Antoinette Williams, who makes herb-laden balms, soaps and lotions from vegetable oils and natural fragrances, is a grateful retailer this holiday season.

Her shop, Rituals, is posting month-over-month sales growth for the second year in a row after nearly failing as a table-top kiosk during the 2006-07 launch of the Midtown Global Market, the ethnic market housed in the refurbished, 1920s-vintage Sears Roebuck store on E. Lake Street.

"We're in the health business," said Williams, a seven-year cancer survivor who makes most of the products in her kitchen. "My hand touches everything but the soy candles. We can sell you an 'orange oil' or a 'tangerine dance soap' and you can eat [it] if you want. You might blow bubbles, but it won't give you a tummy ache."

Williams, who started mixing herbs and oils with her grandmother a half-century ago, still has miles to go. She pays herself only part-time wages in order to pay the store manager (her daughter, Mai'sah Blanton), and two part-time sales employees. Williams, 62, has repaid a $2,400 start-up loan. And two years of sales increases have allowed her to expand inventory and product lines.

To an extent, Rituals is a proxy for the Global Market itself, an amalgam of 45 independent retailers, restaurateurs and grocers. They are thinly financed entrepreneurs, including Cafe Finspang, Fiesta In America, Tibet Arts & Gifts and Geetanjolia Sari Fashions, just to name four continents represented by immigrant owners.

The global market, the Neighborhood Development Center's biggest retail mall, got off to a slow start in 2006, including some tenant turnover. In 2007, the developer hired the general manager of the Mall of America, who was looking for a change of pace. Since then, things have gotten better even as the economy has gotten worse. The December edition of Bon Appetit, the trendy cooking magazine, named the Midtown Global Market one of the country's top destinations for ethnic, in-store dining "for the globe-trotting foodie" with a "United Nations" mix of eateries and fresh-produce peddlers.

Year-to-date sales among retailers open at least a year were up 7 percent over the first nine months of 2008 to $4.7 million, according to Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), the St. Paul-based nonprofit developer that is the majority owner.

Nonprofit developer

Over the past 20 years, NDC has trained, financed and launched 500 successful businesses and in the process has helped to revitalize several inner-city neighborhoods, including the nearby Mercado Central and Plaza Verde at Bloomington Avenue S. and Lake Street; University Avenue-Dale Streets in St. Paul's Frogtown neightborhood, and the Payne Avenue corridor in St. Paul.

The Global Market is part of the huge reclamation project at the once-dilapidated, crime-pocked Chicago-Lake intersection. The market, along with Midtown Global Exchange neighbors Allina Hospitals & Clinics, a Sheraton hotel and adjacent new housing, generates about $2 million annually in property taxes and attracts thousands of visits weekly. In 2003, Allina, the city, Ryan Development, NDC and dozens of businesses committed to what has become a $190 million, full-block overhaul that has added about 2,500 jobs and 360 housing units.

However, the Global Market, at 75,000 square feet about two-thirds the size of a small Target store, still faces financial challenges. NDC and some of the small merchants it has financed owe a consortium of lenders and the city more than $3 million. NDC, which is supported in part by several local banks and foundations, is responsible for providing coaching and technical assistance to small entrepreneurs, who typically have little business or credit history, in hopes they will grow into "bankable" concerns.

CEO Mihailo (Mike) Temali, the 25-year boss at NDC, said Global Market revenue recently hit $65,000 a month. Expenses are $85,000.

"We're trying to balance revenue and costs at $85,000 within two years," said Temali, whose organization absorbs the difference. "One-third of our cost is mission-related technical and other assistance to start-up entrepreneurs. This also is about being at Chicago and Lake with immigrant entrepreneurs, not 50th and France."

Outside experts

Temali and several merchants credit the rising sales and traffic at the little Global Market to John Wheeler, former general manager of huge Mall of America. Wheeler, a one-time NDC board member, spent two years as an employee working with several NDC-owned retail malls, primarily the Global Market.

"We needed a big brother on this project," Temali conceded.

Wheeler brought in merchandising specialists from Redding Terminal Market in Philadelphia and Granville Island Market in Vancouver, British Columbia. The upshot was a 2008 strategic plan, still in effect, that focused more on ethnic foods, fresh produce and better signage.

"There were too many little retail stores that nobody wanted to buy from or they just weren't selling," said Wheeler, who worked to expand survivors such as Produce Exchange, Holy Land, Rituals and Cafe Finspang, a small Scandinavian grocery and gift shop. "We needed a better customer experience."

About a quarter of the Global Market's customers live and work outside the immediate neighborhood.

"The Global Market is a very important city-related enterprise," said Mike Christenson, director of the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development Department. "We're pleased with the continued growth of sales and traffic.

"Mike [Temali] has committed to operating a cash-flowing business [by 2011] and that's what the City Council wants. NDC also is helping us provide the missing link in our economic development program: entry points for more immigrant business, and that's what the Global Market represents."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •