Neal St. Anthony
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The unlikely executive team of teenagers behind Green Garden Bakery met several years ago in a gardening and cooking class for kids at a community center in north Minneapolis.

In 2014, they had an idea to sell a specialty, “green tomato cakes,” in a fundraiser for a friend injured in a car crash. They raised three times the $500 they had planned at farmers markets and pop-up sales. It occurred to them that they had a business opportunity on their hands.

“We had learned all of this about vegetable gardening, healthy eating and cooking,” recalled Jasmine Salter, 16, urban agriculture director of Green Garden. “And we wanted to put our knowledge to work.”

This fall, Green Garden won the youth division of the annual Minnesota Cup entrepreneur sweepstakes, earning accolades and a $10,000 prize, plus an extra $1,000 for the best pitch to the judges.

“They have a real business, a model that they have organically built that involves people and production and distribution and a pricing model,” said CEO Margaret Anderson Kelliher, of the Minnesota High Tech Association, and a Minnesota Cup judge. “They have a succession plan. They are mentoring middle school kids. That’s what we should be modeling in our own work. They are young business leaders out of the North Side. Hallelujah! Let’s keep it going.”

Chief Financial Officer Leensa Ahmed, 17, who loves math and science, projects sales for this year of around $40,000. Not bad for an operation that doesn’t even have a permanent kitchen.

Members of the executive team of eight teenagers are paid $10 an hour for their work of up to 12 hours a week. And they put in a lot more over the years. The executive team already is planning for a big capital investment.

Green Garden cooks when the kitchen is available at the Heritage Park community center, and also rents space as needed at a South Side kitchen incubator. Heritage Park, the huge housing development on the near North Side, is where most of the Green Garden teen executives grew up.

The management company of the 440-unit Heritage Park, McCormack Baron Salazar, is so impressed that it’s talking with Green Garden principals about a matching contribution toward a stand-alone kitchen facility in the neighborhood that Green Garden could use, as well as lease to other food entrepreneurs.

Green Garden already has raised thousands of dollars on its own.

Elana Dahlberg is an adviser to Green Garden who works for Urban Strategies, a nonprofit that provides youth and other programs at Heritage Park. Dahlberg said the group envisions a stand-alone business similar to the North Side’s 30-year-old Cookie Cart.

Green Garden is a vegetable-based dessert operation that uses mostly locally grown produce. Student workers sell products at farmers markets and community festivals and online. A piece of the gross take is donated to community charities selected by the youth leaders, after wages and operating costs

CEO Alfonzo Williams, 16, said the business has evolved from “a bunch of middle school kids” who were bowled over with the success of their first pop-up sale in 2014 to a more sophisticated-but-still-fun enterprise that has attracted many loyal customers, including a growing online business.

The beet brownies, carrot pumpkin bread, lemon zucchini muffins and jalapeño chocolate chip cookies can be made for gluten- and dairy-free diets.

This business feeds off the growing network of community gardens and environmentalism. The students talk about it as if it is a trust. They are the stewards of this resource, from composting and planting to harvest and cooking, with an eye to make sure the books balance and profit is reinvested in the business.

The idea is to grow revenue with a good product, pay good wages and give back to the community, Williams said at the Minnesota Cup.

Jacobi Simmons, a Henry High graduate who plans to study at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, is the digital design and social media specialist at Green Garden. “I’m an optimist and creative,” Simmons said. “I also like the entrepreneurial aspects of this and being part of the management team.”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.