Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Winners alert: BNC’s four Small Businesses of the Year

Each December, Business North Carolina highlights outstanding small businesses in the state that are selected by a panel of judges. This year’s report features four distinctive enterprises:

  • Clarity Counseling Center, Wilmington
  • Hot-sauce maker Elijah’s Xtreme, Gastonia
  • Shaka Taco restaurant, Surf City
  • Engineering company Lynch Mykins, Raleigh

Watch the video and read about the winners here.

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In a year when many companies are still keeping workers at home, Lynch Mykins Structural Engineers has seen record growth as it does the opposite — getting its staff and clients together in person.

The company originally known as Stroud Pence & Associates has moved in a new direction since Anna Lynch and Dave Mykins acquired the business four years ago. Lynch had worked at Stroud Pence but envisioned a company that “would place greater emphasis on the soft skills [that] would set the structural-engineering firm apart from their competition in a hard-skills industry.”

It’s paid off: The staff at offices in Raleigh and Richmond and Norfolk, Va. increased by 28% to 62 employees in the past year, and the company hit its sales goals for 2021 by June 30. The staff had fun along the way, making YouTube videos that feature lip-syncing and a summer “Olympics” with executives in a dunk tank.

Lynch, 40, grew up in Clear Lake, Iowa and earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Wyoming and a master’s in civil engineering from N.C. State University. She loves to flip rundown houses in downtown Raleigh and enjoys ballroom and salsa dancing.

Mykins, 62, is a New Yorker, attending high school in Scottsville and earning a bachelor’s in civil engineering at State University of New York at Buffalo. He later received a master’s in structural engineering from Old Dominion University in Norfolk. He and his wife, Ann, like to golf and enjoy visiting Brooklyn to visit their son.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to embrace in-person work?
Structural engineering is high-risk work. We’re designing the structures that make buildings stand up — the buildings where people live and work. We did not believe that our team could do laundry, take care of and teach their children, and do structural analysis safely. To ensure the quality and safety of our deliverables, much of our work is collaborative and there are protocols along the way that must be done a certain way.

We felt like it made the most sense to offer an open office for employees who chose to, or need to, continue working in collaboration. We made the choice a manageable one for them by offering child care and education tuition reimbursement. Most employees chose to come to the office. Because we hired and trained engineers to value human connection, they were excited to get back together. Our office is spacious, with large overhead doors that remain open most days.

Anna Lynch

How many employees are still remote?
Fewer than 3% of our employees are working from home full-time. Freedom is clearly at the core of who we are, so we do not regulate remote work.

Has adding perks and creating a fun work environment worked?
Our attrition rate is 5.2%. Ten percent is our goal, and the industry standard is 22-30% currently. We attribute this incredibly low attrition to our healthy perks and benefits. We hear from new employees that something as simple as seeing one of our videos on YouTube was the turning point for them to choose work at Lynch Mykins. For others, it may have been allowing paid time off for community volunteering, the weekly happy hours, the beer on tap in the kitchen, unlimited healthy snacks, pool and ping-pong tables, free lunches or our pet-friendly offices.
The brand and culture of connection and open communication we have as a group impacts retention. People feel comfortable coming forward with any concerns or needs before they become real problems. We believe listening to your team is one thing. Taking action is way more important.

You’ve engaged in staff discussions about “uncomfortable” topics. How has that worked?
We held company-wide roundtable conversations on COVID and racism during the Black Lives Matter movement. Both topics were a little scary and made some uncomfortable. We’re so glad our diverse group of employees felt free to offer their opinions and listen to others with an open mind. We’re a very close group and respect everyone’s opinions, even if they aren’t the same as ours. Our leaders always create space for people to share, explore and to be themselves without fear of judgement.

What are some of your recent projects?
The new Bandwidth Campus in RTP; Raleigh Ironworks; each new building on the new Wake Tech Community College campus in Wendell; multiple buildings on the SAS campus in Cary; Credit Suisse in RTP; Lenovo US Headquarters; The Stitch Triangle in RTP; Burt’s Bees headquarters in Durham; Bloc 83 development in downtown Raleigh; Raleigh Civic Tower; and the UNC/Rex Cancer Center in Raleigh. We work on more than 800 projects each year around the country.

