A Conversation With: Jessica Hackman, director of residential asset management for Larken Associates

Jessica Hackman –

As the director of residential asset management for Larken Associates. Jessica Hackman oversees the operational and financial performance of the company’s residential portfolio. She supervises and directs the activities of the property management and maintenance staff at each of the communities. Larken Associates is a full-service real estate developer and property management company with residential and commercial properties across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It maintains a strong presence in the Lehigh Valley with 10 residential communities here.

LVB: What are the biggest challenges that property managers face daily?

Hackman: I’d say that the biggest challenges for a property manager are the ever-changing priorities. They must be able to shift their focus from one thing to another and back again in an extremely short time frame while still providing the highest level of customer service.

LVB: Winter is upon us. Does that place additional burdens on your property managers?

Hackman: Winter certainly brings additional challenges to our property managers. We take the safety and comfort of our residents very seriously. With the freezing temperatures and wintry precipitation, property managers need to make sure that all residents and spaces have heat as well as making sure the properties themselves are free of any snow and/or ice. This is on top of their day-to-day duties.

LVB: What makes for a well-managed property?

Hackman: The single most important aspect of a well-managed property is having an on-site team that cares about the overall well-being of their residents and community.

LVB: What’s on the horizon at Larken?

Hackman: Larken Associates is going through an exciting period of growth right now. We are currently in the development phase of several new residential communities.

-By Stacy Wescoe


Airport authority approves $49.1M capital improvement program

The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority plans to build a $22 million security checkpoint and terminal connector at LVIA in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, expected to be complete in 2022. (Submitted) –

With an eye on reinvesting in its infrastructure and expanding services, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority board of governors approved a $36.7 million operating budget for all three of its aviation facilities, plus a nearly $49.1 million capital improvement program for 2020.

The operating budget and capital improvements cover Lehigh Valley International Airport, Queen City Airport and Braden Airpark. The operating budget showed a $3 million increase over last year, while the capital improvement program showed a $7.4 million increase. In comparison, last year, the board approved a $33.7 million operating budget and $41.7 million capital improvement program, airport officials said.

The investment is a good reflection of the region and the economy, airport officials said, noting that large-scale infrastructure projects are job creators, often for companies in the Lehigh Valley.

In October, the authority announced plans to build a $22 million security checkpoint and terminal connector at LVIA in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, expected to be complete in 2022. The project would eliminate multiple vertical transitions for passengers and streamline traffic flow. In addition, it would add two additional Transportation Security Administration screening lanes.

“If you really dissect the numbers, the airport authority’s core business of airfield and facility management is driving the revenue increases for 2020,” said Todd Quann, director of finance and administration at LNAA, in a news release. “Twenty five consecutive months of passenger traffic increases, additional flights/destinations has resulted in more people using the facility.”

Since 2015, the airport authority self-funded about $38 million in the capital improvement program. For 2020, it has earmarked $17.7 million for projects.

At LVIA, these projects include Runway 6/24 rehabilitation; phase one of the TSA Security Checkpoint connector design and construction, and the main terminal parking lot rehabilitation.

At Queen City Airport, the projects include updating the master plan and removing obstructions.

In addition, at Braden Airpark, the authority is planning for phase two construction of a new terminal building.

The funds in the capital improvement program also include grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration and PennDOT Bureau of Aviation.

The board approved the 2020 budget at its monthly meeting on Nov. 26 at Lehigh Valley Hospital- Muhlenberg.


Lehigh Valley to be featured in Delta in-flight magazine

Delta Air Lines will be featuring the Lehigh Valley in this month’s edition of its in-flight magazine, Delta Sky Magazine. (Submitted) –

The next time you’re flying out on a business trip, you might just find a little bit of home in the seat pocket in front of you.

Delta Air Lines will be featuring the Lehigh Valley in this month’s edition of its in-flight magazine, Delta Sky Magazine, giving the region exposure to around 6 million of its passengers, about half of whom are leading business professionals.

There will be a 26-page special focus section in the December edition of Delta Sky, which just happens to be the busiest month of the year for flying.

The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. pointed out that it’s quite an honor to be selected for such a feature.

“Only a handful of regions or cities are selected for this honor each year, with Lehigh Valley joining the ranks of such areas as Atlanta, St. Louis, Columbus, and Salt Lake City,” it stated in a release.

