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Updated: May 16, 2022 Focus on Small Business

Scrappy small businesses: Despite labor shortages and supply chain issues, there’s optimism

2 people and recording console Photo / Fred Field Ryan and Emily Ordway have been rapidly booking up their music production studio in Portland, since launching just a year ago. Their new API 2448 analog recording console (in foreground) accommodates large tracking sessions and enhances teaching capabilities for their audio engineering training program.

In July 2021, Ryan and Emily Ordway rolled out a partnership with Studio Portland, in Portland’s Arts District, to reboot as a production and training center called the Recording Club at Studio Portland.

The concept was a hit, launching a growing schedule of training programs and private bookings and a slate of cross-industry projects.

Recently, the schedule included recording and production of podcasts for several local business owners, a slew of audio books for large publishing houses like Penguin Random House, voiceover work for film and TV studios like HBO and Apple, a production camp for high school students, and meetings with local broadcasters.

“We’re starting to get the kind of emails and calls that say, ‘I’ve heard you’re the place to be,’” says Emily Ordway. “That’s the type of feedback that’s thrilling for us because it means, ‘OK, we’re building a reputation.’”

Many small businesses experienced similar excitement as the pandemic crisis began to ease in 2021. As another business owner says, “When you start a business, everything is so scrappy.” That vigorous spirit has helped the small-business community navigate not only the challenges inherent in setting up a new operation but also difficulties of this particular time, including staffing shortages and supply chain woes.

We checked in with business owners from Portland to the Cranberry Isles to see how things are going. The general sentiment? A certain optimism bolstered by strong metrics.

The Recording Club, Portland

Ryan Ordway’s background is as an audio producer, engineer and songwriter. Previously operating in Falmouth, the combination of Studio Portland, itself designed for recording, and Ordway’s expertise and professional-grade equipment seemed ideal.

“We’ve seen an absolute boom to our business” working with new artists and renting studio time to engineers and record label projects, says Emily Ordway. A recent recording camp featured Wells rapper Spose and attracted returnees and new students.

“It was so inspiring to see these kids so deeply tuned in and lit up, and is especially exciting to see more female students taking an interest in audio engineering and production,” she says.

Further plans include additional high school and adult programs, a year-round vocational training program launching in September, and building a scholarship fund through a partnership with Creative Portland.

Photo / Fred Field
Ryan Ordway at Studio Portland, where he and his wife Emily founded the Recording Club.

The couple recently installed a new and larger recording console. They credit building owners David Hembre and Jill McGowan, an architect and fashion designer, with attracting other creative tenants from outside of Maine, including video producer Timber + Frame and music producer Fulton Street Music Group.

“The potential across industries is really very exciting,” she says.

Photo / Fred Field
CD covers from some individuals and groups who recorded at The Studio Portland.

Throttle Car Club, Scarborough

Last summer, an idea for a membership-based car club and general events space came together in Scarborough as Throttle Car Club.

The concept had percolated for years between three friends: Jamie Nonni, founder and CEO of Portland cloud-based payment system MuniciPAY; Derek Parent, senior project manager with Newburyport, Mass., environmental engineering and demolition firm Northeast Remediation; and Kevin Gross, Massachusetts-based director of corporate development for Philadelphia motor vehicle service company Icon Automotive.

Photo / Jim Neuger
Jamie Nonni, center, the founder, CEO and CFO of the Throttle Car Club in Scarborough, in front of a club member’s 1966 Corvette. Flanking him are managing partners Kevin Gross, left, and Derek Parent.

Nonni and Gross are car enthusiasts. Parent enjoys their interests. In 2018, Nonni sold his previous business, Nationwide Payment Solutions, and looked to invest in a fun new venture.

Today, the 35,000-square-foot facility offers car display, storage and work facilities, a member lounge, simulators and games, event space, and office and conference spaces.

The facility is generating notice. At least 300 people came to the first week’s open house. Winter car storage spaces sold out by December. The venue was rented over 20 times last year. This year, it’s already booked for more than 25 events. The detailing shop is booking over two weeks out.

Even before it fully opened, the club had over 50 paying members. Today, there are 170.

In April, it broke ground on a 7,700-square-foot building to house a custom restoration and performance upgrade shop, a result of a merger between Throttle and Double S Speed Shop in Portland. Throttle Garage, managed by Scott Pitcock and Fred Steeves of Double S, is expected to open late this year.

Photo / Jim Neuger
Cars in storage at Throttle Car Club in Scarborough

The facility’s attractions aren’t limited to car nuts.

“You have people who are very into cars,” says Nonni. “You’ve got people who are more about car history. You have people who just think cars are cool and like socializing. Then you’ve got people who do business networking. We’ve had members host board meetings here. We’ve had club meetings here. We even had a real estate closing here.”

Messology Maine, Bangor

Erika Martin-Booker started Messology Maine in July 2021 in North Brewer as a “sensory play area.” The space is outfitted with sensory items such as Play-Doh and Legos. Areas are outfitted for children, outfitted in lab coats, to paint and chalk on walls, ceilings and floors.

“Messy is really, really messy,” says Martin-Booker.

Photo / Courtesy of Messology Maine
Erika Martin-Booker started Messology Maine in July 2021 in North Brewer and soon outgrew the space, moving to the Bangor Mall and now expanding there.

After working in day care and studying early childhood education for a time, Martin-Booker learned hands-on play techniques to help one of her children, who has a mild sensory processing disorder. The messy play sparked the business idea. She opened in a self-financed 2,100-square-foot space.

