Picture a group of 10 Lancaster entrepreneurs starting or growing their businesses. They are a more diverse group than you often see in Lancaster—4 are African American, 3 are white, 2 are Latino and 1 is African. They all have one thing in common: They are entrepreneurs with a dream of improving their lives by starting a business of their own.
You know how risky starting a business can be. Imagine, then, the risk involved in not only being responsible for a loan of your own, but also guaranteeing the loans of 9 other individuals. But that’s what they did. Through ASSETS’ Lending Circle program, entrepreneurs support each other for a full year of business growth. They commit to each other’s success. They improve their credit and access traditional capital. They formalize their businesses and increase their income. They increase the diversity of Lancaster’s economy. And they do it together.
With your help, ASSETS supports businesses and helps to create thriving wage jobs. Through your generous support, ASSETS helps local businesses be a driving force for good. And it is not just the Lending Circles that are working.
Working with existing for-profit companies to Measure What Matters – to consider their social and environmental impact in the community in new ways—through restructuring businesses to offer employee ownership, diversifying leadership and management structures, adding more local women-owned or people-of-color owned businesses to their supply chains, and becoming certified B Corps.
It’s Friday night and the Horse Inn is packed. There’s a wait for a table in the main dining room and the front bar is filled with pairs of diners and drinkers sipping on craft cocktails — perhaps a “Call to Arms” (Rittenhouse rye, Zaya rum, ruby port, boiled cider, pressed lime, Angostura) or a Doctor’s Orders (Market Alley gin, house tonic, basil, cardamom, grapefruit water) — and local craft beer.
It’s a scene that could be replicated in almost any major metropolitan area in the country: buzzing voices, plenty of dapper young urbanites, vintage jukebox, nostalgic bar games and low lighting.
But in other ways, you could be nowhere else but Lancaster City. The menu is rife with products from local farms. This is an eatery just as comfortable serving galumpkis (traditional stuffed cabbage) as it pairing pork shoulder with kimchi fried rice. If you watch long enough, you realize just how many folks seem to know each other. When a young couple gets engaged two tables over, the whole restaurant explodes in applause. The Horse Inn has actually been a drinking establishment since the 1920s, and while the new owners have spruced up the interior — horse stalls from its original use as a hayloft house booths — the space’s essential spirit remains untouched. It’s a classic Lancaster story: taking something old and good, and making it better.
That narrative is being replicated all across this Pennsylvania city. A new generation of locals, transplants and repatriates are transforming this compact burg, shifting the reputation of a metropolis that’s long been in its famous county’s bucolic shadow.
Ryan Martin, co-founder of Infantree, a local marketing and branding company, can trace his Lancaster heritage back 13 generations, but that didn’t stop him from moving away after college — first to Philadelphia, then to Harrisburg.
“Growing up in the county — Strasburg, which is southeast of the city — we didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to come downtown, except for Central Market on Saturday mornings,” he recalls. “My grandmother had a stand at Market for 60 years. She sold flowers. My grandfather was a grower. My parents were florists. That was the best part of Lancaster City for me, coming downtown to be part of that community on Saturdays.”
During those years away, Martin started to hear murmurings of a change happening in his native land. That tight-knit community he recalled from his youth felt like an opportunity. He moved back and eventually teamed up with Ryan Smoker, launching Infantree out of a fourth-floor loft above Prince Street Cafe. The popular coffee shop became both their landlord and their client. The company’s team has since grown from two to 12, serving the growing slate of local retail boutiques, breweries, distilleries, restaurants, city organizations and nonprofits.
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, but really in the last eight years, we’ve seen a real significant change downtown,” says Martin. “Galleries came in and started a little bit of a groundswell. We saw some refreshed boutiques coming in. The restaurant scene followed quickly on its heels. Businesses actually wanted to move from the suburbs to find locations downtown. With that came micro-industries: distilleries, breweries. All the clients that we serve. It’s been wild to be a part of that.”
