Bernardo Ayala, Napa Valley Bistro

Thanks to Napa-Sonoma SBDC for this story!

Bernardo Ayala worked extensively with the Napa-Sonoma SBDC during his tenure as executive chef at Silverado Brewing Company. He and owner Michael Fradelizio received assistance in restaurant management, and, thanks to SBDC help, overcame operational challenges to become a wildly successful leader in the local, sustainable food scene. In the spring of 2013, Bernardo requested assistance to evaluate a restaurant site that had become available and to assist him in opening the proposed restaurant, Napa Valley Bistro.

Bernardo needed start up assistance in organizing tasks, creating a time line for the opening, and help evaluating the feasibility of the business. His proposed location was an asset sale but had most of the equipment he needed. He had 60 to 75K in capital, but wondered if he needed a bridge loan or investors.

Advisor Charlie Monahan suggested Bernardo attend business start-up class. They reviewed tasks and Charlie suggested creating a calendar with all the tasks leading up to completion of remodel, inspections, permits, regulatory compliance, hiring, and training. Together they reviewed and revised the calendar of opening tasks, and Charlie answered Bernardo’s questions about different regulatory compliance issues. Bernardo sent Charlie the business plan and projections and he gave Bernardo the initial feedback on the projections and they were lowered to be less aggressive.

Charlie referred Bernardo to Advisor Carolynne Gamble for marketing assistance. She provided a press list for sending press releases to announce the Bistro’s opening. Gamble helped edit their press releases and build a strategy for their PR campaign. Carolynne also discussed the benefits of e-marketing campaigns. They discussed strategies for using e-marketing effectively as well as the importance of list management and how to grow their subscriber list.

Napa Valley Bistro opened for business May 1, 2013. The business created 10 new jobs and has an equity injection consistent with initial estimates. The build-out took just the amount of time that Bernardo estimated with the help of the SBDC. The SBDC has done follow up visits to determine the right balance of technical assistance that would ensure future success. “I want to thank Charlie Monahan and Carolynne Gamble for all of their expert assistance in helping me to open the Napa Valley Bistro,” said Bernardo. “They have truly been instrumental in my overall success.”

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Davin Vculek and Joe Blanton, Krush Burger

Thanks to SAFE-BIDCO for this story!

logo-krush-burgerDavin Vculek and Joe Blanton, owners of Sacramento-based Krush Burger, had worked in the regular restaurant industry for years and actually met through the industry – Blanton was working for a large vendor of the major restaurant company where Vculek was a food purchasing manager (and executive chef). Both say they had been looking into how to get into the business of owning their own restaurant and decided that the food truck route was the best way to get into the industry so they created Krush Burger.

They started with one idea – serve great burgers – one truck and one employee, but as essentially the only food truck in Sacramento they immediately garnered local attention. “It was our good food and our good service that allowed us to capitalize on the local media attention,” Vculek said. Krush Burger grew quickly, adding a second truck (while replacing their first truck with a whole new top-of-the-line vehicle) and then reached back into Davin and Joe’s past and added two “brick and mortar” outlets.

Moving into the fixed facility restaurant world while keeping a foot in the food truck world is a bit unusual, especially considering the occasional enmity that can bubble up between the two industry sectors. But Blanton points out that much of what many more typical restaurateurs think about food trucks is not exactly accurate.

“It’s true our startup costs are less, but it’s also true that we have to deal with a lot more local bureaucracy. Trucks move, so we need to have all of the proper permits for each county and each city where we operate,” Blanton said.


The other main difference is how to attract a customer base. In regards to their regular restaurants (two existing in Sacramento and Davis, a third to open up in Dubai – yep you read that right, Dubai – and a fourth coming next year to Roseville) the customers by definition know where to go to get a great burger and sweet potato tots and a good local beer. With food trucks, the onus is on the owners to communicate directly with their customer base to inform them of exactly where they will be at any given time.

Blanton said without Krush Burger’s significant social media presence the task of keeping the customers in the know world be quite difficult. “We had to find our own customers so that they could find us – literally – so we had to actively market ourselves,” Blanton said. “Many restaurants just open the doors and wait for people to show up. We couldn’t do that.” Krush Burger now has more than 8,000 twitter followers and a significant Facebook presence. In fact, last year the company ranked in the top 15 of ALL burger chains in the country (yep – McDonald’s included) for the size and scope of its social media operation.

As Krush Burger expanded, Vculek and Blanton realized they need a bit more working and equipment capital and that’s where SAFE-BIDCO came in. The company recently inked a $235,000 federal SBA loan through SAFE-BIDCO and was tapped by the SBA itself recently as one of five “Small Businesses of the Year” for the northern California region.

