During the COVID-19 pandemic so many local businesses have had to adapt their business plan to adhere to safety guidelines and to best reach their customers. In fall of 2020, WEDC created the We’re All Innovating Contest to recognize and promote the creative ways local startups and small businesses have adapted to the recent challenges. Among the winners were multiple businesses in both Wisconsin Main Street and Connect Communities. These businesses were recognized for the We’re All Innovating Contest based on business innovations, adapting services and adapting technology.

Restaurant/business innovations

Brewery Nonic LLC – Menomonie, WI (Main Street Community)
Winner: Innovation in Service and Business Operations to Respond to COVID-19 disruption (1-5 Employees)

Keeping a craft brewery alive during a pandemic is hard work. It can also be fun, with the right amount of innovation. Brewery Nonic LLC was launched in 2018 in Menomonie’s Omaha Train Depot, which is listed on state and national registers of historic places. However, even history can’t help a relatively new brewery during COVID-19 unless its owners get creative. That is true not only for maintaining safety for staff and customers, but in offering services that reach into the community. Brewery Nonic modified its facilities to invite musicians and “guest chefs,” some from struggling restaurants, to a setting that majority owners Ryan and Ron Verdon describe as a “Collaborative Community.” A food trailer was purchased, painted, and otherwise upgraded to safely expand outside food options. Outside heaters, wind curtains and a fire pit have been added. A written “Coronavirus Safety Plan” guides other precautions. Brewery Nonic has established a “guest kitchen” to help other members of the community learn the trade, including students from UW-Stout and Hmong and Peruvian families.

Ron Verdon, owner of Brewery Nonic stated, “We are a ‘Collaborative Community’ that offers mutual support and inspires unique opportunities. We are better when: We’re All Innovating Together. ”

The Abbey Bar – De Pere, WI (Main Street Community)
Winner: Innovation in Service and Business Operations to Respond to COVID-19 disruptions (21-50 Employees)

A popular restaurant and tavern in De Pere, The Abbey Bar is much like other bars in Wisconsin—Its owners are doing what they can to stay alive in the COVID-19 pandemic. For Abbey’s owner, Kerry Counard, that means employing some of the safe practices you might expect—rigorous cleaning protocols, takeout options, limited indoor dining, masks, sanitation stations, turning away large groups and more. The Abbey Bar has gone a step beyond by offering “pay-it-forward” gift cards to customers who are encouraged to give them to front-line health workers or people hard hit by COVID-19. Under consideration is a plan to winterize the outdoor area with heating and wind blocks. Counard is making sure staff and vendors get paid first by not paying himself. “Safety first” is a constant and transparent motto for The Abbey Bar, and giving back to others in need, even in tough times.

Kerry Counard, owner of Abbey Bar, commented on their innovation, “Yes, the pandemic has forced us to pivot on several occasions, with changes to health recommendations as well as restrictions. I think the thing that has stayed true for us, is that we chose the path of science, respect and responsibility. As we all learned more about COVID-19 we had to adjust, and more than anything we needed to be responsible. This also meant being respectful of wherever different customers fell on the ‘comfort scale.’ Lastly the choice to pay forward donations from customers was an easy one and all we wanted to do was run our business. “

Businesses who adapted their services

Illumyx – On Broadway – Green Bay, WI (Main Street Community)
Winner: Innovation in Service and Business Operations to Respond to COVID-19 disruption (Additional Winners)

Illumyx helps companies navigate through complex organizational change by measuring workplace culture and helping executives align and develop strategies on how to build the organization they dream of. Their data driven approach allowed them to work remotely even before the pandemic, but they still relied on onsite work to align and develop leadership teams, a critical step in their change management process. When the pandemic hit, they were left flat-footed, pushing pause on alignment and team development work as they waited for the Stay-at-Home orders to be lifted. They are still waiting, but they started rethinking how to adapt their onsite work to a remote work environment. They started by poring over their historical data on teams.

