Alyza Bohbot’s Minneapolis-based coffee business is steaming.
Five years after she acquired her parents’ business, Alakef Coffee Roasters of Duluth, and inaugurated an additional brand, City Girl Coffee, she has more than doubled the size of the company to $2.5 million in revenue and more than a dozen employees in Duluth and Minneapolis.
The growth is largely due to Bohbot’s creation three years ago of Minneapolis-based City Girl. It is roasted and distributed from Alakef’s longtime headquarters on Duluth’s Superior Street.
“I wanted to honor my parents’ business,” Bohbot said earlier in December. “I also knew that I wanted to create something more representative of me, of the market and what I was seeing. We needed another differentiator.”
City Girl describes itself as a “socially conscious coffee company dedicated to supporting and empowering women in the coffee industry around the world.”
Bohbot’s City Girl also is the biggest tenant in one of three refurbished former factories in northeast Minneapolis owned by Ellis Properties and leased by Midwest Pantry, an 8-year-old local-foods marketer and accelerator in what’s dubbed the “Northeast Food District,” including a kitchen incubator.
Bohbot is a successful role model for Midwest Pantry, a 100-plus member organization that works with small Twin Cities food-and-gift producers to cooperatively buy equipment, market products, connect with wholesalers and otherwise help producers make a buck and help the Twin Cities thrive as a home of growing small businesses.
Midwest Pantry started as an idea kicked around at a Minneapolis farmers market by co-founders Zoie Glass, who had a homemade-jam company, and Chad Gillard, a project manager and marketer. They have since worked with local companies throughout Minnesota. “What Midwest Pantry brings to small producers is our ecosystem,” said Glass, who recently sold the jam company and works full time at Midwest Pantry. “If you need equipment, I take it to the equipment sellers. If I go to the city of Minneapolis for something, I go on behalf of six companies instead of just one for [a permit or license].
“We worry about the Wi-Fi, the electricity and heat, the garbage and making sure there’s enough freezer space. We focus on those things so that the business owners can focus on their businesses.”
For Bohbot, that focus is growing the City Girl brand. In November, it was picked up by Amazon.com and local Target stores. In addition, City Girl Coffee can also be found at Twin Cities-area co-ops, Kowalski’s, Hy-Vee and elsewhere. And Bohbot is aiming for other Midwest markets while maintaining a commitment to social awareness..
“Our company is deeply rooted in the support of women coffee growers and women in general, as well as in the empowerment of equality,” said Bohbot, who regularly meets with growers and is past board member of the Women’s International Coffee Alliance.
City Girl coffees are roasted, packaged and distributed at Alakef’s Duluth facility and, Bohbot said, City Girl has a lot of room to grow to “max out our production capacity.”
Bohbot took over an immigrant business founded in Duluth by her father, Moroccan-born Nessim Bohbot, who moved to Duluth 35 years ago. A chemist thirsty for the dark, rich coffee of North Africa, Nessim Bohbot started Alakef and enjoyed patronage over the years from Up North coffee shops and retailers.
Alyza Bohbot said Midwest Pantry provides her economical space where her company does most of its sales and marketing. The location also gives her the opportunity to learn from other entrepreneurs and also share her perspective.
Midwest Pantry’s Glass and Gillard, who still has a day job at a marketing firm, said they have worked with more than 400 local food and gift producers to help increase sales through educational, wholesale and retail initiatives.
The three-year-old Northeast Food District, where Midwest Pantry rents the refurbished buildings, is the most visible impact of Midwest Pantry.
Glass and Gillard, who also have seen a few mall food companies fail, are building a business around growing member food companies.
They hold an annual education series in conjunction with MN Cup, hosted by the University of Minnesota business school; a twice yearly wholesale local food and gift trade show, and popular retail events like a food poster show and a holiday market.
Midwest Pantry members include the likes of Local Crate, Ancient Indian Spices, Bolton Bees, Double Take Salsa and T-Rex Cookie.
Midwest Pantry members Tom and Jenni Smude, sunflower farmers and entrepreneurs from Pierz, Minn., have had great success cracking the Twin Cities market with their Smude Oil and microwave popcorn, grown and processed in that central Minnesota community. It’s now a company that pulls in several million dollars of revenue per year.
There is increasing demand among small rural producers to break into the Twin Cities market, Glass said. Midwest Pantry principals are coaching small-food producers to take what they produce and refine it into value-added businesses.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.