Six Downtown Long Beach entrepreneurs have received a portion of $20,000 in grants from the Downtown Long Beach Alliance Economic Development Committee, the organization recently announced.

Two business owners were awarded $5,000: Irving Barcenas of Culinarian, a social cooking platform where users can teach and learn from each other through livestreamed video, and Alexander LaPelch of Terravan Solar, a solar energy company providing a hardware suite of off-grid power solutions for vans and recreational vehicles.

This year’s other recipients, who each received $2,500, are:

  • Jocelyn Howard of Howard Coaching & Consulting, LLC;
  • Marian Lopez of Mama Cheesecake;
  • Elliot Gonzales of Downtown Nursery; and
  • Ric Salinas of Indie Genius Group.

The Pitchfest Incubator Award 2023 winners, who presented their business plans during a “Shark Tank-style” business pitch competition organized by the DLBA, will also receive one-on-one legal and business strategy support from Stone Law and Fuller Management Corp., among other prizes, apart from the grant.

For Barcenas, the idea behind Culinarian first was sparked about 10 years ago, and Barcenas has pursued it on and off since then. After ramping up the effort again late last year, Barcenas hopes to officially launch Culinarian this September.

Before putting Culinarian on pause in 2018, Barcenas had pitched 17 times, but always came in second place, he said. Pitchfest was his first pitch since then.

“This time, I was a nervous wreck,” Barcenas said. “But I tried to have this mentality of like, ‘Whatever happens happens.’”

To be one of the $5,000 recipients felt “validating,” Barcenas said. Pitchfest funds will be used to directly support the servers, which are key to hosting livestreams and are currently the largest expense for the business, Barcenas explained.

To qualify for Pitchfest, participants completed the entirety of DLBA’s 10-workshop Entrepreneur & Small Business Education Series, a program coordinated in partnership with Cal State Long Beach’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Farmers & Merchants Bank.

Overall, 14 businesses participated in this year’s Pitchfest competition, while 19 participants received a certificate of completion from the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship for attending all 10 workshop sessions. A total of 114 participants attended one of the 10 workshop sessions.

Over the past six years of the program, about 300 people have participated in the various workshops, and about 60 or so businesses have gone on to compete in Pitchfest and receive grants, said DLBA CEO and president Austin Metoyer.

“We developed this program because we noticed there was a real need for educational and technical assistance for small businesses and our growing entrepreneurial scene,” Metoyer said. “At the same time, we started to recognize the need to connect small business owners and entrepreneurs together—they really were looking for community.”

While the Small Business Development Center used to host a small business education series sponsored by Molina Healthcare, that ended in 2016, Metoyer explained.

“So DLBA wanted to step in and be able to be that resource for our existing businesses, but also any aspiring entrepreneur that is working out of their home right now, or is working out of a ghost kitchen, but really doesn’t have the fundamentals of operating their business,” Metoyer said.

For the 300 or so business owners that have participated in the education series, many have benefited both from the knowledge as well as the opportunity to connect with other entrepreneurs, Metoyer said.

“We look forward to continuing on with this program, continuing with our current partners, and hopefully, be able to provide a little bit more money in grants in future years,” Metoyer said.

As for this year’s award recipients, “the diversity in the businesses that we saw was very cool,” said Stephanie El Tawil, the DLBA’s economic development and policy manager. “It really crossed a lot of industries. We had our tech, we had our food, we had our retail, we had our sustainable products, we had just a great diversity of not only participants but then the businesses that they were bringing into the Downtown community.”

After moving through the workshop series, participants leave with a business plan and tangible tools to move their business forward, El Tawil said. While the content each year has remained relatively the same, this year’s course placed a bit more emphasis on marketing, especially digital marketing, El Tawil said.

“For others who are considering participating in something like that, I would recommend it,” said Alexander LaPelch of Terravan Solar of the education series. “Not only just for the possibility to win money, but to learn something new and to meet new people that are kind of on a similar path as you so you can build a support network.”

For LaPelch, the education series offered the opportunity to refresh his knowledge, and bring to light some aspects that he had overlooked, particularly when it came to business planning and his business model. “The class was able to point that out,” he said.

LaPelch started his business about two years ago, after converting his own camper van for recreational use. While trying to upgrade it to a newer van and using YouTube videos as a guide, he realized that most electrical solutions either took up too much space, or were incorrectly installed, potentially becoming unsafe. Now, he plans to use his $5,000 award from the DLBA for marketing, with hopes of increasing revenue long term.

“Hopefully in the future, we will have bigger facilities for more products and just helping more people in general,” LaPelch said.