“SAFE-BIDCO was fantastic to work with and very supportive,” Vculek said. “They really helped us navigate the process.”

For more information on Krush Burger (or to find one of the trucks) visit them at

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Melvina Hill, Melvina Hill Consulting

Thanks to Accion San Diego for this story!

MelvinaHillMelvinaHillConsultingMelvina Hill always had an eye for detail and through the years had steady employment in jobs that allowed her to exercise her administrative skills. This all changed in the recent recession when she was laid off from her long time position in the bio-tech industry.

Rather than letting this experience get her down she saw it as a chance to make an opportunity for herself and started taking on random projects for businesses like a rodeo venue and real estate companies. She provided administrative help and consulted on a variety of topics from event planning to marketing. Melvina Hill Consulting was launched before she even knew it!

However, it was not until she learned about Accion that she decided to formalize her small business. She applied and was accepted to the Accion Academy for Entrepreneurial Success, an eight-week training course that walked students from creating a business concept to launch. Upon successful completion of the course, graduates could receive a business loan up to a $5,000 to launch their business. Even more valuable than the capital however, was the education, tools and encouragement she received to help turn her business dreams into a reality.

“The Accion Academy allowed me to get my business foundation together,” shared Melvina. “I’ve always known it could be done, but didn’t have the confidence to launch. Accion changed that.”

Melvina was the first Academy graduate to receive a Kiva funded start-up loan and used her $3,700 loan to purchase necessary equipment, pay for certifications to launch her business and for marketing.

As her consulting business grows, she hopes to help other people hone in their skills and launch their own businesses.

“There are so many people in a similar situation as me,” shared Melvina. “I want to help them transition into what they want to do, instead of just working for someone else.”

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Connie Fledderjohann, Happiness Cards

Thanks to West Company for this story!

Connie Fledderjohann, owner of Happiness Cards microbusinessWhen Connie Fledderjohann first came in to West Company she was looking for help with Facebook. “When we opened her page I remember thinking; 800 fans? Maybe she should be helping me with Facebook,” says Heather Gurewitz, Women’s Business Center Director. As it turned out, using the program was not Connie’s challenge. Instead, Connie, a photographer on the Mendocino Coast was suffering the challenge of selling photographs in a saturated market. While beautiful, those that were “liking” and valuing her photographs weren’t purchasing.

Connie first decided to start her business in part for her love of photography, but also out of concern that the retirement savings she had accumulated during her working years would not be enough. She was concerned that she would “outlive her money” and, knowing that her cost of living was higher than her Social Security, she decided to take action. Realizing that if she didn’t grow sales, she wouldn’t be able to support herself, Connie came to West Company for help.

West Company has seen many photographers over the years. As a destination for art and natural beauty, Northern California has no shortage of photographers. Instead of focusing on selling the actual photographs, which despite a new sales campaign weren’t taking off, Connie was brave enough to tackle a new question: how do you change your product into something that people will buy?

“One day Connie came in and she had these laminated cards that looked like a business card but they had a gorgeous flower image on the front and an inspiring quotation on the back. I asked her what she sold them for, and she said ‘I just give them away to make people happy.’” After further discussion, Connie realized that she could achieve her goal of making people happy and generate income for herself at the same time, and thus Happiness Cards was born. These packs of 30 or 40 cards can be given to friends, shared with strangers, or used to brighten someone’s day with a beautiful flower photograph and an inspirational message.

Connie worked with West Company to develop her pricing model, business goal, and an online selling and distribution method for Happiness Cards, as well as a marketing campaign to reach her now 1000+ Facebook fans. “Wow, I feel like I just got $1,000 worth of help today,” Connie said after a particularly useful session learning to set up her website and PayPal buttons.

In just a short time, Connie has already been able to fulfill her goal of “spreading happiness” through steady sales growth of her Happiness Cards.

Entrepreneurship among Americans, like Connie, who are 50 and older has almost doubled in the last twenty years, and today accounts for almost 25% of all new businesses started, according to research from the Kauffman Foundation. Older entrepreneurs start businesses at a higher rate than younger entrepreneurs; more tech companies, for example, are started by entrepreneurs over 50 than under 30. Many “encore entrepreneurs” are seeking to supplement their retirement income or to rebuild nest eggs lost in the Great Recession.

