Venturing out on their own


The Southwest Journal will be tracking 10 business startups throughout the year. For this first report in the ongoing series, Journal reporters have checked in with the entrepreneurs to get their economic outlook for 2010. (Note: We’ve included startups that have launched within the past year.)

Tamah Burke. 


Child-driven fashion

For as long as there have been clothes, parents have been choosing outfits for their children, dressing them in whatever is cute, girly, boyish or reflective of mom and dad’s tastes. Tamah Burke said it doesn’t have to be that way. Kids, she argues, have their own opinions about what feels nice or looks good. She’s let her now 5-year-old daughter choose fabrics and designs for clothes since she was 2 and now she’s trying to open up a new world of children-driven fashion at her new boutique at 43rd Street and Upton Avenue.

“I really do believe that kids, when they are that little, know who they are and what they’re about. I don’t need to control that,” Burke said. “My personal slogan is ‘power to the little people.’”

Burke’s business, Rove Arounds, is named after a clothing brand she created and started selling online shortly after her daughter was born. The Lowry Hill mom and former restaurateur-turned clothing designer (she owned 3 Muses Restaurant and Speakeasy at 28th Street and Lyndale Avenue until it closed in 2005) decided to take her business to the street in November 2009, compelled by complaints from parents unsatisfied with clothing options for their kids.

Burke considers herself a textile junkie. Her mother made dresses for a living and though she didn’t appreciate the art then, she later picked up the clothes-making craft and ran with it.

Her shop’s focus is on quality, handmade, functional clothes. Hanging on a wall in her quaint little store are a variety of designs and fabrics for children to choose from.

“The kids can come in and choose their fabric and we kind of help coordinate things for them,” Burke said. “A week later they come to pick up their clothes and you can be sure they’ll wear them.”

Longevity and simplicity are important aspects of her clothing, she said. Pants incorporate elastic waistbands. Legs and sleeves are cuffed so they can be extended later.  Burke sews everything in a tiny space behind a curtain in the rear of the business. Though children’s clothes are her specialty, she also makes clothing for women and does hemming on the side.

She paid for startup costs on her own and isn’t profitable yet. Business was initially hot and then dropped off considerably just before the holidays. So far, Burke has survived the winter, though she said February was brutal.

Since opening, she’s expanded her women’s wear and tweaked her hours so the shop is closed Sundays. She’s spent a lot of time making clothes and is hoping for a boost in the spring.

“I’m pretty positive,” Burke said. “It’s maintainable, it’s small, the community is supportive.”

Rove Arounds
Service: Custom and handmade clothing for children and women
Opened: November 2009
Location: 4305 Upton Ave. S.
Phone: 920-4305

— Story and photo by Jake Weyer 

Greg Alford (left) and Chris Jackman.

Buddies in Barbecue

Friends Chris Jackman (C) and Greg Alford (G) are backyard barbecue chefs who turned their passion for grilled goods into a career.

C&G’s Smoking Barbecue is the culmination of years of grilling experience at family gatherings, where the guys were frequently showered with praise for their fire-cooked foods. Alford eventually pitched the business idea to Jackman, known as C.J., and the duo ran with it.

“He said if you can cook those ribs that you cook on your smoker at home in a restaurant, they’ll sell,” Jackman said in an interview last summer. “And I thought, wow, let me think about that, talk to my family and get back to you. I said OK, and here we are today. And it’s working.”

Alford previously worked for 25 years as an auto mechanic. Jackman was a property manager and satellite television salesman. Neither had experience managing a restaurant. The friends funded the business on their own, launching it from a former pizza restaurant already equipped with a full kitchen.

Jackman, Alford and a handful of family and friends staff the place, which is small, simple and scarcely decorated.

So far, business has been “coming along,” though it was better during the warm months, Alford said. He said he initially expected business to be better during the winter, when people were unable to grill on their own, but he found the opposite to be true. To meet customer demand, he and Jackman added some winter favorites including chili and macaroni and cheese.

But the specialty is still barbecue — wings, ribs, sunfish, corned beef, Coney dogs and a variety of other backyard favorites. The guys have learned a lot since starting the business and as the weather warms up, they anticipate business will do the same.

“I think we’re going to have a good summer coming up,” Alford said. 

— Story by Jake Weyer // File photo




Lisa and Curtis Sanford.

