Big Idea Kearney Victories Boost Business for Two GROW Members

Big Idea Kearney Victories Boost Business for Two GROW Members

Big Idea Kearney Victories Boost Business for Two GROW Members

Two young Nebraska entrepreneurs each won first place and $1,000 in the 9th Annual Big Idea Kearney contest.

The lure of a school trip to Costa Rica prompted Nicole Mittman to start her business when she was a junior at York High School.

She began painting unique glow-in-the-canvas paintings and sold them to her classmates, teachers and family friends to fund her trip.

Nicole, a self-taught artist, and creates her art using glow powder mixed with Mod Podge™. Her paintings feature glowing moons and stars, inspirational phrases and even pets.

“My favorite thing about making my paintings is the final layer of glow paint over the base acrylic layer — all the hardest work is done, and putting on the finishing touches is just so fun,” she said.

Nicole is now a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and is majoring in wildlife biology. Her current customers include other UNK students and staff, but she also sells on an Etsy store, on Instagram (@nicoles_paintings) and now through GROW Nebraska. She has sold more than 200 paintings since she started the business three years ago.

Each fall, UNK hosts Big Idea Kearney, which promotes and supports entrepreneurship throughout central Nebraska. There is a student category and a community category. The first-place winner in each category receives $1,000. Second and third place winners receive $500 and $250. This year, the first-place prize money was sponsored by the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County. Other sponsors included UNK’s College of Business and Technology, Invest Nebraska, Nebraska Enterprise Fund and NUtech Ventures.

Nicole said she entered the contest to expand her audience. This year, 80 people vied for the prize money in the Big Idea competition. Preliminary judges narrowed the list to 16, and those 16 entrepreneurs presented their business ideas to an audience of 150 people. A panel of judges selected the top five in each category, and then the audience voted on the winners.

“I was pretty shocked to win,” Nicole said. “After all, I have no real business background, no training in painting, and my major is unrelated to either of those things. But nevertheless, it’s really exciting to have the money to properly expand now.”

With the $1,000 prize money, Nicole plans to create a website for her art; advertise on Google, Esty, and Facebook; purchase better quality brushes and paint; and buy business cards and have a logo created.

Nicole will be working part-time at the Buy Nebraska store this holiday season to help with shipping and plans to glean help from GROW Nebraska staff about growing her business while she works. 

Stop by the Buy Nebraska Store in Kearney to see Nicole’s paintings!

Kearney resident Jonah Staab won the community division in the Big Idea competition.

Jonah, 22, won with his business, Qualitech, for a grill basket he designed. He came up with the idea after researching trends on Amazon to identify high-demand products that received poor reviews. He then creates a higher-quality version of the product using computer-aided design software.

Jonah’s business ambitions also started in high school. While attending Kearney High, Jonah enrolled in a class called Engineering Design and Development, where he had to create a new product that solved a problem.

That is how he developed new skateboard wheels that roll in all directions. He called the wheels Sydewynder, and that become his first business.

“In 2017, I started learning about e-commerce and selling on Amazon, so I began researching products that I saw were in a good market but had poor designs or other flaws based off of the negative reviews customers left,” Jonah said. “Since I had the CAD software and knew how to design things, I thought why not make my own 3D model of whatever products so I can change the designs and whatever else I need to do to improve it.”

That is how he came up with the grill basket idea. He has sold 1,300 grill baskets on Amazon in the past 11 months.

“It is really rewarding when I go on my Amazon listing to see someone left a 5-star review saying how my product and its unique features is the best on the market and does not have the same flaws as other sellers,” Jonah said. “I just really want to provide good high-quality products that people can enjoy using. I really like it when I hear from customers from around the world say they are happy with their purchase.”

Jonah said he enjoys the challenge of entrepreneurship and enjoys “paving his own path.” He entered the Big Idea contest to network with other entrepreneurs and because he enjoys pitching his ideas and talking about his business.

“I love chasing my dreams and trying ideas I have even if they don’t work out at first,” he said.

Jonah said it felt great to win the Big Idea contest.

“I thought there were some really good ideas,” he said. “I never know what to expect because at the end of the day, the audience votes for the winner, so to hear my name called for first place is crazy.”

Jonah said the prize money has already helped him order samples to start researching a new manufacturer for the grill basket.

“I am also planning on getting some samples of new products made for 2020 and moving forward to production of a second product,” he said.

