Category Archives: Small Business

Moe’s UConn Burrito Giveaway Totaled $435,000

by Categorized: Entertainment/Tourism, marketing, Small Business Date:

If there’s anything we like more than basketball championships it’s food discounts, and Moe’s Southwest Grill won the prize last week with $1 burritos after the dual UConn titles, capping a season-long discount worth $435,000 for Connecticut fans.

On April 9 alone, the one-dollar day, the 16 Moe’s franchises that participated ladled up discounts of about $140,000 to 20,000 customers, the co-owners of a group of Moe’s stores said Thursday.

The Moe’s stores rolled out the $1 offer — for burritos that averaged $8 at the regular retail price — after the men’s and women’s teams both won national championships.

For Dave Vorchheimer and Matt Rusconi, co-owners of a group of seven locations, the busiest were in West Hartford and Storrs, where about 200 people an hour lined up from opening to closing time on April 9.

“Up at UConn, Shabazz and the guys came in,” said Rusconi, who led the charge at that store. Yes, Shabazz Napier and the other “Hungry Huskies,” about four teammates, paid a buck for their burritos.

The partners have been sponsors of UConn basketball for five years, since the time when they owned just one Moe’s location, at West Hartford’s Blue Back Square. “We can’t explain how proud we are,” Rusconi said. “There was a huge party and we were proud to be a part of it.”

After every UConn home win, the Moe’s stores offered a free side of queso, worth $1. And the price of a burrito dropped to $5 for one day after the teams made it to the Sweet 16’s; then $4 for a day after they won their way into the Elite 8’s; then $3 for a day after they reached the Final Fours. Seventeen locations participated during the tournament, but one, at a highway rest area, did not offer the $1 burrito last week.

One customer came in after the $1 day, Vorchheimer said Thursday, and said, “I’m glad you guys are still here, with the discounts I was afraid you wouldn’t be here anymore.’”

But of course, the stores’ actual cost wasn’t as large as the discounts.  And even though they never guessed they’d have to offer burritos for a buck, the owners figure 500,000 people paid attention to the promotion — and they’d absolutely do it again.

“It costs you a lot of money to make that many people open their eyes up,” Vorchheimer said. As for the wins, “a state without any professional teams, this is probably as exciting as it gets.”

“The staff was going crazy, working their tails off,” Rusconi said. “We were running around the state, transferring food…These guys dug in, man. They all did.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this post had an estimate of $120,000 for the value of the April 9 promotion, and said the $3 offer followed the men’s championship.

Plan B Burger Bar Is Now A ‘Global Hot 100′ Innovator

by Categorized: Consumer, Retail, Small Business Date:

The plaudits keep coming for Plan B Burger Bar even as the Hartford-based chain prepares to open new locations in Fairfield and on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Plan B was named as one of the nation’s Top 20 burgers in a readers’ poll by Food & Wine this summer.  Now the chain has been named a Global Hot 100 company at the World Summit on Innovation & Entrepreneurship, a conference happening this week in New York.

How does a burger joint end up with tech firms and new-product inventors, as an innovator?

A super-burger by Plan B at the Mohegan Sun WineFest in 2012.  Andrea Wise/The Hartford Courant

A super-burger by Plan B at the Mohegan Sun WineFest in 2012. Andrea Wise/The Hartford Courant

Fast growth helps, along with commitment to local farmers and artists and Plan B’s effort to make sure each location is different. The Fairfield store will open in the old post office building on Post Road, with a restored facade, for example.

Al Gamble, the co-founder and CEO, was set to speak about the business at the event Wednesday night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Keeping it small is a key theme, raising a question — how much larger can the chain grow and still be “small?” On its web site, it lists Boston, Atlanta and Chicago as future locations in addition to DC.

“I’m looking forward to sharing our story of Plan B Burger Bar – how we laid the foundation to grow a national ‘micro-brand’ by focusing on the local communities around us,” Gamble said in a written release. “An incredible burger isn’t enough. Consumers deserve businesses that support their town or city with values, ideals and flavors that connect people to the communities they live in – from hiring local employees, to ordering beer from regional breweries.”

