The atmosphere’s expectant at the Soper Reese Theatre in Lakeport. The contestants nervously wait backstage while friends and neighbors mingle happily with each other around the tables. Maryann Schmid and Olga Martin Steele, co-founders and visionaries of the Hands Up Lake County competition, roam around the room, talking with people and addressing the innumerable details that attend an event of this size. With $100,000 offered in prizes, there’s a lot on the line.
The judges sit to the left and above the stage, preparing themselves for the difficult decisions that will soon face them: Fiona Ma, California State Treasurer, is on the left, followed by Shawn Nunnemaker of Savings Bank of Mendocino County and Amy Thorn of Thorn Hill Vineyards.
But soon, the mood changes, and the audience quiets. After a short announcement, Gwen Van Wyk, soloist at last year’s competition, steps to the stage and sings “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, followed by “To Dream the Impossible Dream.”
Monica Rosenthal, board director and owner of R Vineyards, steps to the stage and welcomes everyone to the competition. “I’m excited to be here,” she begins, “and I hope you’re excited to be here too because we are giving away to our finalists and other semifinalists $100,000 in this year’s competition. This all started with a good idea that was shared with two good friends during challenging times. Together, Maryann and Olga established the One Team, One Dream competition. Their goal was to help small businesses thrive and enhance the economy of Lake County. In 2020, the first year, $28,000 was given. In 2021, $50,000 was awarded. This year, $100,000 will be awarded to small businesses. Amazing, right? But it’s not just about the prize money. The program itself is so much more. From day one, each applicant has to think about their business, business plan, and their marketing strategy. Everyone participating in this program walks away with tools for success, whether or not they are the winner. It truly is a win-win for all the businesses in Lake County and for Lake County itself. So join me in putting your hands up for our finalists today!”
Now it’s time for the competition to begin. Olga Martin Steele, chair and co-founder of Hands Up Lake County, then steps to the stage. This section of the competition focuses on startup businesses, featuring three local startups. “Good morning,” she begins.“Without further ado, let’s bring out what we have all been waiting for. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Baylee Grove.”
Baylee steps to the stage. “Hi, everyone. I’m Baylee Grove. I’m nineteen years old and own Rock and Rolled Ice Cream–I make ice cream on a cold plate in front of you. I started in 2022, but my passion for owning a business started as a little girl. I began selling ice cream at Halloween to anyone who would go through my front door. As you can see, my entrepreneurial spirit started at a very young age. I want to bring ice cream to our community so others can experience the joy I experienced growing up. The problem is there are no local ice cream shops in our community, no place for families to eat ice cream together. I want to create a place where people can see their ice cream made in front of them.” After some questioning from the judges, Baylee steps down from the stage.
Olga then returns to the stage and introduces Robin Marsolek of Stitch Envy in Upper Lake. “Good Morning,” Robin Starts. “I began sewing 40 years ago. My grandmother and mother sewed clothes for me, and it made me feel so special. They also taught me to sew, and since then, I’ve practiced my craft. I had the idea for Stich Envy in 2014. I was making costumes for my Rocky Horror Picture Show cast, and soon I was making costumes all over the US. My parents told me, ‘It’s not work if you love what to do.’ So with the support of my parents, I decided to go into business for myself. Everything I do is with quality and durability in mind. I’m already attracting customers from San Rafael and Fort Bragg to my shop. My mission is to support my customers’ self-confidence by making them feel their best in their clothes.”
The last startup business to the stage is Karen Kress of Bee’s Knees in Clearlake. “I’m used to intimate, close one-on-one services. This is something else,” she begins. “I want to bring another school to Lake County, but we’re starting with a waxing service. No one is highly specializing in full body waxing services. That works really well because your hair person isn’t your nail person. Waxing will fit in naturally because we’re going to create natural referral sources for each other. Most everyone I know has unwanted hair, and we can help them.”
Now it’s time to move on to the established business finalists. “We are going to continue on to established businesses,” Olga announces. “I just wanted to do a quick check. Are you okay with going on, judges? Yes? Then we’re going to continue. Next to the stage is Angela Hughes from Angela’s Anytime Rides. Welcome onstage.”
“Good morning, Lake County,” Angela Hughes begins. “We are Lake County’s only premier transportation service. We have created a service that maximizes employment and also maximizes service. We save lives 24 hours a day. We help people escape domestic violence and natural disasters. We deliver life-saving medications, and we provide safe and trusted transportation. We help anyone in need or distress any time of day. A lot of people need transportation. Sometimes we get 150 calls a day, and we want to prioritize. Is this woman having a baby or someone drunk who needs a ride home from the bar? Customer service is our specialty.”