Jonah is a recent newcomer to GROW Nebraska and is looking forward to the new partnership, which will help him expand to other sales platforms and give him other opportunities to sell products as his business grows.

For more information about Nicole’s Painting, visit her GROW Nebraska profile page at

For more information about Staab Enterprises LLC, visit

GROW Nebraska® Foundation is a statewide non-profit training and marketing organization. Serving over 400 Nebraska small businesses, the organization provides marketing opportunities, education, and training to launch and connect Nebraska businesses to the global marketplace. GROW Nebraska’s educational programs receive federal and state funding, along with generous support from foundations and individual donors.

State Fair Samples Sell Products

State Fair Samples Sell Products

State Fair Samples Sell Products

Nebraska State Fairgoers experienced a buffet of flavors from buttery toffee to spicy mustard at GROW Nebraska’s 2019 State Fair Store.

Fifty-four GROW Nebraska businesses participated that year, and many of them boosted their sales through offering free product samples.

Barb Mapes, owner of Barb’s Buttery Toffee, enjoyed watching customers enjoy samples of her buttery toffee during several days at this year’s fair.

“The more people taste it, the more likely they will buy it,” Barb said.

She makes her buttery toffee in a commercial kitchen in Crete. The almond and pecan buttery toffee flavors are always hot sellers for state fairgoers seeking a sweet treat.

For companies looking to launch a new product, the Nebraska State Fair crowd is the perfect arena to test the waters. Jenna Borer, niece of Gold Dust Kettle Corn owner Mike Lagsding, worked at this year’s fair to test out a new BBQ-flavored popcorn.

“This one has really caught people’s attention,” Jenna said of the new flavor. “It’s neat to see people’s reactions.”

Many taste testers purchased bags of the popcorn after sampling the new flavor.

James Gustafson said he has provided samples of Lincoln-based Herbal Gatherings mustard at the state fair for more than 10 years.

“To come out here in the middle of the state, it’s a great resource for us,” James said. “It helps us meet a lot of people in a short amount of time.”

A few state fair attendees stopped by to encourage friends to try the mustard after they had sampled it at previous state fairs.

“People are hesitant to pick up a new product, so when you let them try it, it changes the whole trajectory,” James said.

While giving samples, business owners can also boost sales by suggesting new ways to use their product and offering recipe ideas.

While giving samples, business owners can also boost sales by suggesting new ways to use their product and offering recipe ideas.

Cheryl Hughes, owner of HR Poppin’ Snacks in Gibbon, has been sampling her flavored popcorn at the Nebraska State Fair for more than 20 years. She and her husband, Gary, sell their popcorn in more than 135 flavors at stores around the country.

“I firmly believe in samples,” Cheryl said. “They try it, they buy it.”

This year, Cheryl sampled 14 flavors at the state fair including new flavors Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Cookie Crumble, Cheddar Pretzel (made with Dot’s pretzels) and Monster Cookie Dough.

“Most generally, sampling sells your product,” she said.

The GROW Nebraska State Fair Store was made possible by the following sponsors: Kracklin’ Kirks Fireworks, LIPS Printing Service, Wynk, Nebraska Enterprise Fund, Nebraska Arts Council, ATC Communications, Lundeen Isaacson Insurance, Hay Bale Banners LLC, Dorothy Lynch, Touch of Class and Gary’s Quick Steak.

Personalized Gifts for Grads and Moms

Personalized Gifts for Grads and Moms

Personalized Gifts for Grads and Moms

Award Keepers

Twenty years ago, Lincoln mom Diane Semrad was tired of her children’s gymnastics and 4-H medals and ribbons being shoved into the backs of drawers and in plastic bags.

“We had spent way too much money and hard work for those awards to just fling them around,” she said. “I wanted them to see how their hard work was paying off.”

So Diane developed the Award Keepers system to organize the chaos. Over a span of five years, she worked with two companies to create a high-quality scrapbook with specially-sized pockets to hold ribbons, certificates, medals and pictures to showcase athletic, academic and artistic endeavors. It is archival quality and easily adaptable to each customer’s needs.

She stored and displayed awards for her two children in the Awards Keeper system and then shared the books at her children’s high school graduation parties.

Diane has sold her Award Keeper system to customers in all 50 states and six foreign countries.

