This article originally appeared in the January edition of the River Falls Reader.
By Kathryn Paquet
Click. Whimsical props are shown off – beacons of smiles and laughter. A moment in time is frozen and captured.
Whoosh. Savory steam drifts upward as a lid is lifted to reveal a neat tray of pillowy buns, delicate little packages bursting with heat and flavor.
Psss. A satisfying sizzle. A hint of lime joins the symphony of aromas in the air as a cool can of Mock-arita is cracked open.
The entertainment, the food, the drink – it was all born right here, within the walls of the St. Croix Valley Business Innovation Center.
Photog Entertainment owner Robyn Duray (right) helps guests capture a picture-perfect moment.
Photo: City of River Falls
It’s the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 27, and the Innovation Center is humming with energy. The community is celebrating the newest graduates of the center’s business incubator program: Joe Covelli of Air Command International, a build-to-fly gyroplane supplier; Brianne Rehak of That Girl Brie, a custom charcuterie board and grazing table service; Troy Szotkowski and Dave Skinner of safety and security firms ACG Security Consulting and National Tactical Security; and Paul Berning of Growth Management Solutions, a technology consulting firm.
“The variety of ideas being put into action at the Innovation Center is impressive," Scot Simpson, city administrator of the City of River Falls, says. “The City is proud to be a founding partner in this collective effort to prioritize innovation in the community and region.”
Ender Göçmen, owner of Barbell Coffee, talks coffee at the graduation ceremony on Nov. 27.
Photo: UW-River Falls
• • •
The St. Croix Valley Business Innovation Center, which opened its doors in 2018, was created by four founding partners: the City of River Falls, River Falls Economic Development Corporation, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and Chippewa Valley Technical College.
The mission of the Innovation Center is to foster entrepreneurship and enhance the success of local businesses, resulting in a more vibrant regional economy and new job opportunities.
The Innovation Center boasts an array of work spaces for lease, from large industrial spaces and offices to co-working spaces and cubicles. The center also features the Food Ready Space, which offers 225-square-foot pods in an industrial kitchen.
All businesses that lease space in the Innovation Center sign on to the business incubator program, which provides members with targeted resources including management guidance, technical assistance, and consulting.
During the first five years in business from 2018 to 2022, the Innovation Center aided in the creation of 94 jobs and the retention of 153 jobs, with a total of $33 million worth of investment into the local economy as 36 distinct businesses had been started or expanded. As of 2023, 20 new business leaders have graduated from the business incubator program.
Sheri Marnell, executive director of the Innovation Center, greets guests at the Nov. 27 graduation ceremony. Photo: City of River Falls
According to Sheri Marnell, executive director of the Innovation Center, the mentoring offered in the program can be an invaluable resource for new entrepreneurs – particularly those that have not had formalized business management training in the past.
“People start businesses because they're passionate about a product or service,” Marnell says. “They feel that it will fill a gap and make an impact, but they may not know the business side. I am here to talk business and help them chart a path to success.”
Members of the business incubator program are required to meet with Marnell quarterly, although according to Marnell, many schedule meetings more frequently. The meetings provide a space for establishing goals and helping business owners stay accountable to achieving them, Marnell explains.
Additionally, the center offers entrepreneurs a resource they likely wouldn’t find leasing space on their own: a built-in community. “When one person takes the plunge and starts a business, they’re alone with their own thoughts,” Marnell says. “That’s really hard, and it can even be a roadblock – they don't have people to bounce ideas off of. They don’t have a network that can support them and help advocate for them and market them. They get that here.”
Members remain at the Innovation Center for varying amounts of time, but according to Marnell, the goal is to help them move beyond its walls.
“Seeing our graduates move on to brick-and-mortar spaces in the community is incredibly rewarding,” Marnell says. “I have a couple of business owners that are graduating in the next couple of months, and they were sad – they were like, ‘I'm so sorry, but I'm ready to move on to my own space.’ And I'm like, ‘Don't be sorry! That's what you're here for.’ I feel like they’re my own kids. It’s bittersweet, but mostly sweet.”
St. Croix Valley Business Innovation Center staff and community partners celebrate the newest graduates of the business incubator program.
Photo: UW-River Falls
• • •
A month after the graduation ceremony, at 123 W. Cascade Avenue, Brianne Rehak is dipping strawberries in chocolate.
Now a graduate of the business incubator program, Rehak has signed a lease for her very own storefront, which she shares with co-lessee River City Juice. “This is now a full-blown business that is sustainable full time,” Rehak says. “I’m floored every single day.”
Brianne Rehak dips chocolate-covered strawberries at her new storefront. Photo: City of River Falls
Like many, Rehak had cabin fever at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“I was laid off,” Rehak explains. “It was the first time I was a stay-at-home mom with my children, which I loved, but I needed breaks. I needed to get out of the house and do something fun.”
So Rehak and a friend started making charcuterie boards together. Word-of-mouth gave the business feet, and it began to take off. Soon, it had a name: That Girl Brie.
However, selling her boards to the public required that Rehak prepare them in a commercial kitchen. “For me, there was no way I was going to afford that,” Rehak says. “The average person can’t.”
She turned to social media to ask if anyone in the community had leads on affordable commercial kitchen space. Months later, on January 1, 2023, Rehak was moving into a pod in the Food Ready Space at the Innovation Center.
Rehak’s pod, like the others around it, started as a blank canvas, with space for items like a refrigerator, work table, and shelving units to be installed. As a pod member, Rehak also had access to the area’s common space, which includes prep tables and a food prep sink, mop sink, and dishwashing sink.
In addition to these features, Rehak found another valuable resource in the Food Ready Space: other entrepreneurs working on building their own food-based businesses.
“What's really special about that space is you have all of these other small business owners, and some of them have been in the business longer,” Rehak says. “So if there's a licensing question, or if I want a food trailer and I have no idea how to begin, I can turn to my pod neighbors. There's so much knowledge in that space – it's an incredible jumping point for anybody feeling overwhelmed by starting a food-based business.”
As for what’s next, Rehak said the sky is the limit, but one thing is for certain: That Girl Brie will continue to grow its roots in River Falls. “I love River Falls,” Rehak said. “We’ve lived here for a really long time. I would like to see That Girl Brie just be a normal part of what the city is. The vision is that it’s part of the fabric – it’s like Fox Den or Whole Earth Co-Op, right? It's a part of the community. That's the ultimate goal.”