Next to the stage is Nicole Gentry. “Good morning, everyone,” she begins, “My husband Nick and I are proud owners of Grillagan’s Island on Highway 20 in Lucerne. As a child, I had a dream of owning a small diner on a highway. And as I grew older, I saw that dream slowly fading. Then one day in Lake County, I met my husband, and the two of us decided to change our lives and change for the better. We started attending church and went to college. Then, following the advice of one of the Hands Up Lake County founders, we started selling our grilled cheese at farmers’ markets. Originally our plan was to get a food truck and go around the county. Then we saw an ad for a fully equipped restaurant in Lucerne. We didn’t have the money, but my husband told me to continue in faith. Then someone told us they’d loan us the funds, and soon we opened a business. We have over 30 menu items and provide keto, vegan, and gluten-free options.” She pauses. “Dreams do come true. With the money from the competition, we will continue to grow and help Lake County.”
Curtis Cook of Land Escape in Clearlake, the next contestant, steps onstage. “We define Land Escape as an outdoor immersive environment that we create for our clients to share,” Curtis confidently states. “We think in artistic terms: Line shape, color, texture, and composition. We’re also thinking about feel, smell, and wildlife attraction. We’re not like your normal low, blow-and-go landscape company. In 2020 I chose to start my own business. It was perfect timing.” Curtis smiles, showing a picture of Covid. “But I was one of the lucky ones. Landscaping was considered an essential business. The notion was that there was no way to make money in Lake County. This turned out to be completely untrue. There is a need. Businesses and residences in Lake County are looking for landscaping services. And you can’t be a one-trick pony up here. So I collected as many billable services as possible. We take pride in our work, and I have plans for the future. I spent my life putting a lot of energy into three things: landscaping, art, and business. They all culminated into one, and I’m here to seize the moment.”
The fourth contestant on the stage is Melinda Price and Simon Avery of Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville. “We are a four-season flower and saffron farm in Kelseyville,” Melinda shares. “We also have a farmstand that is open year round that operates on the honor system. We’ve always wanted to own a vegetable farm together, but we worried about viability, so we decided to start a niche project and grew saffron. But we had forgotten our vegetables, so we started a small farm stand out of an old refrigerator. In 2020, we broadly expanded, started a market garden, and made a large farmstand. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Simon and I work too much. We work 14 hours a day and never have a vacation. I did channel all those woes into a blog post, and we were lucky enough to be found by an editor from Martha Stewart magazine, and this initial media coverage made for a tidal wave of media coverage. Most recently, last month, we were in Sunset Magazine. We love the farm getting the coverage, Lake County and Kelseyville also rise with us. We love taking part of the growing agrotourism movement happening in Lake County,” she continues. “Thank you so much for your consideration. We hope to keep feeding and supporting Lake County.”
Ben Guenther of Upper Lake Grocery, the last contestant, walks up to the stage. “I come to you today to present a new project for the Blue Lakes Country Store. In 2020, we purchased Upper Lake Grocery. Since then, we’ve seen success. We’ve seen a 30% increase in revenue. So far, we’ve been doing pretty well at Upper Lake Grocery, but today I’m coming to you with a new project: The Blue Lakes Country Store. We’ve got a plan to remodel it; we’re going for an old-town general store concept. I’ve already reached out to distributors, so we’re good to go. But we also want to stock a lot of local inventory. With our business, we want to support other local businesses in the area. I can promise you that ultimately, we will be a sponsor for this competition and I’ll be a judge next year. Just give us an opportunity now, and I can assure you it will pay off.”
As Olga ushers the judges to a private room for the final judging, Monica Rosenthal returns to the stage. “Thank you, Olga,” Monica states. “I also like to give a big round of applause to our judges and to Olga. Finally, I’d like to offer a big hands up and applause to our contestants. We look forward to seeing our judges again and hearing what the results are.”
As the judges deliberate, the audience enjoys the fantastic candies and caramel popcorn infused with local pears and walnuts made by Annalisa Williams of Cordial Creations while a video message of Mike Thompson plays on the screen. “This competition is a fantastic opportunity for small businesses to compete for money that will help them grow and contribute to the local economy,” Thompson states. “This competition continues to grow. It invites the best of the best, and I am proud of the community for supporting this incredible organization. Thank you again to Maryann and to Olga for all of your work to support our local small businesses. Thank you, and congratulations.”
