Sammy McDowell chucked a two-decade career cooking and managing chain restaurants a decade ago to open Sammy's Avenue Eatery on West Broadway, the main street of Minneapolis' North Side.
After an anxiety-laden first couple of years, McDowell has built a successful café and fast-growing catering business with several employees and is approaching $1 million in annual sales.
"Our sales are up 13% this year," McDowell said. "The first two years were much worse than the last two of the pandemic. I had takeout and catering. I employ [mostly] moms. They run rings around me. They work together to get things done."
The 46-year-old Minneapolis native serves healthy breakfasts, vegetable-laden sandwiches, hearty soups and salads. Most offerings are under $10.
He will soon quadruple his space by expanding into a second North Side location in the new Penn Avenue Union apartment building, about a mile away on Penn and Golden Valley Road. The complex is a mix of affordable and market-rate housing and commercial space, where McDowell will focus on his fastest-growing business, catering to businesses and takeout.
His landlord will be friend and supporter Devean George, another North Side native. The Augsburg University graduate and former pro basketball player has developed two multifamily housing projects at the same intersection.
McDowell said he has more demand than he can handle in his current location.
"I no longer feel like it's all on my shoulders," McDowell said. "I've found my groove."
A gracious man, McDowell pointed to help from "Small Business Revolution" (SBR), a reality TV and web show run by Minneapolis-based Deluxe Corp. to both help independent business owners and boost its small business services. Each season focuses on a rural Main Street or inner city area.
"Sammy is running a healthy business and is a beloved pillar of his community," said Amanda Brinkman, chief marketing officer of Deluxe and the force behind SBR. "We wanted to show what can happen when you invest in a business that's already somewhat established and successful. He's also in the middle of positive things in north Minneapolis."
This season's show concentrates on business that were affected by the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
"Many white people don't understand the history of racial injustice," Brinkman said. "There has been marginalization and little opportunity [for Black entrepreneurs] to build wealth. Now we need to increase investment."
The Twin Cities has a well-documented history of homeownership discrimination, the No. 1 source of wealth for most American families. There also are documented education and employment opportunity gaps. A disproportionate number of Black small businesses suffer from undercapitalization.
Education, workforce development, opportunity and supporting entrepreneurs are all part of the solution to making a living and building wealth. There are nonprofit counselors and financiers, such as WomenVenture, MEDA, NEON and Neighborhood Development Center, but these are not growing enough to meet demand.
SBR's segment on McDowell showed two Black nationally known restaurant owners mentoring him, the purchase of two new food coolers and a website and e-commerce makeover.
"The show's folks were authentic in their approach," McDowell said. "We've had explosive growth in catering. The Deluxe team helped us upgrade the website. Most of our orders are coming through online. Our phone line now integrates with a third-party delivery service."
At a recent forum sponsored by the St. Paul-based Center for Economic Inclusion, CEO Tawanna Black led a discussion among several of the Black enterprises that benefitted from this year's SBR treatment.
Makeup artist Tameka Jones of St. Paul lost her career during the pandemic. She started her own business, Lip Esteem, from her home. She used savings and worked long hours to build a business and recently added an employee.
Deluxe helped her build a website and a "beauty bar" in her home office.
"We were in the middle of [some business] trauma when SBR started filming," Jones said. "It was so important. They listened and then they gave advice. They were authentic and caring. That's what we need America to be. ''
People of color, including immigrants, are the emerging entrepreneurial class — along Broadway, Central Avenue, Lake Street, University Avenue and the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. And from Worthington to Winona, where minorities also drive businesses and employment growth.
"We have to help one another," said Rick Harris, founder of 10-employee Ideal Commercial Interiors of Golden Valley, where the SBR crew bought some furnishings for the reality show.
"I grew up in a [Black] community in Texas where there was only one pickup," he said. "And everybody used it. We need to help each other with our gifts and talents."