Many years ago, during an interview, I asked Larry O'Toole, founder and CEO of Gentle Giant Moving Company, how to identify a truly great small business. His response: Look for Hall of Famers from Readers' Choice awards.

Gentle Giant, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, was fairly diminutive back then but has since grown into a substantial enterprise, with operations in 11 states. I sought O'Toole's perspective because his company had drawn accolades for both its performance and its distinctive culture. But my interest extended beyond my job as a business writer--I was also a customer. The company had moved my elderly father three times in the past year to residences with increasingly high levels of care. Its crews were swift, careful, and professional. Even more important, they deduced my situation and evinced extraordinary sensitivity and compassion.

Readers' Choice awards--essentially best-of packages based on consumer input--are annual rites at many local publications, from slick city magazines to free weekly newspapers. O'Toole viewed them as a proxy for customer satisfaction. He believed that if people take the time to vote for you year after year, you probably are doing a good job.

Each year Inc. celebrates Small Business Week by turning the spotlight on intriguing Main Street companies that rarely make news outside their own regions. This year we're following O'Toole's advice and reporting on businesses that have made repeat appearances on their local Readers' Choice lists. Some of the ones you'll read about here have won every year for more than a decade. 

For the next five days we'll introduce you to companies that exemplify at least one of five small business strengths: a surprising or curated product mix; assiduous customer service; deep and creative engagement with the community; historical resonance; or an appealingly idiosyncratic character. We will focus on a single strength for each business, though many of them excel in multiple areas.

Small Business Week, sponsored every year since 1963 by the U.S. Small Business Administration, reminds the public how much entrepreneurs and small companies contribute to the economy and to their lives. The grateful customers of these impressive businesses don't need reminding.

On each day of Small Business Week, Inc. will spotlight a different competitive advantage of local brick and mortar companies. Here's the schedule:

Published on: Apr 30, 2018