An Urban vet

Curtis Sanford has always wanted to live and work in downtown Minneapolis. After running a veterinary hospital in Willmar for 14 years, he decided it was time to move on and head to the city.

Sanford, a veterinarian, and his wife Lisa, the hospital’s office manager, opened the Minneapolis Veterinary Hospital in the Bridgewater on Washington Avenue in November. Soon the couple and their son Grayson, 14, plan to move into a condo in the building.

“We believe our positioning is perfect for the veterinary field as we are close to a human clinic and the Guthrie Theater,” Sanford said. “We love the neighborhood and all the owners in the Bridgewater building and surrounding buildings.”

The veterinary hospital draws clients who live and work in the Downtown area. Sanford hopes to expand the client base through working with two animal rescue groups on raising awareness about the importance of spaying and neutering. The Sanfords work with two animal rescue companies — Pet Project Rescue and Underdog Rescue — on efforts to promote that cause.

The veterinary hospital — a posh urban space with lots of colorful pet-themed artwork — offers a wide range of services, including medicine, surgery, dentistry and immunizations. Sanford specializes in stem cell therapy for arthritis in cats and dogs. The majority of the animals he treats are dogs and cats, but he also sees birds, rabbits and ferrets on occasion.

The Sanfords are gearing up spring, which tends to be the busiest season for veterinarians. It’s the time they promote heartworm prevention.

Overall, they are bullish about their business.

“We anticipate significant growth for 2010,” Sanford said.

Minneapolis Veterinary Hospital
Service: Stem cell therapy certified full-service veterinary hospital 
Opened: November 2009
Location: 1030 Washington Ave. S.
Phone: 746-0300

— Story and photo by Sarah McKenzie



Eric Muchowski at his kung fu school.

Kung fu and cabinetry

How’s this for some serious multitasking?

Eric Muchowski has three children and three businesses. That would make the average person’s head spin, but Muchowski appears to have it all under control.

He said he works hard to be realistic about how he manages his time and makes his family his top priority.

He operates a couple of his businesses out of space in Mulroy’s Body Shop — his kung fu school Golden Leopard Martial Arts Center and Dovetail Design Inc. At his home in South Minneapolis, he runs a chiropractic office.

As for juggling three businesses, Muchowski acknowledges there are pros and cons to his situation.

“The pros of having three businesses is that I am able to follow and live more of my interests and passions than most,” he said. “The cons would be being less able to focus on growing any one business, and too often spending time putting out fire rather than moving forward.”

He has been teaching martial arts for many years. He started Golden Leopard as an official school a couple of years ago and is hopeful he can add more classes with his new space in the Kingfield neighborhood. He has 30 students.

As for his chiropractic business, he has had his license since 1997. He hasn’t been aggressive about building his practice in recent years, but said he’s ready to start doing more work as a chiropractor again.

The custom cabinetry and woodworking business was incorporated a couple of years ago. He got requests for work after people saw projects he did in his family’s former home in Kingfield.

As for the 2010 outlook, he is guardedly optimistic.

“All my businesses have gone through small declines and increases over the recent past, but overall remained level,” he said. “I feel we are weathering the economic turmoil and if the economy levels and starts rebounding I feel optimistic moving into 2010.”

Dovetail Design and Golden Leopard Martial Arts Center
Service: Kung fu school and custom cabinetry
Opened: October 2009
Location: 3920 Nicollet Ave. S.
Phone: 578-0805

— Story by Sarah McKenzie // Photo by Danny Guy

Joe and Desiree Ahrens.

A community gym

Talk about a mom-and-pop with muscle.

When Joe and Desiree Ahrens decided to open up their own gym, they knew they had to keep things as community-driven as possible. That meant no contracts, no high-pressure sales and no skimping on face-to-face interaction with clients. It also meant that all personal trainers had to be staff hires; the Ahrens wanted their employees to be loyal to the club and not to the mercenary demands of a commission-based salary.

They even took strides to keep their financing local and community-focused, choosing to borrow from a small Twin Cities bank that specialized in cultivating personal relationships with entrepreneurs.  It’s a business ethic typical of small grocers, video rental chains and coffee shops. And the Ahrens don’t see why it wouldn’t work for a fitness center.

