BRATTLEBORO — In a food-infused entrepreneurial contest that included salsa, sriracha, syrup and elderberries, it's probably no surprise that a guy who calls himself "Sugar Bob" ended up the winner.
During a stop in Brattleboro on Wednesday afternoon, a team of motorcycle-riding evaluators participating in a weeklong "Road Pitch" trip around Vermont decided that Rob Hausslein of Londonderry made the best case for expanding his business.
That honor came with a $500 check, a leather-clad teddy bear and a chance to move on to a statewide Road Pitch event in October. But for Hausslein, of Sugar Bob's Finest Kind Maple Specialities, the event was about much more than cash.
"Coming out on top is less important to me than the growing experience of participating," Hausslein said.
This is the fourth year for the Road Pitch, an event first organized by Cairn Cross, co-founder and managing director of Shelburne-based FreshTracks Capital.
The idea is to bring people who have experience in business, entrepreneurship and investing - and who also happen to be riding motorcycles - to towns around the state to hear pitches from local small-business owners.
The week began with stops in Essex Junction, Grand Isle, Lowell and Rutland. Wednesday brought the riders to Bennington and Brattleboro, to be followed by visits to Randolph, Barre, St. Johnsbury and Hyde Park.
The presenters are not random: Pitchers are chosen in advance and then receive intensive coaching to help them hone their speeches.
Though the format is the same, Cross said, "every town is different - they have their own styles."
Brattleboro's event, hosted by Strolling of the Heifers and Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., didn't lack for variety.
It kicked off with Hausslein, who touted the demand for his smoked maple syrup and Vermont maple sriracha.
He was followed by Kathleen Gurney of Brattleboro's Salsa Sisters, which has offered 15 salsa flavors ranging from "Ho Hum Mild" to "Deadly Reaper." The startup is looking for a better website, more kitchen space and other expansions, Gurney said.
Even at this early stage, she said, "we have quite a following of customers."
The gathering then shifted from salsa to software, as Alec Koumjian of RFPVerse pitched a plan to help businesses win contracts by making it easier to find and navigate complex requests for proposals, also known as RFPs.
"This opens up a whole world of contracts to small businesses that wouldn't normally be able to compete for these contracts," Koumjian said.
Gino Palmeri then took over to promote Vermont Elderberry, a Putney business that markets medicinal and food products from locally grown elderberries. Palmeri's colorful pitch included a simulation of a talking elderberry bush, but his business intentions are serious.
"By this time next year, our annual sales should break $30,000," Palmeri said.
The last presenter was CS Wurzberger, a Marlboro resident who has founded Green Up Kids, billed as "a nature club for kids that love animals and exploring the world." She's on a mission to provide educational materials and projects to kids and teachers, and she's already developed a curriculum.
"We are all about offering programs that are empowering the next generation to become social entrepreneurs and help improve the planet," Wurzberger said.
After brief deliberations, the business-minded bikers chose Sugar Bob's Finest Kind as the top presenter.
It serves as further validation for Hausslein, a former contractor who quit his day job two years ago and says he's "all-in at this point."
He's been making maple syrup for a quarter-century. But it was the development of a smoked syrup - a combination of maple syrup and real wood smoke - that set Hausslein and business partner Andrea Ogden on the path toward a fast-growing business.
"We started selling smoked maple syrup at the farmers market years ago and quickly discovered consumer passion for it that has made us stand up and take notice," Hausslein said. "We decided to launch our business based on this consumer demand."
Sugar Bob's Finest Kind sold 8,000 bottles of smoked syrup last year.
"We outgrew the sugarhouse. We outgrew the kitchen," Hausslein said. "We went looking for new facilities, and we found them. Along the way, we picked up another brand - Vermont Maple Sriracha."
Hausslein wants to double his sales in 2018. To do that, he plans to add more production space and a national salesperson, and he wants to merge the syrup and sriracha product lines into "one umbrella brand."
Hausslein believes that, with "authentic storylines, clean ingredient labels and higher margins," products like his are in the right place at the right time.
"Speciality food stands at a moment of opportunity," he said.
He also sees the Road Pitch as a moment of opportunity for himself. The coaching sessions, he said, were "super helpful" in teaching him how to make a pitch to a big room and then answer probing questions about his goals.
"This was a tough thing to do for me," Hausslein said. "I love to talk to people. I love to be out there at the farmers market, telling my story. But I've never pitched at this level with these concepts in place before."
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at email@example.com.