What sets Lynch Mykins apart from other engineering firms?
Two things: Culture and soft skills. We have a culture director at Lynch Mykins. Most engineering firms don’t. Culture has proven to be the catalyst in both employee and client retention. We invest in our people — personally and professionally. Plain and simple. We care deeply about creating a place for people to live and work with maximum freedom and flexibility. Where everyone has a voice. Everyone is heard. Our culture is about family, fun and authenticity. All ideas are welcome and valued.

We invest in engineers who understand and appreciate the value of soft skills in our hard skills world. We hire people who are interested in learning, growing and expanding these skill sets. It’s not easy and doesn’t always come naturally. But it has proven to be one of the attributes of our enterprise that our clients absolutely won’t work without. We provide clear, timely, honest, proactive communication every step of the way, from the beginning of a project to the end.

Do you have expansion plans?
Our enterprise growth is focused on people, not financials, so growing into new markets will always be about meeting the right people to do the job. We’re always looking to meet new people and learn about their goals and ambitions for their future. If they match with ours, then let’s go start something new.


When Elijah Morey was 6 years old, he found his dad, Bret Morey, working in their garden and asked what he needed to do to be the youngest person to eat the hottest pepper out there. After sinking his teeth into a banana pepper, he was hooked on trying more spicy foods. About six years later, he asked his father if they could start making their own hot sauces.

After years of trial and error, the father and son duo perfected their hot sauce. In 2014, they started Elijah’s Xtreme Gourmet Sauces in Gastonia. Now, they sell five hot sauces with different heat levels and flavor profiles. They utilize various social media platforms, a weekly newsletter, social media influencer outreach and other strategic marketing tactics to continue to grow the business.

Elijah, 24, graduated from Highland School of Technology in Gastonia and attended Anderson University in South Carolina. He’s convinced that he made the right decision to leave Anderson early to focus on the business. He later took online courses and earned a bachelor’s degree from Anderson.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

How did you quadruple sales in 2021?
There were a few keys to allow such amazing growth. First was figuring out the best social media strategy. We developed a structure to grow our audiences on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and pinterest.

Tiktok was huge for us. I sent direct messages to people I found on TikTok, mostly in the food space, and sent them free hot sauce in the hopes they would make a video. Now, our hashtag on TikTok has over 13.5 million views and incredible exposure to potential new customers.

Amazon was another huge area of improvement and continues to grow. By really understanding the algorithm and how it works, we have been able to maintain our products as best sellers in the hot sauce and sauce categories.

We also have tripled down on social media advertising. This one was tricky and took many months of failure to figure out the best structure. We now have a pretty intense breakdown of how we reach potential new customers and retarget them on almost every social channel possible. We currently reach over 5 million people each month.

Our team provides the best customer experience possible.When using social media advertising, it is great to get an initial purchase, but I knew in order to really — and I mean really grow — we needed to nurture our customers. By nurturing our customers, we have seen a massive increase month over month of returning customers. One out of four come back the next month.

Lastly, passion. My dad and I work more than 80 hours a week because we love what we do — not because we have to do it. We add our passion into everything we do. I believe that is the final key to growing our company the way that we have.

What makes your sauces distinctive?
It is our passion. From the beginning, our desire was to create hotter, better tasting hot sauces that are unique, thicker and full of flavor. Using all natural ingredients, such as fresh peppers, we work many hours, sometimes weeks and even months, as we handcraft each recipe with one goal in mind: flavor first, then heat. We have been honored with 58 industry awards for
our sauces.

How did you get TV star Mario Lopez to like your product?
We were accepted into a very exclusive part of Amazon called LaunchPad. This program allows you to have the backend insights as the biggest companies in the world do and get in front of some amazing people.

I submitted one of our most popular products to be shown to Mario’s team for a Father’s Day gift guide, and we were one of 10 lucky companies to get picked. This led to Christmas-like sales over the weeks leading up to Father’s Day.

Is building strong ties with Amazon important?
Amazon is a necessary evil in today’s society. Our relationship with Amazon is one of the most critical relationships we hold, as more than 50% of our entire revenue comes from that platform. The biggest thing with Amazon is getting the right connections with reps and learning the algorithm to enable us to not just hold where we are in ranks, but to grow and gain higher positions.

How much capital did it take to start?
We launched our Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce hot sauce in June 2014 with enough money to incorporate, register and trademark our name, Elijah’s Xtreme®, and our X®. We also had enough money to pay for our first pallet of our Ghost Pepper Sauce, all under $10,000. As we sold products, we continued to save to buy more, using those funds to then buy two pallets. We now order over 75 pallets a year.

