Typically, contestants in the Enterprise Challenge business plan competition in Yakima and Kittitas counties would have numerous opportunities to connect in person.

The annual competition, co-organized by the Yakima County Development Association and the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce, helps small businesses develop business plans, network and obtain advice from local experts. But because of the pandemic, organizers moved most things online.

Contestants took part in the various workshops and classes on Zoom, starting in January.

“It was a little difficult. We weren’t able to have the intimate setting we normally have,” said Jessica Camacho, communications and event manager for the Yakima County Development Association and coordinator of the Enterprise Challenge. “Doing it virtually forced us to touch base with each of the contestants individually.”

Other adjustments were made, including business plan judging. In past years, the ability to articulate economic impact, such as the number of new jobs brought to the community, was weighed heavily.

Given the pandemic’s broad impact on businesses, organizers decided to move some of that weight to other categories, including business overview, marketing and sales and financial plans.

“We know a lot of these businesses aren’t going to be scaling up their businesses in the next few years,” Camacho said.

The competition still attracted 26 businesses, including many that started or opened during the pandemic.

“They’ve all persevered with every single obstacle with the pandemic and made it work and are continuing to make it work,” Camacho said.

From that group, half — 13 businesses — moved to the second round. They participated in one of the few in-person events held during the competition: a trade show where a dozen judges met with business owners.

The top seven scoring businesses at the trade show moved on to the final round and are now in contention for cash prizes of $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500.

During the final round, finalists submitted their final business plan and made a final presentation to the judges.

This year’s Enterprise Challenge winners will be announced in a ceremony on Thursday.

Here are the seven businesses in contention for the top three spots in this year’s Enterprise Challenge:

Basecamp Outfitters

Owners: Stephen Malek, 44, and Audrey Malek, 34

Location: Cle Elum

Unlike a lot of business owners, Stephen Malek isn’t afraid of numbers. He enjoys looking at the financial end of businesses so much that he’s written the financial component of a business plan for several potential companies.

“I would almost call it my hobby,” he said.

The beginning of Basecamp Outfitters, a shop that sells items for hiking, camping and outdoor activities, emerged out of a COVID-19 pandemic circumstance.

His other business, Basecamp Books and Bites in Roslyn, was unable to offer indoor dining under the state’s restrictions. With no one using the dining space, Malek came up with another use for the tables: a place to display essential items for camping and hiking. Malek was able to secure items through a third-party reseller.

“We noticed we couldn’t keep the stuff on the shelves,” he said.

As Malek talked to vendors and others in the outdoor goods industry, he heard about the drastic increase of interest in outdoor recreation during the pandemic.

In November, on Small Business Saturday, Stephen and Audrey opened Basecamp Outfitters in a separate space in Cle Elum.

Stephen Malek heard about the Enterprise Challenge on Facebook and was notified about the competition by the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce. At first, Malek was hesitant because he thought he would have to drive to Yakima for classes, but once he saw most of the events were online, that made him feel much more at ease.

While Malek is not new to crunching numbers for a business, he said the classes and workshops he took during the competition helped him understand other aspects of the business plan, namely articulating his business vision.

He said the business resources he received were valuable, such as meeting with a small business adviser. He’s already contacted the adviser in Kittitas County, Liz Jamieson, several times.

“It was just a tremendous resource to have someone else’s brain to pick to make sure I wasn’t making too much of a turn,” he said.

Harmony Hill Candle Co.

Owner: Jeannie Reinmuth, 49

Location: Gleed

Jeannie Reinmuth has always enjoyed crafting. She’s dabbled in photography, sewing and painting. She decided to dive into candle making when she purchased used equipment and supplies from a woman in Auburn.

She spent a year perfecting her candle, which is soy-based and uses cotton wicks. She uses those materials to provide a more eco-friendly and clean-burning product.

She started selling her candles in 2019 at different markets and shows.

When the pandemic hit, Reinmuth and her friend, Tammy Marple, who helped her make the candles, found themselves without a venue to sell when their booked shows and markets were canceled.

So they started looking for places to sell their candles, and found 13 retailers from Roslyn to Prosser interested in selling them.

What could have been a tough year turned out much better than anticipated: “We had a profitable year,” she said.

As Reinmuth drove more into retail sales, she realized she needed to learn more about running the business, which prompted her to enter the Enterprise Challenge.

“We’re more of a creative type of people,” she said. “I don’t have a business background.”

The Enterprise Challenge and the process of writing a business plan gave Reinmuth a way to get out the ideas that were accumulating in her head and get a better sense of where her business was going.

“It’s not just guessing,” she said. “Now it’s real, on paper.”

Reinmuth said she’s looking forward to being able to sell at markets and interact more with customers. Still, she’s going to continue working on growing her wholesale business to retailers as well.

“I think that will be the key to our business going forward,” she said.

Schab’s Bier Den

Owners: Trena and Zach Schab, both in their 50s

Location: Yakima

The husband-and-wife team of Trena and Zach Schab planned to open a taproom and retail store that sold beer and wine from different Northwest brands in March 2020 in downtown Yakima. But the opening plan ran into construction delays and a pandemic.

They were finally able to open in August, and had a few months of business until new restrictions arrived in mid-November that essentially ended indoor seating for several months.

“It was really tough to deal with that,” she said.

Things improved when restrictions eased up in the last few weeks and business picked up quickly. “We did better in the first two weeks in February than we did in the whole month of January,” she said. “That helped us see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Even with all the restrictions, the couple gained a customer base that supported the business in its first few months.

“We definitely feel more confident, now that we don’t have to ask for a loan, (that) we’re going to make it,” she said.

Trena Schab thought about participating in the Enterprise Challenge last year when she was still developing the business.

“I’m glad we waited a year,” she said. “Now we know what we needed.”

After many months of focusing on day-to-day survival, she said the ability to take time to plan and look forward was refreshing.

“We’re able to look beyond the next couple of months,” she said. “We’re looking to the next two to three years.”

Secret Valley Farm

Owner: Vaughn Smith, 41

Location: Cle Elum

Vaughn Smith enjoyed canning for several years, but it didn’t occur to her right away to make it a business. That changed last year.

“For me, 2020 was a big year of change,” she said. “I had a big corporate career that came to an end. It allowed me to look for something to do that I enjoyed.”

Smith started making jams and jellies, and supplied a neighbor’s produce stand.

“I quickly realized that people enjoy local jam products,” she said. “Since then, I’ve been working on getting this business up and running.”

But as Smith looked to scale up from a hobby to a full-blown food business, she realized there were many requirements to meet and licenses to obtain.

She first signed a lease for a commercial kitchen space in downtown Cle Elum. Once she had her space, she’s been able to pursue securing a food processor’s license from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. There are federal requirements to meet, too.

“It’s super time-consuming. It’s very in-depth,” Smith said.

The aim is to officially launch the business in May to sell her products retail and wholesale. When open, she will sell jams, jellies, preserves and marmalade made with products grown in Yakima, Kittitas and Grant counties.

Smith was familiar with the Enterprise Challenge, having known several companies in Kittitas County that participated and even won. Her former employer also provided support for the challenge.

Smith said she wasn’t sure what she would get out of the challenge, coming from a business background.

“To my surprise, it was quite a bit,” she said. “I think the biggest thing I’ve been able to accomplish is a comprehensive business plan. It pointed out areas of weaknesses and strengths as well.”

She said she would love to win, but she’s already received a lot through the competition.

“I still feel successful,” she said. “I feel like industry professionals looked at what I have to offer and agreed this was a worthy business model I will be able to successfully grow.”

Sunnyside Meat Packers

Owners: Jennifer Southwick, 37, David Rand, 56, and Hailey Schlosser, 17

Location: Sunnyside

Jennifer Southwick, her father David Rand and her daughter Hailey Schlosser had plans to open a meat cutting and curing business in 2021. They had seen how difficult it was to secure time with butchers for the pigs Schlosser was breeding.

