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It’s all our business. WINTER 2020

DISRUPTED CARE

HOW LOCAL HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS HAVE ADJUSTED THIS YEAR

The Martinez family opened Sombrero’s Mexican Cuisine and Café in York Place this fall.

TAKING A

LEAP

Icarus Medical takes off on the Downtown Mall Pinnell Leather crafts a thriving business Local shops brace for the holidays

Starting a business in 2020 is risky. Here are four stories from people who did it.


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WINTER 2020

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IN THIS ISSUE THE PITCH

Diamondback Toolbelts notches international success with top-of-theline products.

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Q&A with Minority Business Alliance chair Quinton Harrell.

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BACKSTORY The Coca-Cola Bottling Plant changes its menu while preserving its history.

Area stores need your support this holiday season.

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Pinnell Leather creates tough products for a refined client base.

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Food insecurity is on the rise—and here’s who’s combating it.

EZE AMOS

Icarus Medical Innovations soars past traditional methods of knee surgery.

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RISKY BUSINESS Staying open during a pandemic is challenging enough, but what about starting a new business? Four freshly minted owners talk about opening up shop in 2020.

FISCALLY FIT In 2020, local health care providers have had to pull long hours, shift priorities, and reassess business models. Here’s a look at some of the challenges and changes they’ve faced.

COVER: Photo by Eze Amos. Comments? Email us at editor@c-ville.com.

308 E. Main St. Charlottesville, VA 22902 (434) 817-2749 ■ c-ville.com c-ville.com/cbiz

C-BIZ, a supplement to C-VILLE Weekly, is distributed in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the Shenandoah Valley. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher. Editor Ben Hitchcock. C-BIZ Editor Dan Goff. Copy Editor Susan Sorensen. Art Director Max March. Graphic Designer Tracy Federico. Account Executives Lisa C. Hurdle, Gabby Kirk, Stephanie Vogtman, Beth Wood. Production Coordinator Faith Gibson. Chief Financial Officer Debbie Miller. Marketing Manager Anna Harrison. A/R Specialist Nanci Winter. Circulation Manager Billy Dempsey. ©2020 C-VILLE Weekly.

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Man a By Lisa Martin

on mission

Q

EZE AMOS

uinton Harrell, chair of Charlottesville’s Minority Business Alliance, has a knack for blending business savvy with the desire to improve the lives of those around him. We spoke with the entrepreneur about what propels him to look at challenges as opportunities to make connections.

C-BIZ: Tell us about your first business venture here. QH: I grew up in New York and D.C., and I saw the need for better urban fashion in Charlottesville as soon as I moved here in the early 1990s. I set up a table selling sporty, stylish clothing on Cherry Avenue, and just loved engaging with people in the neighborhood. One kid who was 10 or 11 asked if he could help me, so I gave him five T-shirts to sell by the next day. He came back and had sold them, and that guy ended up sticking with me and my businesses for the next 12 years. CONTINUED ON PAGE 8

Quinton Harrell leads by example Quinton Harrell says he combats racism by building opportunities.

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How did your early business career shape your thinking? The 2008 recession forced my clothing enterprise, Charlottesville Players—which by then had two brick-and-mortar locations—to close, and I had to rethink everything. That time was financially very painful, but it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It converted me into the man that I am, because it was my first recession as a property-owning, business-owning adult, who had accumulated assets and employees, and my own home and tenants as well. At my next business, where I owned a dry cleaners, I folded, processed, and tagged clothes while listening to NPR’s Planet Money podcast, and I realized that to reach my goals, I needed a business education. I knew that there was more to this life of being successful than what I’d experienced. I was hood rich but that was unsustainable—I wanted to be wealthy enough to be able to share it.

“I FOLDED, PROCESSED, AND TAGGED CLOTHES WHILE LISTENING TO NPR’S PLANET MONEY PODCAST, AND I REALIZED THAT TO REACH MY GOALS, I NEEDED A BUSINESS EDUCATION.”

After earning a degree in business, what were your next steps? I worked at Region Ten Community Services and began to think seriously about the challenges facing African American job-seekers in Charlottesville. I learned that of a $35 million city budget for local vendors, only .04 percent was spent on African American– owned businesses, and that the majority of that budget was spent on construction. So I founded Heritage QUINTON HARRELL United Builders in 2017 to help bridge that gap. The driver of HUB was how to create more value in the African American community, not just socially but by making economic connections between general contractors and subcontractors that could mutually benefit. How do you see the future for African American businesses here? As a business person, I know that racism is a tool that people use to compete for resources, and so we counter that by building opportunities. We build our skill sets so that we may overcome the gaps that exist—whether in education, finance, technology, construction, real estate development, or any other field. Recently my wife and I launched A Taste of Home Southern Cuisine food truck and catering business, and a real estate investment firm. We have to serve as examples for what we’re trying to achieve in the community. We love Charlottesville, and we’re determined.

