All hail independent businesses - the ones that are based in Dane County and really care about our community. The Isthmus Independent Business Awards, presented by Isthmus and Heartland Credit Union, honor these indispensable operations, giving props for sustainable practices, bold leadership and innovation.
You can get to know the winners in the following profiles, as well as at the awards ceremony at Steenbock's on Orchard in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (Monday, Nov. 14, 5:30-7:30 p.m.). For tickets, call 608-251-5627 or stop by Isthmus at 101 King St.
Demonstrating leadership in making a neighborhood and its businesses successful.
Winner: Marilyn Burke, Marilyn's Salon & Opera House
There must be something in Middleton's water. Last year Barry Levinson, the man behind the Mustard Museum, won the Indies' Market Spark award. This year, Middleton businesswoman Marilyn Burke is a slam-dunk in the Neighborhood Notable category.
And where better to find a Neighborhood Notable than in the Good Neighbor City? Burke, 52, has been a business and property owner there for more than 20 years. She owns Marilyn's Salon & Opera House (1833 Parmenter St.), a historic landmark with apartments and retail smack dab in the heart of Middleton. She's founder and president of the very active Downtown Middleton Business Association. Need further proof of her neighborliness? Five years ago she spearheaded the Middleton Business Watch, a partnership between the Middleton Police Department, city of Middleton and the Middleton Chamber of Commerce to get the word out about crime in the community. She continues to do volunteer work with the Police Department.
The unstoppable Burke must be channeling the Energizer Bunny. Asked what local events she's part of, she says, "I organize and am involved in all of them. It gives me great satisfaction and energy." No kidding. The list of city events she's had a hand in is daunting: Easter egg hunts, wine walks, gallery nights, the Middleton Beach Party, the farmers' market, the downtown Halloween party, and on and on.
Burke is also the city's biggest fan and advocate: "Middleton is a great community - the people, customers, business associates and the city as a whole. I feel that it is important to give to others, and there is such a warm feeling of working together here in the downtown."
Good fences may make good neighbors, but in Marilyn Burke's case, good neighbors make great cities.
- Michana Buchman
Dane and Beyond
Using new technology to reach beyond today's way of doing business, connecting Dane County with the world.
Winner: Chris Meyer, Sector67
There's something understated about Chris Meyer, even though his matter-of-fact enthusiasm is, as they say, infectious. If your idea of fun does not include writing code or learning to solder, a few minutes with Meyer may change your mind. He's the guy behind Madison's Sector67, officially a "center for prototyping, technology and advanced manufacturing" - although its more casual identity as a makerspace (a.k.a. hackerspace) more fully captures its anything-goes joie de vivre. It's a place where people who want to make new things can meet, collaborate, share tools and geek out. And we mean that in a good way.
Meyer, 26, graduated from UW-Madison with a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 2010. The winner of several engineering contests, Meyer probably could have had his pick of jobs, but chose instead to create something for the community. The plan for Sector67 got some attention in the 2010 Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest, and Meyer took the seed money from that competition to open the space in the old Anderson-Thomas building at 2100 Winnebago St.
The space has hosted everything from board-game nights to business startup accelerator workshops. And its frequent classes introduce nascent entrepreneurs to any number of useful skill sets. Sector67 is a microcosm of the innovative thinking Wisconsin needs in coming up with new businesses, the kind that actually make stuff, for the 21st century.
"I think of Sector67 as an intermediary step, helping people early on," says Meyer. "If you can afford to go to a research park or the Metro Innovation Center, you're already kind of advanced." The atmosphere at Sector67 is welcoming to those whose ideas are "maybe not sorted through," and who want to interact with others: "There's a broad range of people with different kinds of knowledge here all the time."
- Linda Falkenstein
Bringing together people with different points of view to effect positive change.
Winner: Milele Chikasa Anana, Umoja
When Milele Chikasa Anana traveled to Washington, D.C., in late August for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall, she brought two young writers with her to show them the ropes.
"I purposely wanted to open the door for them and give them a broader perspective," says Chikasa Anana, publisher of Umoja magazine.
Even when Hurricane Irene shut down most of the eastern seaboard, Chikasa Anana was determined to show her companions how to track down sources and take photographs. "We are going to find a story," she told them.
Being a bridge between generations is important to Chikasa Anana, 77, who has been publishing Umoja for 21 years. "I think I have a wealth of knowledge and experience that I really want to pass on to the younger generation and my community. I love my community and I love Madison."
That love of community motivated Chikasa Anana to launch Umoja, which means "unity" in Swahili.
"I thought of Umoja as a way of connecting people," says Chikasa Anana, a civil rights activist who once led Madison's Affirmative Action Office. "I wanted different parts of my community, principally the black community, to be able to learn from one another and applaud each other."
She says she had been frustrated for years by what she saw as a dearth of positive news about black people in local media outlets.
"I was just unhappy about the dominance of negative images about black people and the lack of recognition that we do good things," she says.