Being a local also has its advantages.
“All of the work we’ve done from a branding and marketing perspective has been through word-of-mouth referral,” he continues. “We’ve built a business on this community. I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the work that we do is within a 30-mile radius of our downtown office.”
Last year, Martin and Smoker actually became their our own clients, opening Ellicott & Co., a shop on Market Street selling American-made men’s clothing and accessories. The pair works with local makers — leatherworkers, metalworkers, textile workers — to stock their shelves.
The city is proving to be a fertile place for fledgling companies to find a toe-hold. Technology startups have a host of affordable office space and coworking options to choose from including the ever-expanding Candy Factory (profiled in our first feature on ‘The New Lancaster’) and PubForge. The latter, located above beloved bar and music venue Tellus360, is geared towards technologists: developers, programmers, designers.
One former tenant is Matthew Ranauro of BeneFix, a startup that simplifies the health insurance market for small businesses. He is another repatriate, having moved back to his hometown after stints in New York, San Francisco and Boulder, Colo.
“Being back here, it’s unbelievable,” says Ranauro. “The community is super tight. There’s definitely a lot more tech than when I grew up here. I can’t really ask for a better place, especially in this industry.”
Since last fall, BeneFix has quintupled their client list and, in doing so, outgrew Pubforge. But they didn’t go far, moving into a 2,400 square foot space on S. West End Avenue.
Mayor Rick Gray has witnessed Lancaster City’s evolution firsthand: He’s lived in the same house on Prince Street — what he calls “the best $18,000 he ever spent” — for 44 years.
“During a lot of those years, you’d look outside at 11 p.m. and there was nobody on the street,” he recalls. “Now, if I go outside at 11 p.m. and look up and down Prince Street, there are people on both sides of the street walking. People have come back to the city. I think that’s true of a lot of our cities: I hear it from York, I hear it from Harrisburg, Bethlehem, Easton.”
The mayor credits two specific demographics with repopulating downtown: young people and baby boomers.
When it comes to millennials, “they want to be in the city,” he says. “I grew up with Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best — TV shows that represented suburbia as the promised land. My kids grew up with Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Friends. All urban settings. They want walkability. They don’t want car dependency. I can walk to 30 restaurants from my house.”
Meanwhile, many empty nesters are tired of mowing grass. They also want to ditch their cars, especially as they age. Downtown development reflects that demand: apartments and condos are being built that specifically target those 55 and older.
Gray, whose wife is an artist, also credits the vibrant arts scene with downtown’s resurgence.
“We have work by Lancaster artists hanging all over City Hall,” he says. “There have always been a lot of artists here because of the affordability and easy access to the major markets. In the last 10 to 15 years, [we went] from a wholesale market to a retail market. I know locals now that can make a living being an artist, which is a difficult thing to do.”
After graduation, Linton spent two years in Philadelphia, but Lancaster drew him back.That creative energy translates to craftspeople as well. RudeWood Design‘s Jeremiah Linton grew up in South Jersey. He met his business partner Alex Rudegeair at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster where they both studied carpentry. These days, the duo does custom woodwork with a focus on commercial restaurant and bar furniture.
“I moved [to Philadelphia], and was networking and working with different people,” he recalls. “When I moved away, I was like, ‘I didn’t make any lasting connections.’ But in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve made a lot of friends, built a lot of relationships. I think the business community in Lancaster is really into helping each other out. When one of us is successful, we can give back to the others in some kind of way.”
Rudewood is based out of an old printing facility, and they’ve created an impromptu collective, renting extra space to other artisans. Most of the company’s work is local. Very local.
“All of the jobs we’ve done in Lancaster City, we’ll walk there,” he says. “I think we’ve benefited a lot from coming here instead of staying in Philly.”
