SOUTHINGTON — Running a business is hard, but when it works and provides great service for its patrons, a bit of celebration is in order.
The best of the local business community let loose at the Record-Journal’s 17th annual Readers’ Choice Awards held Wednesday night at the Aqua Turf Club.
Greeted by a DJ and a live band, 720 people filled the ballroom for dinner, dancing, and an awards ceremony recognizing more than 600 businesses as preeminent in the region. Dressed to the nines and cheering for all of their peers, the crowd felt more like they were attending a pep rally at a night club than an awards dinner.
Winners were nominated and selected by Record-Journal readers, but as Liz White Notarangelo, the executive vice president and assistant publisher of the Record-Journal, pointed out in her remarks to the crowd, everyone in the room is considered elite in terms of the excellence of their services. Honorees represent the top 4% of over 15,000 businesses in the area, White said.
“We’re so excited to see how much (this event) has grown in just one year. Our local community is amazing. We do business together, we serve on boards together, we volunteer, we help each other succeed,” she said.
Not only do the awards give a nice primer on where to experience some of the best in beauty and health, entertainment, food, personal services and shopping, the banquet itself is a chance for business owners to take a moment and congratulate themselves and each other for their hard work.
“As a family-run business, we work so hard, like 24/7, so it’s nice to stop and celebrate it,” said Jackie Valentine, owner of Words on Wood, located in Wallingford.
Valentine’s business was born when she made a wooden sign for her daughter, who was away in China. Starting from that innocuous beginning, the business took off of it own accord, she said. “You have to be the kind of person who believes in it with their soul,” Valentine said.
Paul and Dorene Sikorsky, who work in sales for Brothers Pool in Wallingford, saw not only their own customers at the banquet, but people whose businesses they patronize. That’s the difference when you shop and use services offered locally, they believe.
“We are a small business and we like the small business atmosphere,” Dorene Sikorsky said. “Customer service is lacking in big business. We answer the phone. We don’t tell you to press 1, 2, or 3 when you call. We answer the phone.”
The ladies of the New England Muffin Factory in Southington have a way about them, a banter and camaraderie bred of jumping in and helping when needed. As they said, no one refuses to wash dishes at their place. “We bust our asses, but we make it fun for each other,” said Sandy McNamara, a worker at the restaurant.
Sitting at a table with all their colleagues, the awards have a tangible meaning for their business. The Readers’ Choice Awards “are very helpful. We get a couple of new customers every day,” said Maria Sciricca, another Muffin Factory employee.
Edesa Ciscar, director of community relations for the Village at Kensington Place, an assisted living facility in Meriden, said the evening is a great way to increase morale at a workplace — just get a bunch of coworkers dressed up and have a good time while doing a bit of networking. “It’s a nice way to let loose and have a little fun,” Ciscar said.
Chris Crandall and Ty-Juan Simmons of Pancheros Mexican Grill in Wallingford got a nice round of applause for their win in the category of best fast food. For Crandall, having grown up in the area, being recognized for his work has a special meaning. “I think it means more. It’s full circle. I grew up going to restaurants on Route 5. Now I’m giving back,” he said.
His partner Simmons believes the event is good for the entire business community. Walking through the crowd, the friendly faces Simmons sees at the restaurant now get to see him in another happy context. “The reaction to everyone seeing us here shows that we are doing our jobs,” Simmons said.
Jillian Duffy, the reigning Miss Connecticut, hosted the evening’s festivities and saw it as an example of what she wants to be doing when she graduates from Southern Connecticut State University with a business and marketing dual major. “This is what I want to do from my future career. I want to organize community events like this one, especially for non-profits,” Duffy said.
Terrace Johnson of Body Temple Fitness in Wallingford and Durham sums up what’s necessary to succeed running your own business. “Commitment and sacrifice. It’s rewarding, but you’ve got to be committed and to sacrifice. If you do that, the rewards will come,” Johnson said.