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THE PITCH > SHOPPING

A subdued season Businesses prep for a COVID-altered holiday period By Carol Diggs

STAFF PHOTO

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n a normal year (remember them?), holiday-oriented businesses do 30 to 40 percent of their sales in quarter four. In 2020, the end-of-year shopping season is even more critical. New Dominion Bookshop, now in its 96th year on the Downtown Mall, has traditionally counted on books as popular gifts. Marketing Director Sarah Crossland encouraged early holiday sales by posting the store’s holiday recommendations list in mid-November. The shop has always offered free gift wrapping, but now also has curbside pickup and local delivery. Crossland recommends shopping early for availability, but says she enjoys the usual “day-before” rush: “It’s fun to work those last few days—people are so excited to get that perfect gift.” With its live holiday performances canceled, The Paramount Theater is offering broadcast performances and holiday movies like the ever-popular Elf. Matthew Simon, the theater’s director of operations and programming, says the first concern is to make sure patrons feel safe about showing up. “One customer came up to me at our live [Metropolitan Opera] broadcast, and said, ‘It really feels like nobody is here—and I love it!’” This year, the Paramount is promoting its six available rental spaces for weddings and parties. And of course, there will be Santa and the theater’s exuberant holiday decorations, including 12 spectacular Christmas trees. “People love to take their holiday photos here,” Simon says. Caspari, like the Paramount, is known for its lush holiday displays. “We want to showcase our products as they would look in your home,” says store manager Linda Long. Fortunately, the store’s 5,000 square feet of space allows an almost-normal amount of strolling. Even without the usual weddings and football season, Long says Downtown Mall visitation has been

Caspari’s 5,000 square feet of space allows visitors to the Downtown Mall store plenty of room to spread out and shop.

steady. To complement online sales, the store offers curbside pickup and shipping. One big challenge Long is still working on: how to stage the store’s famous day after Christmas sale, when “it’s usually bonkers in here,” during a pandemic. Of course, toys are essential to the holidays. Amanda Stevens, new owner of Shenanigans, counts on the strong customer base built up over the store’s 46 years in business. She’s continued the free gift wrapping, early bird and Black Friday sales, and weekly specials, while refocusing on e-commerce. “Before, we had only about half our inventory online, and very little traffic,” she says. “Now everything is up on the website.” Stevens’ business has also been heavily involved with charity efforts. As economic troubles hit children hard at the holidays, Shenanigans has participated

in community toy drives for local schools and international organizations. “We’ll sell customers toys at a discount, and then donate them directly to the organization.” Quarter four is also “chocolate season— Halloween, Christmas, corporate gifts,” says Bill Hamilton, co-owner at Gearharts Fine Chocolates. Given the uncertainty of forecasting demand, the company has concentrated on bestsellers, like the 16-piece gift assortment. “People would freak out if we didn’t offer that.” In an average December, general production level is 15,000 pieces a day, and Gearharts hires the same people every year to handle holiday boxing. “It’s a race to get it all out,” says Hamilton. Even in regular years, supply can run out as Christmas approaches. “Our customers know to order early.” A word to the wise.

“IT’S FUN TO WORK THOSE LAST FEW DAYS—PEOPLE ARE SO EXCITED TO GET THAT PERFECT GIFT.” SARAH CROSSLAND, NEW DOMINION BOOKSHOP

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THE PITCH > HEALTH

Free the knee By Carol Diggs

S

ometimes a problem just needs a fresh set of eyes—and five years of development. That’s the story behind Icarus Medical Innovations, Dave Johnson’s Charlottesville-based venture to make affordable, customized knee braces using not only new technologies but a new approach to the concept of knee surgery. In 2014, a 33-year-old Johnson was told he had osteoarthritis damage in his left knee severe enough to require knee replacement. An avid snowboarder, he wasn’t keen on having major surgery that would likely have to be repeated 10–15 years later. Johnson began to brainstorm creative solutions. His background as a chemical engineer had given him plenty of experience in problem-solving, he says, adding, “I grew up on a dairy farm, where you learn to solve problems any way you can with the tools at hand.” The idea for Icarus was spurred by Johnson’s doctor telling him that everyday motions can put as much as seven times one’s body weight on the kneecap. The current solutions: take painkillers, reduce activity, or replace the whole knee. What if, Johnson thought, you moved the focus from stabilizing the knee to relieving some of that weight on the joint? He

Dave Johnson calls his knee brace an “external muscle-tendon system.”

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speculated that reducing weight would alleviate pain, enable the person to stay active (much better for overall health), and delay surgery, especially for younger people. Johnson’s bright idea resulted in what he calls an “external muscle-tendon system.” The device looks like a conventional brace that straps onto the leg. The frame is customized using infrared scanning, like the iPhone’s facial recognition software, and produced cost-effectively by 3D printing. Inside the frame is a tensile strap that can take up to 40 pounds of pressure off the kneecap by supplementing the body’s own action. The wearer can adjust this strap as needed—e.g., setting a certain tension for exercise, using less for walking, and then releasing the tension entirely while sitting. Getting from inspiration to product was a long process. For three years, Johnson tested designs using his own knee. A UVA alum, he then tapped the university’s experts in orthopedics, kinesiology, and engineering while developing his business model through Darden’s Catalyst Accelerator Program. Icarus (named for the legendary Greek youth who attempted to fly to the sun) is now an FDA-registered medical device facility, with one patent and three pending. This October, as the company was gearing up to start actual sales, Johnson leapt at the chance to rent space on the Downtown Mall, so walk-in customers can talk with him about how the devices work and get them customized. Johnson sees a “sizable market” for his device; the Arthritis Foundation says about 14 million Americans have symptomatic knee osteoarthritis—roughly 6 million over age 65, 6 million ages 45–64, and 2 million under age 45. But a key aspect for Johnson is the affordability made possible by 3D printing. Currently, Icarus charges $1,395 for a customized brace, and $995 for an off-the-shelf version (sizes XS–XXXL)—a cost covered, at least in part, by Medicare and most health insurance plans. As the business develops, Johnson foresees that cost coming down, and he hopes to develop a philanthropic model. “If someone needs [this device], we will try to figure out how to get them one.”