From old manufacturing facilities to heritage homes, there are all sorts of unique spaces on offer in Lancaster City. The built environment — well-lit sidewalks, historic buildings, industrial relics, charming brick rowhomes — can surprise visitors familiar with a Lancaster County brand based on buggies and dairy cows. Notably, the city boasts dozens of old tobacco warehouses that have survived and been converted into work and living spaces.
“It was the best thing we’ve ever done,” she recalls. “We really wanted [a living space] that would fit into our creative aesthetic as a couple and was more unconventional. We had looked and looked for a warehouse space and found the space that we have now. It has such a creative soul and energy to it. I knew the minute we walked through that building, it was where we were meant to be.”One of those loft-livers is Deborah Barber. An employee at Nimblist (formerly Performance Environment Design Group), Barber moved to the Harrisburg area after college, where she met her husband. Twenty years ago, they moved to Lancaster County and then, seven years after that, into the city.
Until last year, Barber’s work was still in the capital, but she wanted a job closer to home. Nimblist is a perfect example of the kind of mid-sized, creative-economy company that thrives here. The seeds for the enterprise were sown almost 20 years ago by Spike Brandt — who’s local to Lancaster — and L.A.-based Justin Collie. They met as roadies and came up through the lighting and design world. The business, which creates environments for live events, has since grown to about 20 employees. Clients include the NFL, musical acts, the Robin Hood Foundationand the SyFy network. The company is part of a booming event production industrycentered around Lancaster City and nearby Rock Lititz.
As Nimblist grows, the staff is evolving.
“When I came in, pretty much everyone was local,” recalls Barber. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve hired and relocated two people from out of state. We have a third person slated to start with us [last] December who is moving from another country. We have a fourth person who we hired as a result of her partner being relocated to TAIT [in Lititz].”
Barber thinks there are still things Lancaster City could do to ease the way for those transplants.
“One thing I’ve noticed and heard from our staff is that we don’t seem to have many realtors who handle the rental market,” she explains. “We’re looking for highly-skilled programmers and lighting designers — it’s a competitive market. It’s not easy to find those people, and when you do find them, I need to be able to tell them there are some cool places for them to live and a range of cool places for them to go out and eat.”
Part of that mission includes dispelling preconceived notions. Fortunately, often all it takes is a visit.
“We rent out one of our rooms on Airbnb,” says Barber. “The people we’ve had stay all say, ‘We had no idea that Lancaster would be like this’ or that ‘you have so many cool places,’ or that ‘living spaces like what you have exist.’ If you want that funky warehouse, there are those spaces. There are condos. There are single-family homes that are gorgeous and historic. And there are really quaint rowhomes that people have taken and redone.”
If all it takes is exposure to fall in love with Lancaster City, then Susan Louie and her husband Rafael Perez are Exhibit A. Before opening their charming French BYOB Citronnelle, the longtime New York City residents experienced the city via friends who moved south.
They purchased the property on Orange Street in 2009, moved to Lancaster City permanently in 2012 and opened Citronnelle in 2013. The couple were not experienced restauranteurs: Louie was fashion designer and her husband a chef. They had to learn the business from scratch, and figure out what exactly people wanted to eat in this part of Pennsylvania. The team buys everything locally, mostly from nearby Central Market. Seasonal ingredients go into dishes like grass-fed, pasture-raised New York strip with a mushroom-and-potato roulade or their signature creamy crab croquettes, served on a bed of cucumber salad and topped with yuzu wasabi aioli.“We started visiting them and fell in love with the place,” recalls Louie. “We bought a [weekend] house, but weren’t fully committed yet. We were both still working in New York. Then we saw this building — which was an abandoned print shop — and thought, how about changing our lifestyle?”
“We don’t have shoo-fly pie here,” explains Louie with a laugh. “We don’t have buttered noodles…We see a lot of people who come in here a little trepidatious. They read an ingredient on the menu and aren’t sure what it is. But we’re so happy to explain it to them. We’re not an uptight restaurant. We’re not hoity-toity — we just want to feed people. And if they learn a little something about what they’re eating, it’s great.”