The business, Locals 8 Restaurant Group, has locations in West Hartford, Glastonbury, Simsbury, Milford, Stamford and Springfield at the Basketball Hall of Fame, in addition to the two that are set to open. Locals 8 also owns Tisane and the Half Door in Hartford’s West End, but has no immediate plans to redevelop its West End building that formerly housed the Roo Bar.

It’s too bad for Plan B that the White House, not far away, isn’t still occupied by Bill Clinton, the burger-and-fries-scarfer-in chief.


A Business Incubator With Many Community Aims

by Categorized: Jobs, Small Business, Technology Date:

Basements and garages generally come out ahead of business incubators in the folklore about start-ups that make it big — In Connecticut as well as Silicon Valley. Bill Stone, for example, launched what is now the $2.7 billion SS&C Technologies Holdings in his Windsor basement in 1986.

But when it comes to generating group energy, it’s hard to beat an incubator, where fledgling entrepreneurs can bounce ideas off each other and save money at the same time.  Downtown Hartford needs that vibe badly, and the new “community co-working space” of the Social Enterprise Trust is designed to bring it, for new firms born with a goal of helping the world in addition to making money.

Christopher Brechlin Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant

Christopher Brechlin
Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant

The space, launching as a fee-charging business on Monday, couldn’t be better situated. In the second floor of a classic, old office building, its massive picture windows open out onto the corner of Trumbull and Pratt streets. The marquee of the XL Center shines brightly across the street and the burgeoning life of the brick walks unfolds just below.

Christopher D. Brechlin, a young Willimantic resident involved in several IT-related and community projects, hopes to use the reSET space to catapult his idea into a winner. The business, Blueprint For A Dream, helps nonprofits use data to map their social impact using data. “It’s actually a lot more community organizing than it is sitting at a computer,” he said.

Brechlin, like a few other entrepreneurs who were at reSET’s opening reception Thursday evening, graduated from reSET’s first social enterprise accelerator earlier this year, a 10-week program that met one day a week.  In the soft-opening of the month since the space opened at 99 Pratt Street, he’s been using the location for meetings and discussions.

“I have never had a more productive brainstorming session than what we had here last week,” he said.

Another graduate of the training, Karen Pace, has a job in technology at Bank of America but hopes to turn her product, Peacebar, into a game-changer.  It’s a high-end energy bar made from dried apricots, cashews, almonds, walnuts, raw coconut butter, cardamom and a key ingredient — essence of tulsi leaves.

Karen Pace Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant

Karen Pace
Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant

Tulsi, an aromatic herb that has sacred status in parts of India, a symbol of honor and respect, gives the Peacebar its nature as a calming yet nutritious food.

“It’s really about taking a moment and honoring yourself,” Pace said.

Why not call it a Pacebar, after her own last name? Too many other meanings, and besides, that’s not Pace’s nature.

For a fee, the incubator offers open office cubicle space with wired or wireless Internet access, printing, coffee, tea and other office amenities.  Most important, what the entrepreneurs can’t find at home, is the working camaraderie of the shared space.

“I need to have some interaction with people and I don’t get that working home alone,” said Pace, who holds a masters degree in integrative health and teaches health-related classes at Bank of America.

Maureen Farmer had a natural use for her surname as founder of The Farmer’s Garden. It’s a web site,, that connects gardeners who want to share excess produce, tools and growing space with each other, and help feed the hungry.

“I want more people to have access to healthy food,” said Farmer, a programmer from New Britain, who won the social enterprise award at last year’s Start-Up Weekend in Hartford.

Part of the plan behind the incubator is to work with groups that have business skills and expertise and can become “sounding boards,” said Michelle Cote, program director for reSET.

That includes the CTNEXT, the network set up by the state last year as part of the governor’s efforts to support technology start-ups. ReSET also received some grant money from the state.

ReSET, a nonprofit group, also moved its offices to the same space, from a location at the Walker Group in Farmington, which is headed by Kate Emery, the reSET founder.  The goal for reSET is to be self-sustaining within five years, Emery said.  The incubator would be part of that, and there’s no set amount of time an entrepreneur would be expected to set up shop there.

It’s a small enterprise, the incubator, but it’s rightly the focus of significant attention not only for the business that might start there but also for its critical role in creating energy at the heart of the city’s office district.

“I would stay here forever,” Pace said.







Backers of ‘Benefit Corporations’ Law Will Have To Wait Another Year

by Categorized: Economic Development, Politics, Small Business Date:

As the state House and Senate wound down for the year last week, I wrote about one of many bills hanging in the balance: A measure to create a new class of corporations dedicated to some higher social purpose other than profit for the owners.

It looked good on the last day of the session, as the state House has overwhelmingly adopted the bill and there was no overt opposition in the Senate.  The bill to create “Benefit Corporations” was part of the last-minute jockeying and horse-trading, but alas, when the music stopped at midnight it was dead, without a vote.

“It is a sad day for Connecticut that we couldn’t get something so unequivocally positive done. I personally find it hard not to be disheartened by the whole process, but I guess that’s politics,” said Kate Emery, founder and head of reSET, the Social Enterprise Trust, in a note to supporters.

The group has pushed for the idea of “Type-B” corporations for two years. A similar bill failed in 2012 amid opposition from the bar association over some language. This time around, the group supported the bill and Emery even thanked “our friends at the Connecticut Bar Association.”

It’s not unusual for a bill to take a few years to pass even when there’s little opposition.  Next year seems like a good time for the final push. And this year’s halt at the goal line shouldn’t mar the celebration on June 27, as reSET opens its incubator space on Pratt Street in downtown Hartford, for social enterprise start-ups.

“The one thing that I do feel good about is the fact that we did everything we could possibly do and we had a lot of great people working very hard to make it happen,” Emery said.


Bill That Would Create ‘Benefit Corporations’ Hanging As Senate Winds Down

by Categorized: Commerce, Economic Development, Politics, Small Business Date:

One of the pluses of the state House and Senate finishing the budget with two days to spare is that smaller bills, good ideas that might actually improve Connecticut, are less likely to fall through the cracks in the final rush.

One such bill now hanging in the balance as tonight’s midnight deadline looms would create a new class of for-profit businesses, called “benefit corporations.”  The bill has few if any opponents, it would make it easier for private firms to do some good in the world and it wouldn’t cost the state any money (okay $62,000, once, to reprogram the computers).

Firms organized this way, known as type-B corporations, would have a stated social goal beyond profits for the owners — public health, perhaps, or promoting the arts or restoring the environment or creating economic opportunity for disadvantaged people. It’s the kind of stuff nonprofits tend to do, but allowing for-profit companies to set up with a social purpose simply adds an avenue.

The movement for benefit corporations is known as social enterprise, and it comes in about as many flavors as there are social enterprise businesses, as its main central Connecticut promoter puts it.

“It’s picking up steam. There’s increasing awareness of what it is,” said Kate Emery, founder and CEO of reSET, the Social Enterprise Trust, which is launching a social enterprise incubator this month in downtown Hartford, on Pratt Street, with an open house June 27.

“Not only is it a positive alternative but it’s one of the few alternatives we have, with shrinking state capacity, shrinking nonprofit capacity, shrinking donor pools,” Emery said.

It’s possible to set up a for-profit company this way under current law, to a point. Emery did it with her 50-person IT consulting firm, The Walker Group in Farmington, legally binding it to donate one-third of distributed profits to the owners, one-third to employees and one-third to charity.  But Walker is still a type-C corporation, like most large firms, and without all that legal work, any traditional corporation must, by law, act in the profitable interests of its owners, period.

