Vanessa Drews was a paralegal at a big Minneapolis law firm who dabbled with baking cheesecakes on the side. She made the dessert for colleagues during the holidays, sold cakes to an Irish pub and even treated musicians and the royal one himself at Prince's Paisley Park when she sold merchandise there.
In August 2019, she quit the legal profession and decided to focus on her cheesecake business — only a few short months before COVID-19 threw small businesses an unexpected curveball. Thousands folded or shut down for months, laid off employees and scrambled to find new ways to deliver their services at a time of pandemic and civil unrest.
Hennepin County officials quickly recognized the importance of helping small businesses stay afloat, and used more than $70 million in federal and state recovery funding for small grants to 6,500 businesses, nearly half of which were owned by people of color.
Then the county launched Elevate Business Hennepin County, a $1 million program that offers business owners up to 25 hours of free consulting services to help them rebuild and reignite after the pandemic subsides and for the long haul.
So far more than 700 business, including Drews', have taken advantage of the support offered with accounting, legal, finance, marketing, social media and web development issues.
"With trying to maintain my health, the health of my family and to safely supply desserts to multiple restaurants and markets across the Twin Cities, the sole responsibility to make this business succeed has been mentally and physically exhausting at times," said Drews, who owns Cheesecake Funk, which she named in honor of Prince.
"For the days that I celebrate milestones, I will forever remember the long days and nights of preparation in baking desserts that in turn brought so much joy to people during this pandemic."
Elevate Business started in the fall of 2020 in partnership with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. The program has provided 3,344 hours of consulting and instruction webinars. While no statistics are available showing business outcomes, the county will be conducting a survey of the 6,500 businesses that received grants.
Before COVID broke out, Hennepin County had a few partners offering entrepreneurial support. After convening a business advisory council, county officials quickly realized a disproportionate number of businesses owned by people of color were suffering financially, said Patricia Fitzgerald, the county's director of community and economic development.
"Small businesses needed technical help on how to pivot online sales on a dime," she said. "The businesses didn't have time or money to access consultants to solve those challenges."
Elevate Business now contracts with more than 20 nonprofit and business advisers, including the African Development Center, Latino Economic Development Center, Springboard for the Arts and Women Venture. The program is a one-stop model for business development, Fitzgerald said.
Staying on track
The struggles of small business in Hennepin County mirror national surveys, which indicate that nearly 70% of small businesses haven't seen sales rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
In October, the Hennepin County Board allocated $9 million to keep Elevate Business funded for the next three years. The board also earmarked $10 million for grants to provide long-term, affordable commercial rental space for small businesses.
"It's really difficult to overestimate the importance of small and local businesses to a community," Fitzgerald said. "Storefronts are part of what makes our communities livable."
Poh Lin Khoo owns Khoo Consulting, one of the firms chosen to work with Elevate Business. An immigrant who speaks four languages, Khoo has worked with a home health care business, a Liberian woman launching a purse store, a farmer planning to market avocado oil in Minnesota and a homeless man trying to start a sewing business.
Khoo witnessed racial riots in Malaysia and said she can relate to the disruptions caused in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd.
"I love working with these clients because the barriers for people of color make it difficult to sometimes succeed," she said.
Victor Jones has owned a consulting business since 2014 that specializes in the restaurant industry. He has advised businesses in Hopkins, Brooklyn Center and on Eat Street in Minneapolis on financing options, business plans and how to take better care of staffers. His first client in the Elevate Business program was Drews, who has slowly built her business by word of mouth and social media.
Cheesecake Funk is pretty much a one-woman business. She bakes and delivers her product while getting help from her mother in watching her children, ages 7 and 5. Her cheesecakes can be ordered on her website or purchased at a dozen-plus metro area restaurants, markets, a country club and winery. Though sales have been consistent during the pandemic, she went eight months without health insurance.
Drews needed Jones' help with accounting and calculating food costs. He also worked with her to find a financial institution willing to give her a line of credit to establish her business — she was denied a small-business loan when she started — and allow her to apply for larger financing, he said.
Drews rents space to do her baking in the kitchen of the restaurant at the Marriott Southwest in Minnetonka, but Jones knows she eventually wants to open her own spot. They have even discussed having another company make her cheesecakes.
"I had one client who was thinking about exploring a cooperative route for his restaurant, which was super interesting to me," Jones said. "So many businesses in trouble aren't asking the right questions. I assure them success is down the road."
Drews said that Jones has been a great resource to bounce off her ideas. "He makes sure you stay on track," she said.