PHOTOS: EZE AMOS

Icarus Medical Innovations rethinks a tired surgery

About 14 million Americans have symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, which is why Dave Johnson sees a “sizable market” for his device.


“I GREW UP ON A DAIRY FARM, WHERE YOU LEARN TO SOLVE PROBLEMS ANY WAY YOU CAN WITH THE TOOLS AT HAND.” DAVE JOHNSON

C-BIZ 11


“EVERY PROJECT IS UNIQUE.” CHUCK PINNELL

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JOHN ROBINSON


THE PITCH > CRAFTSMANSHIP

In the bag

COURTESY PINNELL CUSTOM LEATHER

Pinnell Custom Leather’s timeless style

Chuck Pinnell’s personal style is evident in the leather bags and belts he crafts in his western Albemarle shop.

By Lisa Martin

C

huck Pinnell found his calling right out of high school, when his love of art and crafting drew him to leather as a medium. After learning the trade in a harness shop in Colonial Williamsburg during the Bicentennial, he later moved to Middleburg to take over a tack repair business, mending saddles and other pieces for horse riders. Pinnell faced a steep learning curve. Until then, he’d only joined pieces by hand. “They gave me a huge pile of horse blankets to repair and said, ‘Here is the sewing machine, and by the way it’s broken so you’ll have to fix it first,’ so I had to jump in the deep end,” recalls Pinnell, chuckling. The tack shop’s client base was a boon for business, and Pinnell quickly found his footing, crafting pairs of chaps and half-chaps by the hundreds. Then, in the ’90s, ready-made versions changed the market. “I diversified into wallets and belts and other things,” he says, “and hired people to design and fabricate metal work

as well.” After a stint in downtown Charlottesville in a space next to the C&O Restaurant, Pinnell and his wife Ginny moved the business out to quiet, pastoral western Albemarle. “The shop was originally the Mechums River railroad depot used during the Civil War,” says Pinnell, “which was torn down in the 1930s and rebuilt out here as a peach packing facility.” Functioning as both home and workplace, the building features a beamed-ceiling showroom and a vast workshop filled with cutting tables, machines, tools, and the warm smell of leather. “We work with American alligator, lizard, snake skins, and of course cowhide,” says Pinnell. “We source from Italy, Germany, France—really, pulling resources from around the world.” There’s no sign outside and Pinnell doesn’t advertise, but his work volume remains consistently high and current orders have a three-tofour-month lead time. He also repairs and restores leather goods. “I’ve got two guys who work here with me and two others who do the buckles and engraving work from home, and my

wife does the books and the displays,” he says. Pinnell has a small studio where he photographs every project and files the images in thick binders for customers to browse for inspiration. Each piece in the showroom invites customers to run their fingers over the supple leather, intricate patterns, and precise stitching. “Every project is unique,” says Pinnell, and his personal style is evident on the work bags, purses, belts, gun holsters, chaps, and watch bands that festoon the place. “Nowadays because of COVID-19, people are at home doing needlepoint and we are making a tremendous number of needlepoint bags and belts,” he says. “They send in their projects from around the country and we turn them into usable items.” Pinnell’s projects take time and close attention—an ammunition bag might require 30 hours to complete, a pair of custom half-chaps with a cut-flower design and a column of fringe perhaps 40 hours. His prices reflect that labor, but customers keep returning for the care and quality of his craftsmanship. “I’d like to downsize but it’s not working,” he says with a grin.

EACH PIECE IN THE SHOWROOM INVITES CUSTOMERS TO RUN THEIR FINGERS OVER THE SUPPLE LEATHER, INTRICATE PATTERNS, AND PRECISE STITCHING.

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THE PITCH > CHARITY

Fighting hunger As food insecurity rises, local nonprofits step up their efforts By Julia Stumbaugh

F

ood insecurity in Albemarle County is on the rise. Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, reports that while 11.8 percent of Charlottesville’s population was food insecure in 2018, that number is expected to rise to 15.1 percent by the end of 2020. In August, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank told Richmond’s NBC12 that 12 percent of its June customers were new clients needing emergency food assistance for the first time. A variety of local places are supporting the projected three in 20 Charlottesvillians who are unsure where they’ll find their next meal. The organizations’ donation needs have changed during the pandemic, and the holiday season is always a crucial time, so here’s how you can help.

Blue Ridge Food Bank What it does: Ninety-seven percent of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank’s pantries across Virginia have stayed open to provide groceries during the pandemic, thanks to safety restrictions including drive-through food pickups and pre-packaged meal boxes.