Fortunately, a growing number of eateries are catering to the city’s changing palette, whether it’s students looking for fast-casual poke at Chop Sushi or couples nibbling on Neapolitan pizzas at the perennially packed Luca. The restaurant community knows that the city’s growing reputation as a foodie haven benefits them all.
“In New York, there are so many restaurants that you can’t really get to know anybody; they come and go so fast,” says Louie. “We’ve made friends with so many other restauranteurs. They’re so supportive of us, especially because we’re so little and just starting out. There’s a really nice sense of community here.”
Daniel Falcon is another local restauranteur. He came to the area from Puerto Rico 38 years ago when he was two. It is hard to tell the story of Lancaster City’s resurgence without talking about the Latino population which makes up almost 40 percent of the municipality’s 60,000 residents. They are an essential part of the small business community, whether that’s running neighborhood groceries or contributing to the diversity of downtown offerings.
Falcon was always trying to find a way to work from himself, growing a mall kiosk business into four clothing stores before changing course and getting into two of the city’s booming industries: real estate and night life. In September 2014, he opened Lancaster Cigar Bar on King Street. He has since bought up more property in the same building, launching Old San Juan Latin Cuisine and Rum Bar, and is hard at work on another concept across the hall: a neighborhood pub with a Prohibition-era vibe.
“Lancaster has a solid economy, and one way to attract young professionals to your city or town is to give them something to do when they’re done working,” he explains. “I think Lancaster is doing a good job at providing night life. I think we can do better, and we’re on our way there. I think the local government has been pretty supportive of that whole idea.”
“There seems to be more a demand for people wanting to live in the city,” he says. “People are actually selling their homes in the suburbs and moving into the city. Once that started happening, the demand for higher-end rental properties went up. Investors are meeting those demands. I’m in the rental business, so that’s what I’m doing with my units. I’m fixing them up and making them a little nicer, collecting more rent as well.”While the city’s growing population is obviously great for Falcon’s bars and restaurants, it has also impacted his real estate investments.
Nicole Vasquez is another young Puerto Rican entrepreneur. She grew up in Lancaster City, spending most of her childhood on West King Street. From a young age, she loved fashion and dreamed of opening her own clothing boutique. Flash forward to 2012, when she launched That Shuu Girl at the tender age of 25.
“Something I love about downtown Lancaster City is you don’t see any franchises,” she says. “When you go into a small business, you’re pretty much meeting the owner and you feel welcome, you feel comfortable.”
That reliance on community — both in terms of organized resources and likeminded peers — was something repeated again and again by residents and business owners.
“I have found an absolute love for the community here,” says Martin from Infantree. “If you do right by them, they take really good care of you. We’ve been able to survive because of the whole ‘buy local’ thing. Lancaster has a whole different appreciation for it: People here want to support anything that is authentically Lancaster.”
LEE STABERT is editor-in-chief of Keystone Edge. Tell her your favorite things about Lancaster @stabert.
ASSETS client and participant in the 2015 Great Social Enterprise Pitch, NuLife, is making news!
A couple of months ago, Schirlyn Kamara stopped by the Nimble Thimble sewing shop in downtown Lancaster.
She runs NuLife, a social enterprise that teaches at-risk women to sew. They make items from recycled fabric — clothing, accessories and household goods — to sell online.
Kamara thought Nimble Thimble might have some leftover fabric or other supplies to donate. While there, she got to talking with Mort Nierenberg, who runs the shop at Central Market Mall with his wife, Ruth. The couple are in their late 80s.
“He jangled his keys at me … and said, ‘I think I’ve been waiting for you,’ ” Kamara recalled.
Sometime this spring, Kamara plans to move NuLife into Nimble Thimble’s location on the lower level of the mall at 45 N. Queen St.
