The Magri family’s Wildflowers Farm (above) took top honors in the 2017 edition of The Pitch. Shebaz’s Shawarma and Falafel co-oowners Doris and Gabriel Chordekar (below) won the 2018 competition.

Elgin Business Resource Centre (EBRC) is rekindling one of its most successful local initiatives … with a twist.

‘The Pitch’ invites owners of new, nearly new, or expanding local businesses to compete for valuable prizes by entering a business plan competition.

It’s designed to give local entrepreneurs some momentum in a competitive landscape, offering a grand prize worth more than $25,000 in cash and in-kind services. The annual competition was launched in 2015 but skipped a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our goal with the business plan competition is to highlight a few new businesses and give them the resources and a leg up to develop new ideas,” EBRC Business Advisor Mark Masseo said in a recent interview. The not-for-profit, community-based organization – funded by the Government of Canada – provides support and advice for entrepreneurs in their quest to achieve business goals and objectives.

The twist in The Pitch this year involves staging the competition’s Dragon’s-Den-styled showdown online. The pandemic derailed plans for the traditional indoors event.

Much like the Dragons’ Den reality television program, which features entrepreneurs pitching business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists, with hopes of securing investment financing, The Pitch showcases a panel of four local businesspeople. EBRC evaluates the business plans and develops a short list for panel deliberations online January 26, 2022. Entries will be accepted until November 30, 2021.

Put a cherry on top

“Participating in The Pitch has been a game-changing event for us,” said Doris Chordekar. Doris and her husband Gabriel Chordekar co-own Shebaz’s Shawarma and Falafel, winner of the 2018 competition. “Winning was just like the cherry on top.”

Shebaz opened its first takeout restaurant in 2016 and stayed in Port Stanley until 2019 when the business expanded into kitchen space at a St. Thomas gas station. Its popularity quickly flourished beyond the gas station’s capacity, so Shebaz moved and now operates in a much larger space at 43 Ross Street.

“We were looking to expand our business and when we learned about The Pitch, we thought we should give it try,” said Gabriel, who earned a diploma in Middle Eastern cooking in Israel. “We wanted some funds to expand, the prize was perfect to help us get to our goals.”

Shebaz’s prize included cash, free Chamber of Commerce membership, banking services, human resources services, video promotion, a website and several other practical tools. The winnings complemented startup funding Shebaz had secured in its early days.

“It gave us the confidence that we can achieve the goals we had in mind, and it also increased our customer base,” added Doris. She and Gabriel started out running a convenience store in Port Stanley. “We discussed our plan with the EBRC business advisors and they helped us a lot. Small hint: it’s all a numbers game.”

Previous years’ winners of The Pitch include: Sarah Foshay, of Smart Dental Hygiene, in Aylmer, 2015; Ryan and Krista Harris, of Century Chocolates, in St. Thomas, 2016; Jane and Chuck Magri, of Wildflowers Farm, St. Thomas, in 2017; and Maria Fiallos Castillo, Streamliners Espresso Bar, and Jade Rogers, Timbernook Elgin, St. Thomas, 2019. Sponsors of the The Pitch include: 94.1 myFM, in St. Thomas; Elgin Innovation Centre, in Aylmer; and Meridian Credit Union, in Aylmer.

Many hours devoted to planning

“Hard work reaps great rewards,” said Wildflowers’ Jane Magri. “We spent countless hours fine tuning our plan, researching the market, and putting together a five-year projection plan.”

Founded as Wildflowers Tea in 2011, rebranded Wildflowers Honey in 2012, the Magris’ small farm store started out selling products at local farmers markets. Four years later, Wildflowers Yoga + Wellness was founded. The Magris erected a barn in 2018 to host weddings and special events, and two years later, the Wildflowers’ Friday Night Market was launched.

“This (developing a business plan) was a big undertaking, however it was exactly what we needed to do in order to see the bigger picture,” added Jane. “Even if we did not win, we were able to see so clearly how we could make this expansion happen, that we were going to do it regardless of winning or not.”

For Jane, Wildflowers allows her to pursue interests in herbal medicine, yoga, Ayurveda and building connections between community and nature. Chuck’s interests were in sustainable farming methods and nurturing an apiary.

“We had been operating our tea, honey and farm events business for six years prior to entering The Pitch, which we loved, but we knew it was time to expand if we wanted to implement the ideas we had,” said Chuck. “Bringing community together on the land was always a part of what we loved to do, and those gatherings on the farm have continued to grow and morph into what they are today.

“With the help of the EBRC small business advisors, we were able to put thoughts into action, analyze our projections and create a solid foundation for our growth,” he added. “What we found when winning, was not only did we now have a crystal-clear vision, we had the support of the various sponsors to support us on the way.”

EBRC is a Community Futures Development Corporation. It’s part of the Community Futures Program and the Community Futures Network of Canada, which operates about 267 non-profit offices across Canada, providing small business services to people living in rural communities.

Community Futures offices deliver small business loans, tools, training and events for people wanting to start, expand, franchise or sell a business. Funding is provided by the Government of Canada’s Regional Development Agencies.

Elgin County formed a financial partnership with EBRC in 2012, allowing the not-for-profit organization to open satellite offices to support the county, but County Council ended the relationship in 2019. To fill the vacuum, EBRC launched the REDi program (Rural Economic Development initiative program), with two new offices in downtown Aylmer and Port Stanley, as well as REDi meeting room in Dutton.