The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce presents small business awards every year to four area outfits. This year's winners are:
1 to 20 employees
Winner: A Silverware Affair
Runner-ups: Episode 49, Office Furniture Warehouse
21 to 50 employees
Winner: Allied Eye Associates
Runner-ups: Chattanooga Business Machines, Hullco Exteriors
50 to 200 employees
Runner-ups: Rock City, Ruby Falls
Winner: Chattanooga Kids on the Block
Runner-ups: Lifeline Inc., McKamey Animal Center
A little more than four years ago, Tara Plumlee was struggling to keep her Atlanta restaurant open.
Today, she's morphed that restaurant into a Chattanooga-based, million-dollar-a-year catering business, earning her recognition as the area's best business of its size.
"My life is work, work, work, go home and oh -- work some more," she said. "It's a lot of hard work for us finally coming to fruition."
Plumlee cried tears of joy Wednesday morning when her catering company, A Silverware Affair, was declared the small business of the year for companies with fewer than 21 employees. The award not only gave the business recognition in front of about 1,000 Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce members, but was a reminder for Plumlee that the long hours spent nursing her business are leading to real growth.
Plumlee grew up in the food service industry. She started working at her father's Chattanooga restaurant Rib and Loin at 13. After she left for school and earned a master's degree in entrepreneurship, she followed in her father's footsteps, opening a restaurant in Atlanta.
But the restaurant didn't make enough to keep the doors open. Plumlee had to find some extra ways to squeeze money out of the business, so she started a catering service. She soon realized she was better off selling 300 meals in an hour at a catered event than selling one sandwich in an hour at a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Now she's back in Chattanooga, where she can easily drive her food and equipment to Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham -- wherever she can find customers and expand her business.
"It's just doing what the clients want," she said. "I just keep going and I never stop."
That kind of growth can be difficult to cultivate, especially when running a small operation in a sea of Chattanooga companies.
"Sometimes they don't get the recognition they deserve because they are a small business and they aren't doing something that gets the attention of the rest of the world," said Tom Edd Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Chamber. "We commend them for what they do every day. It's tough starting a small business."
Wilson hopes his group's award will help. Winners are selected by a panel of volunteer business owners involved with the chamber, and ultimately receive a big marketing and moral bump with the win.
Sheryl Friedman, who joined A Silverware Affair soon after Plumlee's launch, said constant growth has been an exciting challenge. She remembers making hors d'oeuvres in Plumlee's home kitchen when the business started. Now she's cooking in a 4,000-square-foot kitchen which they're thinking about expanding.
"The goal is to control the growth," she said. "We just keep bursting at the seams."