What they found was for their most effective engagements, change was happening with all teams regardless of where they fall on the hierarchy. This caused Illumyx to pause and relook at their entire delivery model and approach. Fast forward to the present, they have a long-term product development approach underway to develop a responsive application that continually measures and provides feedback to teams on their performance and development. This approach relies on concepts from chemistry, social network analysis and personality dynamics. Illumyx’s current effort is focused on refining a personality compatibility algorithm that will enable a company to predict team functioning based on the results of a psychometric assessment. This could have major ramifications for organizations by reducing their risk for bringing on new hires and could one day be applied to large groups of individuals in scenarios such as mergers and acquisitions to predict the likelihood of a successful culture integration.

While the pandemic has been a challenge, it has also been an inspiration, getting their team to think differently about business and how they can solve their customers challenges.

“Struggle, challenge and pain may bring short-term difficulties, but a long-term benefit nearly always emerges for those experiences. COVID was devastating. Yet in many ways it brought into focus our core limitations and gave us the opportunity to build our lives in new ways,” stated Stephen Utech, CEO of Illumyx.

The Rochester Inn/York Estates – Sheboygan Falls, WI (Main Street Community)
Winner: Innovation in Service and Business Operations to Respond to COVID-19 disruption (Additional Winners)

To survive the challenges facing the travel industry, The Rochester Inn in Sheboygan Falls identified the need for an innovative strategy for their “small, clean and caring Inn.” They needed to find creative ways to elevate their guest’s experience while reducing operating expenses and maximizing revenues. In addition, based on the global mindsight shift towards sustainable business practices, they prioritized the implementation of a sustainability strategy that will reduce future expenses while elevating the creditability of The Rochester Inn brand.

The Rochester Inn already has a strong reputation of being a “small, clean and caring Inn,” and part of their COVID survival strategy is to continue to treat their guests as family, while keeping them safe during their stay is their highest priority. They have implemented a reduced-contact experience for their guests’ safety and have made great strides to accommodate this through more virtual interactions and personalized messaging. They have maintained their in-room breakfast service and increased their in-room amenities for an improved experience and personalized travel stay.

With less travelers and an improved guest experience, they needed to find ways to cut operating expenses and maximize revenues. With methodical adjustments they have been successful in reducing their operating expenses, while consistently evaluating trends to realize their full market value.

The Inn is 173 years old and there is an opportunity to reduce expenses through green business practices and renovations, in coordination with becoming Travel Green Certified through Travel Wisconsin. They have taken steps towards efficiency upgrades and Travel Green Certification throughout 2020, with efficiency upgrades and certification ongoing in 2021.

Sweet Freedom Wellness – Montello, WI (Connect Community)
Winner: Innovation in Service and Business Operations to Respond to COVID-19 disruption (Additional Winners)

Maria Ankele is a licensed massage therapist and owner of Sweet Freedom Wellness in Montello, WI. Before the pandemic, she was operating at full capacity as a solo licensed massage therapist. Her main focus was chronic pain and relaxation, none of which is life-threatening and therefore, when COVID hit she made the difficult decision to close until she had a better handle on the precautions. Outside of her business, her main passion is fitness and exercise and she realized her rural community didn’t have easy access to a gym or formal personal training. Maria had already received her personal training certification and was about to roll out training and gym time at Sweet Freedom Wellness, but the pandemic had other plans. In addition, she furthered her education with online courses on nutrition coaching, bodybuilding and transformation specialists. With these additional certifications, Maria felt comfortable offering online coaching services, which kept her clients safer at home. When she returned to work in May 2020, she decreased the in-person exposure by reducing the amount of massage sessions per day. That was a hit to her bottom line, but she felt it was necessary. It’s a touch-based business and she must be smart about it. Now, the online training fills in those cracks. The grant money awarded to her by the We’re All Innovating Contest allowed her to pay off her ISSA Online Learning Institute tuition, as well as add gym equipment to her training space. Not only does this new equipment allow her to show massage clients corrective ways to exercise, she is slowly ably to open her books to fully masked, in-person training. All while still offering the online option.

Maria said, “I’m so thankful to the grant committee for seeing my vision and helping me make it happen. We must adapt to succeed, otherwise we will stagnate and eventually fail.”

SMARTcare – Eau Claire, WI (Connect Community)
Winner: Technology Innovation to Address COVID-19 Impacts on Businesses (Additional Winners)

Eau Claire Wisconsin based SMARTcare Software develops and sells a complete business automation and point-of-care platform for home care providers across the US. This industry-leading platform enables quality care and increases caregiver engagement and improved outcomes. Early in 2020 when the pandemic started, SMARTcare responded by introducing the first COVID-19 Toolset for home care providers to help better deliver care during the pandemic. The COVID-19 Toolset has specific functionality that allows providers and their caregivers to monitor, manage exposure risk and improve safety while providing care. The Toolset is interoperable with SMARTcare’s complete cloud-based system solution which utilizes the latest digital technology to organize, optimize and simplify home health care delivery. Seeing a need where the company could help overall home care, SMARTcare has made the COVID-19 Toolset available to any home care provider at no-cost. SMARTcare, a highly configurable solution is used by all size home care providers across North America.

“As the world continues to be challenged by this pandemic, everyone at SMARTcare is so grateful to be able to help home care providers, their patients and families be better prepared and increase safety through SMARTcare’s COVID-19 Toolset,” said Scott Zielski, president and CEO of SMARTcare Software. “We are so fortunate to be able to make a difference during this time with a home care solution that continues to solve some of the biggest challenges of providing high quality care into the home.”

Businesses who adapted their technology

The Menomonie Food Co-op – Menomonie, WI (Main Street Community)
Winner: Technology Innovation to Address COVID-19 Impacts on Businesses (21-50 Employees)

At first, the Menomonie Food Co-op’s attempts at weathering the COVID-19 storm wasn’t that successful. A simple “drive-up, pick-up” system for buying groceries was only part of the answer, as patrons accustomed to choices that often distinguished a local co-op from other grocery stores couldn’t specify local, specialty or delicatessen items. A more robust eCommerce site helped to solve that problem with photos and information that help shoppers tell if items were locally produced, organic, house-made or carried other attributes not easily ascertained by shoppers hesitant to simply roam the aisles. The innovation saved some jobs within the store—especially the deli—and transformed others with training and a tailored approach to customer service. It has maintained sales of locally grown items, such as produce, and allowed the co-op to keep buying from small producers. An apple orchard, a goat ranch and Amish farmers are among local suppliers who have benefited from innovative steps taken by the Menomonie Food Co-op.

“Our food co-op exists to create wealth for our owners and our local community,” says Crystal Halvorson, Menomonie Market Food Co-op’s general manager. “When we were weighing whether or not to invest in building an eCommerce solution earlier this year, it felt risky to use that money for a project outside of our planned budget. Ultimately, we knew we had to make the leap to keep our shoppers safe and to continue supporting our local farmers and producers, so it’s awesome to see the state give money to locally owned businesses like ours to help with that unexpected cost.”

SonicNet – Eagle River, WI (Main Street Community)
Winner: Technology Innovation to Address COVID-19 Impacts on Businesses (Additional Winners)

SonicNet is a local broadband provider based in Eagle River and serving 15 communities in the Northwoods with high-speed internet service. Unlike many businesses that had to close or severely limit their interactions with the public during the pandemic, SonicNet’s service was more necessary than ever.

Thinking that their network was all set for the summer influx of lakefront customers, the SonicNet team realized by late March that the customers’ bandwidth needs would likely exceed all expectations, and new customers were already calling to get service installed for working or learning at home. To keep their small staff safe, SonicNet closed their physical office and implemented socially distanced procedures for installing new service in the homes of their new customers, but the real need was for more communications towers in new areas as well as getting more bandwidth to the areas already served.

With the help of the We’re All Innovating Grant, SonicNet was able to erect a new tower in Conover in a little under a month from start to finish. This provides service to more than 100 homes, and the residents are thrilled.

“We had to move quickly to increase our network’s capacity and coverage area in 2020, and the new Conover tower wouldn’t have been possible without the funding from the We’re All Innovating Grant,” said Lori Collins, SonicNet CEO.