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COVID-19 presented new opportunities for creative entrepreneurs

It all started with planning a birthday party two years ago.

Camille Kornegay’s daughter, Hadleigh, was turning 4, and her wish was for a Target-and-Starbucks-themed birthday party.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Millie Kornegay organizes a vibrant balloon display inside the Gillette College Technical Education Center for Devote: REFRESHED Friday. Kornegay began her balloon career in the midst of the pandemic, and has since become very popular in her decorating for various events.

“I’m like a Pinterest-party mom,” Kornegay said.

It was on Pinterest that she first started seeing elaborate balloon arches and garlands, and so Hadleigh’s birthday led her to make her first balloon arch.

It was half green-and-white and half red-and-white with gold used throughout, Kornegay said. There were somewhere between 150 and 200 individual balloons, and she blew each and every one of them up with her mouth.

Her daughter loved it.

“I want one of these in my bedroom!” Hadleigh told her.

Beyond impressing her daughter, Kornegay’s friends took notice as well.

“Everybody was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so cool!” Kornegay said.

Then came COVID-19, and she started making them again.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Millie Kornegay places a piece of tape while assembling a balloon display at the entryway of the Gillette College Technical Education Center for Devote: REFRESHED Friday afternoon.

“I was a stay-at-home mom with two young children,” Kornegay said. “At the time, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. It just brought a lot of joy to them, because we didn’t go anywhere. We were stuck at home for 10 weeks straight, and they were like, ‘I don’t know why I can’t go to the park; the weather’s getting nice.’ And I was like, ‘How can I make things happier for them?’”

On video calls during the pandemic, Kornegay’s friends would see the balloon creations and couldn’t hide how impressed they were.

“They were like, ‘What?! I love that! Can you come put one up in my house?’” Kornegay said.

Around September or October last year, Kornegay started making balloon creations for her friends. Suddenly, those friends were telling their friends, and suddenly, she didn’t have just a hobby. She had the makings of a full-fledged business.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Millie Kornegay organizes a balloon display at Gillette College Technical Education Center for Devote: REFRESHED Friday afternoon.

Kornegay’s story is not wholly unique. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for numerous creative types to take what had once been hobbies and look at them in a new light, namely “Can I make a business out of this?” The answer for many has been a resounding, “Yes.”

From elaborate charcuterie presentations that taste somehow even better than their elegant displays to quirky, fun, even beautiful candies that have been reimagined through the process of freeze-drying, Gillette has seen a host of these creators who owe their start to COVID-19.

Balloons by Millie

The pandemic affected all sorts of lives in various ways. For Kornegay, it emphasized the loneliness and isolation she and her kids were experiencing.

“I was kind of breaking down all the time,” Kornegay said. “As a stay-at-home mom, that was a lot to take.”

Though she’d seen balloons showing up on Pinterest long before the pandemic, she said that COVID-19 will play a big role in the story of her company.

“It was just a creative outlet for me,” Kornegay said. “It was a good release. It was really hard to deal with it. I mean, my kids were climbing the walls. They were tearing my house apart, and I very much enjoy a clean home. And that just wasn’t a thing in those weeks.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Millie Kornegay moves a large collection of balloons into position while decorating at Gillette College Technical Education Center for Devote: REFRESHED Friday.

From those moments came Balloons by Millie. Back in May when high school graduation rolled around, she found herself busier than ever.

She had almost a dozen different parties around that time. Kornegay isn’t even sure how she handled it since those projects end up taking between five and seven hours of inflating and still more to hang and display them at a site.

“It was a lot,” Kornegay said. “I had to rent a U-Haul because it was just too much, there were too many balloons. When I started getting all of those orders, that’s when I started looking into daycare for my kids.”

The majority of her orders come from social media, she said. Instagram is easier for her to use and a natural fit for showcasing her work.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Millie Kornegay organizes a balloon display at the entryway of the Gillette College Technical Education Center for Devote: REFRESHED Friday.

“That’s the point of the business: to make the parties more Instagrammable,” Kornegay said. “Make photos more appealing to the eye, more memorable, more beautiful.”

BOXED by Christine

For Christine D’Angelo, COVID-19 affected her work schedule. She’d worked more than a decade at The Prime Rib, but the pandemic started cutting into her hours.

She ended up giving up the job altogether to allow for those who needed the work more than she did to have her hours.

Christine D’Angelo said food was a way of life when growing up with Italian grandparents. She brings that mindset to every creation for BOXED by Christine. A dollar from every sale at BOXED by Christine gets donated to the Council of Community Services.

“I guess I found myself a little bit bored,” D’Angelo said. “I found some free time.”

In that free time, she created BOXED by Christine, which specializes in charcuterie presentations.

Charcuterie, from the French words “char” meaning “flesh” and “cuite” meaning “cooked,” is not a new concept. D’Angelo had dabbled in making such presentations as a hobby, but she recognized that, as far as a business goes, it would be somewhat new to Gillette.