Umoja, whose tag line is "Bringing positive news to your doorstep," is unapologetically upbeat, celebrating professional achievements and personal milestones. The September 2011 issue includes the stories and photos from Washington, D.C., that Hedi Rudd and Jessica Strong collected under Chikasa Anana's watchful eye. There's also a 10-page spread of interviews with 11 local African American men, entitled "Men Leaders in the Village: Dependable, Determined, Driven."
"I'm trying to show another side of my people, and in doing so I think I've built a bridge in two ways," says Chikasa Anana. "I'm building a bridge to the black community because we're fragmented and don't all live in the same place. And I'm building a bridge to the white community - to let them know we're not just statistics, we're not just thugs, we're not just athletes."
- Judith Davidoff
Advocating for environmentally sustainable practices in their local businesses and lifestyles, and encouraging others to do the same.
Winners: Tim and Kevin Metcalfe, Metcalfe's Market
When brothers Kevin and Tim Metcalfe took over their family treasure in 2000 - a successful 83-year-old Wisconsin grocery - they envisioned bringing their personal environmental concerns into their professional lives.
Metcalfe's Market, with locations at Madison's Hilldale Shopping Center and in Wauwatosa, takes every opportunity to institute environmentally friendly practices.
"We believe it's the right thing to do, and it's what our customers expect here in Madison to a certain degree," Kevin says. "The initiative is important to us personally and to future generations."
Kevin, 41, says that he and Tim, 51, spent their childhood enjoying the Madison lakes. That gave them the incentive to preserve the environment for others to enjoy.
Tim notes that grocery stores tend to use more energy than almost any other retail entity. When Madison Gas & Electric introduced green power - electricity generated using clean, renewable energy sources - the brothers were quick to sign on to the maximum amount allowed.
The pair also stepped in as green leaders when they introduced their Food Miles program to encourage customers to buy local and sustainable products. Their stores use energy-efficient LED lighting and offer plastic bag recycling.
The Metcalfes recently demonstrated their commitment to Madison by assembling a task force to create an ambitious master plan for the John Nolen Drive corridor. The Nolen Centennial Project is examining such improvements as increased access to Lake Monona, pedestrian and bike paths, and a community center.
Tim says the project will encourage Madisonians to respect their green space, atmosphere and lakes.
"It's about looking at the abundant environmental resources that are within that corridor and trying to create a world-class area for the greater region to enjoy," he says. "Everything that is planned for the project is going to be based on hopefully leaving the environment better than we found it."
- Pam Selman
A local business that steps out in front of the crowd, modeling innovative practices.
Winner: Jim Birkemeier, Spring Green Timber Growers
Jim Birkemeier is a trained forester, but "managing" his forest is the simplest part of his job. "If you just respect the forest, it knows what to do," says Birkemeier, who started Spring Green Timber Growers in the early '70s.
By respecting the forest, Birkemeier, 58, has been able to make a consistent living on just 200 acres of land, located northeast of Spring Green. "No one else is making a living from their forest," he says. "We've learned how to do that."
While logging companies will go in and cut up most of a forest, Birkemeier takes the exact opposite approach. He only cuts up trees that are diseased, falling over or dead.
"[Foresters] take all the good, straight trees. We had to learn how to make a living on the rejects," he says. "We've been able to make money on small trees, the crooked trees. We do things just the opposite of what a professional forester would say to do."
This leaves the healthy trees to reproduce. "There's no need to plant trees," he says. "They produce a gazillion seeds every year."
The wood that Birkemeier takes from his forest ends up in one of two product lines: custom-blended hardwood flooring or smaller household items, such as cutting boards, ornaments, frames and furniture.
Birkemeier says part of his success is attributable to logging sustainably at a time when people were becoming more conscientious about where their products came from. But he's also been able to cut out the middleman by processing his own wood and selling directly to consumers. "We can take a small dead tree, cut it, saw it, and make a hundred times what our neighbors do on these trees, because we do it ourselves," he says.
Birkemeier's approach not only generates more money, but also saves a forest. "Most places in Wisconsin are being logged like crazy, and all the good logs are going to China," he laments.
As his business has grown, landowners from all over the world have enlisted his help in teaching them his secret. Last month, he was in India.
"They're paying me to train people how we can take these trees that industry says are worthless and make money on them," Birkemeier says. "Everyone is sick of the big corporations ripping the forest down and not leaving anything for the local community. You can live off the forest without cutting it down."
- Joe Tarr
Creating sustainable projects that benefit the community.
Winner: Steven Ziegler, Ziegler Design Associates
Steven Ziegler runs his landscape architecture firm out of a converted garage on his small town of Middleton farm. "We can yell back and forth to one another," says Ziegler, who works with his wife and two others in Ziegler Design Associates. "It makes for much collaboration on all projects, put it that way."