Why did you choose the hot sauce business?
When I (Elijah) was 6 years old, I came to my dad in the garden and asked what he needed to do to eat the hottest pepper in the world. My dad gave me a hot banana pepper and said, “Start here.” Each summer, we would challenge who could eat the hottest pepper from the garden and wait the longest before drinking any water — which led to us trying different hot sauces. I was about 12 years old when I asked my dad if we could make our own hot sauce, one that was still hot but tasted good.

It took three years and many moldy batches of homemade mash until we figured it out. After sending out over 100 samples, we received great feedback. We now have five hot sauces.

What has been your biggest challenge in 2021?
There have been a lot of privacy updates with social media advertising. This has led to bad data, so it is harder to figure out which ads have attributed sales. On top of that, we are running at such a high level with our ads; the video and creatives we use get saturated very quickly. This means I have to come up with new ideas, shoot videos, edit, and optimize them in social media forms every two to three days. It’s crazy. We have run more than 500 different video ads this year alone.

What is the best advice you have received for growing the business?
“It’s not a problem; it’s a challenge” — Dad, 2020

What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working?
Honestly, there’s little time we’re not working. We love it. We’re so passionate about our company. We’re always thinking of other ideas to share our passion.

Do you personally enjoy the spicy, burn-down-the-house sauces?
I enjoy a medium to hot burn on most of my food to really get me going. I don’t want to suffer. A ton of people love to suffer, and that’s why our hottest hot sauce is our top seller.


Fresh eats, fresh vibes is the motto at Shaka Taco in Surf City. Steve Christian, 33, and Cody Leutgens, 32, designed the walk-up taco stand with simplicity in mind, creating a place where sandy feet are welcome. Attached to the restaurant is Surf City Surf School, owned and operated by Leutgens. The duo were classmates at Topsail High School in Hampstead. Christian later attended UNC Charlotte, while Leutgens has a bachelor’s degree from UNC Wilmington and a graduate degree from Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

Long before the pandemic, Shaka Taco received a large portion of business from call-in or to-go orders. There is no indoor dining area. No wonder, then, that it thrived during the pandemic as tourists kept streaming to Pender, Onslow and other coastal counties. Two more locations are in the works.

Shaka Taco rolls with the punches — rain, COVID-19 shutdowns and slow seasons — as a way of life, Leutgens says.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

What enabled your company to grow through the pandemic?
First, keeping staff clocked in and holding regular hours. Without staff, the business could’ve done nothing. Pushing our takeout aspect of Shaka also proved invaluable. With a large portion of our business already being call-in or to-go orders, we over-ordered our compostable packaging and created as many avenues as possible to keep orders coming — online ordering, window service utilizing social distancing, phone orders and even scheduled pickup times to further social distancing.

Once restrictions were loosened, our patio was one of the few places in the area prepared to have people dine outside safely. We were ready to rock and roll.

How much capital did it take to start the business?
Steve and I each invested $5,000 to start Shaka Taco. We were able to reimburse ourselves after the first quarter we were open.

What was your biggest challenge in 2021?
There have been many challenges. Supplies across the board have been difficult to obtain or have become too expensive to resell. However, our biggest struggle has been management. We started the year strong and are in good shape now. But during peak season, we were unsure how to best utilize upper management.

Therefore, we implemented shift leaders, who are employees with long-term experience at Shaka, as well as the knowledge base to keep a shift flowing.

What’s your bestselling taco?
The bestselling taco every week of every year since we opened is the fish taco. It’s light, crunchy, fresh and a delightful combo of flavors.

How do sales incentives for your employees work?
The incentives function seasonally — sales incentives and summer labor incentives during the offseason. Managers will work together using set budgets. If they are under budget, that percentage is split amongst them. For example, if the disposable budget is $1,000 for September and only $800 is spent or old products are used and sold, the leftover budget will go to them. Managers can actively source alternative products, as long as the product meets standard, or they can work with suppliers to find sales.

The same applies for labor, our biggest expense. If managers can lower the labor percentage or improve from comparative weeks or months, without sacrificing service quality, they keep the difference.

How do you keep customers loyal?
Keeping customers loyal truly rests in our duty to keep products consistent and fresh. We want them to have the same tasting fish taco every time they visit, even if it’s been three months.