The details are still being worked out, but NuLife is planning to have classroom and retail space there. Nierenberg, an expert sewing machine repairman, plans to continue doing repair work there while passing on his skills to a new generation.
He said the prospect of handing off the shop space to NuLife makes him “joyous.”
The Nierenbergs have owned and operated Nimble Thimble for about a half-century. They moved it into the mall when they bought the building in 1978, according to newspaper records. They subsequently sold the property, but remained as tenants.
“It’s a huge project,” said Howard Jones, a board member of Handz on Hope, the nonprofit organized by Kamara that is NuLife’s parent organization.
Kamara has plenty of help, thanks to two Millersville University professors and their students.
About 25 undergraduates in professor Minoo Ghoreishi’s service learning seminar have been visiting Nimble Thimble weekly this semester to take inventory and clean out decades of clutter.
Later on, the students will design and set up displays, create signage and complete other tasks. Last semester, they taught basic business classes to NuLife clients, and that will continue, Ghoreishi said.
Meanwhile, more than 65 students in classes taught by professor Lexi Hutto have been creating brochures, videos and a social media campaign for NuLife.
Future projects include a marketing plan, merchandising and fundraising. Hutto said she is seeking donations of displays and other supplies.
The two professors’ classes are independent of each other, though some students have been in both, including senior Juan Martinez.
The seminar, he said, “teaches us to teach other people,” as well as to identify community needs and take action.
“A lot of people who go to Millersville (University) plan on owning their own business,” senior Courtney Lynn said. The seminar gives students a realistic feel for what’s involved, she said, likening it to an apprenticeship.
Senior seminars are required in a number of MU majors; service learning is one of the options for business majors.
“We want students to be community oriented,” Ghoreishi said. “We really emphasize the ethical angle.”
Each year, participants enter a national competition sponsored by Enactus, a nonprofit devoted to using entrepreneurship to promote social welfare. MU has won the regional championship five times since 1998, Ghoreishi said.
Hutto and Ghoreishi have worked with other nonprofits. Students get hands-on experience, and cash-strapped organizations get assistance they could not otherwise obtain.
When students work for a real-life client, “I think they take it more seriously,” Hutto said. “It takes a lot more effort, but I think the rewards are worth it.”
Kamara said it’s been her dream to have a shop to sell NuLife goods.
Besides a retail area in the front room, there’s a workshop, a storage room, a back room where the classroom will be, and even a small kitchen: about 4,000 square feet in all.
ASSETS client and participant in the 2015 Great Social Enterprise Pitch, The Stroopie Co., is making news!
If you’ve ever heard of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you’re probably aware that it’s home to one of the biggest populations of Anabaptist religious sects, such as the Amish and Mennonites, in the United States. You may not know that it sits near the heart of Pennsylvania’s enormous sweets industry, just next door to the candy-making mecca of Hershey; and that the county accepts hundreds of refugee immigrants every year.
The Stroopie Co., a small Lancaster company that manufactures Dutch-style cookies, has a mission to hire and train refugee women as its workforce. The company’s hiring practices reflect its community’s history and spirit.
“We were looking for a really practical way to love our neighbor well,” says Jennie Groff, who co-owns “Stroopie” with her husband, Jonathan. She worships in an Anabaptist church that focuses on supporting refugees. “The company fits my roots,” she says.
Stroopie’s was started in 2008 by Ed McManness and Dan Perryman, who remain part-owners. The goal was always to provide “meaningful employment” to local refugees; McManness’s family had enjoyed Dutch “stroopwafels” — a cinnamon cookie made in a waffle iron with a layer of caramel inside. The circular cookies rest perfectly on the lip of a mug of steaming hot tea or coffee, which softens the caramel filling. The Stroopie Co. makes one version half-dipped in chocolate.
“They’re hard to find in the States. It gave us something we could market,” Jennie Groff says. “We knew if we were going to establish a social enterprise, we needed to provide a great product.”