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Melissa Elia, Mayssa Fragrance

Thanks to Women’s Initiative for this story!

melissaeliamayssafragranceMelissa Elia is building a fragrance empire from San Francisco, and Women’s Initiative is helping her get there. In 2009, Melissa launched Mayssa Fragrance, a fragrance and body soap business. Mayssa means “beautiful girl” in Arabic. Melissa first heard about Women’s Initiative from her entrepreneurial mother, who attended an open house. In 1999, Melissa graduated from Women’s Initiative’s 11-week business training program, and she credits the organization for assisting her with networking and marketing opportunities to help build her business. According to Melissa, “Going through the program gave me a solid understanding of expectations and knowing what the reality of owning my own business was going to be like. Understanding the business world made me change my daily life.”

Melissa comes from a diverse history of women entrepreneurs. She was a single child, born and raised in San Francisco. Her mother and grandmother were both grassroots organizers and entrepreneurs. Speaking of her own mother, Melissa says, “my mother has more guts then my grandmother and I had more guts than both of them.” Their inspiration to see change happen and their hard work ethic passed onto Melissa, making her a viable candidate for Women’s Initiative.

Melissa, who is also a practicing marriage and family therapist, invented many of the fragrances on her own in her kitchen over a decade ago. Before taking the Simple Steps program, Melissa struggled to find a positive work-life balance. Opening Mayssa Fragrance gave Melissa the opportunity to do something she was fascinated about and changed her perspective about many aspects of her life. While taking Women’s Initiative’s Simple Steps Program, Melissa was able to take control over her personal finances and given a clearer understanding of her own financial impact. The program gave Melissa confidence in starting and expanding Mayssa Fragrance into the successful business it is today.

Today, Melissa sells Mayssa products through a vibrant online marketplace and has upcoming plans to sell her products in retail stores. Due to customer demand, she has started national distribution of specialized shower gel, body lotion and perfume oil. Speaking about this national distribution, Melissa says that, “to see the popularity of the product grow is exciting, but having national distribution opportunities is phenomenal!” Melissa maintains her motivation by networking with inspiring businesswomen in similar and different industries. To maintain a positive balance in her life and work, she takes time to meditate and take care of herself both physically and emotionally.

Melissa attributes her success and motivation to Women’s Initiative, family members, best friends and her chemists. She accredits the success of her business to the loyalty and faith of her family and friends, as well as the support from Women’s Initiative. By providing Melissa with tools and skills, Women’s Initiative helped her realize her tenacious drive and passion to become a successful woman entrepreneur.

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Christy & Al Kroell, ChristyAl Plaques

Thanks to Fresno CDFI for this story!

alandchristykroellchristyalplaquesAl and Christy Kroell had been serving in the military 20 years when Al had an accident that ended his career. He needed over 52 surgeries in subsequent years to rehabilitate himself. Several years after Al’s accident, Christy sustained a near fatal car crash that left her disabled as well and had no choice but to leave her job at the Navy Credit Union.

In 2004, Al and Christy were no longer affiliated with the military base in Southern California so they decided to move to Squaw Valley. The couple endured years of trying times as Al continued to have multiple corrective surgeries to reach rehabilitation. They hoped that one day, the hard times would end and they would start a new business together.

Over the years, Al always enjoyed making wood engravings as keepsakes for his friends. With his lifelong passion, Al decided to start a business. He sought help at the local Small Business Administration SCORE Chapter. This group of volunteer business experts guided him as he completed his business plan. When he started to look at his financing options, the reality of capitalizing a startup business dawned on him. A laser engraver is an expensive tool and banks typically want to see 2 to 3 years’ experience before lending to a business. After months of planning and preparation, Al and Christy applied and received a $95,000 equipment loan from Fresno CDFI. Thanks to this loan, they were able to purchase the engraver they needed to open their doors and ChristyAl Plaques & Engraving was born!

Starting a new company takes hard work and dedication. There are always ups and downs, but the Kroells maintained a positive outlook through it all! They are doing what they love and hope to grow in the future. Al and Christy received the 2013 Sargent Shriver Veterans Serving America Achievement Award from the National Community Action Partnership.

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Vana Barberis, Nirvana Café

Thanks to Women’s Economic Ventures for this story!

vanabarberisnirvanacafeWhat prompted you to start your business?

I have a passion for community, and particularly the community I live in. I needed a business model that would be a vessel to inspire other local small businesses to come together. There’s nothing like being your own boss and having the freedom to innovate without restriction.

What aspect of your business are you most passionate about?

At Nirvana Café, we have aspired to bring a blissful state called Nirvana through food, music and ambiance. Nirvana is a place of happiness and love where people who share the same spirit, energy, thoughts and desires gather in a communal atmosphere where only positive energy exists.

Because of our mission, we’re a cafe with a conscience: we serve delicious food and drinks to nurture your body, mind and spirit. We believe that a successful business can run parallel with respect for our community, customers, and employees.