Because of the seasonality, we depend a great deal on locals in the off-season. We try to have their back in the off-season by running daily discounted specials, rotating breweries and dropping new merchandise that won’t be bought up by island visitors.

How do you balance the restaurant and surf school?
The surf school began in 2013, so it is well established from a functional and operational standpoint. Balancing the two businesses, again, is dictated by staff. Organization and preparation are most important for the surf school, including ensuring instructors are trained and ready once the season arrives, solidifying retail and garment designs and stocking equipment. The last two years were especially difficult to obtain surfboards, but that seems to be bouncing back.

I’ve always said the surf school was my first child who is now old enough to make a PB&J and ride a bike to the beach. The taco shop still must be spoon-fed and burped but it is growing and becoming more self-sufficient each month.

There are a lot of staff members who double dip — lessons all day, tacos all night. This makes for knowledgeable employees, which is invaluable.

Does the business stay profitable during the winter months?
We are able to stay in the green throughout the year. The area has grown so much, the offseason seems to get smaller and smaller. With the local community growing, we’ve seen the winter months be surprisingly strong, especially on a sunny weekend. We want to keep as many staff members as possible, so labor becomes the biggest struggle in the off-season. The college and high school kids become far less available, so that allows more hours for full-time employees, which is a plus, but must be tightly managed.

Another huge variable is weather. We do our best to combat inclement weather with specials, a limited menu and bonus items with call-in orders and other ideas. But there are times when we must chock up the day as a loss. Such is the Shaka Taco way of life, rolling with all the punches coming our way — rain, shine, hurricanes, pandemics.

What is the best advice you have received?
It would be hard to pin down one piece of advice for growth, but we value consistency in all things involved in our business, we treat staff like family, we always give back to our community, we strive to be good people and we laugh as often as possible. If we can continue to keep those aspects at the forefront, we will remain successful and our growth will happen organically.

What is your favorite thing to do off the job?
Probably try to better the workplace. Realistically, Steve and I enjoy working together as much as we do playtime, of which is almost always done outdoors. Surf, golf, disc golf, building projects, anything on the beach or outside with our families and all of which is accompanied with laughter.

Steve and Kelsey have two adorable little girls, a 1-and 3-year-old, who are Shaka’s biggest fans and regular dilla destroyers. I just got married and got a puppy, so needless to say, both Steve and I are ready to have a stress-free off-season.

What are your favorite three songs from Shaka Tacos’ usual playlist?
Geez, oh man. That is impossible. There’s close to 2,000 of mine and Steve’s favorite songs on that playlist. It is supremely dynamic. From local guys like The Turkey Buzzards, to gritty guitar playing Junior Kimbrough and bluesy rock like All Them Witches, back to singer-songwriter stuff like Van Zandt and Prine. The list goes on.


An unforeseen outcome of the coronavirus pandemic was its devastating impact on mental health for many people, creating both challenges and opportunities for professional counselors. In a difficult environment, Karin Kassab, 37, moved swiftly to transition her team to conduct therapy sessions via telephone and online. For three months, she and a couple of colleagues ran the business out of her living room. With demand surging, her Clarity Counseling Center added 10 therapists, two interns and two administrative workers as revenue increased by more than $500,000. Profit also gained 13%, Kassab says.

A lifelong resident of coastal North Carolina, Kassab leads a team that provides counseling for a wide variety of issues including body image, depression, eating disorders, fertility, grief and trauma.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

Where did you go to high school and college?
My family found its way to the North Carolina coast before I was born when my father was stationed at Camp Lejeune. We loved it so much we stayed and have been here since. My father is a proud retired Marine. I am a North Carolina native, born and raised. I attended high school in Sneads Ferry and graduated from UNC Wilmington. I love where I grew up, and that’s why I decided to build a business here.

What sparked your interest in psychology?
I’ve always been intrigued by what motivates people to do the things they do on a deeper level. I took a psychology class in high school and then an internship in high school at a local inpatient mental-health facility. That experience impacted me deeply. As a 17-year-old, I came face to face with the ways the mental-health system worked and the ways it failed. I knew I wanted to be part of a positive impact, and I remember becoming curious about why some people got better and others didn’t. That led me to study psychology in college.

