Maricela and Zef Gallarzo are heart-and-hands entrepreneurs in a seven-day-a-week fight against the recession that has shuttered an estimated one-quarter of Minnesota's smallest businesses.
They borrowed against their house and invested savings they'd built for years from second jobs to raise the roughly $500,000 required to franchise, equip and open the first Planet Smoothie in Minnesota. And they did it in a prime spot in Gaviidae Common in downtown Minneapolis — in January 2020.
The Gallarzos were buoyed by the first couple months of results. Each day, they sold up to 90 of the fruit-laden drinks at an average price of $8. That covered rent and expenses. And these were the coldest months of the year. They dreamed of the business that warm spring and summer days would bring.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and downtown emptied of office workers. Maricela continues to work seven days a week but sales rarely top 10 units.
"The rent is the same, whether I am here or not," Maricela said. "Even if I sell just 10 or 20 on the weekend, it's better than nothing."
The couple met 25 years ago while working in a Chicago factory. They moved to the Twin Cities in 2000 to be closer to relatives.
Maricela, 42, left a 17-year job in late 2019, where she rose to be a line operator, at the former McGlynn Bakeries in Fridley.
"I would work up to seven days a week, whatever was available" at pay that topped $20 an hour eventually, she recalled of wholesale baking. "I liked it. But I wanted to serve people healthy food."
Zef, 45, worked in a north suburbs factory from 2000 until 2010. He turned his moonlighting job as a night-and-weekend office cleaner into a business. That let him be home most days to help with their three kids, now ages 13, 18 and 22, while Maricela worked.
"When Zef was busy, we all would bundle up at night and go help him clean offices," Maricela said. They still do.
The Gallarzos chose Planet Smoothie because they liked the product, had a chance to be the first Minnesota location and the 7% franchise royalty on sales seemed reasonable. A trainer from Planet Smoothie worked with them for one day, on Jan. 2, 2020.
"We opened on Jan. 3 and we were still learning and the trainer was working with us and we couldn't believe the people coming in," Maricela said. "They liked the smoothies. We were exhausted but it was such a fun week. I knew this is what I wanted to do.''
The euphoria was short-lived. Today, they owe thousands in back rent because, for a year, they haven't been able to cover the $2,500 monthly payment. Sunrise Bank, which loaned the couple $300,000, against which their house is pledged, has allowed interest-only payments after no payments for a few months. It helped them get a forgivable SBA payroll loan last year for $15,000. Another one, for $30,000, is in the pipeline.
"If you want to root for somebody these are the people," said Chris Albrecht, SBA lending director at Sunrise. "They're so proud to be business owners and they've worked so hard to do it."
Zef works for several hours daily before he leaves to clean offices. Their 12-year-old daughter also helps at Planet Smoothie when she's not in school. The two older children are in college and working.
Maricela allows herself an occasional "Java The Nut" smoothie to bolster her energy. Several loyal customers stop by several days weekly.
"Their shining story is relentless customer service while facing fiscal cliffs," said Dan Collison of the Downtown Council, which provided a grant of about $7,500 in January, part of a $1.5 million lifeline to small skyway businesses. "That this is an all-in family operation adds layers of charm and joy."
In February, the Planet Smoothie got its biggest orders, from visiting swimming and gymnastics teams competing at the University of Minnesota. One topped $2,000 over several days. Maricela delivered them to Dinkytown three times a day, starting at 6:30 a.m., at no extra charge.
Meanwhile, daily traffic doubled to up to 20 daily sales in recent weeks as downtown started to awaken slowly from its yearlong slumber. Last Thursday, Maricela, who let go two part-time workers last spring, had five customers in one 30-minute span on a sunny day. She sold 75 last Monday, the best day so far in 2021.
Daily customer Sam Campbell quit McDonald's in favor of a low-fat smoothie.
"I'm so grateful for regular customers," Maricela said. "We had a plan for the business but not for the pandemic.
"I started to get happier … the last week in February. We sold an order of 27 smoothies every day and delivered 45 smoothies one day to a group at U.S. Bank Stadium. God has a plan. And God's timing is perfect."
The Gallarzos hope the cash flow at Planet Smoothie will be big enough by summer to cover monthly expenses.
Aryeh Kohn, operations manager of Gaviidae for New York-based Cityview Commercial, the owner of the two retail levels of Gaviidae, didn't specify how he will deal with shop's past-due rent. He said he admires the Gallarzos.
"I've never seen such hardworking people," he said. "Seven days a week."