Aurora Chamber recognizes sweet and savoury side of commerce at Business Excellence Awards

The best and brightest of Aurora’s business community were recognized last month as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce hosted their annual Business Excellence gala.

Held on September 21 at the Royal Venetian Mansion on Industrial Parkway North, the theme of the evening was “all that glitters is gold,” but the awards served as a metaphorical blue ribbon for some of Aurora’s tastiest destinations: Hurst Bakery and Frank’s Organic Garden.

Both businesses, one that has served the community for more than 30 years, and one that opened at the height of the global pandemic, shared top honours in the Hospitality category, in a race which also included Café Alexandria on Leslie Street.

The Hursts said they first opened their business in 1986, just a few yards south of their current location, and have strived to be a more traditional bakery with time-tested favourites, versus one that follows all the latest culinary trends.

“We haven’t tried to be the next craze, the next fad, the next what’s-next-in-the-Instagram world; we’ve tried to be consistent with our product line, consistent with the quality of products, and just stay the course,” they said. “We’re both literally born and raised in this Town and [Aurora’s] still small enough that we do know a lot of people and over the years we’ve gotten to know our customer base and our regular customers quite, quite well.

“It’s a generational thing; we’ve hired young kids whose parents had worked here. Through the school networks, we hire part-time kids who bring their friends in, and they bring their siblings in. It just keeps perpetuating itself. We welcome their input, we welcome their creativity. They hunger for responsibility. They want to learn. They want to be creative, and we just help them along that path. I can’t say enough about [our staff].”

A relative newcomer to the culinary scene – but certainly not a newcomer to Aurora business and industry – Frank Stronach’s Frank’s Organic Garden on First Commerce Drive shared the spotlight.

“Everything we serve is organic from start to finish,” said Jess Ostlund of Frank’s Organic Garden. “Our concept here is everything that you eat in our restaurant you can eat out in our retail store, and you can take it home either fresh, frozen or ready to eat. We developed [the] Frank’s Organic brand and designed each and every bottle, jar and dish from scratch. We created these great recipes and we felt they belonged on our shelfs.”

Added Stronach: “I am very heavily in the car industry, but about 15 years ago I decided I wanted to go into the food industry for a separate reason. I had a concern that when I looked at kids, most of the kids have allergies and I wondered how come?”

From Ostlund’s perspective, there are more “chemicals” in food now than ever before and it was time to “take a step back” and make foods the way they were intended, with “clean, healthy, pure ingredients.”

“That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Ostlund continued. “We talk about our not-for-profit organization called GUHAH – Growing Up Healthy and Happy – and what we believe is kids really need to get back to basics: growing vegetables in the dirt. We created an education centre alongside our greenhouse so kids can come in and understand how food is cooked. Grades 1 to 6 can spend half a day in our summer gardens and greenhouses in the wintertime and from grades 7 to 12, they can spend a full day in our operations, understanding how organic food is grown, raised, managed, and then processed.”

The Manufacturer Award went to a company that has helped quench thirst – and keep employees caffeinated – at the office for generations: Bunn, which has been in Canada since 1964 and Aurora from the 1980s. Other nominees in the category were Circhoff Automotive and Treasure Mills.

“We manufacture beverage equipment for all over the world, but primarily we sell them in Canada and have a presence all over the world,” said Bunn in the video accompanying their nomination. “Commercial beverage equipment is our specialty: coffee, tea, slushies, juice, iced coffee. We employ about 230 employees currently and at Bunn Canada… our operations… we actually assemble equipment and we have office areas such as customer service, finance, HR, IT, so we’re unique in that we’re the sole manufacturer of beverage equipment in Canada which gives us a real competitive edge when we sell our products, locally.

“We participate in all kinds of things like Southlake, where we support the Run for Southlake. We have done a big bike run in the past and we support those and all sorts of different cancer society, Heart and Stroke. It increases employee engagement, which is very important to us and some supports in the global communities. We have employees who have been with us since they were 18 years old and retired here. I have been told we hire to retire, which is one of our mottos.”

18 to retired is the case for many family-run businesses in the community, and is certainly true for Omars Shoes, which took home the trophy in the Family-Run Business category, alongside nominees Aurora Home Hardware and Carcone.

Omars Shoes was founded by Omar Khamissa in 1970 and is currently run by his son, Raz, daughter-in-law, Mae, and their daughter Saarah, the third generation to be in the shoe game.

“Business has changed so much from back then. There was no online shopping. The only competition we had was Upper Canada Mall,” said Raz. “Now there’s so many shoe stores and online shopping. Service is what’s kept us carrying on and that’s what allows us to keep up with everybody else. We believe the secret to our success is selection and service and we try to treat our customers the way I would like to be treated, the way we would like to be treated. Just be nice, be friendly and helpful.

“We do believe that if you support your community your community will support you. That philosophy has been right from when my parents ran the business. My dad was involved in the July 1 Committee and the Library Board. He was one of the original members of the Chamber of Commerce, also very influential in getting no long-distance charges from Aurora to Toronto, and we have tried to continue that. Probably the thing we’re the most proud of is we’re involved with The Able Network. I believe the future of Omars is right beside me, having the third generation. Saarah loves being involved in the store and she loves everything about it. She’s so proud to get us from 51 years to longer.”

Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran