The third “almost-annual” Spark Soldotna Small Business Scholarship Program and Shark Tank Event, held Friday at Lone Moose Lodge, tasked four local business owners — the sharks — with reviewing proposals and selecting a recipient of a $4,000 grant to promote growth in Soldotna and the Central Kenai Peninsula. The top prize went to The Pony Keg, a trio of local women who are operating a mobile bar for weddings, birthday parties and more.
Ahead of the event, Shanon Davis, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, said 17 qualified applicants submitted proposals, which the sharks whittled down to four finalists who gave in-person presentations before the sharks and a crowd of attendees.
“One of these businesses is going to walk away tonight with a $4,000 scholarship to enhance their business, but all will walk away with insight from our panel of sharks, and hopefully a lot of encouragement,” Davis said.
The sharks were Tyson Cox, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and owner of AK Rentals; Tanya Lautaret of Homer Electric Association; Jill Schaefer, business owner and head of the Kenai Peninsula Office of Governor Dunleavy; and Chuck Winters of Airport Equipment Rentals.
The four listened to each proposal, questioned the contestants, then deliberated before returning with the final call and awarding the grand prize to The Pony Keg — then surprising the other three contestants with prize money as well. Runner-up Saltzy Soda and Sweets received $1,000, while Tundra Electronics and Mindful Food Dispatch received $500.
“Excitement” was the tone as the sharks were deliberating, Schaefer said in an interview after the novelty checks were passed out. “It’s so fun to give away money to help a business start.”
“Our community is so good at really embracing that entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s always fun to see what people came up with,” Schaefer said.
Giving money to all four contestants was a surprise, with only the $4,000 prize announced before Lautaret stood up and announced the additional checks.
They bring the bar
The Pony Keg, which took home a $4,000 check, is a beverage catering service — including alcoholic beverages — that can be hired for weddings, parties and other events. Owners Anna Mercier and Samantha Pyfer presented, opening with a skit featuring Pyfer and a friend as Bride DIY and Bride Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That.
They drew a comparison between someone planning a wedding and doing it all themselves — purchasing drinks, watching the bar, handling ice, trash cans, and more — with someone who hired their service, The Pony Keg, a trailer that can be deployed anywhere.
Mercier explained that they are able to operate without dealing with a liquor license because they don’t provide the alcohol, instead charging their client with the necessary drinks to form the menu, and only serving those drinks — they’ve already gotten the clear to operate in this way.
“As long as we’re on private property, and as long as we’re not purchasing the alcohol, we can supply the rest,” Mercier said.
Their mobile beverage cart is already designed and functioning, Mercier said, and even saw some action ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. It features a four-tap kegerator, a commercial grade three-basin sink, water, electric, “all the things.” The prize money will mostly go toward advertising.
Mercier and Pyfer also said they are ready and willing to adapt, doing parties for kids without alcohol — such as a hot chocolate bar. Pyfer said they can even dress the part.
“You want clowns? We got clowns,” she said.
That innovative nature is what made them stand out, Schaefer said.
Speaking about all of the pitches, she said, “Some of the presenters gave ideas that people are really wanting to see in the community. That can impact it not only in a positive way, but almost for different generations, such as the Pony Keg — birthday parties to weddings — it’s nice to see people just be so innovative that they can customize their business for anything that the community needs.”
Mercier and Pyfer are hoping to launch in a big way next summer, saying in an interview after winning the prize money that they hope to be booked out for every weekend. They will advertise, make an appearance at a wedding expo in Anchorage, and ideally make appearances at other events like Frozen River Fest.
“Part of our inspiration for this idea was to create opportunities for moms that have limited schedules to be able to work,” Mercier told the Clarion. “Our idea is to have people sign up for shifts, and we’ll have as many employees as want to work for us.”
“We’ll finally be able to advertise and get ourselves out there,” Pyfer said. “We’ve been wanting to, wanting to, but when can you actually save up that kind of money?”
Sodas, phone cases and a subscription service for local produce
Saltzy Soda and Sweets was pitched by JaNae Saltzman, who said she moved to Alaska three years ago and has worked for Tesla on the solar power side for nearly 10 years.
“This place is kind of magical, and I feel like I could contribute to the magic in my own weird quirky way,” she said. “I am so sick of just Dairy Queen and McDonald’s late at night for a treat.”
Her restaurant, which Saltzman said would both need to be something of a rustic hangout and have a drive-thru, would sell Alaska-inspired sodas and cookies. She presented a fully designed menu with prices complete with discounts for military and for seniors who provide a word of wisdom — for a wisdom wall that will be featured.
The restaurant wouldn’t be able to begin actual development until well into next year, Saltzman said. She will be out of commission early next year for an ear surgery. Her goal is to lock in a location within the next year, and she said that she would need lots of money to realize her “brainchild.” Some of the $4,000 would have been used to pay a friend who runs a similar chain of restaurants in Idaho for her time as a consultant, she said.
Saltzman said she had her eye on the closed COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Y in Soldotna and the location currently held by the Soldotna Urgent Care across the street from Blazy’s Soldotna Mall for possible locations that could accommodate her drive-thru.
Richard C. Rogers presented on behalf of his company, Tundra Electronics, which has developed and successfully patented a heating system for electronics in cold weather. He said the tech was important because a significant amount of the world’s population lives in areas with cold weather — which has a negative impact on electronic devices.
His product is a variety of cases and bags that insulate and actively warm the electronics, keeping them in working order. One phone case, he said, cost $800. It was tested at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Engineering Department, and has successfully kept equipment working at 40 degrees below zero for an hour, with the team pushing for colder and longer.
Rogers said he’s already seen interest from Alaska Airlines, who have purchased a set of prototypes for testing on the cold runways, and he said he’s been in contact with Delta Airlines and the Arctic Warriors at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
The money, he said, would have been used to purchase special lithium ion components for the batteries, and to pay a member of the team who is writing programs and motherboards for the product.
Anastasia Scollon and Willow King, of Mindful Living Collective, who currently operate two businesses within The Goods + Sustainable Grocery & Where It’s At! in Soldotna, proposed a subscription-based delivery service for local, organic and high quality ingredients called the Mindful Food Dispatch.
Each delivery would include a variety of ingredients as well as instructions and video links for serving and cooking ideas. The two said the project is about connecting local products with those who need them.
“We always prioritize Alaska grown first,” King said.
The service would begin by delivering to Kasilof, then ideally expand through Nikiski, Sterling, and “big hopes and dreams to expand over towards Seward and Cooper Landing.”
Scollon said that the money would have been used for advertising and for repairing a delivery van that their organization already owns.
“It works great, just the door handles are not conducive to opening and closing, ” she said.
“We’ve been climbing in and out of the windows,” King said.
A question that the sharks asked each contestant was about growth and scalability — asking each of them if they could and how they could scale up their business should it catch on. Rogers said scaling up Tundra Electronics would mean diversifying the sourcing of materials and partnering with manufacturers. Scollon and King said that financially, their delivery service was scalable, but that it would be limited by the production and the engagement of local growers. Saltzman said she wanted to grow her business by recruiting and mentoring a team of local youth.