By Neil Johnson
The Janesville Gazette, Wis.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Clarissa Taylor’s “Sweet Velvet Cake Company” won the grand prize in the “Block 42 Business Challenge.” Taylor’s prize is a payout organizers say is worth upwards of $40,000. The winnings will cover a blend of free and sharply reduced rent for three years at a storefront being renovated as part of a revitalization project in downtown Janesville.
It’s going to be cake. And probably downtown Janesville’s only Brazilian brigadeiros.
Which apparently are small, truffle-like treats (with sprinkles on top?).
A panel of judges decided Tuesday night that Janesville cake maker Clarissa Taylor’s Sweet Velvet Cake Company had the strongest business model and was the best fit to fill a storefront being renovated as part of Quint and Rishy Studer’s North Main Street redevelopment downtown.
Taylor won the grand prize in a final “Shark Tank”-style round that capped off the months-long Block 42 Business Challenge.
The Studers organized the challenge to find an entrepreneur whose plans could fit the motif of a set of retail shops and a bistro they plan to open in Block 42 by early October.
Taylor faced off against seven other finalists who pitched their business plans to volunteer judges in the upper floor at Block 42.
The building is nearing the end of its million-dollar rehab. The work has transformed of one of the oldest sets of storefronts in downtown Janesville into a retail showplace of sculpted balconies and sleek, interconnected spaces.
Taylor’s prize is a payout organizers said was worth upwards of $40,000. The winnings will cover a blend of free and sharply reduced rent for three years and finishing work for the 1,100 square feet of retail space at 117 N. Main St.–a former tavern space that sits on the southern end of Block 42.
Taylor’s competitors included a custom ice cream and candy maker, an all-natural essential oils company, two niche interior decorating startups and an entrepreneur who pitched a saltwater flotation therapy business.
Since May, the contest has rolled out through a set of seminars and business development clinics organized by the Studers, Janesville business stakeholders and UW-Whitewater business school faculty.
The contest initially drew 40 entrepreneurs. The goal, organizers said, was to launch a set of contest finalists whose plans might be strong enough to find a home in downtown Janesville even if they did not win the challenge.
As challenge organizer Bekki Kennedy announced her as the winner Tuesday, Taylor jumped up and down in a black and white striped dress and Chuck Taylor sneakers. She shed tears of joy and hugged everyone in the crowd of about 200 onlookers who rushed to offer her congratulations.
“I’m shocked. I’m still shocked,” Taylor said after the announcement.
Taylor has worked out of coffee shops in Janesville and Milton since launching her specialty wedding and cupcake business seven years ago.
With the help of her husband, local website developer Mark Taylor, she has worked to build her business with custom wedding and special event cake orders for customers locally and as far away as Chicago.
Taylor said she’s honored to find a home downtown.
“I was raised in Beloit, and I’ve seen the way that downtown has come around, changed for the better. Living in Janesville, I want that for the downtown here. I believe in that, and I guess I’m very proud that I can be a part of that,” she said.
Taylor believes her shop’s main thrust will be cakes by order, but she also envisions a sit-down section for families to eat cake, cupcakes and other treats by the slice. She believes her business won in part because she creates uniquely styled cakes and a few offerings nobody else in Janesville makes–including brigadieros and French macarons.
The Block 42 competition’s organizers orchestrated Tuesday’s final round as an invite-only gala event at the North Main Street storefronts, which eventually will house part of Rishy Studer’s Bodacious Shops–a trio of niche retail stores that when open later this month will include a specialty olive oil, bread and culinary spices shop, a chopped salad bistro and coffee, wine and cheese shop.
A local manager said the shops will open Oct. 1 and eventually will employ about 30 people.
Quint Studer, a former Janesville resident and former owner of a national hospital industry consulting firm, bought the Block 42 buildings late in 2015. That December, he announced plans to rehab them for new retail.
The Studers ran a similar contest a few years ago in Pensacola, Florida, where they live, to try to fill storefronts they had redeveloped in a struggling, hurricane-battered part of the downtown.
Quint Studer said in an earlier interview that the Pensacola contest drew enough contestants with solid ideas and business plans that five of the finalists eventually opened shops downtown.
He said he hoped launching the same kind of plan in downtown Janesville could be a catalyst to help revitalize commerce here, too.