The benefit corporations bill, in place in about a dozen states, several in the northeast, would make it easier to set up such a firm. A year ago a similar bill died in part because of objections to some wording by the bar association, but that’s been ironed out. This year the bill, sponsored by the four top Democrats, passed easily in the House on May 20, 128-12.

As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, with nine hours to go, advocates for the bill remained optimistic it would come up.

Connecticut Innovations, the state’s technology investment arm, and the state Department of Economic and Community Development both supported it actively, and CI even offered to pay the $62,000, Emery said.

There’s no way of knowing how many companies operate this way because right now, like Walker, they’re registered as type-C, or type-S, or limited liability corporations, or they’re nonprofits. Connecticut’s bill is unique because it has a “perpetuity clause” that allows owners after two years to lock in the structure forever, so new owners couldn’t undo it.

Certainly the owners of any company can do what they want with their money, if they agree. Adding the type-B corporation advances state law to recognize that holding social goals other than profit is a way of thinking for a new generation of entrepreneurs. The bill would also create accountability, requiring type-B corporations to give an annual update of their activities that help the community.

If it brings even one successful start-up to Connecticut, it’s worth the 30 minutes it would take in the state Senate’s waning hours of 2013. And as a side benefit, spending that half-hour on this just might keep the Senators from doing something dumb.




For Connecticut Makers of Military-Style Rifles, Confusion, Disillusionment — and Possible Moves

by Categorized: Manufacturing, Small Business Date:

Stag Arms, the New Britain maker of military-style rifles, is scheduled to deliver 13 specially made firearms to a gun shop Friday for pick-up by Newtown police officers.

Will the sale be legal if the legislature adopts the gun control agreement that’s due for a vote Wednesday, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signs it into a law that takes effect immediately?

Mark Malkowski, owner and president of Stag, doesn’t know. Much of his business is selling AR-15-type rifles to law enforcement officers, not as government agencies exempt from gun laws but as individuals, to use the equipment on the job.

It appears that every rifle made by Malkowski and his 200 employees in four adjacent buildings will be illegal for sale in Connecticut — they are all of the AR-15 type. But Malkowski doesn’t know that either, for sure. This year alone, his company has sold $1 million worth of its guns in its home state.

“It’s very confusing,” Malkowski said Tuesday. “We have a lot of people asking a lot of questions. We can’t see this bill…Is the governor going to contact me on my cell phone at midnight tomorrow night and tell me what I can and can’t do?”

O.F. Mossberg & Sons in North Haven sells many AR-15-type rifles that use low-power bullets. Will they be exempt from the law? “We’re not going to get to see it until they vote on it,” said Joe Bartozzi, senior vice president and general counsel at Mossberg.

For Malkowski, Bartozzi and others at firms that make the AR-15 in Connecticut, short-term confusion is not just a tense annoyance — they’re still trying to influence legislation that they can’t see. The confusion will abate soon enough, however, and what’s left is disappointment and disillusionment at the agreement by Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly, which would expand the definition of banned assault rifles to cover virtually all versions of the AR-15 rifle.

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The Award For Best April Fools Prank Goes To…

by Categorized: Commerce, Small Business Date:
Onyx Spirits Co. wins the Haar Report prize for best April Fools prank of 2013.  I missed it yesterday but was told by a friend at work this morning that Onyx had reported on its Facebook page it was being shut down.
As commenter Peter Gagnon pointed out, hey, it could happen.

Onyx, billed on its home page as “Onyx Spirits Co., Manchester, Connecticut, is actually now located in East Hartford, no fooling — though it keeps close ties to its native city.

Onyx Spirits Company – Connecticut Made Liquors
As of this weekend the federal government has ruled that even the “legal” production of moonshine is illegal. We have received a letter that we are to stop production of Onyx Moonshine as of this morning. This came out of no where, we’ll be posting more news as we get it. Cross your fingers people….

Survey: CT’s Paid Sick Leave Law A Burden For Some

by Categorized: Health Care, Labor, Retail, Small Business Date:

When Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation paid sick leave law was being debated in 2011, advocates said it would not be a burden to businesses — in fact, it would help them boost productivity by keeping their employees healthy.

