and deliver the FDA compliant system for the trachea production in a matter of weeks. This is unprecedented in the history of the industry. It proves these exciting new therapies can be performed in any hospital.”
Under Randy Yerden’s leadership, BioSpherix has grown from a startup in a garage to a multi-million dollar business with innovative products shipped across the world. Last year, experienced business executive Michael Bovalino was hired to run day-to day operations and Yerden’s son Peter started learning the different company divisions on a rotational basis. The growth and success of the company was highlighted when Yerden was honored as the SBA Syracuse District Small Business Exporter of the Year in 2012. Relentless growth is anticipated, and BioSpherix is expanding to a second location in Oswego County in order to accommodate swelling demand for the Xvivo System. Yerden has spent 30 years building his business by staying one step ahead of the competition with lean manufacturing and nimble design processes, and plans continued growth and commercial success for many years to come.
Twenty-three years ago, Kelly and Garry Brown’s wedding toast was made with a different drink than traditional champagne: Garry’s home-brewed beer. Although Kelly was a flight attendant and Garry was a newspaper photographer, their passion for craft beer inspired them to start the first brewpub in the Capital Region a few years later.
“We bought an old, dilapidated building in Troy in 1990 because it was a great location on the Hudson River and it was affordable. We spent the next three years renovating it. Garry would work on the building during the day and then work nights at the paper. I continued working for the airline and we were able to use my miles towards research trips to the West Coast and Europe to see how beer could really taste,” said Kelly.
The startup went through a few name evolutions, opening as Brown and Moran, changing to Uncle Sam Pub & Brewery the next year and finally changing to Brown’s Brewing Company in 2006. The Browns wanted to open just a brewery but realized that the concept was too new to succeed in the local marketplace without food. Opening a brewpub with a full scale menu including nachos, wings, burgers and sandwiches was the right choice, customers came in the doors, giving the Browns the chance to build their brand and beer reputation.
The Browns haven’t stopped making beer since and today loyal Capital Region patrons count on their ‘Dependable’ ales and lagers. Brown’s Brewing Company’s 25 beers range from traditional Pale Ale to earthy Pumpkin Ale, available only when locally grown pumpkins are ripe in the fall. At the company’s Taproom, customers can enjoy a dozen or so different beers on tap made right below the floorboards. The two-level interior has a traditional bar, stage for musical performances, and a windowed view into the brewing operations where brewers create Brown’s award-winning beers. Outside, the large deck area and beer garden offer an expansive view of the Hudson River.
“We discovered that Troy has wonderful water quality which has really helped our brand. All of the hand-crafted beers are made with water from the Tomhannock Reservoir, and we decided to give back. Garry serves on the Rensselaer Land Trust board that works to preserve watersheds in the region. Our company does several fundraisers for RLT such as an annual Oktoberfest event. We also donate a portion of proceeds from our Tomhannock Pilsner sales to the Trust,” explains Kelly.
Innovative marketing ideas have helped Brown’s Brewing Company ride the rising tide of awareness and appreciation for craft beers. The large beer corporations have noted the increasing popularity of craft beer as their brands lose market share, and often purchase small breweries or repackaging existing beer lines to look more homespun and less commercial. Customers might not know independent looking beers brands such as Blue Moon, Batch 19, and Shock Top are really owned by Coors, Miller, and Budweiser. To separate their beers from the crowd, Brown’s Brewing holds “Beer 101” classes to demonstrate what the big beer companies actually make beer with, including surprising ingredients such as corn, rice, and corn syrup, compared to Brown’s traditional craft beers made with just hops, yeast, barley and water.
The Taproom’s beer-paired wild game dinners and other special beer-themed events became so popular the Browns moved into the building next door to add catering and large event capability. Named Revolution Hall, the European-style beer hall setting can accommodate up to 300 guests for weddings, private parties and community events. The Browns added a prep kitchen in the second building to provide more kitchen space for catered events in the hall. The couple has developed the pub and catering menus to reflect the top-quality of the beers and ales; hiring Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Chef Luca Brunelle has broadened the fare to include gourmet flavors ranging from burgers with cherry raspberry ale barbeque sauce to pan-seared sesame tuna with wasabi risotto.
“Over the past six or seven years, we’ve doubled sales at the pub alone. With experience, we’ve learned how to put better controls in place for our 125 employees. At our Troy operation, our general manager, Paul Minbiole, is also a CIA-trained chef and having someone who knows the line well has been invaluable to making the restaurant side of the business function smoothly,” says Garry.
The growing company made enough beer to keep up with demand at the Taproom, but operating only one brewing tank limited their ability for regular distribution to retailers. Kelly and Garry realized the time was right to find a larger production facility. Staying in Rensselaer County was important to the Browns and in 2011 they found the right property at a 19th century empty hydroelectric power plant in their hometown of Hoosick Falls. The 40,000-square foot building complex has plenty of space for four brewing tanks, a large bottling assembly line, and even a tasting room for the public in the future.
Garry and Kelly scoured online listings nationwide for used equipment from other breweries to keep costs down, saving $4 million on the project. The Browns were able to support most of the expansion costs, and the final piece of their financing puzzle was an SBA 504 loan through Pioneer Bank and the Empire State Certified Development Corporation. Beer production will increase to 20,000 barrels of beer per year from 3,200; the dramatic increase will enable Brown’s to increase distribution from the Albany area to southern Vermont and western Massachusetts. Brown’s head brewer Peter Martin and a team of 10 will work at the Hoosick Falls operation, with more anticipated employees when the tasting room is opened.
As any business owner learns the hard way, the sailing isn’t always smooth. In 2011 Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast, causing flooding in both the Brown’s riverfront locations. Though 30 miles apart, the Taproom is directly on the Hudson River and the production facility is next to the Walloomsac River.
Garry recounts the tale: “During the hurricane, the Walloomsac River rose and came into the new building, with two-and-a-half feet of water coursing through the downstairs level. We had a crane come in and move all the equipment we purchased to higher ground. Then we realized that all the water in the Walloomsac was heading right for Troy because it feeds into the Hudson River. The next day there was seven feet of water in our Troy location. Fortunately, with the help of our employees and customers we were able to have the Taproom brewery and restaurant back up and running just seven days later.”
The recovery from the hurricane demonstrated to the Browns how vital the new production facility was for their business. Renovating the property over the past three years has been a labor of love for both Garry and Kelly, and though they have built a successful business from the ground up, neither is ready to hit cruise control. The large-scale brewery operation represents a dream fulfilled for two newlyweds 20 years in the making and they are passionate about the future for the company.
Twenty years later, the couple lives with their three daughters on their farm house in West Hoosick where they farm some of their own hops. Kelly sums up their entrepreneurial experience: “We had our light bulb moment. It’s a calling. To be your own boss and do your own thing is so empowering. It thrills me when I see one of our six-packs on a store shelf or someone orders a Brown’s beer at the table next to us.”