Hennepin County continues to help small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hennepin County continues to help small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Vanessa Drews was a paralegal at a large Minneapolis law firm that was involved in baking cheesecakes. She made candy for colleagues during the holidays, sold cakes to an Irish pub and treated musicians and musicians himself in Princes Paisley Park when she sold merchandise there.

In August 2019, she left the legal profession and decided to focus on her work in the cheesecake industry — just a few months before COVID-19 threw small businesses into an unexpected downhill. Thousands have been closed or locked down for months, laid off employees and rushing to find new ways to provide their services in a time of pandemic and civil unrest.

Hennepin County officials quickly realized the importance of helping small businesses stay afloat, and they used more than $70 million in state and federal recovery funding for small grants to 6,500 businesses, about half of which are owned by people of color.

Then the county launched Elevate Business Hennepin County, a million-dollar program that offers business owners up to 25 hours of free advisory services to help them rebuild and re-ignite after the pandemic subsides and in the long run.

To date, more than 700 companies, including Drews, have benefited from support in the areas of accounting, law, finance, marketing, social media, and web development.

“With trying to keep myself and my family healthy and providing desserts safely to many restaurants and markets throughout the Twin Cities, the sole responsibility to make this business work has been mentally and physically exhausting at times,” said Drews, who owns Cheesecake Funk, which she named in honor of the Prince.

“For the days when I celebrate the milestones, I will forever remember the long days and nights of preparing in confectionery baking which in turn has brought so much joy to people during this pandemic.”

Elevate Business began fall 2020 in partnership with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. The program provided 3,344 hours of educational counseling and webinars. While there are no statistics available showing business results, the county will survey 6,500 companies that have received grants.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID, Hennepin County had a few partners providing support for entrepreneurship. After convening a business advisory board, county officials quickly realized that a disproportionate number of businesses owned by people of color were struggling financially, said Patricia Fitzgerald, the county’s director of community and economic development.

“Small businesses needed technical help on how to drive online sales for a dime,” she said. “Companies didn’t have the time or money to reach out to advisors to solve those challenges.”

Elevate Business now contracts with more than 20 nonprofit and business advisors, including the African Development Center, the Latin Economic Development Center, and Springboard for the Arts and Women Venture. The program is a comprehensive business development model, Fitzgerald said.

Stay on the right track

Hennepin County’s small business struggles mirror national surveys, which indicate that nearly 70% of small businesses have not seen a rebound in sales to pre-pandemic levels.

In October, Hennepin County Council appropriated $9 million to maintain Elevate Business funding for the next three years. The Board of Directors also allocated $10 million for grants to provide affordable, long-term commercial rental space to small businesses.

“It’s really hard to overstate the importance of small, local businesses to society,” Fitzgerald said. “Storefronts are part of what makes our communities livable.”

Poh Lin Khoo is owned by Khoo Consulting, one of the companies selected to work with Elevate Business. An immigrant who speaks four languages, Khoo worked with a home healthcare company, a Liberian woman who launched a bag store, a farmer planning to market avocado oil in Minnesota, and a homeless man trying to start a sewing business.

Kho witnessed racial riots in Malaysia and said she could relate to the unrest in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd.

“I love working with these clients because the barriers for people of color sometimes make it difficult to achieve success,” she said.

Victor Jones has owned a consulting firm since 2014 specializing in the restaurant industry. He has advised companies at Hopkins, the Brooklyn Center and at Eight Street in Minneapolis on financing options, business plans, and how to best care for employees. His first Elevate Business client was Drews, who slowly built her business via word of mouth and social media.

Cheesecake Funk is one woman’s business. She bakes and delivers her produce while getting help from her mother watching her children, ages 7 and 5. Her cheesecakes can be ordered on her website or purchased at more than a dozen metro area restaurants, markets, a country club, and a winery. Although sales have been consistent during the pandemic, eight months have gone without health insurance.

Drews needed Jones’ help with accounting and calculating food costs. He said he also worked with her to find a financial institution willing to give her a line of credit to set up her business — she was denied a small business loan when she started — and allow her to apply for larger financing.

Drews rents space to bake in the restaurant kitchen at the Marriott Southwest in Minnetonka, but Jones knows she eventually wants to open her own place. They have even discussed making another company have cheesecakes.

“I had one client who was thinking about exploring a collaborative route for his restaurant, and it was really interesting to me,” Jones said. “A lot of companies facing a problem do not ask the right questions. I assure them that success is in the future.”

Drews said Jones was a great resource for her throwback. “It makes sure you’re on the right track,” she said.

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