The Groffs joined the enterprise in 2010, bringing with them Jonathan Groff’s lifetime of experience in his family’s candy-making business.
Today, Stroopie’s employs six refugee women — three from Myanmar and three from Syria. Another employee manages the staff and acts as an ESL teacher. Employees typically stay a year or two before moving on, Groff says.
“The refugee women we’re hiring, they’re super-motivated, thankful, great workers. Just a huge, huge asset to our company. I just can’t imagine taking our family and having to start over in a new place. We view it as a deepest privilege to provide a job with dignity.”
Mary Myint, an “expert Stroopmaker,” offers her testimonial on the Stroopies website: “I like my job because my schedule is nice for my children. When we lived in Myanmar and Malaysia, we were scared of the police. In the USA all the people are equal, so my family loves the USA.”
Workers start out making $11 an hour, Groff says, then move up to $12 an hour after training. The owners want to eventually pay a wage of $15 an hour, and perhaps even start giving the women part ownership of the company.
Getting to that point, however, requires that Stroopie’s take a big next step.
Filling Out the Mission
“We need to make a profit in a more sustainable way before we can consider granting ownership shares,” Groff says. “We are holding our own, we’ve been breaking even. … For a small company, that’s something to celebrate.”
In 2015 Stroopie’s won “The Great Social Enterprise Pitch,” a local competition meant to encourage businesses that “perform a social good while also making a profit.” The prize: In-kind products and services worth more than $25,000, meant to help the company grow. Stroopie’s used its winnings — along with money raised from Indiegogo as part of the competition — to open a retail storefront in Lancaster, where the cookies are made and sold directly to the public.
“The biggest thing — it gave us a platform to tell our story,” Groff says of the competition. “The community really rallied behind us.”
The company also distributes its product in nearly 70 stores across the United States and is pitching bigger retailers.
“We feel like we’re poised and ready to grow,” Groff says. “We’re still relatively small, but every year we gain momentum and get our story out there.”
Groff says she is confident the company will continue to grow, increasing profits and employing more refugees.
“Both have to be equally strong — you have to have passion for both things — or it’s not going to be sustainable, it’s not going to work,” Groff says.
ASSETS is the #GiveLocal recipient of March and April 2017!
Launched in 2017, Lemon Street Market’s #GiveLocal project is a register round up initiative designed to support Lancaster organizations whose missions align with ours.
Customers can elect to “round up” their purchases to the nearest dollar when they check out, with proceeds donated to the featured organization for that month. Customers can also choose to increase their at-the-register donation by adding to their round up value. By shopping at Lemon Street Market, customers are directly supporting more than 75 local farmers and vendors, and even more through local distributors like Lancaster Farm Fresh, Oasis, and Four Seasons. For each dollar spent at a local, family-owned business, 80% is put back into the local economy. For every dollar spent at large, corporate owned stores, only 20% makes it back into the local economy.
Help us to contribute even more to our community by choosing to #GiveLocal when you check out at Lemon Street Market.
Chelsea Zawisa has always worked in the food industry. “At times I wondered if I should get a job outside of the food industry, but saw no reason to, I love food.”
In High School, Chelsea worked in various restaurants and bakeries, building a passion for her own cooking. In 2011, she went to YTI for their pastry arts program and began to master baking. Once finished, she worked at bakeries and cafes, including Commonwealth on Queen. During this time, she began to think about owning her own business. “I feel like everyone in the restaurant industry wants to own their own business.” After planning and some research, Happy Belly Bakery was created in 2014.
However, the bakery was only a part-time business and Chelsea would only sell baked goods at the Lancaster East Side Market. An idea began to form inside her mind. For months, Chelsea had visited Philadelphia and saw the success a particular kind of bakery was having: bagel shops. “When we were in Philadelphia, I would walk into every bagel shop I could find and talk with the owners if I could.” After months of research and support from family and friends, Chelsea began planning the transition of her business to solely selling bagels and condiments with a focus on buying fresh, quality ingredients from the Lancaster community. The name would also be changed to the Harvest Moon Bagel Co.