How to help: According to the BRAFB website, a one-dollar donation can fund four meals. Volunteer opportunities are also available for lowrisk workers. brafb.org

Loaves & Fishes What it does: Loaves & Fishes, the largest agency of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, supplies groceries twice a month for families who need extra assistance filling their pantry. It currently operates a drive-through grocery pickup where clients accept bags from masked volunteers without leaving their cars. How to help: Limited volunteering opportunities are available. Monetary donations can be made on the website. Thanksgiving dishes (anything from canned yams to instant mashed potatoes to frozen turkeys) are in high demand, as are diapers. cvilleloaves.org

Meals on Wheels What it does: Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle is a nonprofit that has delivered hot meals five days a week since 1977. The organization connects with the most isolated members of Charlottesville in the most isolating time of their lives, ensuring that secluded seniors are checked on daily. How to help: Over 90 percent of the meals provided by Meals on Wheels are directly subsidized by monetary donations, which can be made on the website. Contact MoW directly if you’re interested in providing physical donations or volunteering to do anything from answering phones to driving delivery vans. For holiday gift baskets, the organization is looking for mugs, tea, cocoa, puzzle books, winter accessories, and toiletries. cvillemeals.org

COURTESY BRFB

What it does: When Charlottesville residents find themselves without a home, The Haven works to make that situation “rare, brief, and nonrecurring.” In addition to providing tem-

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JOHN ROBINSON

The Haven


porary housing, the shelter helps unhoused families seek new residences to call home. How to help: The Haven website lists what a financial donation would fund, from $47 (a day’s worth of showers) to $2,100 (the move-in cost for a one-bedroom apartment). Volunteering is limited due to safety restrictions, but low-risk volunteers can apply. In addition to monetary contributions, The Haven is looking for donations of coffee, as well as volunteers to work breakfast shifts over the holidays. thehaven.org

Emergency Food Network What it does: Customers in need can call the Emergency Food Network once a month to receive kits for three healthy meals. No financial proof of need is required. Meal bags include non-perishables like canned tuna and fresh items like bread and milk. How to help: All volunteer slots are full, and due to COVID-19 restrictions, food donations can’t be accepted; financial contributions are preferred. According to the Emergency Food Network, small operating expenses mean that about 91 cents of every dollar is spent on food. emergencyfoodnetwork.org

Local Food Hub What it does: Local Food Hub works to connect local farmers with surplus produce to local consumers who need fresh food. Its Fresh Farmacy program provides those in need with biweekly installments of locally sourced fruits and vegetables. How to help: Food is already provided by area farmers, so monetary donations are the way to go. Thirty dollars is enough to send a bag of locally grown produce to someone in need. localfoodhub.org

Cultivate Charlottesville What it does: Cultivate Charlottesville has helped students build gardens at schools across the city. According to CC, gardens built through the program have involved over 2,000 volunteers and produced over 80,000 pounds of food as part of the Food Justice Network, a group of more than 35 organizations working not only to alleviate hunger in the short term, but to attack the problem at its roots. Jane Colony Mills is the executive director of Loaves & Fishes, which supplies groceries to its clients twice a month.

How to help: Volunteers are needed for everything from planting, harvesting, and weed control to outreach and research. Those interested in the organizational aspects of food justice can intern in the Cultivate Charlottesville office. cultivatechar lottesville.org

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THE PITCH > ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Buckling up Diamondback Toolbelts shine in a tough industry By Dan Goff

A

nyone who’s visited McIntire Plaza is familiar with its eclecticism. The businesses include Circa—in itself, a testament to variety—a Brazilian jiu-jitsu center, a tiny black-box theater company, and a furniture showroom enigmatically named Poem. Even those who frequent the plaza, though, might not know about Diamondback Toolbelts. Tucked into the far end of Harris Street, the warehouse misses the majority of the traffic and doesn’t have a sign. But despite its quiet presence in Charlottesville, Diamondback has spent the last four years bursting into international relevance as a highly renowned upscale toolbelt company.

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CEO Connor Crook is largely to thank for this success—although in conversation, he doesn’t show any of the smugness one might expect from the accomplishment. On the Friday afternoon when Crook meets for an interview, he’s both easygoing and a bit hyper, exuding a friendly energy that shines from underneath his Diamondback-stamped face mask. The warehouse is nearly empty—more people were there earlier, Crook explains, fulfilling international orders— but his liveliness fills the conference room, where he sits at a table littered with swatches of test fabrics for his belts. Crook says communication skills come from the decade-plus of law he practiced before Diamondback—a “miserable experience,” he claims. “I never felt comfortable in the skin of

a lawyer.” Crook missed working creatively with his hands, something he had many opportunities to do as a boy at his grandfather’s construction company. “I grew up around this.” When his longtime friend Michael Williams contacted him about buying a toolbelt company, Crook didn’t hesitate to change careers. They’d discovered Diamondback Toolbelts— an Alaska-based company run out of a garage. There wasn’t much in the way of products, as each belt was made on demand and by hand, but there was a passionate client base on Facebook that claimed the belts “were just the greatest things in the world.” Crook purchased an original Diamondback from one such happy customer to get a feel for the product and immediately knew it was something special. Crook still has this belt—a faded blue, battered, but sturdy relic—hanging on a metal rack in the conference room alongside several others he’s sourced from Facebook. “Our museum pieces,” he calls them proudly. After purchasing the company with Williams in 2016, Crook made improvements to the belts, but even these earlier iterations of Diamondbacks are impres-


Charlottesville-based Diamondback Toolbelts began in a garage before relocating and finding international success with some help from well-executed social media.

COURTESY DIAMONDBACK TOOLBELTS

sively crafted. Both finely detailed and extremely heavy-duty, they look like military-grade products—and in fact, several of the fabrics on the conference table are made of Kevlar or Dyneema, the sort of thing that typically belongs in a bulletproof vest. Growth didn’t come immediately. Crook says they “got their footing” in 2017, and in 2018 he bought out Williams, a process that took most of the year, but in 2019 the company seriously expanded. Crook was able to increase his hiring, a move that included bumping up part-time employee Damani Harrison to head of sales, marketing, and customer service. It’s very likely that those who don’t know Harrison in a Diamondback context have interacted with him elsewhere in Charlottesville. During his time living in the city, he’s been a musician, coffee shop manager, substitute teacher, reporter, activist, and soccer coach—“and that’s just scratching the surface,” he says, adding, “I haven’t slept in 20 fucking years.” Harrison started off in 2018 doing “grunt work,” but soon enough was running Diamondback’s

Instagram account, which Crook calls “the luckiest thing in the world,” and today has more than 60,000 followers. If that popularity seems unusual for a high-end toolbelt company, Crook and Harrison were surprised too. Then they realized there was a “burgeoning community on Instagram that was really into fine craftsmanship,” says Crook. Harrison quickly learned to cater to that community, tinkering with Instagram’s algorithm to find international clients. “One weekend, I decided that I was gonna teach myself Korean hashtags. So I stayed up for like 48 hours.” With the aid of Google Translate, Harrison successfully added foreign- language hashtags to Diamondback’s posts and discovered the Instagram Korean trades community—niche but also, as it turned out, lucrative. Through Harrison’s experiment, Diamondback gained the business of a Korean client, today its second-largest customer. Crook partially attributes international sales to Diamondback’s lucrative 2020, his company’s best year to date. And even in America, business has been thriving, despite the pan-

demic. “Our customer base is essential workers,” he explains. “They stopped working for maybe two weeks.” But the root of Diamondback’s success in Crook’s eyes, the reason it will continue to be many tradespeople’s brand of choice, is a mutual respect between company and client. “The people that we sell to have been a neglected group. A large part of my brand is building respect around what they do.” Both Crook and Harrison mentioned American education’s disregard for skilled labor. As a substitute, Harrison saw how the system “failed so many kids who would’ve benefited being exposed to the trades way earlier.” His work for Diamondback, he says, is meant to normalize and destigmatize the industry, to help give tradespeople their deserved esteem. “There are a lot of people who are looking for respect within the industry,” Crook agrees. “If you put the effort into understanding your customer and treating them as a human being, it doesn’t matter what the economy does…the sky’s the limit.”

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The Arc of the Piedmont wants to thank the community for its support during the current pandemic crisis. Too often individuals with developmental disabilities are overlooked as they quietly struggle each day to live their lives in our communities. While your support has been extremely helpful in keeping our residents and program participant’s safe in their home and the community, we want to remind you the pandemic crisis is far from over and we are facing what may be a most difficult winter. As the pandemic crisis heightened, we have had to shutter program doors, keep people at home and try to keep everyone safe. In turn, our ability to raise funds has been tremendously reduced due to this crisis and we are asking you for your financial support. Regardless of whether it’s $5 or $5,000 (or anything over or in between), please help us keep our folks healthy and safe during this strange and unusual time. Thank you. John Santoski Executive Director

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Personal Protective Equipment Hats/Gloves Cleaning Supplies for Group Homes Shampoo, soap, toothpaste for residents Blue pads First aid supplies (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer) Craft supplies Cooking ingredients for Cooking Class Paper products Briefs Winter coat Clothing items Bed linens Towels

• • • • • • • • • •

Dishes Silverware Eyeglasses Hearing aids Dental exam (all not covered by Medicaid) Therapeutic mats Furniture for group homes and Day Support Program Tablet computer Wheelchair Equipped Vans Community activities

Again, thank you for all you do and remember you can also send checks to: The Arc of the Piedmont 1149 Rose Hill Drive Charlottesville, VA 22903


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EZE AMOS

OPEN FOR

BUSINESS

Four entrepreneurs set up shop in a pandemic 20 C-BIZ

By Carol Diggs


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The Martinez family opened Sombrero’s Mexican Cuisine and Café in York Place at the end of March.

Getting a small business up and running is no small feat in normal times. Starting during a pandemic makes the task all the more daunting. But these entrepreneurs think they have what it takes, whether that’s extensive planning, a bankroll, patience, luck, chutzpah, or some combination of all. Here’s how four local businesses have handled opening in these unprecedented times.

