Cleveland Chain Reaction pitch competition returns for fifth season

Cleveland, Ohio — Success has been a chain reaction for Old Brooklyn Cheese Co. owner Michael Januska since his business appeared on the 2018 pitch competition of the same name.

Januska walked away from the season set in Old Brooklyn with a $100,000 investment from businessman Rick Blaszak, as well as the benefit of weeks of mentoring and a small-business boot camp.

“I would absolutely recommend businesses apply for ‘Chain Reaction,’” he says. “The whole process is beneficial, from start to finish. Having people take a look at what you’re doing is really helpful. And one of the biggest benefits is the exposure you get, and the chance to take on partners.”

Applications for the fifth season of Cleveland Chain Reaction will be accepted from September 13 through October 14. The top 20 businesses selected as semi-finalists will participate in a business bootcamp where business experts and mentors will help the entrepreneurs prepare to pitch a panel of judges at the showcase days taking place Thursday, December 8, and Friday, December 9, during “Kickin’ it with Kenny” on FOX 8 News in the Morning. Three winners will be selected, and the businesses may use the capital any way they choose to advance their business. The first-place winner will receive $40,000, the second-place winner will receive $20,000 and the third-place winner will receive $10,000. Judges, local investors and mentors may choose to contribute additional capital to the businesses.

Today, the company Januska founded in 2016 is thriving thanks to the funding and advice he received during the season he appeared. His business came through the pandemic with a new model and mindset. In 2020, Januska bought a 5,000 square foot production facility at 4464 Broadview Road in Old Brooklyn, and moved his shop to the space. Downsizing the original cheese shop gave him the opportunity to open a second location in Shaker Heights at the Van Aken Market Hall, in September 2020. He also has mustard distribution deals with a variety of regional grocers, including Heinen’s and HyVee, and is in talks for national distribution. Blaszak is still an investor, and additional investors have joined.

Other “Chain Reaction” alumni are also thriving.

Cathy Greene of Cathy’s Gourmet Ice Cream Sandwiches, who received a $40,000 grant in 2020, says the exposure from the competition has helped her business grow. She currently has two locations, one in the Old Arcade and the other in Atlanta.

“One of the top things I got out of ‘Chain Reaction,’ beyond the investment, was the exposure. For people who are starting businesses or scaling, the biggest thing is brand awareness and exposure. No one can do business with you if they don’t know you exist.”

Greene says the occasion to take a step back and reassess her business through the eyes of “Chain Reaction” investors was valuable, too.

“Businesses don’t often look back, because we are in the trenches daily. Having time to look back and do a presentation and look at numbers and units and customers and transactions, that’s important and was very beneficial.”

Ethan Holmes, who received $130,000 in funding from the Cleveland Foundation in 2017, is on a remarkable path. He’s planning to take his business national this fall, with all-new branding and packaging. In the year after his Chain Reaction appearance, he more than doubled sales from $50,000 to $120,000, and the growth continues. In the last year, he has raised nearly $600,000 towards his expansion.

“Appearing on ‘Chain Reaction’ was one of the most monumental parts of my journey,” says Holmes. “The exposure is great, and you are connected with organizations who would normally never work with you because of your size. We connected with the Cleveland Foundation, and still work with them.”

The taps at Six Shooter Coffee

Six Shooter Coffee owner Peter Brown, a 2019 winner, says the experience helped his business develop.

“Competing in ‘Chain Reaction’ benefitted Six Shooter Coffee because we were able to fund the buildout of a larger cafe space,” he notes. “I learned the importance of having good books and data to properly convey where your company is and where you want to take it.”

Since its inception in 2017 (the competition was put on hold in 2020 due to the pandemic), Cleveland Chain Reaction has received more than 400 applications, coached and prepared 88 small business semi-finalists, connected winning businesses to more than $1.7 million in capital and provided 380 hours of technical assistance. The Cleveland Chain Reaction (CCR) project is produced by the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE) and is featured on FOX 8’s “Kickin’ it with Kenny” morning show.

The goal of CCR is to create jobs, investment and prosperity in Cleveland’s neighborhoods while providing education and information for entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners to benefit our community.

Where are they now?

In honor of the new season, here are updates on past Chain Reaction winners:

Cathy’s

Season: 2021

Today: Cathy’s has used her investment for expanding her team, branding, promotion and equipment at her Old Arcade location, 401 Euclid Avenue. Cathy was also recently the recipient of a State of Ohio six-figure grant for women and minority-owned business. Cathy is currently working on a second Cleveland location, news she hopes to share later this year.

Six Shooter Coffee

Season: 2019

Today: Six Shooter Coffee continues to expand its physical space at 15613 Waterloo Road in Collinwood, and its food menu, recently adding hot sandwiches with focaccia bread made in-house.

Old Brooklyn Cheese Co.

Season: 2018

Today: Since the show, OBC has bought a 5,000-square-foot production facility, moved the shop to 4464 Broadview Road and launched Old Brooklyn Mustard, which is already doubling Old Brooklyn Cheese sales. Overall sales have tripled since ”Chain Reaction,” and owner Michael Januska is seeking to follow-up his regional growth with national distribution.

Holmes Mouthwatering Applesauce

Season: 2017

Today: In growth mode, with a national expansion, new branding and pouch packaging planned for later in 2022. Founder Ethan Holmes followed up his “Chain Reaction” appearance with participation in the prestigious SKU Accelerator and is now part of the official U.S. Apple Fellowship Program. He plans to maintain his headquarters in Bedford as the company expands.

Greater Cleveland Partnership’s All In vision for a Great Region on a Great Lake has five key priorities: Dynamic Business, Abundant Talent, Inclusive Opportunity, Appealing Community and Business Confidence. All of our work ties back to these values. This story relates to Dynamic Business and Inclusive Opportunity.