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Isthmus Indie Awards 2012
Meet eight local companies that do business their own way
For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Pete Olsen

The Isthmus Independent Business Awards pay tribute to Dane County companies that care not only about their own success, but about the whole community's success.

Winners have been chosen in eight categories, honoring such locally important qualities as innovation, sustainability, and bridge-building. These are the folks who will keep our region prosperous and livable in the 21st century.

You can get to know them in the following profiles, as well as meet them in person at an awards ceremony featuring food and cocktails at the Goodman Community Center (Monday, Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m.). For tickets, call 608-251-5627; stop by Isthmus at 101 King St.; or see The Indies are sponsored by SupraNet and presented by Isthmus in cooperation with Dane Buy Local.

Market Spark
A local business that steps out in front of the crowd, modeling innovative practices.

Winners: Alison Dodge, Lea Wolf and Carolynn Schwartz, Happy Bambino

Happy Bambino - the name alone conjures visions of healthy, pink-cheeked babies and smiling, confident parents. It's the perfect choice for a store specializing in "bellies, babies and breastfeeding." Co-owners Alison Dodge, Lea Wolf and Carolynn Schwartz strive to promote sustainable practices, provide community resources for parents, and sell healthy, safe, eco-friendly products for children and babies. It's the perfect business for Madison.

When they opened their Atwood Avenue store eight years ago, Dodge, 35, and Wolf, 33, were short on experience. But, says Dodge, both shared a vision of "a place where parents could a) get needed help for early parenting and b) connect resources with people, so they're not so alone."

Getting there wasn't easy. "It was a tough sell for the banks," says Dodge. "You're going to sell cloth diapers? Yeah, and nursing bras." So they conducted their own survey, and the hundreds of positive responses helped convince the bankers to take a chance.

Good choice. Happy Bambino quickly became the go-to place for parents looking for information and support as well as toys and goods for their children. It proved so popular, in fact, that it outgrew its Atwood Avenue location, moving to its present site on Monona Drive, in the Lake Edge Shopping Center.

Dodge and Wolf were joined in 2008 by Schwartz, 41, who'd been one of their customers. Schwartz handles the retail side, while Dodge and Wolf concentrate on the resource end. Their current offerings include African dance for kids, mom and baby yoga, an ongoing breastfeeding clinic, a working-moms networking group, and an assortment of playgroups.

What sets Happy Bambino apart from other enterprises? "We are a for-profit business," says Dodge, "but we're very mission-driven. We really care. Our bottom line is always being of service, providing a good resource. There's symbiosis between our resource activity center and our retail store."

Happy Bambino is celebrating its eighth anniversary by throwing a big shindig Nov. 4 at the High Noon Saloon. Bring the family; at Happy Bambino, you can be sure you'll all be welcome.

- Michana Buchman

Fresh Food Friend
Committed to delivering local, sustainable food through restaurant or retail channels.

Winner: Jeff Maurer, Fresh Madison Market

The trend in grocery stores is mega-markets on the peripheries of cities. Hence food shopping means a drive in the car. For those without cars, access to fresh produce and good-quality staples can be a major problem.

Madison grocer Jeff Maurer is resisting that trend. Maurer, 55, brought a full-service grocery back to the heart of the UW-Madison campus when he opened Fresh Madison Market in January 2010 - in an area that had been without one since 1970. The 16,000-square-foot store has a prominent produce section, bulk bins, prepared-food stations and 4,000 additional square feet for cooking classes.

This past summer, Maurer's plan to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to areas of Madison without a convenient grocery (areas designated food deserts by the USDA) was realized with the launch of the Freshmobile. It's a mobile grocery store in a custom-designed 44-foot-long trailer hauled by a pickup; it's also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation. And it brings fresh foods to grocery-less neighborhoods six days a week.

"The whole intent is to break even," Maurer notes. "We want to provide healthy food at the lowest possible cost."

Staying close to his customers is important to Maurer. Before he opened Fresh Madison Market, he talked to students; he's just talked to six neighborhood groups about what he can do to make the Freshmobile more helpful. "We're evolving," he says. "We want to make it accessible." A new stop in the town of Madison is about to be added, too.

So far, the Freshmobile serves 200-300 people a week, but Maurer hopes that will increase with word-of-mouth. The closing of farmers' markets for the winter and the coming inclement weather may bring in more shoppers as well.

Maurer, who grew up in the food biz, likes to quote his father: "This is a people business. We just happen to sell food."

- Linda Falkenstein

Dynamic Developer
Creating sustainable projects that benefit the community.

Winner: Thomas Holmes, Glenville Timberwrights

Tom Holmes literally does things the old-fashioned way.

The owner of Glenville Timberwrights, Holmes resurrected an ancient form of building in Wisconsin called timber framing. It's construction that uses carefully fitted joints and pegs and the weight of the beams to secure a structure. It's how buildings were constructed before people began cobbling them together with nails and screws.

Glenville Timberwrights was one of the first companies in Wisconsin to use the technique, which has since caught on. "I saw that as an opportunity to offer something that wasn't even offered in the state of Wisconsin," Holmes says. "Something with more integrity than just banging together stud walls."

Although he grew up in New England, where the technique was first revived, Holmes, 61, admits that learning the art didn't come easily. "There really are no guys around that you can ask," he says. "I learned it by doing it and tying it together with whatever literature I could find."

Not long after Holmes formed Glenville Timberwrights about 30 years ago, he took the approach even further, by using almost exclusively wood reclaimed from old buildings. Holmes contracts with reclamation companies that salvage wood and other materials in places like Chicago. Many of these structures were built during the Industrial Revolution using old-growth trees from the Midwest. Which means the wood in some of the buildings is more than 1,000 years old.

"It's a wonderful feeling using this wood, giving new life to timbers, which otherwise would end up in landfills or being burned on the site," Holmes says.

Glenville builds both residential and commercial buildings. The advantages of the timber-frame technique is that you don't need supporting walls.

"You can really open up spaces," he says. "You can get nice cathedral ceilings and lots more space to add light."

The homes the company has built range from rustic to modern, Holmes says. In fact, many customers come to Glenville after first considering log cabins.

"People come in here because the buildings are beautiful. It's a wonderful experience to live in [a timber-frame home]," says Holmes, who does live in one. "It's comforting. The timbers speak to you."

- Joe Tarr

Bridge Builder
Bringing together people with different points of view to effect positive change.

Winner: Mike Olson, Madison Music Foundry and Blast House Studios

Ask Mike Olson to describe a bridge, and he'll tell you about the part of a song that ties a verse to a chorus. Music is his passion. It's also his job. As the owner of Madison Music Foundry, he helps nearly 600 students learn to sing, strum, fiddle and drum. Side effects range from better grades to increased confidence and an enduring sense of pride.

Olson, 37, started the Foundry in 2006, after seeing how quickly practice space filled up around town. With the help of a construction firm and an acoustics consultant, he transformed a 7,000-square-foot warehouse off Greenway Cross into clean, cozy rooms for hosting music lessons, band practices and rock workshops. Down the street, bands record their songs at his latest venture, Blast House Studios.

Olson discovered his business acumen through the DIY world of punk rock. In addition to performing, he organized shows for friends. In the process, he learned how to help others band together to reach their goals.

This is no small feat, considering that creative differences are a leading cause of band breakups. So how does Olson get musicians to cooperate and compromise?

"It's just a matter of communication," he says. "Getting people together and making sure everyone's ideas are out there and heard, that makes a big difference."

Olson and education director Ken Fitzsimmons work hard to keep the Foundry's 26 instructors happy. Instead of taking a top-down approach, they encourage the staff to learn from each other.

"If one teacher finds a really good way of scheduling lessons, we share that with the other teachers. If one person has a question, someone else might be able to help," he explains.

Olson says he's not a bridge builder but an engineer. He helps others turn their ideas into reality.

"We're always asking people, 'What do you want to do?'" he says. "Once we know their ideas, we help implement them, whether it's starting a new class or encouraging a kid to do his homework so he can come to his guitar lessons. We're like a big family."

- Jessica Steinhoff

Hometown Artist
Demonstrating a commitment to the community through their work and representing the best of the independent-minded creative class.

Winner: Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward Theater Company

After the Madison Repertory Theatre closed in 2009, Jennifer Uphoff Gray sat down with other local theater types to brainstorm ideas for a new professional equity troupe. The goal, they decided, would be to serve Madison, rather than simply to pursue their own artistic obsessions.

Thus was born Forward Theater Company, notable for its strong ties to the community. This is a troupe that aggressively solicits feedback from audiences, hosting talkbacks after every show. As a result, its seasons feature imaginative choices that nevertheless appeal to a broad range of people. Forward also raises money for nonprofits and discounts tickets for needy theater lovers.

Gray, the artistic director, notes that the troupe connected with a local audience right away. "The level of support in the community blew us all away. We're about to turn 3½, and we're a resident company at Overture, we have 2,100 subscribers for this season, and we sold 96% of the seats we had available last season."

You can see what all the fuss is about at Forward's current production, 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, which runs in the Overture Playhouse through Oct. 7.

Gray, 41, grew up in the Madison area and spent 12 years working as a director in New York City. She decided to come back, believe it or not, because Wisconsin seemed like a more fulfilling place to do theater.

"New York is such a big market that you could never count on encountering an audience member twice at different shows you worked on," she says. "In Madison, the audiences have an incredible level of engagement and curiosity. There's just a hunger, not only to see great theater, but to learn about it and see it as part of our greater community."

For an artist, Gray is remarkably tuned in to the Madison economy. She notes that Forward hires local people and buys local materials, so that the money stays in the area.

