BC's Café Rica and GR's Natural Maya inspired by native culture, supported by Northern Initiatives

This story is part of a series supported by Northern Initiatives that uplifts equitable small businesses and its ecosystem in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids.

On an afternoon in downtown Battle Creek in a large coffee shop/restaurant, the aromas of coffee and tasty food cooking waft among customers conversing at tables or in soft chairs or working on computers.

At the same time in Grand Rapids, shoppers in a small, quieter store are comforted with pleasant scents while they browse among 67 medicinal herbs, many aromatherapy products, and numerous other products.

The Battle Creek coffee shop is owned by a family with connections to Costa Rica, and the Grand Rapids store is owned by a Mexican-American woman. Walk into either one and you’ll recognize that the décor derives from Hispanic cultures. The Battle Creek business is Café Rica, 62 E. Michigan Ave., and the one in Grand Rapids is Natural Maya, 4310 S. Division Ave. S. 

Outdoor seating is at the front of Cafe Rica.The growth of both businesses has been supported by a nonprofit lender that is striving to help Latinx entrepreneurs — Northern Initiatives, based in Marquette and serving all of Michigan. Northern Initiatives is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which is a lender active in Black, Latinx, Native, and rural communities plus areas of persistent poverty. CDFIs provide financing for communities where conventional lending businesses traditionally don’t invest.

The proprietor of Natural Maya is Carla Sanchez, 50, who came from Mexico in her early 20s. She opened the business four years ago. Sanchez is a clinical herbalist and aromatherapist who divides her work time between being in the store and being a program coordinator for the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan. She has had the latter job for seven years and before that, she was an interpreter in a hospital for three years.

“Working in public health made me think about many people in my community,” Sanchez says. “They come from other countries and they feel the typical medicine here is not what they need for naturally healing themselves — with plants, with medicinal plants, with teas, for example. I needed to open my own place to help people find what they need for their own healing, and that’s why I opened Natural Maya.” The store has a very large inventory of herbs and aromatherapy products, as well as items like soaps, jewelry, and clothing.

Carla Sanchez, owner of Natural Maya“The big problem that we have in the Latino community is finding the right resources,” she says. “For money, for example. Also for education for immigrants coming from another country. For example, the way we do business in Mexico is one way and the way that business is done in the USA is another way. We need to learn that and then do it. Those resources sometimes are difficult to find, especially in our own language. When I started there was nothing available for me or for other businesses. Now I see more resources and learning for the Latino community and the communities of color.”

About a year ago Sanchez met Norma Tiscareno-Jazwinski, a commercial lender for Northern Initiatives. They began talking about expanding and upgrading the business. Sanchez was hesitant but eventually agreed and then she was approved for a loan. “Northern Initiatives helped me to get better, to inject money into my business, and be much bigger. I renewed my whole store and they helped me with that,” she says. “I feel really comfortable because the process was really clear, really open, and really helpful.” Sanchez opened her remodeled store last April.

In Battle Creek, the owners of Café Rica are Jackson Bredehoft, 36, and his brother, Tristan Bredehoft, 27. Their mother, Patricia Bejarano Bredehoft, came from Costa Rica to the United States in her mid-20s to continue college. Here she met and married an American. She was involved with her sons in planning the business and she remains allied with it while holding a full-time job elsewhere.

Co-owner Jackson Bredehoft takes an order to customers.“We got involved with Northern Initiatives in 2019,” Jackson Bredehoft says. “We were down the street in a city-owned incubator kitchen. It was a city project to help fledgling food businesses grow. And we quickly realized that we were going to outgrow that very soon.

“When we started looking into moving, we had only been open like a year. We found out that Northern Initiatives serviced loans for more at-risk businesses. It was the summer of 2019 that we started working on a business plan with them, started on the road to getting financing for this place here,” Bredehoft says. “We ended up getting a loan from them, and with that partnered with a grant we received from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, we were able to do the buildup here and get our equipment to start. We opened on Feb. 29, 2020.”

Café Rica has three full-time employees including the two brothers, and it also has 11 part-time employees. Bredehoft notes that all the employee work hours combined are equivalent to nine full-time employees.

Four years ago the café was focused on selling coffee products from Costa Rica but not much food. Now sales are evenly divided between coffee and food (like quesadillas and quinoa bowls) but Costa Rica remains prominent. 

The is the food-preparation area at Cafe Rica.“Our main fresh-brewed coffee that you can get every single day of the week is Costa Rican,” Bredehoft says, “and our espresso is a blend of Costa Rican and Guatemalan. We have mostly focused on Costa Rican coffee. We’re obviously open to others, but Costa Rican coffee is some of the best in the world.”

Northern Initiatives has been expanding its outreach to Latinx for several years. Based in Battle  Creek, Israel Flores, a native of Mexico, is NI’s Business Services Director, meaning he coordinates the company’s business coaches, who are stationed throughout Michigan.

“A few years ago we hired a specialist from Battle Creek. We started doing some changes to provide access in the Latino community,” Flores says. “Now we have a portal website called Initiate; it’s like a supplement of coaching. It’s been a while since we started that portal in Spanish and now it’s 100 percent in Spanish. So people have access to all the tools, templates, calculators, and all the content in Spanish.”

He notes that Northern Initiatives partners with the Kellogg Foundation, which offers instruction related to creating a business plan. NI also has partners in Grand Rapids: the Wege Foundation provides much funding and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce promotes NI’s outreach to Latinos.

Natural Maya sells medicinal herbs, teas, beauty products, and more.Two years ago in Grand Rapids, Northern Initiatives hired a bilingual commercial lender, Norma Tiscareno-Jazwinski, who deals mainly with entrepreneurs in Muskegon, Kent, and Oceana counties. The Hispanic population in the area is growing rapidly, and Tiscareno-Jazwinski, a native of Mexico, gets involved by attending community events and networking with banks and chambers of commerce.

Some of the merchandise at Natural Maya.She notes that having no credit history or a poor credit rating often is an obstacle for Latino entrepreneurs because conventional banks usually don’t accept a credit score below 740. Northern Initiatives deals with people with scores down to 580.

Free coaching about how to successfully run a business is part of every loan NI makes, and recently a bilingual coach was hired for West Michigan. Cailin Kelly is based in Grand Rapids, where she grew up. She says she enjoys helping business people in underserved communities succeed and contribute to the betterment of their communities. Kelly comments, “It’s wonderful to have business owners from the communities running the businesses. That’s what I love about the work that we do at Northern Initiatives, supporting that kind of development.”

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