By Sally Voth
The Northern Shenandoah Valley is home to a vast array of small and mid-sized businesses that have managed to survive - and, in some cases, thrive - in a down economy.
When Karl Roulston started Regulus Group in May 2002, he was the lone employee. Now, the Woodstock-based systems engineering firm has 79 employees - two just started earlier this month - in its four offices.
The lead-up to the fiscal cliff provided some tense moments for the firm, which also has offices in New Jersey, Oklahoma and Washington D.C.
"This past year we've actually managed to have some growth in our business," Roulston said. "And, there was quite a bit of concern - almost near-panic - with mostly our Congress. We do business with the federal government, almost exclusively with the Federal Aviation Administration."
The FAA was facing a "tremendous arbitrary cut," he said, which would've seriously impacted the firm.
"In spite of all that, we did manage to have some growth, added new positions and had new opportunities open up in different areas of the FAA," Roulston said.
And, last month, Pollywog Place, a curriculum-based, technology-focused daycare owned by Regulus Group, opened a Strasburg location. The first Pollywog Place opened last year in Woodstock. Roulston said about 30 people work at the two facilities.
In Front Royal, Colin Mason is living out his childhood dream - making movies. He and co-owner Mike Powell took their business, Mirandum Pictures, full time last April.
The video production company has mainly worked on nonprofit promotional videos, but also has done documentaries, and recently made a music video, Mason said. He said their public service announcements are shown on the screens at Royal Cinemas. They also hope to do feature films.
"We're actually working on a short film right now for the DC Shorts Film Festival," Mason said. "The work has been coming in pretty steadily, and our workload has been increasing a lot.
"It's fantastic. It's been exciting and scary. All the words [you'd hear] if you talk to a small business."
Mason said he's wanted to make movies for a living "ever since I was little."
Mirandum Pictures is similar to any other small business in the area "with just a few people that are not making tons of money a year, but just enough to get by," said Mason.
He said he and Powell have brought on a part-time business manager and hope to hire a salesperson.
Being located in the Shenandoah Valley isn't holding them back.
"Our clients are all over the Eastern Seaboard," Mason said. "We even have some in Canada. The Internet has really revolutionized everything."
She has been running Julie Napear Photography full time since 2007. While she has some part-time assistants, she is the Winchester company's sole photographer.
Napear calls wedding photography her "bread and butter." That facet of her business has grown, but is usually limited to about 40 dates a year when people tend to get married. So, she has seen growth in portraiture.
"Especially as my clients get older and start having their own families, my newborn and my family photography business grows," said Napear. "I'm also trying to get some new corporate clients."
By owning The Home Store in New Market, Karla Kokkonen and her husband Mark are continuing the business started by her father-in-law in 1978. She said the second generation has worked the furniture and flooring store since 1989.
Business has fluctuated throughout the past year.
"Flooring has stayed fairly steady," Kokkonen said of sales. "I think with the housing market down, people are just simply remodeling."
After flooring, upholstered furniture is the next top seller.
You can find furniture and rugs, not to mention vintage toys, tools and clothes; DVDs; books; knickknacks; dishes; antiques; art and more at Middletown Flea.
The flea market opened in September in the former Rt. 11 Potato Chips factory.
Business is "going good," manager Cookie Hughes said. Owner Jan Bragg attributes that to Hughes and Hughes' husband, Dave.
"They're the heart and soul of this business," she said. "They make everyone feel welcome. Our dealers get their things really cheaply, so they're able to sell it cheaply. They get really good quality, unusual stuff. They're displaying it well. And, they switch their merchandise out a lot. That helps. They always bring new ideas in.
"It's really the best business to be in right now - second-hand stuff. I think people just love this shop because it's so different than any other flea. It's not stale like the other flea markets."
"We're definitely going the right direction, which is a good thing," she said. "We're just staying very focused on our mission to make really good chips. That's the one thing that we have control over.
"Our goal is to have a high-quality product. We want to find ways of making the chips really good with as few ingredients as possible. We've dropped peanut oil from our recipe, which is kind of a big deal."
The ingredient was dropped because it had grown too expensive, and the chips tasted just as good without it, Cohen said. And even though the oil was non-allergenic, not everyone trusted it wouldn't trigger a reaction, she said.
Cohen extended a public offer to tour the chip plant.
"We invite people to come see the factory here in Mt. Jackson," she said. "They can see a process at work that you don't normally get to see. We want to let people know that there's a good local supply of potato chips in their backyard."
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org