“It’s a major accomplishment for Lehigh Valley to be chosen for this feature in the most widely-read airline magazine in the country, an honor usually reserved for places that are household names,” said Don Cunningham, president & CEO of the LVEDC. “This clearly shows the Lehigh Valley is being recognized as one of the leading metropolitan areas of the United States. For a long time, we haven’t received the recognition we’ve deserved, but that is changing.”

The magazine feature was unveiled for the first time during a Dec. 3 launch party at Lehigh Valley International Airport.

Lehigh Valley was previously featured in a similar way by American Airlines. The region was the focus of a 24-page feature in American Way, the airline’s in-flight magazine. A PDF of that feature, called Spotlight Lehigh Valley, can be viewed here.

PPL Foundation awards $575K in grants

The PPL Foundation of Allentown said it has just awarded more than $575,000 to 13 nonprofit organizations in its territory.

Among those receiving grants are the Allentown Economic Development Corp., which received $50,000 for a project to enhance the makerspace in the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown to focus on industrial arts instruction for local after-school programs.

Northampton County Area Community College Foundation received a grant for $35,000 for a cybersecurity laboratory and equipment to provide students expanded opportunities in this growing industry.

The Da Vinci Discovery Center of Science and Technology in Allentown received a grant of $45,000 for a teambuilding STEM competition for Allentown School District Fourth graders.

Earlier this year, the Foundation said it awarded $450,000 in sustaining grants to more than 70 community organizations. The PPL Foundation also contributed more than $2 million to support local United Way organizations.

This latest announcement brings the Foundation’s 2019 community contributions to more than $3 million.

Medical device manufacturer ready to move into bigger space

Jeff Tyber with one of the medical devices manufactured by Tyber Medical. (Submitted) –

A Dec. 9 ribbon cutting is planned for a major expansion effort at Tyber Medical LLC in the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park IV in Hanover Township, Northampton County.

The $8 million, 35,000-square-foot space is near the company’s existing location, which it moved to from Morristown, New Jersey in 2015, and will more than triple its office and manufacturing space.

Tyber Medical, a private label manufacturer of orthopedic and spinal implants, was founded in 2012. It moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2015, lured by a number of economic incentives from the state and what founder, Jeff Tyber, called the quality of life in the area.

“There’s a good quality of life here and a good mix of white collar and blue collar workers,” he said.

With the new facility, the company will hire about 30 new staffers. Tyber recently hired his 84th employee and hopes to be at 120 by the end of next year. “To give perspective, when we moved to Pennsylvania in 2015 we moved four positions from New Jersey.”

With the number of people Tyber is hiring and the specialized skills that will be needed, Tyber is tapping into funds offered by the stat, including $100,000 for training.

“A lot of the new equipment is state of the art automation. We’re introducing a lot of training and we’re taking a lot of help from the state for educating the workers,” he said.

While Tyber is moving most of its operations to the new facility, it will keep most of its space, about 8,000 square feet of the 12,000 available, at its original Lehigh Valley office,.

Most of the space will be used for regulatory work, advanced research and work with cells and bacteria, which makes up about 10 percent of the company’s workforce.


Debate over minimum wage is heating up and tipping is caught in the middle.

Conrad Flynn, a bartender and server at The Hamilton Kitchen & Bar in Allentown, said the industry offers strong mobility and is great for people looking to transition in careers. (Submitted) –

For the service worker, tips are a way of life.

Those who serve food or pour drinks, carry luggage, cut hair and polish nails all work in occupations where the customer largely determines how much their work is worth.

For those reasons some say the tipping system works. It’s also reason others say the system needs change; that having a separate, lower minimum wage for tipped workers results in worse economic outcomes for the worker and raises the potential for wage theft and discrimination.

So there are two arguments:

  • Taking away tips would deprive workers of pay they’ve earned for good service, resulting in a pay decrease and an incentive to leave the industry. It could also force service businesses such as restaurants to increase overhead costs.
  • If employers paid service workers a living wage, they would not have to rely on tips to make a living. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania should gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.83 an hour to federal level, $7.25.

Potential minimum wage hike

However, a minimum wage increase in the state could be around the bend.

In Pennsylvania, legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage for the first time since 2009 passed the state Senate on Nov. 20. The Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill, 42-7 to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage in four steps to $9.50 by 2022. The bill is working its way through the House of Representatives.

“This is really the middle ground where the business community came together,” said Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, based in Harrisburg. “$9.50 is a reasonable number. Tipped employees in our industry are making more than minimum wage. When you talk about increasing the tipped wage, who are you helping? You aren’t helping anyone at the end of the day.”

She described the compromise reached with the governor on the minimum wage increase as a reasonable one that would keep Pennsylvania competitive.

“I think the hospitality industry will continue to thrive because of it,” Bova said.

Employers in Pennsylvania can take a tip credit but must pay tipped employees at least $2.83 an hour. However, if an employee doesn’t earn enough in tips to bring the total compensation up to at least the full minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the employer must make up the difference, according an article by Aaron Hotfelder, posted on Nolo.com, a legal publisher based in Berkeley, California.

“At the end of the day, you have to make minimum wage,” Bova said. “The business has to make up for that. That is so rare that it’s not a problem.”


An American tradition

The tipping system is a uniquely American one.

In Europe, where the employer pays the server a flat rate with no tips, the level of service is significantly different, said Mike Axiotis, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group, a Red Robin franchisee with 2,000 employees across 21 locations in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania.

When workers receive tips, it allows them to deliver a greater level of service for the guests, Axiotis said.

“Being in the hospitality business, the ultimate goal is to deliver great service for guests,” Axiotis said.

Servers that earn a wage and tips earn greater than the federally proposed $15 per hour minimum flat rate wage increase, he added. A service worker in Pennsylvania earns an average of about $19 per hour, including tips. In many cases, it’s greater than that, Axiotis said.

“We don’t oppose a minimum wage increase but tips should not go away,” he said. “The current system is fine the way it’s set up. What’s being proposed at the state level is favorable to everyone.”


Tips will continue

John List, chief economist at Lyft and a professor at the University of Chicago does not believe minimum wage laws will have a deep impact on tipping. Most times, people pay about 15 percent to 20 percent of the bill in tips. If the wage goes up, they will simply pay more.

Minimum wage laws are more applicable to the behind-the-scenes workers at restaurants, such as dishwashers, List said. Either the servers or the employers should find a way to subsidize the pay of the behind-the-scenes workers, he added.

“I think tipping is here to stay,” List said. “Because if you look historically, powerful people have tried to get rid of it. It never dies because it’s a good way to reward high quality.”

Another leader in the restaurant industry agreed.

“[With] the tipping system that’s set up today, our average employee makes between $25 to $30 per hour,” said Jim Fris, CEO of PJW Restaurant Group, based in Westmont, New Jersey. Fris has more than 2,000 workers in restaurants under his group, including several P.J. Whelihan’s locations in the Lehigh Valley, Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern Jersey.

“Nobody gets paid $2.83 per hour,” Fris said. “They have to make at least minimum wage. The tipping allows the workers to earn greater than the minimum wage based on performance.”

Keep tips coming but pay workers more

Not everyone believes that having a separate minimum wage for tipped workers is beneficial.

One economic analyst said research indicates that the lower minimum for tipped workers perpetuates racial and gender inequities and results in worse economic outcomes for these workers.

David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, researched the two-tiered wage system for tipped workers in New York. In testimony before the state’s wage board in July 2018, he advocated for gradually raising New York’s lower minimum wage to the state’s regular minimum wage.

“There is no economic justification for maintaining a system where customers directly pay the bulk of wages for a business’s employee,” Cooper testified. “Consider the outrage that would ensue if other professions operated the same way.”

Cooper found that tipped workers were disproportionately women (70 percent) and that wage theft was acute in industries with large numbers of tipped workers because of a lack of enforcement.


Loss of flexibility

Meredith Morgan, a server at ChopHouse Grille in Exton, says she enjoys making people happy and serving them. (Submitted) –

Allowing workers to receive tips helps create an environment where service workers can enjoy flexible hours, incentives to give great service and opportunities for advancement according to proponents of the tipping system.

The restaurant industry is not 9 to 5, added Bova. The flexibility allows workers to work a lunch shift or other hours that fit their lifestyle, she said.

The flexibility in hours is one thing that attracts workers to the service industry, Axiotis added.

Meredith Morgan, a server at ChopHouse Grille in Exton, says she enjoys making people happy and serving them. If the tipping system were to change at the federal or state level and tips were taken away, she said she would have to find a new career.

“You’re not helping the servers, you’re hurting us,” she said. “The customers are going to suffer a lot.”