While preparing for this transition, Chelsea knew the ASSETS Learning Circles was a perfect fit for her. While having a great deal of experience within the food industry, she still had only a smattering of experience and knowledge about owning a business. When the first Learning Circles was available, she immediately signed up. She was put into contact with professionals who had real experience and helped her immensely with multiple areas like marketing, the city’s laws, basic accounting, etc. Chelsea found ASSETS itself to be incredibly open and friendly. “I don’t think there is anything like this in many places.”
The owners of Commonwealth on Queen also helped her in starting her business by allowing her to use their oven to bake bagels and also help make the logo for her business. With the support of friends, family, ASSETS and Commonwealth, Chelsea finally officially opened the Harvest Moon Bagel Co. on Sunday, June 26th, 2016.
In the future, Chelsea wants to continue perfecting her bagels and experimenting with different flavors for her butter and cream cheese. She wants to have her own storefront in downtown Lancaster and also have the best bagels in the county while also providing a friendly, community-oriented atmosphere.
Meredith has, by many journalists standards, had a successful career. After attending Ithaca College, Meredith would land a job with WGAL News 8 in 2003 and has been there ever since. The creation of Life & Legacies, one of her proudest accomplishments, would emerge from one of the most tragic events in her life. The news that her Grandfather and Grandmother were both diagnosed with two different kinds of lung cancer rocked the family.
Meredith, along with her father, raced to Florida with a camera and she asked every question she could think of. “I was afraid that they were going to die and I wasn’t going to know everything I wanted to know.” For two hours, Meredith would learn about her grandparents lives and would have their stories forever. Four months later, her grandmother passed away.
Relieved that she could save their story, Meredith began forming an idea with her good friend Joe Mitton, a cameraman at WGAL. Meredith and Joe wanted to create a business centered around recording the stories of others, helping their customers create a legacy for friends and family. For seven years, their dream would be just that, a dream. It may have continued to be a dream if Meredith had not learned about the Great Social Enterprise Pitch from WGAL.
Realizing that she and Joe had a great idea for the Pitch, they attended one of the Learning Circles in preparation. Meredith says it was perfect for them. While they had the skills and ability to create their product, Meredith and Joe learned the details of how to run a business through the Learning Circles and the Pitch. “ASSETS was so great about the real nitty-gritty of being a business owner. What is your financial model, how can you make this a viable business? We were able to figure out all of this stuff out at the meetings for the Pitch.”
With a real business plan in place, they were blown away by the support shown by the community when the Pitch began the crowdfunding phase. While Meredith and Joe set the bar at 1,000 dollars, community members in Lancaster donated over 5,000 dollars.
With this money and their own capital, Meredith and Joe opened the doors to Life & Legacies in November 2015. “In seven years, we had done nothing with a great idea. In six months, we took that idea and went from 0 to 60 and finished the Pitch with a fully-formed business.” While running a business is challenging, Life & Legacies is growing faster than they had ever expected. Meredith knew that the business would take a great deal of work to maintain, but she didn’t realize how much it really took until the business was actually started. However, Meredith has loved the challenge and her passion for hearing more stories is what keeps her going. “I just want to interview more people, there’s more stories to tell! The greatest part of my business, is I get to hear all the stories.
Meredith takes great pride in creating the business. “I am a cancer survivor, a wife, a television journalist. And still, opening this business is one of my greatest accomplishments.” For anyone who has a dream or idea, she says “it is very scary, you have to push past the fear, have faith, and be as prepared as possible.” In the end, however, you’re going to have to make a leap of faith.