It was a hit, prompting a move in March to a space twice the size — with lower rent — at the Bangor Mall. The location is drawing more foot traffic, resulting in the lease of an adjacent storefront, expected to open this month, to focus on birthday parties.

The customer base is at least double from a year ago. When Martin-Booker is out and about, she said, she often hears, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of you!”

Pandemic uncertainties caused a lull last September. But winter brought a surge in sales.

“We sold so many gift cards and made over $1,000 worth of sales in November alone,” she says. “It blew me away.”

Desert Harvest, Ellsworth

In late 2020, Heather Florio bought a building in downtown Ellsworth and moved her company, Desert Harvest, from Hillsborough, N.C.

She also paid for many of her employees to join her.

Desert Harvest, founded in 1993 by Florio’s parents, develops aloe vera-based nutritional supplements and skin care products with a focus on a chronic condition called interstitial cystitis. It works with organizations and health care professionals worldwide to help educate and advocate for patients with the condition; and with organic farms throughout the Caribbean.

To maximize nutritional benefits, the company processes the plant on the farms, then encapsulates and bottles it at facilities partly owned by Desert Harvest in Texas and Florida. Fulfillment and administration conducted in North Carolina was relocated to Ellsworth.

In general, the company has grown its customer base and revenue 15% to 30% annually, with 50% growth in 2020.

Photo / Courtesy of Desert Harvest
Heather Florio moved her aloe vera-based supplement and skin care product company, Desert Harvest, from Hillsborough, N.C. to Ellsworth in late 2020 and soon grew into additional space and continues to hire. The pandemic impacted manufacturing so she’s stocking more product that usual.

The Ellsworth location is double the North Carolina space. Originally intending to occupy part of the space, the company has taken on more employees and now occupies the entire building.

“When we first got here, we had nine employees,” says Florio. “Now we’re at 15 and we continue to hire. We have two open positions.”

The company has been dealing with common problems of the day around hiring and supply chain. Now that the pandemic is easing, she says, “We’re back to full steam ahead, which has meant being able to attend medical conferences again and re-engage with doctors around the world.”

Last year, Florio co-authored, with Ingrid Harm-Ernandes, a book called “The Musculoskeletal Mystery: How to Solve Your Pelvic Floor Symptoms.” Later this year, the company plans to release two medical research studies conducted with academic partners, with a presentation planned at an international neuroscience conference in Paris this July. The pandemic slowed the ability to carry out the studies and impacted manufacturing.

“Everything from ingredient supply issues to manufacturer staffing issues to bottling supply issues,” Florio says. “We’re stocking more products than we usually would because it’s continually getting worse, so we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

Pro31 Cleaning Solutions, Southwest Harbor

In 2017, Mindy Tracey started Pro31 Cleaning Solutions in Ellsworth. A year later, the company’s growth drove it to larger quarters in Southwest Harbor. By 2019, she had over 30 employees and added a full-service laundry, dry cleaning, property management and retail store, for commercial, residential, construction and turnover/rental cleanings.  Seemingly endless opportunities came mostly from vacation rentals, along with summer residences and commercial work.

Photo / Courtesy of Pro31 Cleaning Solutions
Mindy Tracey said business boomed during the pandemic for her Southwest Harbor company, Pro31 Cleaning Solutions, but finding enough employees is a challenge.

An additional surge of work came in 2020. Tracey had just renovated her space to accommodate medical and clinical laundry when the pandemic hit. Mount Desert Island Hospital signed on. Additionally, Tracey trained her staff in disinfection protocols to accommodate new demand from her rental management service.

From 2020 to 2021, she had an 80% increase in sales, which included a surge in year-round business. Typically, her April staff would number 15 to 17. This year, it was already 24, an indicator of growing demand, she says.

“The issue is that our the sales are climbing and the need is climbing, but the percentage that I’m growing is not enough to cover the increase of employees and supply costs and the decrease of the employee pool,” she says. “So yes, we’re growing, but it’s harder to have a profit at the end of the year. A lot of people say, ‘You must be so busy.’ Yes, busy trying to make it work.”

For the future, Tracey envisions expanding her laundry service, perhaps opening a second facility, to serve other local health care systems.

“It’s ironic that COVID has helped grow my business,” she says.

Cranberry Oysters, Great Cranberry Island

Lauren Gray started Cranberry Oysters on Great Cranberry Island in 2015 and has been pursuing the enterprise full-time since 2018.

Photo / Courtesy of Cranberry Oysters

Starting with four 400-square-foot lease sites, 10 growing cages and 25,000 tiny oyster seeds, she’s about doubled production each year after that, selling to local outlets and joining the Maine Oyster Trail. In 2019, she got a 20-year lease of 5.25 acres and is planting 300,000 oyster seeds this year. She recently won the Judge’s Choice Award during Mount Desert 365’s third annual Mount Desert Business Boot Camp, which came with a $5,000 prize. The money is going toward building a new float.

“It’s where I run my operation,” she says. “It’s a whole day out there — long hours and a lot of labor.”

Oysters take on average four years to grow to market size. Four years ago, she planted 125,000 seeds.

“I’ll be happy if I sell 60% to 70% of that,” she says.

Photo / Courtesy of Cranberry Oysters
Lauren Gray tows new gear to her five-acre Cranberry Oysters farm site off Great Cranberry Isle. She’s looking to streamline the growing business.

Next steps?

“When you start a business, everything is so scrappy. You’re in survival mode and investing in equipment that’s going to last is difficult,” she says. “Now I’m headed toward paying attention to the process and trying to streamline as I scale up.”

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