When Seattle did away with tipping, it was a huge hit to the gross income of hospitality workers, said Conrad Flynn, a bartender and server at The Hamilton Kitchen & Bar in Allentown.

“Culturally across the U.S., there probably isn’t an industry that has as much upward mobility and income ability as the hospitality industry,” Flynn said. “It’s an industry where someone who doesn’t have any skills can work themselves up and pretty quickly at that.”

Tipping is a larger reason for that, he added. There isn’t really anywhere else where it’s as culturally universal as it is in the U.S., he said.


Long history

Historically, there has been strong resistance to tipping at different points in time, List said. In 1915, six states abolished tipping and today, tipping brings in billions.

The unpredictability in income levels that comes from being a restaurant worker is something that Flynn sees as an advantage.

“You have to do some degree of looking after yourself,” Flynn said. “In the hospitality industry, it does teach a great deal of personal responsibility.”

He feels tipping is strongly supported in the U.S. and taking it away would take away many opportunities for lots of people.

Drawbacks and benefits

List sees both benefits and drawbacks to the tipping system.

“On one hand, tipping is really good because it rewards high quality and disciplines the server to try to give good service,” List said.

He can see the difference in the level of service at a Paris restaurant compared to one in New York, Philadelphia or Chicago.

“On the other, once tipping evolves to be a social norm, it evolves into a tax because you put the patron in a situation if they don’t pay a tip, they feel a pain in the heart,” List said. “Even for bad service, you have people giving a tip. In that way, it’s unjust and extortion.”

Those who don’t pay a tip feel they are being a stingy person.









A Conversation With: Phil Wenger, chairman and CEO of Fulton Financial Corp.

Phil Wenger –

Fulton Financial Corporation is a $21.7 billion holding company headquartered in Lancaster. It is the parent company of Fulton Bank, which has 225 offices in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia.

Phil Wenger, Chairman and CEO, began his career at Fulton Bank in 1979 as a management trainee, and his main focus throughout much of his career was on Fulton’s commercial business.

LVB: You recently transitioned your subsidiaries, such as the Lehigh Valley’s Lafayette Ambassador Bank, into the Fulton brand. Why did you do this and how is it helping your organization?

Wenger: Consolidating all our banks into Fulton Bank has been a strategic priority for several years. When we officially began the process two years ago, Fulton Financial owned six subsidiary banks across our five-state footprint.

The benefits of consolidating are twofold. First, it helps to provide clarity to our customers about who we are as a bank. Now, when they travel throughout our service area, they can easily find a Fulton office or ATM. They also can more easily associate Fulton Mortgage and Fulton Financial Advisors as part of our brand.

Second, the consolidation helps to simplify our internal processes so we can focus even more of our efforts on customer service.

Instead of maintaining six websites, answering to multiple regulators and repeating certain processes six times, we now have more streamlined processes.

In our markets where we’ve consolidated, customers will notice that we’ve maintained our previous teams and customer service model. Our goal was to make the transition as easy as possible for customers because banking should be simple.


LVB: Size-wise, Fulton is right on the edge between being a community bank and being a regional bank. How do you view your institution?

Wenger: We offer the breadth of products and services that customers would expect from a large regional bank, while maintaining the personal customer connections of a community bank.

At Fulton, we measure our success by the success of our customers. We are committed to knowing and helping them achieve their financial goals, which are unique for everyone. Our bank’s purpose is to change lives for the better, and our team has embraced this purpose.


LVB: What are the biggest challenges in the banking industry right now, and what would you like to see change?

Wenger: One trend we are seeing across many industries is the sophistication of cyber criminals.

Financial institutions are an attractive target for these types of criminals, and we are constantly advancing the tools we use to protect customer data.

The current rate environment is also a challenge for the industry. We’d been in a rising rate environment for more than a decade and we’ve seen three rate cuts in recent months. These rate cuts impact the customers’ return on deposits and banks’ returns on loans.
Fintech is also an exciting challenge for the industry. We’ve seen so much innovation over the past few years that is adding convenience for customers so they can focus more on their lives and less on the mechanics of banking.

We work hard to vet these new products for security and bring them to market as quickly as possible for customers.


LVB: Anything interesting on the horizon for Fulton?

Wenger: We are very excited for what 2020 holds for Fulton. We are finally in a position to acquire other financial institutions, which presents a real opportunity for us to grow and fill in our footprint in areas where we would like to increase our market share.

