By Rod Lee
Courtesy of Yankee XPress

The words “they came, they saw, they conquered” were left unspoken but still very much on the minds of those present as winners of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce’s “Best Of” business awards for 2016 came forward to accept their framed certificates during a breakfast meeting at Pakachoag Community Church on October 12.

In doing the honors, Kristen Pappas, chair of the Chamber’s “Best of Auburn” committee, was offering official ratification that the approximately 1400 people who voted for the top dog in a host of categories—including, for instance, “Best Retail” (T J Maxx), “Best Insurance Agency” (Winchester), “Best Hotel” (Holiday Inn Express), “Best Gas Station” (Cumberland Farms on Rt. 20), “Best Bank” (Webster Five), “Best Credit Union” (MCU), “Best New Car Dealer” (Herb Chambers), “Best Dinner Restaurant” (Chuck’s) and “Best Used Car Dealer” (Midstate Auto) got it exactly right.

That some individuals and companies win repeatedly in the contest, which Carrie Cross and her colleagues from the Chamber run every other year, only goes to show how fervently consumers in Auburn appreciate the businesses that make the town a hotbed of commercial activity.

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Breakfast beehive The Coffee Mug, 286 Southbridge St., is one of these. Now owned and operated by Effie Qeleshi and her husband Mihalaq, The Coffee Mug has emerged victorious in the “Best Of” competition eight times. Each fresh pat on the back is a sweet experience for her hardworking family, Ms. Qeleshi, who is Albanian, said, in discussing the award. It is proof that “America is a good place to live, work and for education for the kids (the Qeleshi’s have two daughters),” she said.

Her family came to the United States “for freedom, for liberty, this is most important,” Ms. Qeleshi, whose family owned a brewery in her homeland, said. “I bought the restaurant and after six months I bought the house (in Auburn) and then I feel like I am here.”

In this contentious election season as at other times, it is not about “the politics” but work and faith, she said. “Don’t follow politics, follow the church,” she was told in advance of immigrating to America seventeen years ago. She has embraced that philosophy as an active member of the Albanian Orthodox Church on Salisbury St. in Worcester (she serves on the Parish Council and says “I love the people”).

There is nothing pretentious about The Coffee Mug, which is how customers seem to like it. “I always think about (the restaurant) because my customers trust me and I do the best for them. The customer who comes the first time, they’ll always be here. They never forget me.”

Bells Lawn & Garden Center, 201 Southbridge St., is another favorite of Auburn residents, having won “Best Of” in 2012, 2014 and now 2016.

Matt Belhumeur has carried on and expanded an enterprise started by his father. “I did landscaping for fourteen years,” Mr. Belhumeur said. “We started (the business) nine years ago at this location with just this room and a greenhouse. Now we have another property up the street for mulch and propane.”

With only six employees, Bells is a powerhouse. Bells will close at the end of the month and then reopen the day after Thanksgiving “for the Christmas season.”

Erika Sullivan, broker/owner of Erika Sullivan Realty Group, 889 Southbridge St., a first-time Best Of honoree, said she was “excited” to garner distinction that another agency in town had held since 2012. Ms. Sullivan had double the reason to feel proud; she was also named recipient of “Most Civic-Minded Business Owner.”

She attributes her win in this category to the amount of charity and support she extends to activities and initiatives in the town of Auburn.

“I am an ongoing supporter of AYFS, F.A.M.E. (Friends of Auburn Music Education) and Auburn Youth Football and Cheer,” she said. “I support the annual Auburn Rocket Race held by AYFS. I sponsor the annual middle-school plays and I also supported the F.A.M.E. mini golf tournament this year. I am a sponsor of the Auburn Police Association Comedy Night. I was also a primary donator to the Auburn vs. Leicester Top Cop football game, purchasing a larger number of the shirts that were sold in support of the Tarentino family.” All proceeds from that event went toward the survivors of fallen officer Tarentino.

“We also sold shirts and tickets” for the game “in our office,” she said.

Ms. Sullivan is a committee member with the Major David Brodeur Memorial Foundation and entirely funds the kids’ event each year at that organization’s annual “Klepto 5K” race in October at North American Martyrs.

Her allegiance to the town of Auburn, the Chamber and the business community comes naturally, Ms. Sullivan said.

“My husband and I grew up in Auburn and are raising our children here. My office is here. My husband teaches eighth-grade history at the middle school and coaches the AHS football team, so I do feel I owe a lot to the town. It is the reason our signs are blue, black and white; I wanted to pay homage to my hometown [with} the logo Auburn colors.

“I’m always looking for more ways to give back and constantly asking around for what other events might be coming up that we can sponsor.”

Midstate Auto Group, 810 Washington St., a first-time winner like Erika Sullivan Realty Group—as “Best Used Car Dealer”—is equally ecstatic about the praise it received. “It’s huge,” Nate Attella, Midstate Auto Group’s business development manager, said. Mr. Attella was on hand for the ceremony at Pakachoag Community Church with Midstate Owner/GM Ray Butler and Mr. Butler’s daughter Angie. “It’s a great accomplishment for us,” Mr. Attella said. “It’s important to us to do a lot in the community, with AYFS and others.”

Though appreciated for its extensive inventory, from “Mini Coopers to Audis to Mitsubishis and everything in between,” dedicated staff and outstanding service, Midstate is also obviously valued as well for its eagerness to give back.

Contact Rod Lee at or 774-232-2999.

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