he owners of Jack's Hardware and Farm Supply in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood prove the first year can be a bear, even for a veteran entrepreneur with a vision hailed by key supporters.
Nancy St. Germaine, owner of South Side-based Raven Construction, was eager to buy nearby Welna Hardware on E. Franklin Avenue last year when she learned that owners Jim and Sue Welna were planning to retire.
The Welnas, the local nonprofit development agency and members of the community encouraged St. Germaine and her husband and business partner, Justin Wells, to buy the store, saying their vision of urban farming would thrive there.
Several months in, she and Wells — who also is a Raven carpenter — have discovered that disrupting the existing store model has been a struggle. Sales at the store, which they renamed Jack's Hardware and Farm Supply, are lagging projections by 40%.
"It's been a bad year overall," St. Germaine said. "If sales don't increase significantly, we're not sure how we will survive winter.''
The couple are raising their children in a home they own in south Minneapolis and are part of the burgeoning urban gardening and vegetable-growing trend, on city boulevards and yards.
They also were Welna customers.
"Sue and I saw great potential in Nancy and Justin because of their commitment to community and their success with Raven Construction and our belief the sale would enhance the community," said a disappointed Jim Welna, who owned the store for 24 years with his wife. "We saw their vision for urban farming, which that neighborhood wanted, and we thought they would do well."
Seward Redesign, the local nonprofit development agency, and others who knew of St. Germaine's work and solid reputation also encouraged the couple to buy the store. Raven has been a successful small commercial contractor in the Twin Cities for nearly a decade.
The farm store part of the Jack's Hardware has worked well. However, hardware sales declined this year, dragging down overall revenue.
Jack's management budgeted for overall sales of $600,000 this year, about what Welna brought in last year. However, sales were down 40% for the first six months of 2022.
The couple has added in-store window repairs, locksmith services, bicycle repair and do-it-yourself classes.
"The store looks fabulous," Welna added. "The services are more than Sue and I ever provided."
St. Germaine, partly to make room for more garden-center supplies, cleared out old hardware inventory that wasn't selling and moved electrical and plumbing supplies into the renovated basement.
"We have [seven employees] who are experts and can help them find everything they need, upstairs or downstairs," she said. "And, if necessary, we can order what they need in a few days."
The overhaul put off some longtime customers and they have let St. Germaine know they are unhappy.
Inflation also hit at the same time the couple took over the store, and the price increases are another point of complaint.
Welna, whose family has been in the retail hardware business for three generations, said wholesaler-driven price hikes are the biggest since the late 1970s.
But customers had not seen price increases for about a decade. Longtime customers remember buying, for example, spray paint for $1.99 about 20 years ago, when it's now $5.99.
The spray paint is only up $1 from last year, "but they remember $1.99 as if it was last year," St. Germaine said. "Some items haven't been increased, but everything seems more expensive to some customers.''
Lately, St. Germaine and Wells have been winning over converts who gave the store a second try, and they launched a targeted advertising campaign.
A somewhat promising increase in younger customers and growing interest in garden supplies and related classes have St. Germaine and Wells still looking forward. Institutional customers, such as nearby Augsburg University and Pillsbury United, which run growing urban-farming operations, also have increased their business.
St. Germaine and Wells bought Welna Hardware for $465,000. The total investment, including remodeling and adding the gardening business, is north of $750,000. The couple financed all of it largely with an Small Business Administration bank loan, plus a city-backed property loan targeted at local entrepreneurs of underrepresented groups.
"We thought we had bought a stable business," said St. Germaine, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe who grew up in Minneapolis. "We've got a big debt load. We work days at Raven and nights and weekends at Jack's, 80-hour weeks. We're trying to work harder and smarter. We have a lot of loyal individual customers, just not enough."