YAKIMA, Wash. — Out of the 185 businesses in Yakima and Kittitas counties whose owners have participated in the Enterprise Challenge business plan competition, about 48 percent, or 88 businesses, are still operating. Collectively, these businesses have generated nearly 300 jobs.

The Yakima County Development Association, which has coordinated the competition since its inception in 2010, believes it can boost those numbers even further, said Jean Brown, the organization’s business development director, and Enterprise Challenge coordinator.

After receiving feedback from a committee made up of members of the local business community, several changes were made to ensure that the strongest contestants advance to subsequent rounds of the competition. As a result, there were fewer semifinalists and finalists this year. Previously the contest had upward of 16 semifinalists and eight finalists. This year, that figure dropped to 12 and six, respectively.

The scoring criteria also were adjusted so participants had to illustrate not only the ability to write a good business plan or make solid oral presentations, but demonstrate the economic impact of their business on the greater Yakima Valley community.

“We’re trying to do better (with) the scoring and make sure we take the strongest contestants forward,” Brown said.

This year’s competition, which started in January, attracted 21 contestants. All participants attended several seminars on different aspects of business, including marketing and finances, before submitting a business pitch. A panel of six judged the pitches and narrowed the field to 12 contestants. Those contestants then participated in a trade expo at the Yakima Valley Technical Skills Center in Yakima last month. The 25 judges evaluated the contestants based on their display and overall presentation.

The top six businesses with the highest scores were chosen as finalists and now have an opportunity to win one of three cash prizes totaling $17,500. The top three will earn prizes of $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500. They are chosen by another six-judge panel that will evaluate a completed business plan and an oral presentation the finalists will do Tuesday.  The winners of this year’s competition will be announced during an awards luncheon Thursday.

Here are this year’s finalists:

Mandy Hale, 32; Round Tuit Kitchen, Yakima

For the past few years, Hale has worked as a ketogenic health coach and built an online community around ketogenic eating plans, which focus on high-fat, low-carbohydrate foods. Hale is close to completing studies toward becoming a certified holistic nutritionist.

Through that work, she started baking items that worked with a ketogenic diet. When she offered them to members of her online community, many took her up on the offer.

“I would be inundated with orders,” she said. “It would become a whole giant project.”

Those who tried her baked goods urged her to start a bakery. She started her food business in November. She began selling in craft bazaars but eventually went the wholesale route. Her product is sold primarily in coffee stands but she wants to expand to gym cafes and nutrition stores.

While her items work for a ketogenic diet, they also are gluten-free and she is working to add dairy free and vegan items. The baked goods are primarily sweet, but she’s working on a few savory offerings.

Thoughts on the Enterprise Challenge competition: The cash prize was the main draw, but over time she found value in the classes and programming the competition offered. “I realized there are so many local resources,” she said. “I realized I did everything the hard way trying to figure it out on my own.”

Holly Johnson, 31; Ben Johnson, 34; HolBen Honey LLC, West Valley

Ben Johnson started beekeeping a few years ago as Holly Johnson, a nurse, researched and learned of the health benefits of honey. That led to a desire to supply the community with local honey.

“Between the two of us we decided to start offering it to our community and keep more of the honey local,” Holly Johnson said.

The couple started the business last July. Along with offering a variety of honey — including one packaged in a pouch — the couple also works with individuals who want to practice beekeeping.

Thoughts on the competition: “We thought it was a huge opportunity to learn how to run a business,” Holly Johnson said. The competition lived up to its promise. The couple has gotten to work closely with members of the business community. “I highly recommend it for anyone who is starting a business or wants to start a business,” she added.

Karina Lara, 26; Fernando Cruz-Chavez, 32; Taqueria La Palapa, Yakima

Lara grew up in the restaurant business. Her father ran Taqueria Las Palmas, a Wapato-based stand that offers a variety of Mexican street food such as tacos and tortas. Lara eventually took over the business in late 2016.

Now Lara and Cruz-Chavez, her fiance, are looking to expand with Taqueria La Palapa. The name is a play on her father’s restaurant — Las Palmas is Spanish for “palm tree.” La Palapa is Spanish for a kind of hut made with palm leaves, and symbolizes her desire to build on what she’s learned from her father. She is looking to open the Yakima restaurant, which will be open for more hours than the Wapato stand, sometime in April.

“I feel like we’re at the point where we’ve done all we can,” she said. “We feel (opening in Yakima) is the next step for us.”

Thoughts on the competition: Lara has a degree in business administration but notes that much of her education touched on corporate entities rather than small business. “Here you really get into the fine details of marketing and how to open a business,” she said.

Michael Moore, 44; Gina Moore, 52; Ag Drone Data Services, Selah

About four years ago, the couple started exploring the possibility of using drones that would help growers monitor their orchards for issues, such as the emergence of certain pests and diseases.  “I’d see (growers) spraying for codling moth,” Michael Moore said, about a common pest found in apple orchards. “I thought, ‘What if I could fly over and tell them exactly where the codling moth is? That could save them tens of thousands of dollars.’”

The couple launched the business in May after it was clear the technology could handle the monitoring demands of an orchard. They did a trial with several orchards last fall and plan to offer a full monitoring service in the months to come.

Thoughts on the competition:  Michael Moore said he and his wife entered the contest to get involved in the community, and have been able to meet many people and extend their networking. “We already got meetings set up with all these other farms,” he said.

Mark Shervey, 53; Mak Daddy Coffee Roasters, Yakima

Shervey started out roasting coffee for fun in his backyard grill. As more friends and family enjoyed and asked for his coffee, Shervey thought about scaling up his operation. In May, Shervey started the business.

“I just decided to take a plunge and buy a commercial roaster and go from there,” he said.

Shervey started selling his coffee in various locations, such as the Downtown Yakima Farmers Market, before opening the Mak Daddy coffee shop in December.

Thoughts on the competition: Shervey heard about the Enterprise Challenge from a previous contestant and ended up entering at the last minute after a reminder from his wife. He said the competition provided a well-rounded education on running a business. “You learn so much,” he said. “Whether you win or not, it’s well worth the experience.”

Kelly Stuber, 44; Creative Ceramics and Art Café, Yakima

Stuber has always been interested in art. She took several ceramics classes in college and produced different works of art over the years. In the last year, she saw a need for a place where Yakima Valley residents could create their own art.

That’s when she came up with the idea of an art café where people could paint pre-made ceramics. The ceramics are then fired in a kiln.  

“I saw it as a need and thought it would be something that would improve Yakima,” she said.

Stuber is looking to open somewhere in West Valley — she’s looking at two potential sites — and hopes to open by July.

Thoughts on the competition: Stuber was doing a web search about potential funding sources when she stumbled onto information about the Enterprise Challenge. While she was interested in the cash prizes, the opportunity to learn about different business topics in a short time was the most significant benefit.

“Being in this contest has really forced me to do all the things that need to be done before a business opens in the course of two months,” she said.

• This story was edited to correct Gina Moore's age. She is 52, not 54.