Four years after turning to franchising to expand her Spanish-immersion child-care centers, Casa de Corazon founder and owner Natalie Standridge is fielding inquiries from interested parties to bring the centers beyond the Twin Cities.

In addition to more locations around Minnesota and Wisconsin, Standridge is actively marketing franchising opportunities in Texas, Colorado, Washington and Florida.Among those interested in buying into the franchise are families who previously used Casa de Corazon in the Twin Cities, but have relocated to other states and want to bring the model to their new communities, Standridge said.

Casa de Corazon, which is run out of Maple Grove, currently has six locations — five in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin. On average, each location has enrollment of about 120 children. Standridge's goal is to be in 20 markets by 2030, including franchised locations.

The company will have four franchised locations by 2022. The first franchise opened in 2018 in Edina, followed by a location just outside Milwaukee in 2019 and St. Paul in 2020. A new center in Rochester will open in 2022.

Standridge, who was born in Madison, Wis., earned her degree in family social scienceat the University of Minnesota. She minored in Spanish with an emphasis in cultural youth studies. Her first job was teaching at a Spanish language preschool in Minneapolis.

"From there, I got inspired to do my own company and put down roots here," she said.

The first center opened in south Minneapolis in 2002.

Standridge didn't disclose specific revenue, but said the company is performing between $5 million and $10 million annually. She also said the company has fully recovered to pre-pandemic enrollment numbers.Casa de Corazon has doubled its footprint in the last three years and has just over 100 employees, she said.

With more parents working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as parents pulling their kids from childhood centers as a precaution against possibly spreading the virus to an at-risk family member, one would assume the market to expand child centers might still be bleak. It's the contrary, Standridge has learned. Parents of young children told her their work-from-home routines were not sustainable, as those ages require extra attention.

"Having a nanny or being at home with your kids is not the same as bringing your kids to a social environment where they're having an academic curriculum and where they're getting this intercultural exposure to international teachers," she said.

Casa de Corazon sponsors a work visa program to employ teachers from Spanish speaking countries, Standridge said.

The visa program has helped offset the local worker shortage, "as there is a large pool of teachers looking to participate in this program," said Mallory French, director of marketing at Casa. French also said the company has been working to improve its wages and benefits to attract workers.

The company implemented its visa program following a federal immigration investigation nearly a decade ago.

In 2013, as many as 60 workers left the company, then under a different name and ownership partnership, following an audit from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which looked into employment eligibility for its workers. Standridge said the company was subsequently required to terminate any employees whose documents were flagged as false.

"Moving forward, we did and continue to use the government's E-Verify system as a way to guarantee a situation like this never happens again," Standridge said. "We also strongly recommend the E-Verify system be used by all our future franchisees as we employ a predominantly immigrant population."

In addition to expanding into markets, Casa de Corazon is piloting a meals-to-go option at two locations. The company also is developing an update for its app to offer real-time messaging, curriculum and training material for teachers, teacher bios, push notifications for activities or snow closure days, and electronic daily reports, Standridge said.