Grants help give COVID-stressed businesses a restart; lets one Kalamazoo company take a coffee break

Summer sales of Maliesha Pullano’s cold brew coffees looked as if they were going to dry up before they could really get flowing this year.
 
As the entrepreneur was gearing up to introduce a new roasted bean product and preparing to sell her cold coffees for a sixth year at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, the coronavirus became a serious problem. And she had a lot of quick decisions to make.
 
To prevent the spread of the potentially deadly virus, the opening of the outdoor market, which typically opens in May, was pushed back until June 6. All but life-essential businesses and those with a delivery/take-out option were required to close. 

Access to the commercial space Pullano uses to produce some of her products was restricted -- making it tough to receive supplies and transport goods. And schools closed, requiring the single mother to keep her 7-year-old daughter with her all day.
 
“I already had plans to start roasting beans and I wanted to raise $33,000 because I wanted to get the co-packing (the contract manufacturing of her products) going,” Pullano says. “So this was all in preparation of the season that I had anticipated.”
 
She says she launched some of her plans on March 10. But by March 15, she says, “We realized the seriousness (of the COVID situation) and so that kind of ended.”
 
Sales of her specialty coffees, Mamaleelu Cold Brew, had to pivot. While her coffee concentrate product continues to sell well at area retailers (wholesale accounts for the company), her company had to quickly change to try to make up retail sales. She opened her website to do online sales and was doing deliveries in the Kalamazoo area. But she halted that after about one month.
 
Speaking of the commercial building space she used in downtown Kalamazoo, she says, “When the building closed, I decided that I just needed to take a break for a little bit like everybody else and try to figure out what was going on in the world.”
 
She is getting some help with that, care of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and grants it recently announced to help support small businesses that have realized financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 virus. Mamaleelu Cold Brew is among 1,434 small businesses in Southwest Michigan that are receiving grants averaging $5,000 as part of the Michigan Small Business Restart Program. The money is to be used to help them cover expenditures they have made or will make between March 1 and Dec. 30, to manage COVID-19-related costs.
 
Mamaleelu Cold Brews concentrate is sold at six retail stores in Kalamazoo as well as stores in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Plainwell.According to information provided by the state, the money must be used for pandemic-related emergency expenditures and/or working capital to support payroll expenses, rent, mortgage payments, utility expenses, costs related to reopening a business or nonprofit, or other uses authorized under the federal CARES Act.
 
The funding is the result of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s decision in early July to release $100 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund. It is funneling the money through 15 regionally-based economic development organizations located throughout Michigan’s 83 counties. More than $7 million in funding was allocated for the seven counties of southwestern Michigan and that is being administered by Southwest Michigan First, the Kalamazoo-based regional economic development organization. It works in Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties.
 
“The pandemic has intensified the importance of jobs to local economies, peoples’ livelihoods and their sense of well-being,” Southwest Michigan First Chief Executive Officer and Senior Partner Ron Kitchens says in a prepared statement. “Only by protecting our small businesses can we ensure the ability of all to grow and prosper.”
 
According to his organization, many of the businesses receiving awards were forced to change their business model to adapt to survive. Pullano says, “The impact that the Michigan Small Business Restart Grant will have on my business will be to act as a space holder in which creativity and innovation can lead the restart, instead of having to make decisions out of fear.”
 
More simply put, “It will give me some time to pause and figure out my next pivot,” she says.
 
“I start really gearing up around April through May for the Farmers Market,” Pullano says. “It gets warmer and my sales increase typically at my stores. When COVID hit (in March), I was still kind of in the lull of my season and I had already been planning for the upcoming season.”
 
In a press release, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says, “This program puts federal funding to work for small businesses in Michigan hardest hit by the impact of COVID-19, helping to ensure they can keep their doors open and put critical protections in place for their workers and their customers. Families across the state depend on small businesses for their livelihood, and the Michigan Small Business Restart Program will build on additional COVID-19 business relief efforts through the MEDC to create a strong foundation for Michigan’s long-term economic recovery.”
 
Kitchens says the State of Michigan and Michigan Economic Development Corporation “have done an excellent job of developing a suite of financial assistance options, like the Michigan Small Business Restart Program, to keep the doors of small businesses open. We thank everyone who participated in this process.”
 
His organization says 2,258 applications were received and considered for the funding. Applicants were required to have no more than 50 employees and to demonstrate that they: have been affected by the COVID-19 emergency; need working capital to support eligible expenses, and had a loss of income as a result of the pandemic. According to Southwest Michigan First, 60 percent of the funds were awarded to minority-, woman- or veteran-owned eligible businesses. The balance was split between various area nonprofits and for-profit businesses.
 
“We truly wish we could have supported all requests, but demand outnumbered our available pool of money 6:1,” Kitchens said. “But there’s more that can be done --that everyone can do. We all must shop and eat local during this time and support these small businesses that make our region a remarkable place in which to live and work.”
 
Check out Mamaleelu Cold Brew here. Its products are sold at six retail locations in Kalamazoo as well as at Bridge Street Market in Grand Rapids, Bridge Street Deli and Health Foods in Plainwell, and Whole Foods in Lansing. In Kalamazoo, they can be found at Bronson Market, Midtown Fresh, Natural Health Center, PFC Natural Grocery & Deli, Sawall Health Foods, and Table of Contents Café.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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