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Isthmus Independent Business Awards
The first annual event honors trailblazing local businesses
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The local, independent spirit still survives in a corporate world. The Isthmus Independent Business Awards were created to honor that spirit - and really, Madison wouldn't be Madison without it. Winners have been chosen in eight categories, representing such locally cherished virtues as innovation, sustainability and community-mindedness. "Community" is a key word here, as all the winners contribute to the richness of life in Dane County.

Read on for profiles of the eight Indie recipients, who will be honored at a Nov. 15 ceremony at Eldorado Grill.

Market Spark
A business that has stepped out in front of the crowd to model innovative practices.

Winner: Barry Levenson, National Mustard Museum founder

Quick - when you hear the word mustard, what's the first thing that comes to mind? If it's Mustard Museum, then Barry Levenson has done his job.

Known as the man who put mustard on the map, Levenson is more than an entrepreneur. He's a lawyer, a former Wisconsin assistant attorney general, an author (Habeas Codfish: Reflections on Food and the Law) and an all-around force of nature. With an indomitable spirit and a keen mastery of the pun (witness his "university affiliate," Poupon U), Levenson has amused visitors since he established his museum in Mount Horeb in 1992.

Who else but Levenson would have thought that a Mustard Museum was a good idea? The story goes that he started his collection while despondent over the Red Sox's loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series. Why mustard? Why not? Levenson's gift for attracting attention has landed him on National Public Radio, Letterman and even Oprah (a framed thank-you letter from "O" herself is part of the collection).

Last year Levenson moved his growing enterprise (now grandly renamed National Mustard Museum) to Middleton, at 7477 Hubbard Ave. He has managed to blend an educational experience and a moneymaking enterprise into a unique tourist attraction. The collection contains over 5,100 mustards from 60 countries (who knew Iceland made mustard?), as well as mustard pots and old advertising signs; there are interactive displays and a "Mustard Piece Theatre." The museum also houses a tasting area, and loads of mustards and mustard paraphernalia are for sale, both on-site and online. There's even a Mustard of the Month Club.

When it comes to business acumen, sense of fun and all-around audacity, Barry Levenson and his museum really cut the mustard. (Sorry.)

- Michana Buchman

Fresh Food Friend
A business that delivers sustainable food resources.

Winner: Anya Firszt, Willy Street Co-op general manager

What can you say about a 35-year-old co-op that thrived? That it was healthy and happy? That it loved bok choy, bulk beans and Beetnik juice....

When the Willy Street Co-op moved to its current location at 1221 Williamson St. at age 25, into a much-expanded space of 9,500 square feet with, at last, a parking lot, it seemed audacious. Now in retrospect the move seems modest, with the lot often full, the community room booked with everything from art exhibits to Kombocha-brewing workshops.

The co-op is no longer a fringe buying club for health nuts and hippies. Food consciousness has come around in the last decade to the extent that consumers who see themselves as mainstream care so passionately about the quality of their produce that they'll make a special trip here. Others want to support local agriculture or need an offbeat oil or spice for a recipe they pulled off the Internet. The co-op has done its own share of creating this shift in society. Yet it lets members dictate the products it does sell, so there's a symbiotic relationship.

"Buy local is our core message," says longtime general manager Anya Firszt. Moving forward, the question is: "How can we further develop that concept? From the agricultural side of things, we might be partnering with a farmer, or buying land to grow food ourselves."

The co-op looks not only to local farmers, but to other local vendors. And its prepared foods adhere to the same local philosophy, with the deli preserving tomatoes, for instance, so that they might be used beyond the growing season.

The co-op has just opened its second store, in Middleton. Firszt is gratified to see that Middleton residents were buying memberships to the new store before it opened, even though "they've never been to the east-side store."

At times she spies newcomers, folks who walk into the co-op looking "a little puzzled" but curious and wanting to learn. "Twenty-five years ago, I was that person," Firszt reflects. "When I see that, I'll give them the nickel tour."

With 20,000 member owners, it might be hard to think of the Willy Street Co-op as a small business. But, Firszt says, "We do work to satisfy everyone's needs."

- Linda Falkenstein

Neighborhood Notable
Demonstrating leadership in making the community successful and safe.

Winner: Carol "Orange" Schroeder, Orange Tree Imports

In this dog-eat-dog world, business owners can only look out for themselves, right?

Not so, says Carol "Orange" Schroeder, co-owner with husband Dean of Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe St. Since opening the shop in 1975 - it sells cookware, gift items and kids' stuff, among other things - she has helped bind a tight-knit community out of the specialty shops, restaurants and other businesses that line Monroe Street. Thanks in part to that effort, the Monroe Street retail strip is at the heart of one of the city's most vital and pleasant neighborhoods.

As Schroeder sees it, if her neighbors in the retail district thrive, so does she. "It became clear that the more the successful the street was, the more successful Orange Tree would be."

Schroeder has done much of this work as the longtime head of the Monroe Street Merchants Association, which she co-founded. Its signature event is the yearly Monroe Street Festival of music and shopping. The association also publishes a guide to the district, and merchants cooperate on projects, like an umbrella-sharing service shoppers can make use of on rainy days.

Schroeder brings her community-minded spirit to many projects. She endorses buy-local initiatives. She supports local arts and entertainment. She is on the boards of organizations ranging from Susan G. Komen for the Cure to the Monroe Street Library. Her book, Specialty Shop Retailing: Everything You Need to Know to Run Your Own Store, is in its third edition, and with it Schroeder has mentored an international community of like-minded independent retailers. She even manages her employees in the spirit of what she calls "participative democracy."

"We feel really lucky to be in Madison," she says. "It gives back to us."

- Kenneth Burns

Dynamic Developer
A business that leads in building or adapting projects that provide economic and social benefits to the community.

Winner: Thomas Thayer, Tri-North Builders president and CEO

Tom Thayer remembers how it used to be. A few years back, when his Fitchburg-based general contracting firm began focusing on green building, "we really had to talk people into it," by educating them as to the benefits.

"That has really changed," says Thayer. Now businesses come to Tri-North already knowing that incorporating green design features into new construction "is good for the environment and good for their companies."

Thayer, a native of Chicago, has been in the business of building buildings since 1976, when he and his wife moved to Madison. He and others started Tri-North Builders in 1981, specializing in commercial, health-care, hospitality and retail construction. Its local projects include the $55 million City Center West office complex in Middleton and major renovation at the Dane County Regional Airport.

"When we started Tri-North," says Thayer, "we had no idea what it would become. We were just out to survive."

In fact, it found a way to thrive. Headquartered in Fitchburg, Tri-North now builds between 250 and 350 buildings each year, all over the country. It has about 100 employees locally and more than 200 nationwide, including field offices in Milwaukee, Dallas, San Francisco and New Hampshire.

Some of Tri-North's clients, says Thayer, are seeking LEED certification, the gold standard for green building. Others are taking baby steps, like recycling construction and building waste. Tri-North takes a "common sense" approach, calculating how green design features pay for themselves in terms of energy savings, sometimes in just a few years.

But Thayer stresses that there are other benefits. The added light and improved air flow in a properly designed green building make for a "much healthier, better environment" for workers and visitors.

In other words, Tri-North helps make green building a win-win-win proposition.

- Bill Lueders

Green Angel
A business that advocates for environmentally sustainable practices.

Winner: SCRAM! Couriers

Established in 2000 by Jillian Corbett and guided since 2004 by Rick Cathcart, Madison's SCRAM! bicycle-courier service provides an alternative to fossil-fueled rivals like cab companies and branded truck fleets. In withering heat, driving rain, white-out blizzards and daunting wind chills, SCRAM! delivers documents and parcels year-round, often on tight deadlines.

"At the core of what we do is the concept of sustainable transport," says Cathcart, emphasizing minimum "ecological and societal" impact.

Dispatched from its offices at 16 N. Carroll, the firm's five couriers are drilled in safety, traffic laws, business etiquette and low-impact principles. Starting at $4.50 for regular deliveries near the Capitol Square, prices climb to $18.50 for express service spanning seven zones throughout the city, with customized quotes for deliveries beyond the firm's core service area.

SCRAM! has built a client base among local design and legal firms, as well as working for state and federal agencies here.

The recent economic downturn and shifts from paper to electronic documents have changed the bicycle-courier world. Bike couriers remain commonplace in New York and other big cities that have matured around centralized business districts, Cathcart notes, but in lower-density Madison it's easier to overlook the SCRAM! option despite the city's bike-friendly reputation.

"One of the main challenges we face is convincing potential clients here in Madison that moving their items around by bicycle is a viable way of doing it," observes Cathcart, who took his B.S. in psychology from the UW and considered law school before opting for a two-wheeled career.

From documents to gifts to flowers to "large items with unusual shapes," Cathcart says, a lot rides on the speedy delivery of a courier's cargo. Depending on distance, route, traffic conditions and weather, he claims, SCRAM! couriers often enjoy an efficiency advantage over deliveries by motor vehicle.

"We have," Cathcart says, "a little more freedom built in."