Then it’s time for a musical interlude from Andre Williams. As he and Gwen Van Wyk sing some classics, the judges, finished with their deliberation, make their way back to their table, their decisions made. The mood changes in the room the moment they enter, and everyone’s on the edge of their seat. “And now,” Monica begins, “I think the judges are ready. This is the big moment we’ve been waiting for. Olga, do you have some good news for us?”
“The good news is that everyone wins in this competition,” Olga replies. “We hope to continue this for a long, long time, and with your help, we will. Give it up for the businesses in Lake County. We’re going to start with the first category, which is the startup businesses. Our third-place winner is Robin Marsolek of Stitch Envy. We’d like to welcome you to the stage. Let’s give it up for Robin. Congratulations!” After a photo, Olga continues. “At this time, we’d like to invite Karen Cress of The Bee’s Knees up” She’s our second place winner.”
At last, it’s time to announce the winner of the best startup business idea. Olga begins, “Now we need a drumroll here. So Baylee Grove is the first-prize winner. Let’s welcome her to the stage. Rock and Rolled Ice Cream!” The audience applauds excitedly. “I’m feeling great!” Baylee says. I’m so thankful for the opportunity and experience.” She poses with the giant check, a big smile on her face.
Now it’s time to move on to the established business category. “This was really hard,” Olga says. “Wasn’t it, judges? Now I’d like to invite to the stage Curtis Cook of Land Escape, our $5,000 winner.” After a few photos, Olga continues. “Next, I’d like to invite Ben Guenther of Upper Lake Grocery up. He’s our $10,000 fourth-place winner.”
Now it’s time for the top three: everyone’s excited.
“Now for the third place, $15,000 winner: Grillagan’s Island. Welcome up, Nicole Gentry. Congratulations!” “Go grilled cheese!” a voice from the audience cheers. “Another really big drumroll, please,” Olga continues. “We’d like to invite Angela Hughes up. Angela is our $20,000 second-place winner.”
There’s only first place left, and Olga happily announces the $25,000 winner of the Hands Up Lake County competition. “Alright, the big moment has come. We all know who the first-prize winner is, right? Peace and Plenty Farm!”
“We’re so excited for this opportunity to grow our farm and put down deeper roots,” Melinda happily says. “We love feeding Lake County and are excited. This money will allow us to nurture and grow our business as we nurture and feed the community.” Melinda and Simon happily stand on stage, soaking in their victory.
“We’re not done yet with prizes, yet!” Olga continues. “Nicole Gentry of Grillagan’s Island has won the fan favorite award. She’s won $1,000. Also, I want to invite Danae Anthony of Danae’s Desserts up on stage. She was our alternate this year, and we’re happy to present a check for $1,000 to her.” Both get presented with a prize and happily leave stage.
“So I mentioned to you that the startup business was something we wanted to pilot this year,” Olga adds. “And we want to do it again next year. So we decided we wanted to give a boost to the two that didn’t quite make it to the finals. Charles Seabrook, who is here, please come to the stage. And Brandon Skinner, we have awards for both of you.”
Alan Flora, City Manager for Clearlake, delivers the closing remarks via video: “If you love Lake County as I do, take stock of the eight businesses that were here today. It’s obvious that they’re all in for Lake County. Knowing they choose Lake County to live and work means they are a great investment. These businesses are the heart, soul, and future of our rural economy.” Alan continues: “This completion is unique to Lake County. They are a shining light for the economy of our county—congratulations to all the businesses that competed. To the rest, make your pledges to support Hands Up Lake County. It’s one of the best things you can do to help Lake County.”
Maryann Schmid offers the closing remarks: “For Hands Up Lake County, this is a momentous moment. Because together, we have inspired 23 businesses by distributing $178,000 in prizes. Because of our success, we are setting our goal for $150,000 in prizes for 2023. But we’re not finished. Today we’re giving one more award to a beloved local business. At this time, I’d like to invite Lynne and Bernie Butcher to the stage. Their business is a destination for people far and wide and inspires and encourages entrepreneurs everywhere to start a business in Lake County. A rising tide raises all ships. So with our gratitude, Lynne and Bernie, please accept our Founders Award.”
With a final thank you to the supporters, and a thank you to the board, the event ends. People stand up, and the contestants wander around the theatre, holding giant checks. Their expressions run from gleeful to a dazed shock. It’s been an amazing experience and one filled with massive amounts of joy. But Maryann and Olga haven’t slowed down; they’re already planning next year’s competition.