bout the only resource Bernardo and Lucrecia Martinez had was their longtime dream of running their own restaurant. Finally, opening day was all set for Sombrero’s Mexican Cuisine and Café in York Place off the Downtown Mall—on March 23, 2020. The Martinezes had the credentials for their dream restaurant, designed to offer both authentic, made-fromscratch Mexican food and an espresso bar: Bernardo has 22 years’ experience in both kitchen and restaurant management, as the former manager at Baja Bean, and his wife Lucrecia worked 11 years as a barista. In 2016 they launched Sombrero’s in downtown Stanardsville, adding a food trailer the following year. “We were happy—we had reached our dream, and we loved that little spot,” Bernardo recalls. “But in the first year or two, we learned a lot.” By 2019, the Martinezes recognized that Stanardsville didn’t have enough foot traffic to support the café, and managing the food truck operation was putting strains on their young family. So, in December, they took the next big step: renting a spot in York Place and closing the Stanardsville location. “We got the key on New Year’s Day,” Bernardo says, “and we started working on the space. We were so excited.” Bernardo, who cooks all the dishes in small batches from scratch, adapted the restaurant to “a Subway-style layout—where you pick your food and your toppings” to be competitive in attracting lunch traffic during the week, as well as mall strollers on weekends. But, as with so many other businesses, the pandemic shutdown intervened. Sombrero’s was able to partially re-open in mid-May for both pickup and curbside, but it hadn’t had time to build the word-ofmouth and loyal customer base that other restaurants relied on. The Martinezes took advantage of every option. “A friend set up a website for us, and we did delivery through DoorDash for a while,” Bernardo says. He and Lucrecia both took part-time jobs, juggling staffing the restaurant with the help of friends and their two children. One huge support: Frontline Foods of Charlottesville, a local branch of a national nonprofit that generates donations to purchase food from local restaurants. The restaurants then provide meals for frontline workers and families in need. “Thanks to them, we’re still open,” says Bernardo. And Bernardo is still upbeat. Sombrero’s is in the back of York Place—right by the little mall’s double doors on Water Street. “The city has said parking in those two lots will be free starting December 1,” he says, “so that should help bring people in.”

ewtown Fitness Club would seem to have a pandemicproof idea: your own personal, top-of-the-line gym. Founder Ben Huson had already extensively researched the market for his idea, but when the pandemic took hold, what had seemed a luxury concept—a small, wellequipped gym where users can rent workout time on an a la carte basis, with no subscription or membership fee—became a pandemic necessity. Response to the first facility, which opened in Staunton in July, was strong, so Huson and co-owner John Fontaine went ahead with plans to open in Charlottesville. “The idea is to be right downtown,” says Fontaine, “That way, users can walk from home or their jobs.” When the former Charlottesville Smoke Shop location right off the Downtown Mall became available, they snapped it up. Opening is set for December; two more “pods,” as Fontaine calls them, will open off West Main, behind Continental Divide, early in 2021. Whether by luck or fate, Newtown Fitness’ concept fits the times perfectly. Huson, a computer programmer, developed software that

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“ W E T H I N K OF OU R P OD S AS ‘ S M A L L-BATC H ’ OR ‘ C R A F T ’ GY M S . A N D PEOPL E D O WA N T TO GE T OU T, E V E N W I T H T H E I R CONC E R NS A B OU T S O C I A L DI STA NC E .” JOHN FONTAINE

f establishing a gym or a restaurant during a pandemic sounds tricky, how about a child care center? Tassia Araujo-Roper opened Playful Learners Preschool in September 2019. A global pandemic and economic crash were far from ideal circumstances for her first year in action—but she pressed on The impetus for opening the business came from her son, who has special needs and wasn’t getting the individualized care he needed at a traditional day-care center. As a pre-kindergarten teacher, Araujo-Roper was aware of the increasing number of children with special needs (medical or otherwise), “and I knew I could do better,” she says. In 2019, her first semester in Rivanna Plaza, her center had 12 teachers on staff and 46 children

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enables users to reserve their appointment and pay online (30, 60 or 90 minutes; Charlottesville rate is $15/hour). The software then enables access at that specific time for that user via a key fob or their cell phone. Users have the 1,000-square-foot premium gym to themselves (and one other person: a spouse, partner, or trainer), a reassuring consideration for people reluctant to go back to big-box gyms. Users pledge to wipe down the equipment before and after use, with cleaning supplies available onsite, and Newtown Fitness deep cleans and sanitizes the pod every night with industrial-grade foggers and EPA-approved cleaning solutions. Your own personal gym has other, non-pandemic advantages: Exercise newbies, who might not want to work out in front of a crowd, can get their sea legs in private. For pros, workouts go faster without waiting for equipment or working around other users. Users say they love working out to their own music without having to wear earbuds. Newtown Fitness plans to reach out to Charlottesville’s trainers to rent time for meetings with individual clients (which beats scheduling workouts in their driveway this winter). And from a business perspective, Fontaine says, Newtown Fitness has the advantage of low operating costs and tangible assets, which makes the company a stronger financial proposition. “We think of our pods as small-batch or craft gyms,” akin to the local food movement,” says Fontaine. “And people do want to get out, even with their concerns about social distance.”

(infants through 5 years old) enrolled—all generated through Facebook and word of mouth. Then came COVID. In March 2020, Araujo-Roper was attending an early childhood education conference in Richmond, where “we kept hearing more and more about COVID, and participants started leaving.” Soon parents began calling saying they were going to keep their children home for a week or so—then, the state closed public schools. Araujo-Roper went into adaptive overdrive. “I signed up all my staff for online learning. I sent weekly emails to parents to see who was still planning to send their children in that week. I told my staff they would be paid for whatever hours they could put in, and if they wanted to be furloughed to take care of their own children or their parents, that was fine too.” Gradually,

“We think of our pods as small-batch or craft gyms,” says John Fontaine, co-owner of Newtown Fitness Club, which allows users to make appointments to have the 1,000-square-foot downtown gym all to themselves.

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“ I TOL D M Y STA F F T H E Y WOU L D BE PA I D FOR W H AT E V E R HOURS THEY COULD PUT IN, AND IF THEY WANTED TO BE F U R LOUGH E D TO TA K E C A R E OF T H E I R OW N C H I L DR E N OR THEIR PARENTS, THAT WAS FINE TOO.” TASSIA ARAUJO-ROPER, PLAYFUL LEARNERS PRESCHOOL ZACK WAJSGRAS

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over the spring and summer, the children began returning—while Araujo-Roper walked the line between safety and business survival. With no savings to fall back on, Araujo-Roper was grateful for unexpected help. “I managed on some miracles,” she says. Her landlord was “very understanding. He let me defer rent payments—I paid him as much as I could afford so I wouldn’t get too behind.” She managed to get CARES funding and a PPE grant that enabled her to bring staff back when attendance increased in the summer. Araujo-Roper made the effort to talk personally with all her parents about their situations: some had lost jobs, some had lost family members, some were immunocompromised. Others had older children and needed to hire a nanny—or to be able to send their older children to Playful Learners. Araujo-Roper adjusted, and the school now offers programming up to age 12. She is still grateful for the support of the parents. “Quite a few continued to pay tuition, even when they were keeping their children home, because they wanted to support me and my staff so we could stay open,” she says. “I had some parents who, when I offered them a discount, wouldn’t take it—and others who had lost their jobs but continued paying half tuition to keep us going. That’s why we’re still here.” eople getting out is something that Passiflora, Champion Hospitality’s latest restaurant, is counting on. “We’ve been surprised by the demand of people who want to go out,” says Hunter Smith, president of Champion Hospitality, which owns several brewery and restaurant operations in the area. Smith says the company’s strong growth since founding Champion Brewing in 2012 (co-founding Brasserie Saison in 2017 and opening its third restaurant, Champion Grill in Stonefield, last year) meant they already had plans to expand. While the pandemic forced some adaptation, like opening Saison Superette next door to the Brasserie to provide more retail/take-out options, Smith says that “The entrepreneurial drive doesn’t stop just because there’s a pandemic.” So when the former Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar space became available earlier this year, the company went for it. “We wanted the space—it’s a great location—and opportunities don’t come along that often,” Smith says. Redesigning the interior took about six months. “Our chef Phil Gerringer developed the menu,” he says, “which drove the concept”—something Smith describes as “a vacation/resort vibe” and the website calls “Baja-Mediterranean inspired.” Passiflora’s restaurant space, which fortuitously already had sliding glass walls for an open-air feel, opened in October and its rooftop is set to open in 2021. Why open a new restaurant at a time when the company’s other properties have been closed for months? “It’s not that we think we’re going to make a lot of money,” Smith says. “It’s an opportunity across the group to stabilize our revenue.” The

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company was careful to hold off on re-opening its other properties after the spring shutdown, to make sure they could do so safely, “and we got a ‘thanks for not rushing it’ response from our customers,” Smith says. He also notes that it helped having started as a brewing company—“we were already focused on sanitation.” Smith credits the Charlottesville community for its support of local businesses. “This town is great at word-of-mouth,” he says. “And we worked to keep up our social media/digital presence. It’s been great to see the return of foot traffic on the mall. We’re definitely seeing people coming in from out of town, and it helps to be an outdoorsy kind of destination.” Smith acknowledges, though, that opening this year has its risks. “It helped that we already had the existing infrastructure of our business, eight years of experience, and a team in place. And our landlords have been understanding. It would be hard to see taking a loan and just getting started in this environment.”

“It’s not like we think we’re going to make a lot of money,” says Champion Hospitality’s Hunter Smith about recently opening Passiflora in the former Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar space. “It’s an opportunity across the group to stabilize our revenue.” Tassia Araujo-Roper is grateful for the unexpected help that has allowed her preschool to stay open during the pandemic: “I managed on some miracles,” she says of an understanding landlord, CARES funding, a PPE grant, and supportive parents.

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Charlottesville’s health care sector reflects on an unusual year

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When considering the industries most drastically affected by COVID-19, Charlottesville’s health care sector may not immediately come to mind. If anything, it might be assumed that health care in general received a positive boost in 2020. It’s a macabre thought, but a pandemic practically guarantees that—in some ways—business for hospitals and clinics will be booming. The reality, of course, is not so simple.

BY DAN GOFF

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ersonal protective equipment shortages, sudden shifts to telehealth technologies, and uncertain sources of funding made 2020 at least as turbulent for health care providers as it was for the rest of us. Colleen Keller, executive director of the Charlottesville Free Clinic, faced a dilemma even more concerning than most: eviction. In May, the local health department terminated the clinic’s lease to free up more square feet for 25 newly hired contact tracers. In a trying year, Keller says this was without a doubt their “hardest challenge.” The clinic has since found a new home, which is set to open sometime in December. Aside from the (admittedly enormous) problem of getting evicted, Keller says her nonprofit has overall been “extremely lucky.” One of its most significant instances of good fortune was an abundance of PPE that had been stockpiled in pre-COVID days—though not for fear of a pandemic. “We have a really large dental clinic,” Keller says, in explanation of her clinic’s “incredible” supply. The standard-issue dental equipment, combined with N95s that Keller’s volunteers have to wear for diabetic foot care, resulted in a stock of PPE that has shown no danger of being depleted in the past nine months. Another reason for the clinic’s continued well-being is support from the community. As a nonprofit, the Charlottesville Free Clinic typically receives between 50 and 60 percent of its annual capital from private contributions, leaving other sources like special events and local funding to fill in the gaps. In 2020, however, those smaller sources have diminished or vanished altogether, leaving those private donors to pick up the slack or else leave the clinic with insufficient funds. Thankfully, says Keller, she and her staff had no need to worry. “We had two foundations, two families really step up and say, ‘What do you need? How much do you need?’ They did that very quickly.”