We’ve also seen a lot of projects and initiatives come to fruition in 2019, and we will begin to realize the benefits of these in the next year. For example, we recently launched a new commercial loan origination system that will help us service customer loans quicker and free up more time for our team to add value to our customer relationships.

We’re also in the process of implementing a new mortgage loan origination system that will make the path to homeownership even easier for customers.

We expanded in several new markets in 2019, including Philadelphia and Baltimore. We will continue to advance our name recognition in these markets while also examining other urban centers where we might have a positive impact on the community.

We’re also continuing to invest in serving the community through our Fulton Forward initiative, and we believe we’ll have the biggest impact yet in 2020.

Fulton Forward brings together corporate giving and employee volunteerism with a focus on giving back to the community in the areas of affordable housing, workforce development, financial education, and diversity and inclusion.

-Stacy Wescoe

United Airlines launches its newest regional plane at LVIA

United Airlines debuted its newest regional plane at LVIA and Harrisburg International airports. (Submitted) –

United Airlines introduced its newest regional plane as part of a national tour last week, offering travelers flying out of Lehigh Valley and Harrisburg International airports the opportunity to travel first-class on short regional trips.

During a stop at Harrisburg last week, United executives highlighted the features of the CRJ-550, a 50-seat, two-cabin aircraft, according to a news release.

United developed the regional plane with business customers in mind, many of whom travel between airports like Lehigh Valley International Airport in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, and United’s hub in Chicago.

The plane offers economy class seating in addition to economy, economy-plus and first-class seating. The planes have 20 seats in economy class, 20 in economy-plus and 10 in first-class.

The cabin offers more legroom, space for roller bags and a self-serve refreshment center for first-class passengers.

“Having this aircraft serving business travelers in the Lehigh Valley certainly enhances the customer experience at ABE [Allentown Bethlehem Easton airport] and makes our airport an attractive option for flights to Chicago,” said Thomas Stoudt, executive director of Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority. “You typically hear about aircraft leg room and comfort shrinking on passengers, but United has reversed that trend by transforming a 70-seat regional jet to 50 seats which creates a very comfortable cabin for everyone.”

United began offering the service on Oct. 27 and will continue to expand the service as it brings additional CRJ-550 aircraft into its fleet, said United officials.


There is no cookie-cutter succession plan

As a Mergers and Acquisitions Specialist, I advise many business owners regarding their exit strategies. I am also often asked to advise companies wishing to begin the succession planning process.

When it comes to succession planning, I begin by pointing out the obvious. The first seven letters of the word spell “Success.” Whatever else the process of succession planning produces, the successful transition from one leadership team to another should be your primary goal.  Following are a few key points to consider when planning a succession:

Succession planning is a journey, not a destination.  Don’t begin with a solution and backfill it with a rationale. Building a successful business is a deliberative process with many stops along the way. The same should be true of succession planning. Take time to consider your business’ present needs and work to anticipate its future needs. Identify people you judge best able to fill those needs.

Don’t be captive to tradition.  In a family business, there is every possibility the predictable choice may not be the right choice to lead your company into the future.  While the obvious choice may be a great son or daughter, he or she may not also be a great leader.  If this is the case, don’t be afraid to make a difficult choice.

Be creative.  Should you feel it best to pass over a candidate who expected to claim leadership of your company, work to determine a productive work-around. This is especially true in a family business, where lingering resentment is not a viable option. Identify that person’s skillset and help him or her to achieve their full potential. For example, ask that person to establish and manage a scholarship fund for inner city youth.

View your company through a prism. Financial management, customer relations, community relations, building and property maintenance, sales management, service management and product knowledge are just a few areas of expertise needed to successfully run many businesses.  While one heir may have the right personality to manage the front of the house, a second heir may be more comfortable running the back of the house. While one heir may be a savant regarding your company’s product line, another may be a whiz with financial management. See yourself as being a conductor who combines the gifts of all orchestra members to produce beautiful music.

Succession plans should not be written in ink. Circumstances change over time.  People’s priorities change over time. Be prepared to change the names and lines on your succession plan as needed.

Embrace succession. It would be easy to view your company’s succession plan as an elegy for yourself. You could also view it as a constructive activity leading to your company’s rebirth.  This is an opportunity to choose the right leader and leadership team for the present and future of your company. Your industry has changed since when you founded it. The competitive landscape has changed. Government regulations and compliance guidelines have changed.  New leadership should be chosen based on its ability to succeed in this new environment.