“I said, ‘I wonder if people in Gillette will pay for this?’” D’Angelo said.

As it turned out, they would and they did.

“When I started, my goal was probably if I sold four boxes a month, I’d be really proud of myself,” D’Angelo said. “I sold somewhere around 200 of them in December.”

Such success came quickly. She’d just applied for her limited liability corporation status the month before.

She attributed a lot of her early success to COVID-19.

“I started as delivery-only,” D’Angelo said. “At first, I think that was a win-win for everybody. It was convenient for me; I had the time off working from home. And it was convenient for people who didn’t want to leave their houses but still wanted to do something nice. I delivered a lot to people who were quarantined. Their family members would call me, and I’d just drop it on their porch and go. They got to treat themselves a little bit in this crazy time.”

For different reasons, it became a crazy time for her. That success caught her off guard.

“It was a struggle to say the least,” D’Angelo said. “It was absolutely insane, but the fun kind of crazy like when you have a newborn baby and don’t sleep. It was that kind of exhaustion.”

She spoke with the excitement that comes from those rare instances when a person gets to make a passion their livelihood.

“Food is truly my love language and has been my passion for as long as I can remember,” D’Angelo said. “I was raised by my Italian grandparents, so food is literally life. I’ve always been a little bit ‘extra’ when it comes to food,” she said. “I just believe in going the extra mile.”

Social media was a big inspiration for her business.

Christine D'Angelo's said food was a way of life when growing up with Italian grandparents. She brings that mindset to every creation for BOXED by Christine.

Charcuterie makes for good conversations, D'Angelo said. It gives a party something around which to gather.

A dollar from every sale at BOXED by Christine gets donated to the Council of Community Services.

“I’ve followed some charcuterie accounts in some bigger cities,” D’Angelo said. “Boston is big for this, New Jersey, California, Oregon, that kind of thing. And I just saw them doing this and just felt, like, ‘Why can’t Gillette have this? Why not?’”

She does all of her food photography herself, and she said it’s so satisfying to look at her Facebook posts almost as a timeline to track her growth in both the food’s presentation and her marketing and photography skills.

Facebook, D’Angelo said, is where about 80% of her business comes from. She hopes to build out her Instagram presence, as well.

“What’s good about charcuterie is it’s a conversation piece,” D’Angelo said. “It brings families together. It brings people together. People gather around the tray; it’s a board. They talk about what they like. They try new things, and it’s just kind of an ice-breaker. On top of that, it’s beautiful. It’s part of your decor.”

D’Angelo also hopes to spread a little love around the community by giving back.

“I totally believe in the Tom’s model, to give back when you buy,” D’Angelo said of the famous shoe company known for giving away a pair of shoes to someone in need each time they make a sale. “Since I started, I have connections to the Council of Community Services, the Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry. Food insecurity is one of those things that’s very near and dear to my heart. They say if you’re going to change the world, find out what makes you cry.”

To do her part, D’Angelo donates $1 from each box she sells.

“When you’re supporting me, that part is going directly back to our community,” D’Angelo said.

Am Creations

For Amber Gill, COVID-19 meant a big slowdown in her day job.

Courtesy of Amber Gill 

Photos by Amber Gill and Christine D’Angelo

Amber Gill’s business repurposes familiar candies into brand new, artistic creations through the magic of freeze-drying. Some candies, like Milk Duds, above left, respond more drastically than others to being freeze-dried. Different candies take different lengths of time in Gill’s freeze dryer. It’s not uncommon for them to be inside the machine five to seven hours. Christine D’Angelo concentrates on food as art and entertainment in her charcuterie platters. Charcuterie, like the one above right, makes for good conversations, D’Angelo said. It gives a party something around which to gather.

“We do reclamation weed spraying and erosion control out in the oil fields,” Gill said. “After COVID started last summer, nobody was spending any money out in the field. The year before, we sprayed 600-some locations. Last year, we sprayed seven.”

She was bored and needed something to do.

She put those idle hands to work experimenting with her red Harvest Right freeze dryer, which she calls Ruby. The appliance had been in her life for about three years now, and it was a hefty investment with no business purpose at first.

She experimented with all sorts of foods, but then she tried freeze-drying Skittles and everything changed.

“They explode and become crunchy,” Gill said. “It intensifies the flavor.”

She started listing them on her personal Facebook page, and she’d sold out of her entire stock within days.

More experimentation followed: Jolly Ranchers, saltwater taffy, peach ring gummies, Bit-O-Honey, Milk Duds. Each undergoes a unique transformation, and the physical results are stunning. They look almost too pretty to eat. But just almost. To eat them is to taste a more concentrated version of familiar favorites but the consistency is changed.

Things really took off for her with the help of her friend, Preston Gulley, who owns Gulley’s Snow 2 Go. Gill said he’d been told by his family that he needed to purchase a freeze dryer and sell freeze-dried candy along with his other offerings.

He knew that Gill had Ruby, and now they’ve partnered up. Gill estimates that nearly 70% of her business comes from selling to Gulley and the remaining 30% comes from custom orders that she’s taking from customers on Facebook.

Gill estimated she had roughly $20,000 invested in the business, which goes by the name Am Creations, and she said she’s probably already made back her investment in just a year of sales. She’s waiting on a newer, bigger freeze dryer, which was backordered for eight weeks, but soon, she’ll have two machines running 24 hours a day.

COVID-19 gave her the opportunity to start this business, she said, and because of the business, she could feel a sense of purpose during that time.

It’s now taken off more than she could have anticipated. She’s waiting until she builds up a sufficient inventory before she goes live with her website, which she hopes to do by October.

Courtesy of Amber Gill 

Courtesy of Amber Gill

Amber Gill experimented with different types of candies, like Jolly Ranchers, to see which looked most unique after getting her start with Skittles. Gill’s business repurposes familiar candies into brand new, artistic creations through the magic of freeze-drying.

Some candies, like Milk Duds, respond more drastically than others to being freeze-dried.

Different candies take different lengths of time in Gill’s freeze dryer. It’s not uncommon for them to be inside the machine five to seven hours.

“I think my biggest challenge is myself,” Gill said. “I think that it could be really big, and that kind of scares me. I’m probably holding myself back more than the candy.”

Gill and D’Angelo and Kornegay are entrepreneurs who have emerged from COVID-19 with a new direction to their life.

They all took a big bet, and that bet is often one of the hardest to make because it was on themselves. Bets like those are required of all who start a new business, but to see these businesses, which grew out of a way to cope with the upheaval brought about by the pandemic, is extra sweet, not unlike Gill’s freeze-dried candy.


Paul Phillips works during the day as a Circuit Court judge, but in his free time has been writing a series of thrillers under the pen name James Chandler.


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Mustangs asks land board to buy used walls for games
Cam-plex balks at $32,000 price tag

The Wyoming Mustangs wants to put in safer walls for next season, but Campbell County Public Land Board members have some concerns about the investment it would need to make if the board were to buy them.

Mustangs General Manager Richard Rodgers asked the board Thursday night if it would consider allocating $32,587.50 for hard molded plastic arena walls with connector poles.

The wooden frame construction walls that were used during last season broke easily and were “kind of dangerous,” he said.

The walls would come with a semi-trailer so they would have a place to be stored.

Board member Heidi Gross, who attended a couple of games this past season, said the walls were not safe.

“I’m glad you’re looking at another option,” she said.

While Rodgers said Cam-plex could use the walls for other activities like roller hockey, and even indoor soccer, the board was uncertain whether it should fork over the money for an investment that may end up having limited uses.

“Why aren’t you purchasing them?” board Chairman Darin Edmonds asked.

Most arenas provide the walls, Rodgers said, adding that the proposed plastic arena walls that it is asking Cam-plex to buy would come from another league team, the Oklahoma Flying Aces, whose arena in Enid, Oklahoma, is buying new walls.

Cam-plex General Manager Jeff Esposito asked Rodgers if the team would play at Cam-plex regardless of whether the land board directs Cam-plex to buy the walls.

“We’ll play here regardless,” Rodgers said.

Land board members suggested a few ideas to the Mustangs general manager:

  • The team buys the walls and then Cam-plex will give them a credit back each year it fulfills its contract.
  • It asks about a Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau grant to help pay for the walls.
  • The team could also ask for sponsors and put the business’ names on the walls. That, too, would help put a dent into the costs.

“We don’t want to buy these things if you find somewhere else to play next year,” board member Skyler Pownall said. “We’ll be stuck for these walls.”

“Our team is going nowhere,” Rodgers reiterated to the board.

“Every week (the owner) Mr. (Keith) Russ threatens not to play here and play somewhere else,” Esposito said. “I don’t know what to do here.”

Cam-plex Sales Manager Keith Howard said that “we have embarked” on a three-year deal that will keep the team in Gillette.

Russ would honor that contract, Rodgers said.

The board asked where Russ was.

Rodgers said he hadn’t seen Russ in a couple of months and that he was in Mississippi.

If someone is asking for $33,000 they might have made the time to come and talk about their request, Edmonds said.

“I think for an investment of this size to a privately held company is something that needs to be very closely negotiated,” board member Laura Chapman said. “I don’t think that it’s actually necessarily appropriate for Cam-plex to be purchasing these things unless we had a definitive alternate use for the public for them.”

Otherwise, she added, “we’re making an investment just for you and I don’t necessarily think that is appropriate.”

Rodgers will be going back to the team to further discuss the issue.


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