The Award Keeper starter pack includes the album with a 4 X 6 photo exterior frame plus interior pages to hold 40 awards and four team photos or certificates plus a gold journaling pen. The entire book on average can hold 100-120 medals/ribbons depending on the size and weight of the awards. It is available from the Buy Nebraska store in Kearney and on Buy Nebraska at a retail price of $52.50. Extra pages and refill packs can also be ordered.

For more information about Award Keepers, please visit its GROW Nebraska member page here.

RCK Creations

What mom wouldn’t want to drink her morning coffee out of a mug or tumbler that says “World’s Greatest Mom” with her name on it? Or, how about an actual photo of mom or the kids laser engraved on a coaster, mug or leather-bound notebook?

RCK Creations and More in Alda has been creating personalized gifts since 2009 and can engrave on anything from photo frames to cookie jars, wine glasses, mugs, ceramic flower pots, wooden signs and cork coasters.

One of the RCK’s most popular products is the “Mommy’s Sippy Cup” mug. That success has also sparked spinoff products like “Grandma’s Sippy Cup” and “Papa’s Sippy Cup.” The “Mama Bear” tumbler is also popular.

A new product that might appeal to moms or graduates this time of year is a Swiss-army knife type product that includes a can/bottle opener, a small knife and a corkscrew opener. Names, initials or sayings can be etched onto the handle.

Roger Kirkpatrick and his wife, Connie, started RCK Creations in 2009 and expanded to their new building in Alda in 2015. Roger does the etching, while Connie keeps busy with her alteration business, specializing in prom, wedding and other special occasion dresses.

Roger said customers should allow one to two weeks for personalized Mother’s Day or graduation gifts.

RCK products are available in Kearney’s BUY Nebraska store and on their Amazon and BUY Nebraska site.

For contact information to order a personalized product, visit RCK’s GROW Nebraska member page.

Design Haven Graphics 

Give moms, graduates and brides a practical gift for every-day use with an etched-glass product from Design Haven Graphics in Howells.

Mom would never lose a dish again after the church potluck when her dessert or salad is served from a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with her named etched onto it. Smaller 8-by-8 glass dishes with lids make perfect gifts for graduates.

Owner Shawn Hegemann etches names, Bible verses, initials and any custom design onto practical every day products like glass pans and cookie jars. She also makes signs and other designs.

Shawn started the business in 2011 when she needed a way to mark her dishes with something other than masking tape. After she etched a few dishes for herself, her husband and friend encouraged her to start a business making the dishes for others.

“It was something I could do at home in the kitchen during the kids’ naptime,” Shawn said.

Design Haven’s personalized 9-by-13-inch glass Pyrex baking dish with a lid retails on GROW’s Buy Nebraska site for $39.95. See some of Design Haven’s products here.

Shawn encourages customers to order personalized gifts at least two to three weeks ahead of time to allow for on-time delivery.

To order a customized gift from Design Haven, visit Shawn’s GROW Nebraska member web page.

Story by Kristine Jacobson, KRJPR

Live Healthier With TruRonia Juice & Grain Place Foods

Live Healthier With TruRonia Juice & Grain Place Foods

Live Healthier With TruRonia Juice & Grain Place Foods

Although it’s already February, those New Year’s health resolutions may still be fresh in the minds of health seekers everywhere, and GROW Nebraska businesses are here to help.

TruRonia is a new company that is on a mission to help people live healthier by creating products using the super fruit aronia.

“It is extremely high in antioxidants, it loves the Nebraska growing environment and helps with lower intestinal issues, inflammation, arthritis and numerous other health issues,” one of the company’s owners Scott Dinkler said. (Other owners are JJ and Johnny Granstrom, JC and Joel Starr and Keenan Friesen.)

The company is based in the Hastings area and got its start in 2016 with six aronia growers. They joined forces to turn the berries into a product that could help consumers improve their health and well-being.

TruRonia Juice

In August of 2018, the company launched its flagship product “TruRonia” juice made from aronia berries. The berries are grown on about 60 acres of land spread out in seven fields. The produce is harvested in late August or early September and then is cleaned, destemmed, sanitized and juiced into a cold-pressed organic juice in the company’s Hastings facility. The product is then bottled in Missouri. The Hastings plant employs anywhere from three to 10 part-time employees, depending on the time of year.

The company also sells bags of frozen aronia berries at several Nebraska grocery stores. They have developed four other juice blends that aren’t yet offered to the public, and they plan to offer new products in the future.

The company’s main focus right now is educating the public about the power of aronia juice and how it can positively impact health. Scott said customers who report the most health benefits from the juice are females age 40-65 who suffer from lower intestinal issues or hormone imbalances. Men in that age category also report health benefits from drinking the juice.

Scott said that aronia berries are higher in antioxidants than elderberries, cranberries and blueberries. Every 2-ounce shot of aronia juice contains 84 berries. The 24.5-ounce bottle of TruRonia contains 1,042 aronia berries.

TruRonia offers a subscription service that gives customers a lower price for a 4-pack of juice, which is equal to a month’s supply. Another 4-pack is then automatically sent each month.

“It is great for them as they don’t have to worry about running down another supply of juice to help their conditions they are taking it for,” Scott said.

Help from GROW

TruRronia joined GROW Nebraska in August 2018.

“We love the support of the GROW team and also the support at the Nebraska State Fair,” Scott said. “They really are a supporter of Nebraska businesses and take a personal level of effort in helping us “grow.”

TruRonia juice is sold in Nebraska at Russ’s Market and Super Savers and other grocery stores, including Hy-Vee, and on GROW’s Buy Nebraska website and at the BUY Nebraska store in Kearney.

“TruRonia’s overreaching goal is to help people become a healthier version of themselves,” Scott said. “We are committed to educating people to the power of the aronia berry and how it can help them on a daily basis with their struggles. We would like people to realize that when they try our product, they can be assured that every effort was made to take an organic aronia berry and cold press it into the drink that they are consuming.”

For more information about TruRonia, please visit the company’s GROW Nebraska profile page.

Grain Place Foods

Grain Place Foods of Marquette is another GROW Nebraska business with a focus on healthy eating, but they have been in the business for decades.

The company sprouted in 1953 when Don Vetter started organic farming. When Don’s son, Dave, finished college and returned to the farm in 1976, the father and son duo created a sustainable organic rotation.

The Vetters created Grain Place Foods in 1980 and incorporated in 1987 to clean the grains grown on the farm and give other organic farmers a place to have their grains cleaned and packaged to get to market.

The company has grown to 22 full-time and 3 part-time employees, including two full-time farmers.

Today, the company is divided into three entities:

    • The Grain Place is a 280-acre farm that grows soybeans, corn, popcorn and Ethiopian barley. They also grow grasses and legumes for grazing cows.
    • Grain Place Foods cleans, color sorts and packages multiple grains that are grown by more than 130 farmers across the United States, and they co-pack for various companies. Their products include barley, brown rice, freeze-dried blueberries, chia, cane sugar, corn, flaxseeds, Favorite Five™ (a blend of rolled oats, rolled barley, rolled wheat, rolled rye and hulled sesame seeds.), Kamut Khorasan Wheat®, millet, oats, popcorn, quinoa, rye, soybeans, spelt, sunflower, triticale, wheat and cold-pressed vanilla extract.
    • Grain Place Foundation, ( was created to ensure the farm stays organic, creates educational opportunities and will help to promote regenerative agriculture.

Grain Place COO Christian Evans said organic products are also non-GMO by default.

“In our organic rotations program on the farm and in the plant, no chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers are used, which help keep those out of the bodies of those who consume the grains and beans. On the farm, our focus is on healthy soils. So no matter what you grow in those soils, you gain the best nutrition possible.”

On a Health Mission

The company’s motto is “how your food is produced does matter.”

“And we truly believe that,” Christian said. “From the health of the soil and the ability to regenerate soils to the handling and packaging process, Grain Place Foods is committed to ecologically regenerative and socially responsible good tasting, organic foods and we appreciate GROW and all of our customers for allowing us to make that happen!”

Evans said Grain Place customers range from young to old and are looking for healthy, good-tasting grains, beans and popcorn.

“Our web orders come in from all over the country but especially the east and west coasts,” he said.

In addition to their website, Grain Place Foods products are sold on the shelves of their in-plant store, in the bulk bins section of Hy-Vee and Whole Foods and through GROW Nebraska.

“GROW has been a great partner in promoting our products in areas and in ways we haven’t the time to venture into,” Evans said. “Their access to Amazon is especially fruitful for us. We support GROW whole-heartedly!”

For more information about Grain Place Foods, visit its GROW Nebraska profile page.