Make a clean break.  When Vito Corleone passes leadership of his crime family to his son Michael in The Godfather, he tells his former lieutenants to fully accept Michael’s authority. He doesn’t remain a shadowy presence, ready to muddy the water at every opportunity. This clean break enables Michael to fully inhabit his leadership role.

Give your successors permission to build their own teams. By giving your successors permission to build their own teams, you are increasing their likelihood of success. Legacy team members must be willing to accept the authority of the new leader, or be given the opportunity to join a new team.

Choose your successor for the right reasons.  Your most loyal deputy may score off the chart for fidelity, but below average when it comes to decision-making. If fidelity were the key attribute of a successful leader, then dogs would inhabit all corner offices.

Make grooming your successors one of your most important jobs. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, his Vice President Harry Truman had a lot of catching up to do. Share your experience, knowledge and wisdom generously with those who will succeed you.

Plan for yourself. Maybe you want to start a new company. Serve as a mentor. Join a board. Assume leadership of your residential association. Start a blog. As a successful businessperson, you have a lot to give.


Michael Lamm is a Managing Partner at Corporate Advisory Solutions, a boutique merchant bank headquartered in Philadelphia and serving Lehigh Valley businesses. Michael can be reached at [email protected] or 202-904-7192.

Tourism brings $1.2B to Lehigh Valley says authority

Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest in Bethlehem, was among the speakers at the Discover Lehigh Valley annual meeting. (Photo submitted) –

The Lehigh Valley had 16.5 million visitors in the fiscal year that ended June 30. At its annual meeting, Discover Lehigh Valley, the tourism authority for Lehigh and Northampton Counties, reported that those visits generated about $1.2 billion in visitor spending and overnight trips.

“Travel and tourism to Lehigh Valley is stronger than ever. Our annual findings show tourism plays a crucial role in building our local communities and economies, as well as the importance of strategically positioning Lehigh Valley as a top destination,” said Alex Michaels, president and CEO for Discover Lehigh Valley.

The figures were from the authority’s DestinationNEXT Futures Study.

Discover Lehigh Valley honored a number of businesses and leaders from across the region for efforts to strengthen local tourism in the last year:

  • The Spirit of Tourism Award was presented to Joan Hanscom, executive director of Valley Preferred Cycling Center for her industry expertise, leadership and accomplishments that add value to the visitor’s experience.
  • The Partnership Award was presented to Wind Creek Bethlehem for being a partner that consistently goes above and beyond in promoting the region and driving visitor engagement.
  • The Zenith Award was presented to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. This award recognizes an organization responsible for hosting a large-scale meeting that brought a strong economic impact to Lehigh Valley.
  • The Tourism Award was presented to City Center Allentown. This honor is given to a local business or initiative that joined the local tourism community in the past year and aided in enhancing the Lehigh Valley brand.

Discover Lehigh Valley also announced it will be launching a Certified Tourism Ambassador program in collaboration with Northampton Community College. CTA is an industry-recognized certification that educates local professionals on a destination’s brand experience.

Business community celebrates launch of stuffed marshmallow factory

Held appropriately enough on International Entrepreneurs’ Day, a celebration was held at the new chocolate-stuffed marshmallow manufacturing facility that will be bringing s’more than 130 jobs to the Lehigh Valley.

The brain child of entrepreneur, Mike Tierney, who just celebrated his 30th birthday last week, Stuffed Puffs is the newest manufacturer in a growing field of food manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley.

Already operating out of The Factory incubator in Bethlehem and manufactured in Wisconsin, Stuffed Puffs will be able to drastically increase production in the new 150,000-square-foot plant at 3900 Burgess Place in Hanover Township, Northampton County. The added production capacity will allow Stuffed Puffs to grow from its current exclusive partnership with Walmart to be available in retailers nationally by mid-2020.

The building was developed and is owned by J.G. Petrucci Co.

Having moved from Scottsdale, Arizona to the Lehigh Valley to take advantage of the services of The Factory, which provides capital, testing space and mentoring to startups in the food and pet industry, Tierney said the success his company is now experiencing was a long time in coming.

Speaking to a crowd gathered at the facility launch, Tierney said the idea actually started around a camp fire about 11-years ago, when he was a freshman in college.

While making s’mores he thought it would be so much easier to make the sloppy but tasty treats if he could make marshmallows stuffed with chocolate.

“I wasn’t the first person with the idea. I probably wasn’t even the 100th person with the idea,” Tierney said.

What he did have is persistence, “or stubbornness” he quipped. He never let the idea drop and eventually found venture capitalists willing to back him.

“I don’t know if they saw the vision or they were just degenerate gamblers,” he said, but they gave him the backing he needed to start researching how to make product.

The big challenge came in trying to find a supplier. He said plenty of people he talked to said they liked his concept, but it had been tried before and always failed.

But he persisted, and eventually caught the eye of Walmart, which was willing to give him a contract.

He was ready to roll, but as it turned out – getting those chocolate centers in the marshmallows was as difficult as people predicted and he couldn’t fill the order.

He said it was Richard Thompson of FreshPet fame, and the other partners in The Factory that came to his rescue.

Thompson had already invested in another one of Tierney’s ventures, Mikey’s Better Food Baking Co., and he offered him the support of the Factory to help develop the new product.

“The thing about Richard and the Factory is that this is more than just a private equity fund. There are plenty of people out there with capital to invest. What’s great about Richard is his experience and his willingness to help with startups,” Tierney said.

Thompson said he was drawn to Tierney’s energy and determination and knew that he could help Stuffed Puffs not only become a successful product, and a significant employer in the region, he would help inspire others to bring their startups and build the synergy that is growing in the Lehigh Valley’s food manufacturing industry.

He also noted that The Factory isn’t the only assistance that Stuffed Puff and Tierney are receiving. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development has stepped forward with a number of grants, loans and tax credits to get the facility up and running.

Tierney also made a famous friend to help promote his product. Internationally known DJ Marshmello is partnering with Stuffed Puff on marketing, a deal Tierney said he was able to make after “email stalking” the DJ’s manager and business partner, Moe Shalizi.

Shalizi said he had already been in negotiations for the DJ to market a major, well-known marshmallow brand when he finally broke down and opened one of Tierney’s many emails and was impressed enough that he turned down the big brand to align with the Stuffed Puff startup.

“We’re both young and we both have an entrepreneurial spirit, so we decided to join in on the ride with Mikey,” Shalizi said.

DJ Marshmello will be using his various digital platforms and fan base to help get the word out about the new stuffed marshmallow product.

Stuffed Puffs are already in stores and Tierney said he hopes to have his new factory up and running and staffed by summer of 2020, with the first batch of Lehigh Valley-made marshmallows shipping by mid-July.

Sweet Spot golf-suite restaurant tees off tonight

Terry Ellis demonstrates his swing in one of the golf simulators at the Sweet Spot in Allentown. (Photo by Stacy Wescoe) – –

A grand opening is planned tonight at a new place for food and entertainment in Allentown.

The Sweet Spot is a Topgolf Swing Suite, but owner Terry Ellis said this location is different from many other Topgolf Swing Suites in that it comes with a full restaurant and bar.

Located in a spot that was most recently a Rodizio Grill Brazillian Steakhouse,  the Sweet Spot is one of more than 40 Topgolf Swing Suites in the country, but Ellis said to his knowledge it’s the only one that’s part of a restaurant, which he said adds to the entertainment and gives people more reason to go there.

With a menu of casual bar fare with a golf theme, and an emphasis on Ellis’ food favorite, pulled pork, simulated sports fans can find a large array of burgers, sandwiches and flatbreads as well as craft cocktails and coffees.

But, of course, the main attraction is the golf simulator, where golfers can take a swing on any of 84 different golf courses, including pebble beach.

The catch is, instead of putting on the green, balls are shot into the screen the game is being projected onto.

“We actually like to call it augmented reality because you’re using a real golf club and real golf balls,” Ellis said.

And yes, the projection screen can take the abuse.

“They’re engineered pretty well. We estimated we’ll need to replace them twice a year based on activity,” he said.

Besides playing a full 18 holes, or 9 if one is looking for a quick game, there are different golf skill games available, and Ellis is looking to set up leagues.

“I like to say it’s like a bowling alley, but with golf,” he said.

Not everyone is a golf fan, however, and since Ellis wants his restaurant to be fun for families too, there are games ranging from kicking soccer goals to zombie dodgeball that can be played in the golf simulator.

The Sweet Spot is open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. – midnight Friday and Saturday.

The grand opening is set for 5:30 p.m. tonight.

Suites can be rented for $45 an hour during off peak times – before 5 p.m. weekdays and for $60 an hour during peak times.