My parents thought the mental health field was saturated and that it would be difficult to make a living, so I kept a double major in elementary education and psychology. I finally dropped the education major halfway through college when I convinced my parents there’s always room for one more skilled person in any industry. Thank God; I would have been a horrible elementary school teacher.

What prompted you to start the business?
Clarity was born to address pain points in the mental-health industry. Specifically, why was it so difficult for clients to connect with the right therapeutic fit for them? And why, ironically, in the mental-health field, were therapists undervalued and underpaid? Where was the focus on workplace health and experience?

Six years in and we’ve made good progress in those areas. We’re always working to be better but overall, it feels like a win.

I come from a hard-working entrepreneurial-minded family. My paternal great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Syria and was a self-starter. My mother’s heritage is a long family line of dairy farmers. When my father retired from the military, he started a business in land development, while my uncle owns and operates a consumer marketing firm in Dallas. Both of my cousins have started their own businesses.

How did the company add $500,000 in revenue amid the pandemic?
The key was having the right team and the desire to serve more clients to meet the increasing demand. We knew we had to meet the growing client need for psychotherapy during the pandemic. People were really struggling with loneliness, anxiety, depression and isolation. And they were turning to psychotherapy. We wanted to be there for them.

Our team’s readiness for change and ability to adapt to new circumstances put on us by COVID allowed us to meet client needs, and grow while maintaining our workplace culture. I am proud of many things about the business, but I am most proud of our high-performing team.

It feels strange to celebrate business growth that was birthed from COVID when so many have suffered. I feel honored and grateful to have had the ability to provide services to our community at such a crucial moment of need.

What makes Clarity distinctive?
We say jokingly, “This isn’t your grandma’s therapy.” We offer modern evidence-based therapy. Finding the best therapeutic fit for each client is what sets us apart. I am obsessed, almost maniacal, about client-therapist matchmaking. No old-school formalities, no head nodding and awkward “How does that make you feel?” We want real bios and real super specialists who are the best fit for a client struggling with those specific issues.

What were your biggest challenges?
COVID threw all business owners a curveball. We experienced fear and uncertainty regarding telehealth services, unsure even now if insurance companies will continue to cover mental health care at parity to in-person services. We knew that many of our clients would suffer if we couldn’t continue care.

We foresaw the mandated closure of our office. By preparing in advance, we were able to transition to telehealth, keep our team safe and continue to provide uninterrupted service to our clients for the following 18 months. We scrambled and prepped everyone. The administrative team worked out of my living room for three months. We returned to the office in July 2021.

On the bright side, being forced to go virtual made therapy services more available than ever and we saw an increase in clients. We created more accessible services and expanded to include the entire state.

The second greatest challenge was walking through the darkness together. Our jobs are helping people walk through a frightening and uncertain time, while also up to our eyeballs in our own fears and uncertainty. I am honored to do the work we do. It’s my life’s work and I wouldn’t trade it, but it’s also heavy at times. Our team was at an all-time high risk of burning out. Our clients were struggling, we were struggling. I knew as a leader I couldn’t shield them from that experience, and I certainly couldn’t take it away and make it better. The part we could impact was reminding everyone on our team that they weren’t alone. We’re still connected. We are still a team.

What did you do to boost morale?
We have focused on teamwork, perfecting our client-therapist matchmaking approach and putting our therapists’ mental health first. We have weekly YouTube “State of the Practice” updates, monthly virtual parties (masks and mimosas, virtual game nights, virtual pool party), and Slack groups (such as “taco-bout-gratitude” and “virtual-coffee”). We wanted every team member to feel valued and part of the team, despite being separated across time zones. We curated and delivered care packages to all staff members that were filled with facial masks, puzzle books, stickers, candy and more.

Has the pandemic raised the awareness of mental health issues?
Absolutely. We were already on the road to becoming more aware as a culture and the pandemic just ripped that Band Aid right off. The struggle with loneliness, isolation, fear, anxiety and worry is undeniable.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?
That growth is inherently destabilizing. It is often blindly celebrated, but the reality is business growth is destabilizing to the business core. Unchecked growth can be a business’s demise. With this advice, I’ve been able to make cautious deliberate decisions with the goal of incremental growth with built-in stabilization periods.

What do you enjoy doing off the job?
I love to spend time exploring new places and eating new things with my husband; time with friends, family and our two adopted fur babies; being outdoors; and practicing yoga.

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