Conceived of as an antidote to the faceless, exercise-at-your-own-risk anonymity of the big 24 hour chains, Lynlake Fitness aims to be a more personal escort into the realm of physical fitness.

“An open gym can be intimidating,” said Joe. “We wanted to retain that small, community feel but still be able to offer an open gym and a variety of fitness classes.”

It’s a balance that Joe and Desiree lacked in their first fitness business, Ahrens Exercise Physiology. In 2007, a few years after Desiree graduated with an MA in exercise physiology, the Ahrens rented an upper apartment in an old brownstone at 48th Street and Nicollet Avenue. They converted the rooms into private training suites and offered one-on-one personal training. But the brownstone lacked visibility, Joe said, and the business took on a limited, exclusive feel that the Ahrens felt hindered its growth. The Ahrens still operate their first business, Joe said, but have poured their energies into starting the new gym.

The new location — Lynlake Fitness takes over the old Flanders Art Gallery — provides enough space for big gym amenities like free weights, cardio equipment and flat screen televisions. There’s also a large studio for classes in martial arts cardio, ball-and-band training and maternity fitness. But the space also allows the Ahrens to still offer private fitness assessments and coaching, as the former galleries have been converted into autonomous training suites.

What the gym doesn’t offer, though, is showers. In one of their first surprises as new entrepreneurs, the Ahrens discovered that the simple act of building a shower stall would incur substantial fees from Metropolitan Council Environmental Services.

“They only have two classifications,” Joe said, “major gyms and minor gyms. And the only difference is if you offer showers.”

Another surprise occurred when the mom-and-pop mentality got a lot more literal. A few months before the opening, Desiree found out she was pregnant with twins. Originally planning to work as a trainer herself, Desiree decided not to take on such a physically demanding role, and the couple had to hire an additional employee. But the pregnancy hasn’t slowed her down much.

“Before I was pregnant, I was working 70 hours a week,” she said. “Now I’m working 50.”

Lynlake Fitness
Service: A fully equipped fitness center with a neighborhood focus
Opened: Feb. 1, 2010
Location: 3012 Lyndale Ave. S.
Phone: 822-3668

— Story by Gregory J. Scott // Photo by Danny Guy

Jodel Fesenmaier.

Gone to the dogs

Many people wouldn’t trust a stranger to wash their car. So why would they trust a stranger to wash their pets?

Jodel Fesenmaier wouldn’t, which is why when she lived in San Diego, she liked taking her two black labs Oliver and Lulu to the neighborhood self-serve dog wash. She could still do all the scrubbing, brushing and nail trimming herself, which made both her and her pets more comfortable. But she didn’t have to deal with the mess, the cold water from the back yard hose or the back aches from leaning over the bathroom tub. The self-serve model offered her both control and convenience.

When Fesenmaier moved back to her hometown Minneapolis in 2007, she was surprised not to find a similar dog wash facility in the city. Although she had a job with a nationwide developer, she began taking early steps to opening up her own shop, writing a business plan and apprenticing at suburban grooming salons. When the developer laid her off in early 2009, she didn’t miss a beat in putting her plan into action. With some help from Woman Venture, a nonprofit specializing in aiding first-time entrepreneurs, Fesenmaier secured a loan and signed a lease for a location right on St. Anthony Main — prime dog-walking territory.

Fesenmaier noted that her background in property development made it easier to navigate the city processes required for new businesses. It also made her more aware of the challenges involved in the physical design of her business, its architecture, signage and interior look.  Today, Ollu Self-Serve Dog Wash has the clean, minimalist appeal of a chic salon.

So far business is good. Foot traffic and referrals have brought in such a high percentage of her customers that Fesenmaier is now questioning how much to invest in advertising. She says she currently has more than 500 customers, 50 percent of which came from personal referrals. With those numbers, Fesenmaier estimates, the business can sustain itself, provided customers return with six-month frequency, typical of a pet grooming cycle.

Fesenmaier’s biggest surprise so far has been a positive one. “The neighborhood has been hugely supportive, “ she said. Her business has been warmly welcomed by her neighbors, who helped green-light her project and who often stop in during their nightly dog walks.

For a business whose model is based on loyalty and repeat customers, Ollu seems to be on sound footing.