We’re also a celebration of culture and creativity with locally roasted coffee, local food products and a local owner. Nirvana Café is a cross between your favorite coffee house, outdoor festival, boutique, and arts center. Our commitment is to our community! We give back where we lay our heads.

What has been the most surprising lesson you’ve learned through this process?

The most surprising lesson I have learned through this process is that if you believe in yourself and never listen to negative self-talk, or let any obstacle stand in your way, you can achieve your dreams.

What role did WEV play in the opening of your business?

WEV was a priceless experience. It would take years of trial and error to gain the knowledge, network, and support that I have gained through attending the WEV SET class. I am forever grateful to my great friend Sarafina Cruz for recommending I take the class!

Please describe how you have helped/collaborated with WEV, and list any other WEV clients you’ve collaborated with.

The network that I have through WEV is vast. I have worked with Marni Brook (a speaker in SET, who is also a WEV board member) pointed me in the right financial direction. My teacher, Lisa Minyard, has been a great resource throughout this process. I was able to call upon the Legacy Law Office (another speaker in SET) to assist in my purchase contract. I currently use JR Bookkeeping (founded by Juliana, my classmate) for my bookkeeping and payroll needs. During my Grand Opening I also, had the pleasure of sharing my space with Monica of PaintMePlease face painting (another classmate) and I’m sure the list will keep growing!

What advice do you offer others who might want to start their own business?

Take the SET class. Do not get discouraged. Everything works out in its own timing. Be supportive to your classmates. Pay close attention during any guest speaker presentations. Build your network. Don’t worry if your business idea changes. Get ready for lifelong relationships. Have fun being your own boss! If I can, so can you!

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Gregory King, Postcards

Thanks to Pacific Coast Regional SBDC for this story!

gregorykingpostcardsGregory King grew up working in his parents’ restaurants, so starting his own food truck business was a natural move. Combining his MBA and years of experience in corporate America with his love of cooking, King opened Postcards: Central American Soul Food, a unique food truck that fuses soul food and Central American cuisine, prepared with a healthy twist and served in portable wraps and bowls. King’s relationship with the Small Business Development Center hosted by Pacific Coast Regional was instrumental in developing his idea and launching his business.

PCR SBDC Business Advisors Martha Castro, Sahar Andrade and Harold C. Hart-Nibbrig helped King fine-tune his business plan, develop a marketing plan with a focus on social media, obtain the necessary permits and licenses, and launch his business.

Postcards Central American Soul Food hit the road in April 2013. The truck, which also gives out postcards and sells hand-painted T-shirts featuring the work of local artists, is a regular presence at three Los Angeles-area farmers’ markets and books multiple events every week. Gradually building a strong following, Postcards has been featured in the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper. The company now has two employees, and sales are growing by 10 to 12 percent each month.

“The PCR SBDC connected me with so many resources I didn’t have initially,” says King. “I’ve been marketing for a large portion of my life, but there are always roadblocks that come up when you’re starting a business, and it’s good to have access to experts who can get you over those hurdles and help you think outside the box.”

Postcards Central American Soul Food
(310) 801-0441

Kristin Long, MIGHTYminnow

Kristin Long went from being a solo freelancer to developing a strong consulting business by forming strategic relationships with other freelance consultants.  Then she went from freelancing to having a brick and mortar space with employees.  Her story is a great example of how ‘self-employment is the labor market trend.’

KristinLong1Starting in 1998, Kristin built websites for big agencies and corporations until it stopped making sense for her to work on projects she didn’t enjoy with people she didn’t love.  At her last corporate job (during the dot com bust), she was afraid of becoming a cog within a company that didn’t value the human desire to create.  So in 2003 she went out on her own, working as a freelance web developer – from home.

During her first year freelancing she made about $28,000 developing websites and teaching web classes a few days a month.  That was a big step down her income, but fortunately, Kristin had a partner willing to fill in the gaps in the early days.  Like most freelancers, when she started being self-employed she filled out W-9’s and got 1099s from her clients.  Ten years ago freelance work wasn’t as accepted as it is now.  As a sole proprietor doing business under a SSN, some potential clients and bigger organizations thought her too “small time” and occasionally seemed put off by her not being incorporated. That said, the exposure she got from teaching really helped her to connect with a lot of potential clients. After that first lean year or so, Kristin never wanted for work.

Kristin knew her trade, but she worried that she didn’t know enough about running a business.

“How do I deal with taxes?”
“What legal stuff do I need to know?”
“How do I set up my bookkeeping?”

Early on, she decided to seek help. She found the Renaissance Center for Entrepreneurship on the internet.  She enrolled in their business planning classes. She remembered learning s that 75% of businesses fail in their first three years. She was determined to be part of the 25% that stayed afloat.

MightyMinnowLogoAbout two to three years into her freelance life, Kristin changed from using her name and identifying herself as a freelancer to working as a company – MIGHTYminnow. She wanted to position herself/company as a legitimate business so instead of saying “I” when talking about her services, she started to use “we, as in her and her contractors.  She framed the business as a “boutique web development company” instead of a small business or a solo venture.  She knew her strategy was working when a peer, who had a similar business (one person plus contractors), pulled her aside and asked, “your company seems bigger than mine, how do you do that?”

Kristin always had a desire to open a brick and mortar space.  She wanted to start a school where she could teach people to build websites and to expand her web development business.   She tried renting space, but it was difficult to find exactly what she needed with the right equipment and technology. She worked with contractors remotely, but she felt it would be easier to collaborate with her colleagues in person. Her apartment was too small for collaboration. And hosting client meetings in her home seemed less legitimate..

So, at the end of 2011, Kristin formed an LLC.  She wanted to expand MIGHTYminnow and to do that she needed to hire employees.

One day soon after, she was walking with her partner on  Broadway in ‘Uptown’ Oakland, when she saw a ‘For Rent’ sign.  Half kidding she said, “I could open my school there.”  Her partner said, “Why don’t you”.  ”Why don’t I?” she wondered.  Kristin was empowered by her partner’s financial advice the previous year, which resulted in becoming a homeowner. This new dose of encouragement pushed her to seriously look for spaces to rent.

It was the right time in her life to take a risk and not to let fear stop her.  She asked herself what was the worst that could happen.  Without a good answer, she decided to jump in with both feet and not to worry about getting all the details right.

KristinLong2When Kristin finally found the right space, she didn’t want to take on major debt to expand her business.  She turned to the crowdfunding website, Indiegogo, to raise $20,000 to expand MIGHTYminnow (see photo left) and outfit her new space.   She reached out to everyone she knew;  a few clients even supplied incentive gifts.  About 100 people contributed to the effort and of them, she knew all but 2 people. It was a true community effort.

In April 2012, Kristin opened up the MIGHTYminnow office at 1440 Broadway in Oakland.  She has plenty of space for classes and to work closely with her two employees, an assistant and another developer.  She hosts a few coworkers in related fields; she organizes and hosts the Bay Area Web Freelancers’ regular meetup as well as other events (like the Oakland Chamber of Commerce mixer.)  A physical office has increased her confidence, especially with clients who may have questioned her legitimacy. Some potential clients have visited the office to ensure that MIGHTYminnow was a “real” company before becoming clients.

Because Kristin spends most of her time developing websites, she feels it is important to carve out time to strategize about the business.  She recently took the Alliance for Community Development’s PROPEL program to refine the direction of her business and engage with other business owners.

Kristin has expanded her business.  She hired a developer and an assistant who helps with marketing and promotions (e.g. newsletters, Yelp!, her website’s SEO); both have increased her client base.  On the training side, one of her biggest joys is “Website Weekend,” a workshop that allows small businesses and nonprofits to make their own websites in a supervised and supportive environment. Kristin plans to add classes gradually, growing the business slowly and steadily.

Leslie Labowitz-Starus, Foodology

Thanks to Valley Economic Development Center for this story!

lesliestarusfoodologyLeslie Labowitz-Starus has a passionate interest in natural foods. In 1980, she founded Foodology, LLC specializing in Organic and Natural food products in Sun Valley, CA. Leslie’s vision was to blend the art of preparing great tasting foods from fresh, natural ingredients with the most modern techniques in packaging.

In the shadow of a dwindling economy, Mrs. Starus approached VEDC. “VEDC helped me with funds to bridge a time when there was drop in sales and they gave me an opportunity to recover and garner additional clients.”

Foodology, LLC weathered the economic downturn by reorganizing from higher end gourmet to value priced products. Today, their products can be found in almost every natural food stores and many main stream grocers in California and across the U.S.

“What’s most important is that VEDC was supportive every step along the way, not like the banks where you feel their only concern is the bottom line. But VEDC was really on my side, they wanted me to succeed and they wanted to help me create more jobs.” said Leslie. “I’m hoping to come back to VEDC soon to get a larger loan to expand my business.”

With her creativity and persistence Leslie Labowitz-Starus has carved a niche for herself. She is committed to her community and her workforce and an excellent example of an entrepreneurial pioneer.

Hear more stories like this at the 2012 Women Entrepreneur’s Symposium: Food, Glorious Food Biz!