Fire Cider owner Dana St. Pierre said his company is in the market for a commercial kitchen in Pittsfield but the available real estate is making it difficult.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Seth Nash initially scoffed at the idea of paying a consultant to come in and look at his business operations to find more efficiencies.
The owner of Blue Q, which occupies most of a large warehouse on West Housatonic Street, was presented with the idea of hiring a lean consultant, a business process eyed to eliminate wasted time, space, and capacity.
He said no because of the cost. His wife, however, is a grant writer and — with his approval — submitted an application to the state. Blue Q was awarded the grant and participated in the first government program of its lifetime.
Nash hoped for a 10 percent improvement and the ability to hire three more people. But he got way more than that. He's already hired additional staff and is anticipating hiring another eight to 10 soon.
"He basically says 'what pisses you off at work and let's fix it,'" Nash said of the consultant. "That changed everything. What we did with this money was super helpful."
The company now has about 55 employees and sends its products all over the world, and ramped up capacity almost immediately after the consultant started. The consultant had looked at every single operation including calculating the length of wasted time employees spent walking to get products. Now the workers are working smarter, not harder, and increasing production, Nash said.
That's where state government can help small businesses. Senate candidate Adam Hinds learned about Blue Q's operations, challenges, and about the lean consultant during a campaign stop on Tuesday.
The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition executive director is running for the Democratic nomination for the state Senate seat being vacated by Benjamin Downing, who opted not to run again. Hinds is running against Andrea Harrington and Rinaldo Del Gallo for the Democratic nomination.
Hinds toured several sites over the last few days, talking with business owners and focusing on workforce development program — one of the key areas he is focusing his campaign on.
"The state can help with these small businesses in finding efficiencies and that's what I am hoping to highlight today. There are ways we can ensure the state gets out of the way or the state provides the technical assistance," Hinds said.
Off in another section of the building is Dana St. Pierre, who just a few years ago started his business producing Fire Cider — an old fashioned cure-all drink — in his living room. The company has expanded threefold in just a few years.
"We are very actively trying to figure out our next move," St. Pierre said. "We are going to have to stop growing in 12 to 18 months if we don't move into a new kitchen."
The Berkshires has a lack of commercial kitchens and none the size St. Pierre needs. Employees travel to Greenfield to use the kitchen there and are quickly outgrowing it. St. Pierre just bought a home in Pittsfield and wants to keep his business here but he can't find the right commercial building.
"Our real issues is real estate. We have specific needs and it is hard to find," St. Pierre said.
The common thread between the two companies is that it would perhaps be financially better to move their businesses elsewhere.
Nash said very few people locally even know about the company. Blue Q has few local stores that carry its products. He hears complaints from the truck drivers who travel off the Massachusetts Turnpike through the small towns to get here. He installed a solar array to tackle the utility costs that are higher in Massachusetts than elsewhere. And the taxes are higher as well.
Seth Nash said the Berkshires aren't a very welcoming place for manufacturers because of transportation issues, and high taxes, health care, and energy costs.
"[Nash] could be anywhere and he chose to be here. And that's part of the attractive vision that we have as a county. It is a place they chose to raise their kids. It is a place they chose to have access to nature and the arts. And to a place where they can allow their creative spirit thrive. That is part of who we are and that's what we need to promote," Hinds said.
"In meantime, we better double our efforts to make sure that any obstacles for them achieving success in business are taken out of the way."
The jobs aren't anything to balk at either. Nash said he offers his employees 100 percent health insurance coverage — a rare benefit in the current world.
But, the cost continues to rise, making that task even more difficult. Nash suggested the state move toward a single-payer system to help businesses.
"There is nothing for small businesses to do," Nash said.
Fire Cider set a company minimum wage of $15 an hour, a number argued over nationally. His company will continue to grow and hire more, St. Pierre said, if it can build out a kitchen. He said he's already spoken with the state's MassDevelopment office as well as the mayor's office to find the right space in Pittsfield so the company doesn't have to move elsewhere.
"We are moving away from the philosophy of trying to attract a large employer and instead, as you have seen today, allow our small and medium-sized businesses to grow. That means addressing things like strategic workforce development. It means improving our critical infrastructure. We've seen that energy is a big factor," said Hinds. "A priority for me is broadband and finalizing last mile broadband. Ensuring our transportation system is upgraded and experiences efficiencies."
"Another thing regionwide is supporting the creative economy. All of this is leading toward a vision we can all get behind as a region. The final element is making sure it is an inclusive economy and we address the socioeconomic gaps."
Hinds boasted that he is the person who can bring together representatives from all aspects of the region's economy and come up with a "unique" economic plan that will serve the entire county. His plan includes improving transportation to Boston and New York, broadband, renewable energy, and the creative and tourism economy.
"My plan is to work to strengthen the regional foundation so that our small and middle sized companies can really grow in the region. And also to create a dynamic vision for growth that propels the region forward," he said.
His stops on Tuesday included the Greylock Mill in North Adams, Blue Q, Fire Cider, Lymphdivas all in the West Housatonic Street building, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, and the Chamberlain Group in Great Barrington.
"There is a growing investment to really bolster those who want to be entrepreneurs and innovators," Hinds said of his stops.
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