Three businesses rooted in their communities

By Cristina Corrie, guest writer
Tue, 2016-11-29 10:03

Over the summer, I was blessed with an internship at the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in St. Paul, where I helped document the vibrancy of NDC-supported entrepreneurs in their neighborhoods. As a college student studying business, I was inspired by how these entrepreneurs engaged in creative placemaking.

Inspired by her mother, a street vendor in the refugee camp she grew up in, Becky Xiong started her own business. Pajai Fruit Arrangements and Bakery produces beautiful custom fruit carvings, caters traditional Hmong meals and creates a variety of desserts — a perfect trio for any special event. Xiong’s specialty is fruit carvings, which she was inspired to make through her work with mental health patients, who found these fruit carvings therapeutic. Throughout the next six years, she continued to make beautiful carved fruit arrangements for special events. She began by working in her own kitchen — but the demand soon outgrew her space. With help from the Neighborhood Development Center, Becky secured a loan to invest in a storefront that has the space to create her carved fruit arrangements, while also serving as a retail outlet to sell fresh desserts and fruit Boba to customers walking down University Avenue in St. Paul.

Awash Market adds to the rich kaleidoscope of ethnic malls in Minnesota — this one focusing on the Oromo community. Walking through Awash Market, you are immediately greeted by a host of traditional East African food such as Injera and fresh cuts of goat and lamb. Mubarek Lolo converted an abandoned corner of a decaying mall into a vibrant hub of community activity. Community members attending the nearby Towhid Mosque are his steady customers and he gives back to the community by supporting community activities, hiring from the community and providing space to incubate their business ideas. The organic coffee shop in Awash Market has also become a gathering place for members of the Oromo community, who use this space to socialize and discuss their shared experiences.

Driven by the desire to reintroduce home-cooked and high quality soul food while still being health-conscious, Kathleen Johnson and her two daughters, Kelli Johnson and Ordia Drew, founded WholeSoul: A Lavender and Sage Eatery. This family-owned business travels through local communities serving dishes like “Wings That’ll Make You Sing” and “Phat Bellie Hammie Sammies” to customers at festivals, parties and street corners across the Twin Cities. Faced with the problem of having to load and unoad a tent every time they catered an event, WholeSoul partnered with NDC and the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce to purchase a mobile kitchen, which kick-started their growth. Named the official cooks of the “Paisley Park After-Dark series” and one of the Star Tribune’s “Top Food Truck Picks,” Kathleen, Kelli and Ordia plan to continue on this upward trajectory while bringing the community together through real, authentic and delicious soul food.

Cristina Corrie is studying business at Babson College, Massachusetts.