- David Medaris

Dane and Beyond
Reaching beyond today's way of doing business to solve problems and encourage innovation.

Winner: Bryan Chan, SupraNet Communications Inc. CEO

Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bryan Chan followed a counterintuitive route to become an information-technology executive. First, he ignored Silicon Valley to take a B.A. in English from UW-Madison. Then, instead of returning home to Los Altos and pursuing an advanced degree in computer science or electrical engineering, he stayed here and in 1994 launched SupraNet, an Internet service provider for local businesses.

Chan has staked the firm on core values like transparency and integrity. "I think in order to have innovation, you need to have honesty," he explains. Being open to feedback from clients, employees and the community is critical to building long-term customer loyalty and a corporate culture of constant improvement, he says.

"The nature of our business is very much in flux," notes Chan. "There's no book you can turn to. We're pretty much making this up as we go and trying to learn from our mistakes."

Chan perceived an opportunity to help Madison businesses establish a web presence as the Internet toppled local, regional, national and global parameters for commerce. He had an affinity for computers that may be attributable to his father's career as an electrical engineer, and had worked for a network consulting firm. "Really what I had was a lot of support from the community and our clients," he adds.

That support underpins his own commitment to community initiatives like Dane Buy Local. Having persevered through the collapse of the dot-com bubble, Chan is now pushing SupraNet to become what he calls "a thought leader" in efforts to mitigate the IT industry's vast cumulative carbon footprint.

"When people ask me what we do, I've told them that we convert coal into websites," he says. The joke is rueful: Beyond the energy consumed to power all their servers, Internet service providers also consume vast sums of electricity to cool their data centers.

SupraNet is striving to reduce its own power consumption by 20% per year, Chan says. "Our goal is to take Internet services off the grid eventually."

- David Medaris

Bridge Builder
Demonstrating the ability to bring together people with different points of view and connect local communities to effect positive change.

Winner: Rev. Gene Ferrara, Center for Conscious Living

Perhaps the most obvious question for someone who wins an award for bridge-building is some version of: "Why can't we all just get along?"

Gene Ferrara's immediate response is robust laughter, followed by "I don't know."

Then he gives a more metaphysical explanation: The world by nature is polarized, made up of both negative and positive energy. So conflict is natural.

Ferrara took over the Madison Church of Science in September 2008, and last year he moved the church from a hotel room in Monona to 849 E. Washington Ave., in a space the church calls the Center for Conscious Living.

"Madison is such a rich town, spiritually," he says. "I call it a spiritual smorgasbord. There's something for everybody. But there's a lot of what we would call 'silo-ing' up. One of the notions that came with opening the center - because we don't have a doctrine that we preach, except open your heart and love each other - is we could be a place where people could come out of their silos and have a larger community."

How the space has been used surpassed Ferrara's expectations: dance, music, classes, hula-hooping, tai chi, spiritual workshops, yoga, shamans, wizards and "this endless stream of all these different points of view."

Not everything has worked, including some of the things that Ferrara was certain would. But that's okay with him, as long as people come. "The lesson for me is to continue to show up, sweep the floors, and keep the place inviting for people."

- Joe Tarr

Heartland Hipster
Visual or performing artists who demonstrate a commitment to the community through their work, representing the best of the independent-minded creative class.

Winner: Tom Linfield

Forget the solitary artist slaving away in his garret. For Tom Linfield, art-making is strongly connected to the idea of community.

In his day job, Linfield is vice president of grantmaking and community initiatives at the Madison Community Foundation. And his 9-to-5 orientation - helping folks in Dane County - spills over into his life as an artist. Linfield donates work to various causes, including a mosaic giraffe for the Zoobilee auction, a benefit for the American Family Children's Hospital and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society.

This was no minor undertaking. Linfield and his three fellow artists spent 1,000 hours on the spectacular piece, called "Long Tall Sally." "It was a true labor of love," he says.

Linfield and his co-creators for "Long Tall Sally" work together in the artsTRIBE collective, which itself has a strong community focus. One of their projects, called SEED, explores connections between growing food and creating art. Linfield's contribution is oil pastels of bell peppers grown by Dane County farmers. They're his own painterly version of "buy local," inspired by the local food movement. In typical fashion, he and his artsTRIBE mates donated SEED artwork to local nonprofits for fundraising purposes.

The stereotypical artist is self-obsessed, but Linfield represents those artists - you'll find many of them in Madison - who happily volunteer their time for the common good.

"My professional life has been in philanthropy, and my private life has been in the arts," he says. "For me, it's really important to combine the two."

- Dean Robbins

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