Restaurant owners and the state’s general business lobbying group called it an onerous burden.

On Tuesday, a Washington, D.C. group released a survey showing that some business owners scaled back employee hours, cut wages and canceled plans to expand as a result of the law, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

The report by the Employment Policies Institute fuels both sides of the argument. At a time when the state is spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to boost community businesses — what I call the “butcher, baker and candlestick maker” strategy by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — anything that adds to the cost of doing business is rightly viewed with suspicion.

Here’s the key finding:

Of the 156 businesses that responded to the survey, 86—
or 55 percent—had started providing sick leave to comply
with the new law. Prior to the law taking effect in January
2012, 31 of the businesses surveyed had scaled backed
on employee benefits or reduced paid leave (or both) to
account for the cost of the new law. Twelve had cut back
employee hours, and another six reduced employee wages.
Nineteen businesses raised consumer prices, six laid off
employees, and three converted part-time positions to
full-time positions. Sixteen businesses indicated they
had decided to limit or restrict their expansion within
the state.

That sounds worse than it is in reality. The survey by EPI — a business-backed group that opposes such measures as raises in the minimum wage, not to be confused by the other EPI, the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute — is not scientific.  The 156 businesses in the survey voluntarily responded, from a list of about 800 businesses identified by anti-sick-leave groups, including the Connecticut Business and Industry Association as likely to have been affected by the law.

So, if 12 businesses cut back hours and 19 raised prices, but 150 Connecticut residents didn’t get the flu as a result of the law, what’s the cost and what’s the benefit?

Under the law, firms with 50 or more employees must offer paid sick leave at a rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked, a maximum of 40 hours of paid sick time per year. Employees must work at least 680 hours to be eligible and employers can charge the time off as vacation time if they offer vacation.

The law does not apply to manufacturers and tech firms, which is important. Service firms such as school bus companies and restaurants can raise prices and they can hurt the economy by not expanding, but they can’t move jobs to other states.

The concerns of business should not be waved off even if the direct effects of the law don’t turn out to be large.  Attitude matters when we’re trying to be “business friendly,” whatever that means, and all of us hear stories from our friends who own businesses about how hard it is to comply with Connecticut’s mandates.

Moreover, it’s always risky to the the first state mandating a new cost for businesses. Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle have mandated paid sick leave, but no other state has joined the club.

What we have here is a survey that shows a very small number of businesses claiming a large burden from the law.  Credit should go to Employment Policies Institute, which did not try to overstate the burden in its report.

Among those businesses that started providing sick leave
to comply with the new law, 43 said it would have a large
effect on their cost of business, 30 said it would have a
small effect, and 12 said it would have no effect. (One
business opted to not respond to the question.)

The state Department of Labor, which has held seminars on the law for hundreds of employers, has received just four complaints — arising from confusion, not hardship, spokeswoman Nancy Steffens said Tuesday.

“The vast majority of employers are complying with the law without experiencing an undue burden on their business,” Steffens said, adding that the sectors most affected added jobs in 2012.

Breaking down the numbers, 60 percent of the companies that responded are in businesses whose employees have significant contact with the public: food/beverage, retail, health care or social services/child care.  That’s exactly where we don’t want sick people working.

For some companies, the chief complaint was not direct added cost, but record-keeping and workflow management.  This from a restaurant:

The owner expressed frustration in the ‘antagonistic relationship’ the law created between him and his employees. He said the business ‘always took care of its people,’ and that the lack of a paid policy was never an issue until labor unions decided to make it one. He said the sick leave law itself wouldn’t cause him to close his business, but that it was ‘one more anti-business piece of regulation’ that makes Connecticut less-friendly to job growth.

By limiting the scope of the law, lawmakers watered down the bill to make it palatable, and probably not an economic burden on the state as a whole.