But the COVID-19 pandemic moved up the timeline. Numerous livestock shows were canceled, leading to a flood of animals that needed to be butchered and processed.

Options were limited during the pandemic as processing plants had to scale back or halt operations.

“My dad and I decided to bump our timeline and get open as quickly as we could and get those animals processed,” Southwick said.

In September, they launched the business with just two coolers. As the business grew, the family purchased a new cooler every month.

As of early March, Sunnyside Meat Packers had worked with more than 500 farmers. Most of the farmers are small, but the business has worked with larger livestock producers as well.

What makes the business unique is that it can both butcher the animal and process it. Typically, a farmer may have to get the services done at two separate businesses.

Not surprisingly, the demand was high.

“The first five months was absolutely insane,” Southwick said. “We were working 12-hour days, most weeks seven days a week.”

Southwick was so busy she didn’t think she would have time to participate in the Enterprise Challenge. But after encouragement from her father, she decided to sign up at the last minute. She’s glad she did.

“It made me take the time to sit down (and ask), ‘Where do I want my business to go and how I would get it done?’” she said. “I don’t think I would have done that without the Enterprise Challenge.”

The Tap

Owners: Oscar Zapien, 34, and Eddy Zapien, 35

Location: Yakima

With The Tap, brothers Oscar and Eddy Zapien wanted to bring a new type of business — a self-serve taproom — to downtown Yakima. Customers would be able to visit a tap wall to dispense the beer or wine of their choice.

The pandemic hit just as the brothers were planning to open. Eventually, The Tap opened in August with outdoor seating and they were able to add indoor seating in the fall. Then the business was hit with new restrictions in mid-November.

“It was getting a little bit frustrating,” he said.

With indoor seating permitted again with Yakima County now in Phase 2 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, The Tap is starting to see some consistent business.

“We’ve yet to see our space at 100% (capacity). We’ve been in some sort of restriction or closure,” Oscar Zapien said. “It gives me a lot of hope for what’s to come in the future.”

The Enterprise Challenge gave the brothers a chance to step back from the idea and focus on running the business.

“We don’t come from a business background at all,” Oscar Zapien said. “It was us putting our money and hearts in.”

Oscar Zapien said the competition and writing the business plan exposed him to several things that he needed to pay attention to with the business, such as whether a specific marketing or social media strategy was working.

More importantly, the business plan provided an opportunity to look at the numbers and how to manage financially if something — like the COVID-19 pandemic — interrupts business again.

Besides the information, Zapien found learning from community members, such as those at the Yakima County Development Association, beneficial.

“The way I think of it, they’re part of a greater team (for your business),” he said. “They’re there to help you and assist you along the way.”

Washington Moving Co.

Owner: Thomas Chavez, 57

Location: Yakima

Like thousands of other Yakima County residents, Thomas Chavez was laid off from his moving company job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Losing his job also was an opportunity to finally pursue his own business, something he had been planning for several years.

“I had time now to do my business plan,” he said. “I also saved up money for the start-up costs. I purchased the truck and the equipment.”

Chavez was also excited to work with his sons, who were also in the moving business, thanks to him.

“We’re pretty close,” he said about his sons, ages 29, 31 and 32. “They needed some work, and I got them jobs where I was working. They branched out from there.”

Having been in the moving industry for several decades, he’s seen the industry thrive as the economy recovers, something he thinks will happen post-pandemic.

“As the economy opens up, so will the moving industry,” he said.

He plans to open his business in April. The focus now is to get the business ready, which starts with a good business plan. Entering the Enterprise Challenge was a way to make sure he had a good plan in hand.

Getting to the final round of the competition is an affirmation that he’s on the right track.

“The Enterprise Challenge has helped me in all phases (of writing a plan),” he said. “It really gave me confidence.”

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang