Monday, December 7, 2015

Area companies earn Spirit of Solano awards

Area companies earn Spirit of Solano awards

By Kevin W. Green From page C1 | December 06, 2015

FAIRFIELD — Ten area companies were honored Thursday during the 20th annual Spirit of Solano luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn.

The program, sponsored by Westamerica Bank and the Solano Economic Development Corporation, recognizes companies that embody the spirit of Solano County. Chambers of commerce in the county chose the honorees.

Businesses selected for this award have two things in common, said David Payne, chief executive officer for Westamerica Bank.

“They run very efficient businesses, and they provide leadership in their communities and their chambers,” he said.

“Because of their individual commitment, they’re also the kind of people who inspire their employees to give back whenever anything is needed,” Payne said. “Because of them, Solano County continues to be a beacon for business, demonstrating best practices for success. They represent what Solano County is and how we choose to do business.”

The Fairfield-Suisun Chamber of Commerce presented two awards. The Fairfield business honored was Texas Roadhouse, with Randy Blankenchip taking the award. Blankenchip shared his experience of rebounding after being financially wiped out before starting his restaurant in Fairfield.

For Suisun City, the spirit award went to Republic Services-Solano Garbage Company, with Travis Armstrong accepting on behalf of the company. Armstrong talked about the role his firm has played in the community, telling how one driver got involved in a child’s life.

Tony and Sherry LoForte of Zio Fraedo’s of Vallejo received this year’s spirit award from the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce. With his wife at his side, Tony LoForte spoke with pride about opening his business and becoming part of the Vallejo community.

The Solano County Black Chamber of Commerce honored businesswoman Elease Minor with its award. The chamber pointed to her passion for helping mothers and children.

The Solano Hispanic Chamber of Commerce bestowed its honor to Miriam Sammartino, of the Law Office of Miriam Sammartino. She was recognized for her service to her community and the positive influence she has had in people’s lives.

Stars Recreation Center received the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce award, honoring Ernest Sousa and Ken Sousa. Stars was noted for its service to local youth.

The Dixon Chamber of Commerce honored second-generation florists, Dixon Florist & Gift Shop, with its spirit award for this year. Courtney Kett, Melissa Taylor and Dana Martin accepted the award for the family owned business that opened more than 50 years ago.

Touro University received the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce spirit award, which was accepted by Marilyn Hopkins, the school’s provost and chief operating officer. The university was recognized for its service to the community, which includes free health classes and a student-run health clinic for uninsured residents.

The Benicia Chamber of Commerce honor went to Todd Bigelow and his Round Table Pizza. Bigelow was recognized for his generosity and loyalty to the community.

Jim and Shirley Lira of Lira’s Supermarket received the award from the Rio Vista Chamber of Commerce. Lira told those in attendance at the luncheon of the opportunity his partner, Bill Dutra, provided in purchasing the market 25 years ago.

Reach Kevin W. Green at 427-6974 or

Matt Miller: Special businesses do indeed show the Spirit of Solano

Matt Miller: Special businesses do indeed show the Spirit of Solano

By Matt Miller, The Reporter, Vacaville

Posted: 12/05/15, 5:18 PM PST | Updated: 1 day ago

The Spirit of Solano was indeed alive and well on Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fairfield as the county’s business community gathered for its annual luncheon honoring companies that thrive among us.

The stories were warm and genuine from this year’s recipients in regards to their love of the region and the humbleness to which they credit their success. Local chambers honored 10 businesses in this the 20th anniversary gala sponsored by Westamerica Bank and the Solano Economic Development Corporation.

Vacaville’s Chamber of Commerce honored Ernest and Ken Sousa this year from Stars Recreation Center. It was more than appropriate to honor this family that has brought family entertainment to the county for more than 50 years. The Sousa family opened Stars in 1998 and who among us hasn’t spent time on their lanes and in their arcade sharing time with our own families.

“It’s a true honor,” said Bill Bollman, the bowling center manager who accepted the award along with banquet manager Kelly Thaanum. “This is really great fun. It’s what we do. We sell fun.”

The Sousa’s opened Fairfield Bowl in 1957 before moving to Vacaville and opening Vaca Bowl in 1986. Stars is greatly involved in the community through events like Grad Night, Girls Scout lock-ins and the Gotcha program that honors some of the top middle school and high school students in the district.

Bollman talked about the Special Olympics athletes that bowl every Saturday in preparation for an upcoming tournament. The joy they exude is contagious and he said it is what make his job so much fun.

Dixon’s honoree this year was the famed Dixon Florist & Gift Shop. Kevin Johnson from the Dixon Chamber was amazed and a bit apologetic that this community icon hadn’t been honored before with its 50 years of exceptional service. Courtney Kett runs the business with her sisters Melissa Taylor and Dana Martin as a proud family venture. Step into the store at times of the year like Christmas and it is a winter wonderland.

The Dixon Florist and & Gift Shop also gives to multiple causes in the community. As one customer said in their biographical information in the program, “You come in as a customer, but you go out as a friend.”

The Spirit of Solano stories were endless. Elease Minor was honored by the Solano County Black Chamber of Commerce for her construction company Important Details Inc. Minor retired as an executive at the University of California, San Francisco to fulfill her dream of owning her own construction company.

Minor not only has a passion for her business, but she also has a passion for helping mothers and children and giving back to the community. She assists with Heather House to improve their operational structure and assist clients with work and stability.

Miriam Sammartino lived with her family in the United States for many years without legal status. After a career in microbiology and quality control, she now practice law with a focus on Children, Family and the Law, as well as Public Interest-Elder Law. Sammartino has a law office in Fairfield and was honored by the Solano Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Randy Blakenchip was at a crossroads in his life. He asked for financial assistance from family and opened a Texas Roadhouse franchise in Fairfield. He now serves an amazing 32,000 guests a month at the popular restaurant and out of the 450 Texas Roadhouse franchises his is ranked No. 6.

Blakenchip hasn’t forgotten his community, either. Among the many service projects he has taken on is serving more than 1,000 veterans this past Veteran’s Day and hosting a dine-in event for firemen and families that were involved in the California wildfires.

The Vallejo Chamber of Commerce honored Touro University and its amazing growth at historic Mare Island. Rio Vista’s Chamber recognized Lira’s Supermarket, owned with love by Jim and Shirley Lira. It is indeed a family business with the Lira children now involved.

Other winners included Tony and Sherry LoForte of Zio Fraedo’s of Vallejo by the Filipino-American Chamber; Travis Armstrong and Republic Services-Solano Garbage Company by the Fairfield-Suisun Chamber; and, Todd Bigelow from Round Table Pizza of Benicia by the Benicia Chamber.

Congratulations to all the recipients.

The author is managing editor of The Reporter. E-mail him at

Friday, December 4, 2015

Chambers of Commerce present Spirit of Solano awards

Chambers of Commerce present Spirit of Solano awards

Kimberly K. Fu — The Reporter Bill Bollman, right, and Kelly Thaanum with Stars Recreation Center in Vacaville accepted a Spirit of Solano award from the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce. Stars was among several businesses honored by various Chambers of Commerce throughout Solano County.

Gumption and a dedication to the community are qualities shared by 10 businesses honored at Thursday’s 20th annual Spirit of Solano ceremony at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fairfield.
The gala event was sponsored by Westamerica Bank and the Solano Economic Development Corporation.
The awards, given by Chambers of Commerce throughout Solano, honor businesses believed to embody the “Spirit of Solano.”
Sandy Person, Solano EDC president, spoke about the spirit of giving each recipient possesses. “These stories, when you hear them, will make your heart sing,” she said. “Bravo to everyone.”

Dr. Marilyn Hopkins with Touro University accepted an award from the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce.
She spoke of a dedication of excellence through education, of service through graduating caring, knowledgable students ready to hit the ground running.
“We are very proud to be part of this community and very proud to be part of this today,” she said to thunderous applause.
Ernest and Ken Sousa, owners of Stars Recreation Center, were honored by the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce for a 19-year community partnership and a dedication to the county’s future.

“This is really great and really fun to do what we do,” advised Bill Bollman, bowling center manager, who accepted the award with Kelly Thaanum, banquet manager.
He spoke of the people he’s met through the years and emphasized that his experiences have been a blast.
“It’s great to see people come ... and wreck the place,” he joked.
Kevin Johnson with the Dixon Chamber of Commerce described Dixon Florist as a community icon.
“For 50 years they’ve been doing what they’re doing,” he said, explaining the business’ uniqueness and the owners’ deep community involvement.

“They bring love and care to everything they’re doing,” he continued.
Courtney Kett, who owns the business with her sisters, Melissa Taylor and Dana Martin, said the family is proud to be a part of Dixon.
“Life’s good and we are so very fortunate,” she said.
Kett shared a truism passed down from her parents: “You don’t just live in a community, you actually create the community you want to live in.”
Other Spirit of Solano award winners include:
• Law Office of Miriam Sammartino, Solano Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

• Important Details Inc., Solano County Black Chamber of Commerce.
• Lira’s Supermarket, Rio Vista Chamber of Commerce.
• Zio Fraedo’s of Vallejo, Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce of Solano County, Inc.
• Republic Services - Solano Garbage Company, Fairfield-Suisun Chamber of Commerce — Suisun.
•Texas Roadhouse, Fairfield-Suisun Chamber of Commerce — Fairfield.
• Round Table Pizza of Benicia — Benicia Chamber of Commerce.

The Spirit of Solano evident in annual event

The Spirit of Solano evident in annual event

A crowd of more than 300 schmoozes Thursday just before the start of the 20th Annual Spirit of Solano Awards event in Fairfield. Rachel Raskin-Zrihen — times-herald

When Zio Fraedo owners Tony and Sherry LoForte, first decided to open a restaurant in Vallejo, people wondered why, Tony LoForte said during his remarks as a recipient of a Spirit of Solano Award on Thursday.
“It’s a tough town, they said,” LoForte said. “And, it is a tough town, but we’re tough people.”
But Vallejo and its people have welcomed the couple and their business, he said.
“People love us,” he said. “They see we work hard and when they get a chance, they come see us.”
The LoFortes were selected by the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce of Solano County, Inc., as its Spirit of Solano Award winner at the 20th annual luncheon event, held at Fairfield’s Hilton Garden Inn. More than 300 people squeezed into a banquet room there for the event, and officials said some 30 people had to be turned away.

The room in which the event was held was dressed up for the holidays, with two decorated Christmas trees and tables festooned with poinsettia center-pieces.
The venue also overflowed with local, regional and state elected officials or their representatives, business leaders and other dignitaries from all Solano County cities and chambers of commerce.
Each chamber selects a business that exemplifies its ethos of great customer service and community service, to receive this honor each year. Images of this year’s winners, and winners from the past were projected onto a screen at the front of the room during the event, which was co-sponsored by WestAmerica Bank and the Solano EDC.

A common thread among the winners seemed to be a love of and a commitment to their communities.
Vallejo Chamber of Commerce board president Carol Larson introduced Marilyn Hopkins of Touro Universtity, the chamber’s selection for this years honor, which she described as a local “gem,” and 15-year chamber member.
In that time, Touro, which, she said, “was founded on the Jewish traditions of valuing social justice, the pursuit of knowledge and service to humanity,” has been “a great neighbor and community partner.”

Accepting the award on Touro’s behalf, provost Marilyn Hopkins said school officials are aware of Mare Island’s storied history and are working to create a new history on the site by conducting important research on subjects like obesity and preparing people for careers in Osteopathic Medicine, pharmacy, teaching and nursing as well as holding free health clinics, blood drives and more throughout the community.
The Vacaville Chamber of Commerce named Ernest and Ken Sousa of Stars Recreation Center as its winner this year, which began as a Fairfield bowling alley in 1957, and moved to Vacaville and expanded in 1986.

“It’s fun and easy to do what we do, because that’s what we do – we sell fun,” Sousa said.
The Law Office of Miriam Sammartino was the Solano Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s pick this year.
“Miriam was a microbiologist when she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease,” and decided to go with her passion — helping Hispanic community members with their immigration issues, a chamber board spokeswoman Andrea Garcia said.
“The chamber has really encouraged me to provide the services that I do,” Sammartino said.

Elease Minor of Important Details, Inc. — the Solano County Black Chamber’s honoree — used the unique opportunity to plug her new woman-owned, environmentally conscious construction business during her remarks, after chamber spokeswoman Peggy Cohen Thompson enumerated a long list of community service work Minor’s done over the years, particularly in helping homeless families.
Travis Armstrong accepted the award for Republic Services-Solano Garbage Company — motto: We’ll handle it from here — the Fairfield-Suisun Chamber’s Suisun City honoree, while Randy Blankenchip, accepted for Texas Roadhouse — the Fairfield honoree.

Blankenchip described his opening the franchise restaurant six years ago as “a miracle.”
After 30 years in the restaurant business, Blankenchip changed careers, but about 8 ½ years ago, lost his job, his home and his father-in-law in rapid succession. At about that time, the Texas Roadhouse company asking if he’d consider opening a location.
“I prayed about it and promised if He helped this happen, I’d give back to the community,” he said. “God’s blessed us and I’ve kept my promise.”
The spokeswoman for the Dixon chamber’s selection, Dixon Florist & Gift Shop said hers is a family business since 1962, with a tradition of community service.

“Our parents taught us that you don’t just live in a community, you create the community you want to live in,” she said.
Benicia’s Todd Bigelow of Round Table Pizza said he and his father have been partners in the business for 24 years, and it’s “been a heck of a ride.”
Jim Lira of Rio Vista’s Lira’s Supermarket said he was born there to a dairy farming family and in 1965 went to work in a supermarket — an experience he “cherishes.”
In 1990 the store went bankrupt, and a friend, Bill Dutra, “wrote me a check for $750,000,” to resurrect it.

“He gave me a chance and he’s still my partner.”
The store now is run by Lira’s son and daughter and they all remain committed to their employees and the community, he said.
“Our community put us where we are today and anything we can do to help our community, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
Contact Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at (707) 553-6824.