By Dominique Goyette-Connerty, Correspondent

For the sixth annual event, the Chamber took to Zoom for the first time to recognize some of the region’s most outstanding businesses, owners, and recent historic building restorations. The Annual Business Awards ceremony is held yearly to shine a spotlight on just a few of those members which are the driving force behind the strong and vibrant local business community, contributing to the Chamber’s mission to Recruit, Retain, and Incubate.

In what’s been an anything-but-easy year, 2020’s awards were especially important. As the COVID-19 pandemic caused closures, ensuing economic fallout, and modifications to our everyday lives, many Worcester area businesses, organizations, and people have persevered, oftentimes finding and creating their own solutions and successes. Though everyone couldn’t be all together in person to celebrate their excellence, the Chamber was committed to honoring distinguished recipients for a job well done even when the going gets tough.

Silver Hammer Awards

The Silver Hammer Awards are presented annually to Chamber members in acknowledgment of construction or rehabilitation projects which have an extraordinary visual and aesthetic impact on the local physical landscape, and have brought new life to some of the region’s most historic assets.

Shrewsbury Public Library

Challenged with wanting to keep the Shrewsbury Public Library in the historic, 117-year-old building, while also offering the community a state-of-the-art, contemporary facility, the Town of Shrewsbury enlisted the help of Worcester-based Lamoureux Pagano & Associates Architects and embarked on a multi-year renovation project to restore the building. Today, the Main Street library is fully accessible with new technology, common public areas, and updated utilities, among other improvements. The $23 million in renovations has revealed a re-imagined resource hub and learning center which both honors the building’s history and accommodates the community’s current and future needs. Of the project, Lamoureux Pagano President Katie Crockett said, “In so many respects the Library represents what we like doing best: innovative design honoring our region’s cultural heritage; partnering with a progressive community; and having a role in an important, public building designed to encourage community connections.”

Courthouse Lofts

Soon enough, hundreds of people will be calling the once-empty Worcester Courthouse home, and it’s all thanks to Trinity Development. The 1843 building is being transformed into 118 units of mixed-income housing complete with first-class amenities and a Major Taylor Museum open to the public. Though the already-complex undertaking became even more challenging due to the pandemic, Trinity remains committed to making the $53 million project a key piece of both Worcester’s Lincoln Square district and overall revitalization efforts by adding to the opportunities for more people to live, work, and play in the Heart of the Commonwealth. “Working in Worcester has been really quite remarkable, and we enjoy unbelievable support from the City administration,” said Michael Lozano, Trinity’s senior project manager for the lofts. “We’re very excited to get to the finish line and welcome our first residents sometime soon.”

Stearns Tavern

Stearns Tavern has worn a number of hats since 1812: a tavern, a furniture shop, a house of carpets, and a bank — until being closed in 2013. Its most recent and perhaps most significant transformation, though, is the product of a true collaborative effort by Preservation Worcester, the City of Worcester, and the Seven Hills Foundation. Thanks to their teamwork and 120 donor partners, the centuries-old building has now been refurbished to serve as Seven Hills’ Workforce Training Center, community meeting space, and the Seven Hills Foundation Cafe. The impressive restoration efforts are allowing the more than 200-year-old tavern to continue to live through history. “I think this has been a great example of how Worcester can come together around a great project and deliver something that’s really transformational to a neighborhood,” said Worcester City Manager Ed Augustus.

James Street Place

What was originally a steel wire manufacturing plant better known as the Worcester Wire Works building is now known as James Street Place after recent renovations turned the Webster Square staple into a home for more than 100 office and retail tenants.  Working with approval from Worcester’s Historical Commission, R. W. Mura & Company completely refashioned the facade of the once drab, 1920’s building to create an elegant and updated look while still preserving its history. The work poured into re-imagining this property on has allowed other businesses to grow and prosper in a happening area of the city where they’ll soon be joined by other new developments.

Russo Italian Restaurant

The fifth and final 2020 Silver Hammer was awarded to Worcester native and owner of Russo Italian Restaurant, Ed Russo. Located at 65 Water Street in the city’s historic Canal District, the space underwent a full renovation before opening to the public in June of 2019 as the latest addition to Russo’s portfolio — joining the already-successful Lock50 Restaurant just steps away. Exposed brick, a wine cave, and flickering gas-like lighting, complete the “old-school Italian restaurant” look and set the tone for family-style, homemade  dinners. Opening this new spot in a fast-growing and vibrant Worcester neighborhood once again emphasizes Russo’s commitment to expanding and strengthening the region’s hospitality scene, while helping drive traffic to the Heart of the Commonwealth.

2020 Honorees

Entrepreneur of the Year

For establishing the all-natural, gluten-free, sauce and spice company Alicia’s Homemade in 2015, owner and founder Alicia Haddad was named Entrepreneur of the Year. Although the spices, rubs, dips, and sauces are made with wholesome ingredients and packed with flavor, it’s the story of the lady behind this woman-owned and -operated company which makes it all the more remarkable. Ms. Haddad’s passion for baking sugar cookies as a kid and tinkering with recipes stuck with her into adulthood, when she was able to take the risk of opening her own business. Starting from scratch — whether it be in the kitchen or the entrepreneurial world — requires the determination and spirit of someone like Ms. Haddad, which is why Alicia’s Homemade has been successful since opening.