WITH HOLIDAY DEMAND ON THE UPSWING, The Stroopie Company went to two shifts in early November, allowing them to churn out up to 6,000 Dutch stroopwafels (cinnamon-y, carmel-y goodies best enjoyed with a hot beverage) a week. All six workers running the show at the company’s small production facility in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are refugees: three from Burma and three from Syria. Once a day, they sit down with the store manager, who is also a certified ESL teacher, for a half-hour English lesson.
As a certified B Corporation, The Stroopie Company measures its success by social and environmental standards in addition to the profit column – hence the language classes and $11-an-hour starting wage offered to refugees otherwise facing limited employment prospects. Alone, however, these commitments don’t solve the challenges of solvency and profitability facing any small business. To help meet them, The Stroopie Company has turned to ASSETS, a nonprofit that has worked to create economic opportunity and reduce poverty in and around Lancaster for more than 20 years.
One of the organization’s new programs, says executive director Jessica King ’96, is called the Great Social Enterprise Pitch, which offers a series of business-planning workshops to 10 entrepreneurs who prioritize social and environmental well-being. After the workshops, five participants pitch their ideas to a panel of judges and compete for more than $50,000 in cash and services.
“It gave us the confidence that we had a great idea going,” says Jennie Groff, one of the company’s owners. “We really feel like we’re poised to grow.”In 2015, The Stroopie Company won the competition, coming away with donated legal services, a free photo session for a new product catalog, and cash that it invested in new equipment.
Lancaster is a welcoming and generous community that resettles more refugees and gives, on average, more to charity than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. By integrating this philanthropic impulse into a workable business model, King says, “impact businesses” like The Stroopie Company are able to fund their own pursuit of a greater good.
“[The Stroopie Company] is a means to an end. The end is about helping their neighbors have better lives,” she says. “There are a lot of ways you can do that. Making cookies is their way of doing that.
“It’s amazing to see the kind of impact that [employers] can have on the lives of people around them, their neighbors and their employees, regardless of what their business is. It’s the spirit of ‘how’ they do it,” King continued. “It might not be all that bright and shiny, but it really matters to people. That’s what really gets me excited.”
Through its various programs, ASSETS provides training and lending to entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups as well as the impact businesses committed to social and environmental goals. During the most recent fiscal year, it supported the creation of 40 new businesses and more than 70 jobs, provided loans or long-term training to more than 150 entrepreneurs, and involved nearly 1,500 businesspeople and community members in other programs and events.
“We believe in the power of business to transform our communities for good,” says Tina Campbell ’99, director of development. “But we are also convinced that it must be equitable transformation – that all races, ethnicities and cultures must be included for true economic development to happen in our own communities.”
According to board member Kevin Ressler ’07, an important part of this vision has been ASSETS’ expanding focus over the past several years to supporting impact businesses in addition to entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups.
“This work breaks down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and begins to see that ‘we’ is our only hope moving forward to maintain a country full of communities that don’t just co-exist but co-create and thrive together.”
Since 2008, The Stroopie Company has employed 16 refugee women in its kitchen. Many have used it as both a landing and a launching pad, a welcoming place to build experience and improve their English before moving on to other things. Recently, when a TV news crew stopped by for an interview with one of the Syrian workers, Groff called in an employee who’d just left to provide some translation help. Watching from the sidelines, Groff was struck by the poise and fluency the former employee had developed, at least in part, right there in the stroopwafel kitchen.
“She came here hardly wanting to say anything. To be able to see how she’s leaving us – it just was hugely encouraging,” says Groff. “That is totally what motivates my husband and me. It is just so rewarding to see our refugee employees come in and gain confidence. You can just almost see it happening before your very eyes.”
First of all, THANK YOU to everyone who made 2016 a great year for ASSETS. We couldn’t have done this without you. We’d like you to help us celebrate some of our highlighted moments of 2016:
We opened the Women’s Business Center and hired Melisa Baez as the first director of the Center! The Women’s Business Center at ASSETS is developed in partnership with the Small Business Administration to assist small business owners who are starting or expanding their small business.