But don't get the idea that this is a fly-by-night garage operation. Ziegler, 63, is a lifelong area resident who followed in the footsteps of his father, a UW landscape architecture professor. Since the 1990s, Ziegler Design Associates has planned landscapes for individuals and organizations, devoting a portion of its work to needy nonprofits.
One of Ziegler's chief concerns is sustainability. "Land development will not be able to continue in the way it has," he says. "We need models where land works more in concert with people and what they need, including open space and a sense of community. We need to sustain a system so that people can grow."
Ziegler has designed "healing gardens" that hospitals use in treating patients. He developed a land-use plan for Safe Haven, a new facility for homeless people that will be run by the local organization Porchlight. "We helped them lay out the buildings, develop spaces where people could be outside, and put in the groundwork for the community gardens," he says. "Porchlight is dedicated to having gardening be a part of its rehabilitation program."
Ziegler's longest-running project is the north side's Troy Gardens, a 26-acre public space that integrates gardens, an organic farm, restored prairie and woodlands. The firm got involved in 1997, developing a master plan that showed how all the components would fit together.
Ziegler is attuned to the unique aspects of our region, and he tailors his designs accordingly.
"Good landscape architecture" he says, "takes the values of the environment and the socio-cultural systems and melds them so that the best opportunities come forth."
- Dean Robbins
Demonstrating a commitment to the community through their work and representing the best of the independent-minded creative class.
Winners: Timothy and Renée Farley, Farley's House of Pianos
Timothy and Renée Farley have four kids. That's not counting the pianos.
"It's like pushing a bird out of the nest," says Timothy of finishing up work on a piano. "We don't like to see them immediately go."
That's why the two give a special farewell to some of the instruments that leave their shop, Farley's House of Pianos (6522 Seybold Rd.). They present concerts by internationally known musicians like Daniel del Pino and Valentina Lisitsa, who play the beautiful pianos Timothy can spend years restoring.
"We don't do it for the money," says Timothy, 67, of hosting the events.
Says Renée, 66, "It's for the love of the piano."
Concerts aren't the only way the Farleys cultivate the love of the piano. They also host music lessons in their shop, a former pharmaceutical warehouse near West Towne Mall. They move pianos and store them. They sell grand, upright and digital instruments.
And they develop close relations with their global clientele, which includes local institutions like Overture Center and numerous churches. Especially, their clientele includes families. "So many people, I worked with the parents, and now I'm working with the children," says Timothy. "You want the instrument to bring joy to the family."
At Farley's House of Pianos, finances, sales and pedagogy are managed by Renée, who also serves on the boards of the Madison Symphony Orchestra League and Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras. Timothy oversees a staff of technicians who restore and repair pianos, and prepare new ones for sale. He demands high-quality work. "It has to look and sound and play like a piano I restored," he says of an instrument from his shop. Indeed, he signs, in a small, neat hand, the soundboards of pianos he works on.
Timothy has strong feelings about the way pianos are treated even after they leave his store. He wants customers to play them, of course, and to give them pride of place in a home. "When you put the piano in the basement," he says, "that's where it is in your heart."
The piano is, says Timothy, "the most incredible instrument ever designed."
"We're doing something," says Renée, "that makes people's lives happy."
- Kenneth Burns
Fresh Food Friend
Committed to delivering local, sustainable food through restaurant or retail channels.
Winner: James Baerwolf, Sassy Cow Creamery
Sassy Cow Creamery's James Baerwolf knows his cows well. He gives the ones he favors names like Misty, Leah or Karen. But the bad ones? "I don't have names for the bad ones," he says, laughing.
Baerwolf and his brother, Robert, founded Sassy Cow Creamery four years ago on the family farm, north of Sun Prairie. The decision to begin selling their milk was based largely on the food culture in Madison and Dane County. Baerwolf thought his products, notably organic milk and ice cream with flavors like PB Banana Buster and Purple Cow, were a good fit for the community.
"From the grocer, to a restaurant, to a coffeehouse, to the customer themselves, people are pretty aware of their food choices - what they're buying and who they're putting their dollar toward," says Baerwolf. "I don't know if it's that way everywhere. If we'd been in a different area or a different state, we may have chosen not to do the creamery and farmed conventionally."
The Baerwolfs raise their herd of 600 cows the old-fashioned way. They do not use growth hormones. The cows used for their organic product are not given antibiotics, nor do they graze on acreage treated with pesticides or commercial fertilizers.
The Baerwolfs believe customers should be able to see where their milk is being produced. They invite customers to the Creamery store, W4192 Bristol Rd. in Columbus, where they can view the cows and, through giant glass windows, watch the milk being made in the processing area.
Dairy farming, Baerwolf says, is a family tradition. Three generations have worked on the farm that supplies the Creamery. Baerwolf says the decision to start the Creamery and provide local products to the Madison area has been rewarding.
"We're Madison's neighbor," Baerwolf says. "We're 15 minutes out of town, and we want to be Madison's dairy."
- Andrew Averill