Expanded showroom                                                                                              

Ironmark, Annapolis Junction

With its market rising, Ironmark recently expanded its promotional product showroom. It features more than 1,000 products that range from apparel and headwear to executive and technology gifts, with costs ranging from less than $1 or more than $100 to help businesses brand and promote their companies, reward employees and thank customers. 

And while online purchasing increased during the COVID-19 shutdown, it also underscored the many occasions where an old-school visit to a brick-and-mortar location is the better approach. “If you’re going to buy 500 of an item with your logo, you’ll want to see it in person,” said company Vice President of Strategic Development Janice Tippett, who recently sold her firm, Millennium Marketing Solutions, to Ironmark. 

Tippett also pointed out that a client who visited the showroom “ordered three items they hadn’t thought of buying,” noting Ironmark’s partnerships with Under Armour, Igloo, YETI, Nike, Sony and many others.     

Another benefit of clients visiting in person “is that they can tour the facility,” she said, “and see how a fully-integrated firm operates. That includes a firsthand look at some of the most sophisticated digital printing equipment, including the HP Digital Press, in the region.” 

Growing workforce

Soft Stuff Distributors, Jessup

Lois Gamerman, CEO of Soft Stuff Distributors, a food service firm, had a big April: she was named Maryland’s Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration; in addition, the state of Maryland named Gamerman and her COO husband, Bob, as Business People of the Year.

That can happen when your company emerges from COVID-19 with a 45% increase in revenues from 2019, with current revenues exceeding $25 million.

But at the start of the pandemic, life was tough. “Our customer base was every public place the government shut down,” said Lois Gamerman, “but we knew we would swivel and move forward.”

How? After COVID-19 hit, “We had our sales force back on the street by June 2020,” she said, “and they established 753 new restaurant and cafe customers in metropolitan Washington within a year.”

So the reason for the rebound “was our amazing ‘Stuffies,’” Gamerman said of Soft Stuff’s staff. “We initially laid off 27 employees but brought most of them back when the Paycheck Protection Program money came in. Today, we’re up to 54 employees, but still need a dozen more as we expand into the cold storage and the third-party logistics sectors.”

5-year contract

Forte, Columbia

With mental wellness becoming a more front-of-mind health topic, a local startup is taking an unusual approach to addressing the issue of expense, as well as access for underserved populations.

Forte (nee Paraclete) is only 18 months old, but already has a five-year contract with an undisclosed Fortune 500 client with “thousands of employees,” said CEO Vineet Rajan, “as well Google and other venture capital or private-equity-backed companies in such industries as insurance, education and blockchain.”

A member of the Maryland Innovation Center, the company was founded with a $1.5 million infusion and 10 employees, and is also “in conversation with several counties and states, though none in Maryland yet,” Rajan said.

The Forte model “recognizes that no matter what you do, we are all susceptible to the human condition,” he said, adding that clients work not with “an expensive psychologist, but a guide from one of many fields (social workers, executive coaches, counselors) that we train for our platform.”

Forte’s clients can already speak to guides in seven different languages and deliver weekly content, “with more coming every day.” said Rajan. “It’s a proven fact that when people talk, they feel better, and those of all ethnicities and socio-economic classes deserve to be known, valued and treated well.” 

Staci Samaras stands inside The Collective ― Offshore/Encore, a new restaurant she opened with her partners in Downtown Columbia. (TBM / Jason Whong)

 ‘We want to do it right’

The Collective ― Offshore/Encore, Columbia

Area music fans may know Staci Samaras and her husband, Randy Smith, from their band, Foreplay. As a local act, they’re always looking for places to perform; so when the couple saw that Clyde’s and The Soundry were closing, Samaras “was on the phone the next day.

“We play halls across the region such as Rams Head On Stage, The Hamilton, Tally Ho Theatre, etc. “Columbia needed a similar venue,” she said.

But Howard Hughes Corp. wanted one operator to lease both spaces, “so we found a restaurant partner” ― who turned out to be Josh Butts, whose dossier includes management at such bistros as The Capital Grille and Del Frisco’s, and co-owning the HoCo Brew Hive, in Ellicott City ― “where we live and he is the operating partner,” said Samaras. “We’ve seen how he focuses on the community, which is crucial.”

So Samaras, Smith, Butts and his wife, Joyce, and HHC eventually worked out a multiyear lease and opened in early May, featuring coastal cuisine, “from the Carolinas up to Maine, with a good splash of Maryland,” she said. “Everything is fresh and seasonal.”

The early response “has been awesome,” Samaras said. “We feel that we’re stewards of this iconic space and we want to do it right.”


Franck la Scelta Clothing, Columbia

Upon first glance, it may sound like Franklin Asah, owner of Franck la Scelta Clothing, had his retail approach backward: the custom clothier has been online-only for 13 years, but just recently invested $500,000 to open its first brick-and-mortar location in the Columbia Marketplace Shopping Center.

Franklin Asah, CEO of Franck la Scelta Clothing, held a grand opening in March at the company’s first storefront in the Columbia Marketplace Shopping Center. (Submitted photo)

“We’ve matured and needed to make that move,” said Asah. “The warehouse has moved from my basement to the back of the store. Today, we have about 4,000 pairs of custom-made shoes, plus 6,000 suits, shirts and pants.”

The shoes range from $400 to $500 a pair, and the cost of a custom suit starts at $1,500. “It takes six weeks for custom orders that come from Italy,” he said, noting the house also offers an ample inventory of ready-to-wear styles.

It’s been a slow, steady rise for the business, which started with four ready-to-wear suits that cost a total of $600. “You have to look at our market from a global perspective, given the diversity of this area,” said Asah, adding that he hopes to expand next year “and eventually open 10 stores in the region and beyond.

“You won’t find what we have,” he said, “in any other store in Columbia.”

Caption: Franklin Asah, CEO of Franck la Scelta Clothing, held a grand opening in March at the company’s first storefront in the Columbia Marketplace Shopping Center. (Submitted photo)