We can find a few restaurants that have been hurt, and their voices matter. But we can’t easily identify the countless companies that gained a tiny bit of output in 2012 because their employees or their employees’ kids were not sick as often as they would have been.

Metcalfe’s Calls It An Era in West Hartford

by Categorized: Commerce, Small Business Date:

There’s not much business news on Christmas eve, but in West Hartford, Monday was the last day for Metcalfe’s Custom Framing, after 50 years at Bishop’s Corner and nearly 30 years in Hartford before that.

My colleague Julie Stagis wrote about Bruce Metcalfe’s retirement, prodded partly by the economy.

In addition to framing, over the years Bruce replaced a lot of panes, painstakingly, for a lot of old West Hartford windows.  Nestled in a less traveled row of stores and offices at the shopping center, it was one of those places, and he was one of those people, that make community-based business the heart of American commerce, and Saturday errands less of a chore.

A great retirement to Bruce Metcalfe, and for those of us who are working, it’s back to the grindstone Wednesday, or maybe next week.  Happy Holidays to all.

The Healing Power of Pie

by Categorized: Small Business Date:

Among the countless contrasting scenes of hope amid despair in Newtown this week, Thursday in the middle of town was as stark as it gets: Hundreds of mourners lined up at the Honan Funeral Home, a doleful black line in the waning light of the seventh day.  A few doors down across the street, Beth Howard handed out slices of apple pie to anyone, an energetic spirit in a red wool coat, spreading healing cheer one paper plate at a time.

This is her mission, in Newtown and across the country. Journalist, author, pie-baker, impulsive traveler, Howard brings the gospel of pie from her 24-foot RV, “Pie Across the Nation,” from her Pitchfork Pie Stand in the famous American Gothic House in Iowa and from her heart, which was broken three years ago with the sudden death of her 43-year-old husband.

Since that day in August, 2009, Howard has tested her idea that pie can help ease grief, chronicled on her web site,, and in her book,  “Making Piece, a Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.”

“It rips your heart out,” Howard said, looking toward the wake of a child across the street. “But the fact that we can warm their hearts a little bit…it helps. I’ve been through the darkness and I’ve come out the other side.”

“It’s just pie, but really it’s so much more than that. It feeds the soul…It’s about simplicity, it’s about comfort, it’s about sharing.”


Beth Howard, left, with Ann (center) and Colleen McCarthy of Sandy Hook, in Newtown Center. Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant

It’s a team effort, uniting old friends. When the tragedy unfolded, Howard was at home in Eldon, Iowa where she lives in the house that inspired Grant Wood’s masterpiece.

On her Facebook page, she posted:

“Overwhelmed and heartbroken by the today’s tragedy, I feel like packing up my pie supplies into my RV and driving to Connecticut. If making pie and sharing it with the citizens of Newtown would help ease their pain I would load up a hundred cases of apples and start driving right now.”

The response was enormous. The next day she left in the RV. She picked up Mike Nahra in Chicago, a friend from the Davenport High School class of 1980 that she had not seen in decades.  Two other old friends traveled to Newtown.

Along the way, they stopped in New Jersey, where friends were busy making 240 pies, all by hand. By Tuesday, they made it to the grieving town.

“I was nervous that people would think we’re imposing, and it’s been the opposite,” Howard said, speaking into a CNN camera. “It’s been a privilege to be able to be here, to be able to help.”

On Thursday morning, Howard and her friends taught pie-making at Newtown High School, emerging with 30 more pies.  As the handed out slices, the response was universally positive, some townspeople joining in the effort, mourners stopping or perhaps just walking by, mustering a “thank you” through tears.

On Friday, the group is baking more pies with local elementary school children in the upstairs kitchen of Edmond Town Hall, the historic building that’s now a theater and civic gathering space. At Edmond on Saturday, town leaders will give out hundreds of teddy bears to children of Newtown, yet another uplifting gesture of the sort that make Beth Howard fit right in.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said, leaning on the RV parked in front of Edmond.  “I don’t have to leave. I’ve got my home here.”