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Updated: March 6, 2023

Central Mass. defied state and national startup trends in 2022

Barry Bacon, owner of Spicy Water Distillery in downtown Millbury, sits at the distillery's bar. Photo | KEVIN KOCZWARA Barry Bacon opened Spicy Water Distillery in downtown Millbury on Feb. 10.

Barry Bacon started planning his career change in 2020. Bacon was working as a manager for CVS Health Corp. when the coronavirus pandemic hit. He and his wife often hosted people at their house, and he started to wonder what it would take to open a distillery in Central Massachusetts, so he could not only keep hosting but make something. His blue-collar family’s legacy of working at metal manufacturer Wyman-Gordon workers called out to him.

By the end of 2020, he had a business plan. In 2021, he incorporated Spicy Water Distillery, becoming one of the 2,731 new businesses in Central Massachusetts that year, in what became the year of the startup. The number of new businesses in Central Massachusetts rose 14.6% in 2021, outpacing the state’s own double-digit increase by 4.5 percentage points.

Although the growth slowed last year, 2022 still showed Central Massachusetts has become a destination for new businesses. Another 2,772 new businesses incorporated in the region in 2022, a 1.5% increase over the eye-popping 2021 figures, according to a WBJ analysis of incorporation paperwork filed with the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth.

While Central Massachusetts was on the rise last year, the state overall had a 2.8% decrease in new business starts in 2022. The U.S. as a whole was trending down, too, with a 6.2% decrease in new businesses last year, although still above pre-pandemic levels, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This chart shows new business starts increased in Central Massachusetts in 2021 and 2022.
This chart shows new business starts increased in Central Massachusetts in 2021 and 2022.

“The growth out towards Boston is stagnant,” Bacon said. “It’s either too expensive, there’s not enough room, or everything has already been done out there. And in Central Mass. there is still so much room, and so many people moving in.”

When Bacon started looking at locations for his distillery, he only had one area in mind. He didn’t want to try to head toward Boston. He wanted to stay close to Worcester. He looked in the city proper, but examined the possibilities in Holden, Shrewsbury, and Westborough.

“There weren’t any distillery-only businesses in the area,” Bacon said. “There was an opportunity in the market for that.”

Growing opportunities

Central Massachusetts grew 8.1% in population from 2010 to 2020, outpacing both the state (6.0%) and nation (6.5%), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the city, Worcester grew 14% from 185,000 residents in 2010 to more than 206,000 in 2020. Last year’s Census update put the city’s population at 205,918.

With all of those new people, there’s an opportunity. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, there was a radical shift in how people worked. No longer were employees required to drive to work their office jobs. People found they had more time at home and the possibility to figure out what was next, including what they really wanted to do. People like Bacon began to explore the possibility outside of their career to chase a dream of doing something they loved.

With that, more people began to explore what opening a new business looks like. Tom Herald, a senior business advisor for the Small Business Development Center at Clark University in Worcester, said the desire to open a new business in Central Massachusetts hasn’t slowed. Herald has seen 74 requests this year for counseling, and that number looks to keep growing as people in the area see opportunity.

First-generation immigrants coming to Central Massachusetts has helped fuel the increase in new businesses, Herald said. Their new businesses come on top of people who are quiet quitting at their jobs; instead of trying to progress in their current careers, they’re searching for the thing they really want to do.

Room for growth

Bacon, his wife Amy Bacon, and Manager of Operations Matthew Tella stand in the Spicy Water production space.

For Bacon, who worked with the Clark small business center, that was opening a distillery. He sees the Blackstone Valley as ripe for growth. After founding his business in May 2021 and looking around for places to open, he settled on a location in downtown Millbury, where he graduated from high school. The distillery location opened on Jan. 21 and held a ribbon cutting on Feb. 10. Eventually, the tentacles of possibility will reach out from Worcester, and Bacon sees Millbury as one of the gateways into business expansion throughout Central Massachusetts.

“I'm seeing that in the next few years we can have an abundance of growth,” Bacon said. “This area was ready for something like this.”

In Leominster, Christine Konich saw the opportunity to open a new bakery. Before 2020, she’d worked for Aunty Ellen's Creative Confections in Leominster for 10 years and loved baking. When Aunty Ellen’s closed in February 2020 after 25 years, Konich didn’t want to stop baking, so she started a cake business, at first renting commercial kitchen space. She delivered cakes, and eventually the business grew into something where she needed to look into a permanent location. She found an old family pizza joint that had been vacant for a few years and decided to pounce on the opportunity of opening near downtown Leominster. Other cake shops are in the area, but none that specialize in fondant like she does. On top of that, she saw the potential for a little store front.

On Nov. 18, 2022, Simply Sweet by Christine had its ribbon-cutting and opened its doors. In the three months the shop has been open, the community has come out, and people are buying more than just cakes. Konich's case is raided every day.

Konich grew up in Fitchburg and lived in Leominster with her husband and three kids, so she’s familiar with the community. That’s what drew her to opening there.

“There’s a big and broad community,” Konich said.

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