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It has been a year of struggle for many local businesses, but Thursday was a time for celebration as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce shone a spotlight on companies that have pivoted and flourished in the face of adversity.
Traditionally, the Aurora Chamber's Business Excellence Awards are an in-person gala, but with necessity being the mother of invention over the last 15 months, the awards ceremony was hosted virtually, allowing the community to share in the fun – and the hard-work that has become a hallmark for our businesses during the global pandemic.
“In a year that has seen so much hardship for small businesses, we're here to celebrate,” said Sandra Ferri, Chamber President & CEO. “Whatever your business and wherever your business fits on the complex trajectory created by the pandemic, we celebrate you for your tenacity and drive – to be here with us and for us when we resume our normal activities.”
These threads were picked up by Mayor Tom Mrakas who paid tribute not only to the businesses set to be celebrated, but to the Chamber as well for doubling down on the support and advocacy they have shown the community.
“Economies and societies rely on progress and renewal and are driven by the ideas and contributions of business-minded individuals like yourselves. Together, we can make a difference and help our local businesses achieve success,” he said. “Congratulations to all the finalists. Today, we honour your hard work, innovation and achievements and we're all proud of you.”
Last week's awards ceremony was very much a product of the times we're currently living in, with some long-standing categories retooled to the new normal, including awards recognizing those who have shown exceptional resilience and creative pivots.
Honourees this year include:
Jaot Toor, Speedpro Imaging GTA North
Home-Based Business Award
Gardens of Joy (Nominees: Beveridge Marketing, Kangaroo Club Newmarket-Aurora)
Green Business Award
Replenish General Store (Nominees: Axiom Group Inc., Windfall Ecology Centre)
Community Influencer/Leadership Award
Apple Self Storage and Suites (Nominees: Aurora Restaurants & Food News Group, Coconut Village Nails Spa, The Partnership Network)
STEM Minds (Nominees: Giamed, WeCleanCOVID-19)
Tie – Jana Corporation; Thermogenics Boilers Inc. (Nominee: Piramal Pharma Solutions)
Warner Roofing (Nominees: Samantha Gowda-Singh, Desjardins Insurance; The North Dance Company)
Tie – Tina's Grill, Yellow Brick House (Nominee: Romy's Bar & Grill)
Replenish General Store, located on Yonge Street just south of Wellington, was one of the few businesses honoured last week that opened up shop in the midst of the pandemic.
“It has been an incredible challenge, but also really rewarding in working with the Aurora Community and helping them with their sustainability,” said Thai Pham, who owns the business with wife Bianca Martins.
A re-fillery which allows customers to bring their own containers to stock up on many household products, such as laundry detergent and olive oil, Replenish's ultimate goal is one of reducing plastic and food waste.
“We are so overwhelmed and surprised to be winners,” Thai continued. “It's such great company to be with and such a great category as well. We're so proud to be Aurora residents as well as business owners here. We can't wait to give back as much as we can to the community and we're super-excited to win the award.”
STEM Minds, on the other hand, was picking up steam when the pandemic hit, spurring the team that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to retool their plan for a digital realm.
“When COVID-19 hit, our in-person programs were suddenly shut down but we knew that more than ever our kids needed a way to stay connected,” says STEM Minds owner Anu Bidani. “Our teams worked hard to pivot towards programs overnight. It began with March Break camp and now, over a year later, we have a ton of offerings, including virtual after school programs, camps, live-streamed workshops and an upgraded STEAM hub platform which allows children to explore science, technology and art at their own pace. These extraordinary shifts in our programming were made possible by our innovative educators who kept kids engaged when their education and social lives were disrupted.
“We're grateful to the community for working with us at this hard time and we're really looking forward to coming out of this pandemic with a very strong business.”
One honouree to emerge perhaps even stronger out of the first few waves of COVID-19 has been Tina's Grill, which has seen tremendous support from old and new customers, many of whom discovered the southwest Aurora restaurant through word of mouth and social media.
“We got a lot busier when COVID happened due to social media, due to the quality of our food, people coming and trying us for the first time,” said Sam Saberi, co-owner of the family-run restaurant on McClellan Way. “[This award] means the world to us and we will continue to be here for the community and all our customers as well.”
Sharing the Resilience Award with Tina's Grill is an organization that has been around considerably longer, but has also seen a sharp increase in clientele due to the pandemic – sadly, for different reasons.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, Yellow Brick House, which was founded in 1978 as a shelter for women and children leaving violence, the organization saw a 30 per cent increase in domestic violence across the country with upticks closer to home as well.
“Staying home to stay healthy was simply not an option for many abused women and children,” said Lorris Herenda, Executive Director of Yellow Brick House. “We stayed operational and we stayed COVID free because we had to be there to provide services for abused women and children who were able to escape. We were honoured to be a finalist for the Aurora Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for the Resilience category because we know firsthand how extremely resilient our staff have been to continue working with women and children and making sure that nobody got left behind.”
By Brock Weir
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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