"There's been all kinds of research on how a thriving creative class can elevate an entire community's success," she says.

- Dean Robbins

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

Winner: Markus Candinas, Candinas Chocolatier

Markus Candinas learned about good food in Switzerland. Both of his parents are Swiss, and while he grew up in Madison, he's visited Switzerland nearly every year. That's where he completed a three-year apprenticeship with a confectioner, and where he caught a lucky break immediately after his training.

"After my apprenticeship, I have to admit, I was in the right place at the right time, and I was doing the right things," remembers Candinas, 42. "I was thrust into a position where I was the head of the pastry and chocolate division for a 125-year-old business."

He honed his skills and developed his recipes for two years in that position. And after traveling the world, Candinas brought those recipes back to Madison, where they evolved with his business. When he opened Candinas Chocolatier in 1994, it focused on a fresh product packaged in recycled materials, and that resonated with customers in the Madison area.

Through its website, the company expanded sales beyond the stores in Madison and Verona. Candinas remembers the website going up around 2000 but admits it took a few years for online sales to pick up. The business now ships throughout the United States.

Media and trade organizations have lauded Candinas for the quality and value of his chocolate over the years, including numerous accolades from Consumer Reports.

Candinas has embraced the use of science and technology in the production of chocolates at his Verona factory.

"Why shy away from technology?" he asks. "We've really looked at what makes a fine chocolate a fine chocolate, on the molecular level."

But each chocolate is finished by hand, drizzled carefully with a different garnish for every variety.

Candinas rotates among the different positions at his company, from marketing to storefront.

"There are elements to everything that I like," he says. "I genuinely love working in the store."

- Nora G. Hertel

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

Winner: Richard Kilmer, Community Pharmacy

Richard Kilmer watched Community Pharmacy grow up over the last 40 years. As a pharmacist there, he's been a part of its evolution from a student-run resource in a basement to the thriving alternative health center that it is now.

Kilmer, 61, was a UW student when the pharmacy opened in 1972. "It was really funky [when it opened]," he remembers. "It was basically hippies running a pharmacy."

He joined the staff 12 years later, attracted to its structure as a worker-owned cooperative and its focus on social justice and open access to medical care. Over the years, the pharmacy incorporated holistic and homeopathic remedies to accompany its prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and it has maintained its emphasis on helping customers with or without insurance from all backgrounds.

"For a person who's politically active and wants to make a difference in the world, Community Pharmacy is a place you can do it," says Kilmer.

Kilmer used to spend much of his free time fundraising for political campaigns and serving on boards like that of the Madison AIDS Network. Now he's become devoted to his gardening, genealogy and country line-dancing hobbies.

Besides its mission to promote healthy living for all people, Community Pharmacy also strives to provide extensive customer service, which sets it apart from major chains.

While he was on hiatus in New York, a former Community Pharmacy patron chased after Kilmer in the subway, calling, "My pharmacist, my pharmacist!" Such loyalty from customers and employees is typical.

"The pharmacy felt like a family," Kilmer says. "I came back here [after the hiatus] for that sense of community."

Kilmer plans to stick with Community Pharmacy until he retires. "I'm proud to work there and proud of our accomplishments."

- Nora G. Hertel

Green Angel
Advocating for environmentally sustainable practices in their local businesses and lifestyles, and encouraging others to do the same.

Winner: Jim Bradley, Home Savings Bank

Jim Bradley and Home Savings Bank go back a long way. His father is a former president of the bank, and Jim started helping out there while still in high school.

"In some respects I grew up at Home Savings Bank," he says.

After studying real estate and finance at UW-Madison, Bradley joined the bank in the mid-1970s. It was during this time that his father spearheaded construction in Stoughton of the state's first solar bank office.

"We've had an interest in newer technologies and the whole idea of environmental stewardship since the 1970s," says Bradley, 59.

For the next 30 years, however, energy conservation was not a big focus of the locally owned bank, says Bradley. But when it came time to build a new branch on East Washington Avenue in Madison, there was renewed interest in building green.

"Just as in 1976 when solar technologies were new, the LEED certification process was relatively new in 2006," says Bradley, who took over as president and chief executive officer from his father in 1985. "We were building a new office, and we were interested in concepts around sustainability."

Among the bank's features is a drive-up island that doubles as a rain garden, capturing all the runoff from the site. Bradley says the natural light and air quality make the building a great place for employees and customers. The bank also serves as a model to the larger community.

"We thought we had an opportunity to create a facility where people could come in and experience a green space and understand that there are certain benefits they could use in their homes and businesses."

Bradley says businesses are always looking for ways to distinguish themselves. "We embraced sustainability for our organization and as a contribution to our community." The East Washington Avenue branch, he adds, "was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate in a physical sense what sustainability means."

- Judith Davidoff

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