Hundreds of local business leaders gathered at the Naples Grande Hotel ballroom Thursday evening to celebrate the winners of the 14th annual Southwest Florida Choice Awards, honoring the most popular Naples area businesses
The Naples Daily News event honors winners in seven categories — including restaurants, shopping and entertainment — and 168 subcategories chosen by 98,000 Daily News readers. They cast their votes online from May 22 to June 5, and 650 business owners, entrepreneurs, employees and loved ones signed up to attend the celebration, said Robin Lankton, the Daily News regional marketing director.
“This event is for readers to select the best of the best of businesses in our community,” Lankton said, “and it’s to celebrate our advertisers.”
Thursday night’s event was the largest in its history. Music by Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Donna Summer played as attendees grabbed drinks, posed in a green-screen photo booth, mingled and entered a raffle drawing. The raffle included 63 prizes with a total value exceeding $10,000. Prizes included deluxe spa packages, bottles of tequila and tickets to Shakespeare performances.
Many winners of the silver and gold awards agreed that in past years, they saw a boost in their business after winning.
“We absolutely did …,” said Janet Martin, executive director of the Everglades Wonder Gardens in downtown Bonita Springs, which received the silver award for best zoo in 2015 and again in 2016.
“A lot of people came to check us out,” Martin said.
Martin attributes her two silver awards to support from the local community.
“In the past year, we turned 80 years old,” she said. “We saved this land from potential commercial development, and the community is 100 percent behind us as we work to move forward.”
Wonder Gardens is on a 3.5-acre botanical jungle that provides a home to rescued exotic birds and reptiles.
Tamiami Ford and Tamiami Hyundai owner Tim Zellers can’t remember whether it was five or six years in a row that he has won a Choice Award. On Thursday night, Zellers took home four more awards — a gold for fast oil change service, a gold for used car sales, a silver for new car dealer and a silver for general auto service.
“I think it’s our service over the years,” Zellers said. “We have a lot of repeat business. We have a great staff and employees.”
“Tonight is a reflection of the good work that these businesses are doing in the community,” said Shawna Devlin, the Daily News vice president of advertising. “I think that this is really a way for the community to vouch for the products and services these businesses provide. The community at large will respond positively to that.”
Jerry Baer, owner of Baer’s Furniture in Naples, brought a full table of 10 employees to Thursday’s party. Last year, his company was the first furniture store to ever win three gold awards in a single year. This year, Baer took home two golds and a silver for best furniture store, best outside furniture, and home furnishings.
“We were very appreciative for the recognition of all the hard work of our 800 team members at our 16 locations across Florida,” Baer said. “It’s the hard work of our team in providing outstanding service. And we really appreciate the recognition from the community.”
Dave Gallus, a broker at Premiere Plus Realty, the largest independent real estate broker in Southwest Florida, said he didn’t feel nervous about winning a silver or gold award this year.
“Last year we were number two,” Gallus said. “This year we’ll be number one.”
A list of all gold and silver award winners will be published in a special SWFL Choice Awards section Sunday, Aug. 28, and posted online the next day.