Ollu Self-Serve Dog Wash
Service: A dog washing and grooming spa with self-service and full-service options
Opened: Oct. 21, 2009
Location: 221 Main St. S.E.
Phone: 331-1025

— Story by Gregory J. Scott // Photo by Danny Guy

Joni Wheeler.

A shop for a sweet tooth

On a recent afternoon in February, a boy burst through the door of Sugar Sugar Candy and strode directly to the counter where owner Joni Wheeler was filling a glass apothecary jar with candy necklaces.

Panting after his dash to the store, the boy had just enough breath left to state the object of his urgent desire: sour gummy worms.

“The kids are obsessed with them,” Wheeler explained as her young customer left the store with $3 worth of ropey, puckering gelatins tangled in a small plastic bag.

There’s plenty to please sweet teeth both young and old at Wheeler’s candy boutique.

The selection at Sugar Sugar Candy goes beyond everyday treats to include hard-to-find nostalgia candies like Chocolate Ice Cubes, fizzy Zotz and Clark Bars. More-refined palates come seeking gourmet sweets, like the exotic candy bars from Chicago’s Vosges Haut-Chocolat and locally made artisan truffles from B.T. McElrath Chocolatier.

Since opening last October, Wheeler has been through what she described as three of the five “candy holidays”: Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day. By mid-May, with both Easter and Mother’s Day in the rear view mirror, she’ll have completed a full cycle.

Then comes roughly five months with no big candy events — the first “big test” for Sugar Sugar Candy, Wheeler said.

Her recipe for sustaining business in through the summer doldrums was simple: “It’s a matter of keeping the store fresh,” she said.

That means rotating her well-edited candy selection so that there’s always something new for repeat customers. Wheeler estimated she spent nearly one-third of her day online tracking down new, rare and unusual sweets.

This summer, Wheeler hopes to introduce a line of locally spun cotton candies in savory flavors like basil. And the admitted Francophile has a plan to sweeten your July: Chocolate for Bastille Day, anyone?

— Story by Dylan Thomas // Photo by Danny Guy


The Funk N Fashion Show on Feb. 11.

The thrill of the thrift hunt

Cullen Donovan didn’t say he moved west to San Francisco to find himself, although, working in a secondhand store in the famous Haight-Ashbury district,  he did find something.

“I started getting more of a style, I guess,” Donovan said. “I didn’t really have one previously, or I didn’t really care that much.”

On a recent afternoon in The Lost and Found Thrift, the Nicollet Avenue secondhand store he owns with childhood friend David Schuster, Cullen wore jeans and a blue flannel shirt over a well-worn Pabst Blue Ribbon T-shirt, the kind of thing a regular thrift shopper would consider a real find.

Cullen is that guy, addicted to the hunt. People develop worse habits after living in Haight-Ashbury.

He moved back to Minnesota and pitched the idea for The Lost and Found to Schuster, a fellow alumnus of Watershed High School, which used to be located just a few blocks from their shop. Schuster quickly accepted, and they opened the store last spring.

Since then, the two have focused on building a name for their shop, which offers a wide variety of used and vintage pieces, with an emphasis on the ’80s and ’90s. They also sell used music and collectibles and have carved out a niche selling ’80s-era boom boxes.

Said Schuster: “I feel like time is really the biggest, the hardest factor in setting up a small business, because you have to get your reputation out there.”

Community involvement has become a key element of their business plan. They sponsored a dodge ball game last summer, joined their Eat Street neighbors in an avenue-long sale last fall, and this February hosted a Valentine’s Day fashion show in the store.

Schuster also serves on the Whittier Alliance Board of Directors, where he is often seen sporting three-piece suits, another specialty of The Lost and Found.

They hope to expand their community presence in 2010, and may use some extra space in the back of the store to host shows or barbeques over the summer. But they also have a bigger, grander vision for Eat Street.

They dream of replicating St. Paul’s beloved Grand Old Day event, which draws crowds every June to shop-lined Grand Avenue.

“We grew up in St. Paul and loved that as kids,” Schuster said. “It would be great if we could have some kind of get-together, something on Nicollet.”

The Lost and Found Thrift
Service: Secondhand clothing, music and electronics; alterations
Opened: May 2, 2009
Location: 2524 Nicollet Ave. S.
Phone: 886-1397

— Story by Dylan Thomas // Photo by Danny Guy

Peter Grande.