ZACK WAJSGRAS

Not only did this funding enable Keller to retain her entire staff over the last nine months, it also allowed her to keep the clinic open during this period. “We just never closed.” Although it was “pretty rough at the time,” Keller says the goal was to “keep people out of the emergency room” whenever possible. She kept the clinic’s pharmacy open so that patients with chronic illnesses could pick up their prescriptions at any time. The pandemic has necessitated some innovation on behalf of the clinic, of course—as it has for every business that seeks to survive, regardless of the sector. One of the biggest changes, says Keller, is screening many patients from the safety of their cars. “We gave them antibiotics in their cars, ultimately we gave people X-rays in the parking lot—everything we could think of to not bring you in the building. We still are doing a lot of that.” She’s also brought more telehealth technology into the clinic, a process that she says started with upgrading the staff’s laptops to ones that included cameras. The initial decision to buy camera-less laptops was informed by cost-cutting, what Keller now calls “a kind of dark comedy. ...We had to buy 15 of them overnight or not be open.” The Free Clinic occupies a critical position as a “safety net or gap filler where…two very large hospital systems end.” Being a small health care organization alongside such behemoths can be “extraordinarily stressful,” she says, but it can also allow for more nimbleness than these larger organizations might be able to achieve. As a pediatric cardiologist at UVA Health, Jeffrey Vergales has an insider’s perspective on his employer’s tendency, not unique among such large health care providers, to prefer tra-

ditional methods. But he also recognizes its position on the cutting edge of the health care industry—and as a staunch supporter of innovation, he plans to make sure it stays there. In 2015, he began to brainstorm ways that his patients, the majority of whom are children with heart defects, could be monitored remotely—in 21st-century style. “When I took over the home-monitoring system, it was very archaic,” he explains. “Parents would write stuff down with pen and paper and then fax it to us.” He sought a “technology that would work both for patients and the health care providers…a solution that we would be able to work with and modify over time.” His search culminated in a partnership with Locus Health, a Charlottesville-based company that specializes in remote monitoring tech. UVA and Locus developed and launched a hybrid inpatient and remote monitoring system in 2015 to “immediate success.” The system was soon adopted in other areas of the children’s department to better ensure the safety of high-risk patients. Since March, as Vergales says, “Telehealth has catapulted.” One effect of the pandemic is that the rest of UVA Health is being forced to catch up with the seeds of innovation he’s already sown throughout the children’s department. He says that UVA Health has begun to use Locus’ technology more widely since the onset of the pandemic, particularly StuEZE AMOS

Jeffrey Vergales, a pediatric cardiologist at UVA began working with patients virtually as early as 2015. That experience has helped his team adjust this year.

The Charlottesville Free Clinic moved into a new location in October, but continued to treat patients throughout the transition.

dent Health brainstorming “how exactly we can monitor kids who have COVID.” Vergales predicts that an increased focus on telehealth will continue to spread in the health care industry—but only if the industry can find a way to make it “financially feasible.” “The fact of the matter is, hospitals operate financially on having patients here, in person,” he says. Much of the outpatient work UVA Health has done in the past nine months has been free, either approved by insurance companies (an unprecedented occurrence pre-pandemic, Vergales says) or provided by the hospital itself “because we know it’s the right thing to do…but at the same time, we don’t want to do business against ourselves.” When Vergales speaks of UVA Health, he frequently slips into discussing the health care industry more broadly—because, as he sees it, the former essentially informs the latter. He describes how his and Locus’ 2015 remote monitoring model has been adopted by “well over 30” other children’s hospitals in the U.S. and Canada, using this example to point to how the industry looks to UVA Health as one of its leaders. “We’re in a very unique situation in this town,” he says. “We’re a huge regional referral area. We’re getting patients from all over the state, from hours and hours away…we are the ones who really do have to figure this out, compared to everyone else. We’re very much at the forefront of what’s happening.”

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BACKSTORY

Bottling up history The Coca-Cola Bottling Works goes from soda to suds COURTESY RIVERBEND DEVELOPMENT

The former Coca-Cola Bottling Works building, like a handful of industrial buildings in Charlottesville, is now home to a brewery.

By Dan Goff

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mong such local icons as the Jefferson School and Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Coca-Cola Bottling Works might seem an unlikely addition to Charlottesville’s National Register of Historic Places. But in 1939, when the plant was first constructed by D.C.-based architect Doran S. Platt, it stood as an icon for industry—a local contribution to a nationally known brand. Today, the building brews harder stuff than soda. After Coca-Cola shut down operations in 2010, its Preston Avenue location was up for grabs. It

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nearly became the headquarters for Indoor Biotechnologies (now located on Harris Street), but in 2013—the same year the building earned a place on the national register—Riverbend Development snatched up the property and began renovating it to its current incarnation as Kardinal Hall. Opened in 2015, the spacious beer garden has quickly become a staple for Charlottesville beer-lovers—and in 2020, the Hall’s sprawling outdoor patio makes it more appealing than ever. This Art Deco icon is not to be confused with the more industrial-style Coca-Cola warehouse on 10th Street, which today contains apartments and a variety of local businesses (although both locations still proudly display the soda’s name).


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