Small Business of the Year

While COVID-19 and related shutdowns have forced many businesses — restaurants and the hospitality industry being hit especially hard — to shutter, doors at The Pickle Barrel Restaurant and Deli have remained open. Despite knowing they wouldn’t turn much of a profit during the time when eateries were restricted to take-out only, owner Gus Giannakis made the decision to stay open in order to support his employees and ensure the Pleasant Street community still had a place to turn to for a hot meal. Calling the Pickle Barrel “a small business with a big heart,” Chamber President and CEO Tim Murray said, “It’s selflessness like this which keeps neighborhoods above water and makes us proud to represent this business community.”

Chamber Ambassador of the Year

A group of volunteers who provide assistance at events, conduct member recruitment, and help other members navigate the organization’s available services, Chamber Ambassadors act as an extension of the Chamber staff. Neal Manchester, a senior sales executive for The Allied Group, was recognized as Chamber Ambassador of the Year for his efforts in helping to tell the Worcester Chamber’s story. Whether it be by sharing his knowledge of membership with other businesses, working the registration table at Business After Hours, or facilitating ribbon cutting ceremonies, Membership Sales and Services Representative Kristen Luna says Mr. Manchester “is always the first to ask: ‘How can I help?’ and lend a hand no matter what. He’s there and he’s reliable. Neal goes above and beyond.”

Chamber Advocate of the Year

An attorney at Mirick O’Connell, D. Moschos is a member of the firm’s Labor, Employment, and Employee Benefits Group, earning many top honors over the years for his work. But outside of the office, he’s also volunteered to share his extensive knowledge of, and experience in, labor and employment law. He previously served as chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, supported the Worcester Area Business Education Foundation, and participated in Chamber events as a panelist. Thanks to Mr. Moschos, other Chamber members have been able to get a better understanding of new regulations as they were passed at the federal and state levels, thereby helping the Chamber better support the business community. “I’m proud to be an advocate for the Chamber,” said Mr. Moschos upon receiving the award. “I invite everyone here tonight and everyone in the community to advocate for the Chamber — the only business voice left in our community today.”

Joe Cohen Retailer of the Year

It was just a year ago that Your CBD Store opened their doors on Worcester’s Stafford Street, and business is already booming. From products which benefit overall wellness, to those which help manage stress or promote better sleep, everything they sell is all-natural and hemp-derived. With so many different offerings, the store’s owners believe it’s important for customers to be informed about what’s best for them. “The knowledgeable and friendly staff at Your CBD Store are committed to being transparent with clients, and show an enthusiasm for the products they sell,” said Chamber Board of Directors Chair Bob Cox. “This style of business is a clear indication to us that they truly care about the well-being of the people and animals they serve,” Mr. Cox added, as he presented them the Joe Cohen Retailer of the Year Award.

Family-Owned Business of the Year

Owners of Nothing Bundt Cakes in Shrewsbury, husband-and-wife duo Alan and Liz Gulachenski, also opened their doors last fall, and they’ve been serving up sweetness everyday since. Their homemade, handcrafted bundt cakes which come in a number of flavors, promise to bring a taste of nostalgia to the table and offer the warmth and affection many need in a year like 2020 — one they say has presented no shortage of challenges for their new business. “We couldn’t be more thankful and proud of the support we’ve received from our community during this time,” Mr. Gulachenski said. Being recognized for their accomplished first year in business and their contributions to the local business community, the Gulachenskis went on to further prove their generosity during the awards ceremony by inviting everyone in attendance to come down to the shop for a bundt cake on the house.

Minority-Owned Business of the Year

For the first time ever, the Chamber presented a Minority-Owned Business of the Year Award to honor a minority-owned member business for their outstanding commitment and dedication to the organization’s mission, vision, and values. As a woman-owned construction company, Fisher Contracting Corporation has had to overcome many obstacles to thrive. But for the last 30-plus years, they’ve tackled projects all over the New England region and beyond, even helping with the initial demolitions for the site of Polar Park. In a male-dominated industry, this caliber of success for owner Charran Fisher is a point of pride. “It’s a great honor, and to pioneer an award means even more for me,” Ms. Fisher said. “Although Fisher Contracting is being recognized today, I’m really accepting this award on behalf of all minority- and women-owned businesses like mine” which continue to pave the way for others.

RBK Business of the Year

Named after the former head of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, the Richard B. Kennedy Business of the Year award is given annually to one member business for outstanding commitment to the Chamber’s mission and values. Amidst the hurdles 2020 has presented via COVID-19, plastic and rubber manufacturer FLEXcon Company in Spencer rose to the occasion to protect the Central Mass community. Answering the call for more PPE at the pandemic’s peak, the team at FLEXcon quickly switched gears from their regular operations in order to produce tens of thousands of face shields using materials they already had in house. Many of those shields were donated to local health care facilities, emergency responders, and others working on the frontlines to battle coronavirus in our communities.

Once again, the Chamber offers congratulations to all our 2020 award winners and a sincere thanks for all you do in our business community.