Garage brew

It’s been a whirlwind few months of growth for the neighborhood-named side project of a biologist, a lawyer, a carpenter and a business student.

When Fulton Beer’s first brew, the IPA Sweet Child of Vine, debuted in October, it could be found at a number of bars you don’t need five fingers to count. As of this writing, it’s at three dozen locations. One hundred kegs are emptied every month.

Sweet Child flows from the taps at places such as Bryant Lake Bowl and Grumpy’s — well-established Twin Cities locales. A seasonal imperial stout, Worthy Adversary, was set to join it this month, while a blonde ale, the Lonely Blonde, is being prepped for a June release.

It was a much different story last June, when the company was a last-second idea for business student Ryan Petz. He needed a summer internship; the economy had left few options for him. So, knowing how much he and friends Jim Diley, Brian Hoffman and Peter Grande were interested in expanding their beer brewing from garage to big time, he decided to create his own internship.

Petz dug into brewing’s business side, figuring out how to get their beer made in large quantities and finding a way to get it distributed. The quartet created a business plan and set goals, such as expanding to 25 bars in three months (a target they exceeded) and owning their own brewery in five years. They took out a loan and made personal investments, and they incorporated Fulton Beer mid-summer.

By October, the four celebrated Sweet Child’s release at a launch party at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul. It was a surreal moment, the guys being able to order their own beer at a bar where they were used to drinking others’ brews.

But success has begun to show.

“It’s getting to the point we’d prefer someone else pay for it,” Petz joked.

Up next: the release of the aforementioned new beers. A profit is unlikely this year, but the plan is to release at least one seasonal and one additional year-round beer, as well as hire the company’s first full-time employee.

“If we could still talk about this business [a year from now], that would be a start,” Petz said. “As long as we’re not speaking in the past tense.”

Fulton Beer

Service: Beer
Opened: October 2009
Location: Based in Southwest, brewed in Wisconsin and sold at 35 (and counting) Twin Cities bars

— Story by Cristof Traudes // File photo

Kassie Kuehl.

Natural beauty

Uniting inner health with outer beauty is the goal of Kasia Organic Salon, a venture entrepreneur Kassie Kuehl launched in February at 50th & Bryant.

Kuehl’s salon uses natural and botanically based products and a holistic approach to beauty that is unusual in the salon world. In fact, she claims her business is among only a handful of organic salons throughout the nation.  

“What we’re about is building the hair up and building the skin up so it’s healthy and reflecting its natural capabilities rather than covering things up,” she said.

Kuehl, who was trained at Aveda Institute in Minneapolis, has a long list of titles beyond salon owner: certified personal trainer, yoga and pilates instructor, functional medicine student, certified health coach and living foods educator. Health is paramount for Kuehl, who experienced firsthand the adverse affects of traditional beauty products while renting a chair at an Uptown salon.

“I was getting sick from the affects of ammonia I worked in,” she said. “That caused me to leave the industry and start doing the research to start creating a better environment for me and my clients.”

Kasia, named after the Greek word for pure, offers hair cutting, ammonia-free hair coloring, hair masks and treatments, skin care, custom organic facials with live food (such as strawberries with essential oils), waxing and massage. Kuehl has spent years researching natural and organic products and also sells her own line, which includes non-toxic deodorant, sunscreen, moisturizing cream and fair-trade teas.

Her salon’s products are a bit more expensive than at a traditional salon, but Kuehl said there’s a reason for that.

“Other products have incredibly cheap ingredients,” she said.

Those ingredients, she contends, can contribute to a variety of immunity diseases, infertility issues and even cancer.

Kuehl said launching her first business was a challenge and required a bank loan and an additional loan from the city. She’s got several stylists, a natural and organic skin specialist and a massage therapist on her payroll.

Days before opening, a huge fire consumed five businesses across the street, devastating the node she chose largely because of its thriving restaurants and boutiques. After the incident, she turned her open house into a community gathering to support the affected business owners.

It’s risky being a startup, she said, but she’s confident in her abilities and those of her staff.

“I and my girls know that we have a very unique niche here and I am a destination business,” she said. 

Kasia Organic Salon
Service: Organic salon
Opened: February 2010
Location: 822 W. 50th St. 
Phone: 386-4044

— Story by Jake Weyer // Photo by Kathleen Stoehr