When life gives Leensa Ahmed lemons, she knows just what to do:
"Make lemon zucchini muffins!"
Or beet brownies, carrot pumpkin bread or jalapeño chocolate chip cookies — all delicious desserts that, Ahmed noted, also can be made gluten- and dairy-free.
Ahmed, 17, is CEO of Green Garden Bakery. This summer, the youth-run business raised $200,000-plus for a new commercial kitchen and expanded education-and-demonstration space in the community room of their home base, the Heritage Park residential community on Minneapolis' Near North Side.
Most of the money was put up by an anonymous donor who was impressed with their creative, vegetable-and-fruit-laced baked goods, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the teen leaders.
Now Ahmed and her Green Garden team are on a roll.
"With our expanded kitchen and wholesale license, I think we can be a $100,000-sales business next year," said Ahmed, a busy high school senior who will be taking college classes this semester at St. Catherine University.
"It looks pretty awesome," Ahmed said. "It will be our baking center, wholesale operation, and we have room to hold classes and teach the younger children who are learning about growing vegetables, cooking and baking."
Green Garden grows vegetables in its community garden, bakes them into healthy vegetable-based desserts for every diet (including vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free), and markets them using sustainable practices. Student workers sell products at farmers markets, community festivals and online, and donate proceeds back into the community.
The business also feeds off a growing network of community gardens and environmentalism. The student-managers are the stewards, from composting and planting to harvesting and cooking.
The enterprise is headed by about 10 veterans, all senior high students, who make $11 an hour for working up to 20 hours a week.
Most of the teens met in a community gardening-and-cooking class when they were in grade school. They hail from working-class to working-poor families; some are immigrants and others are native North Siders.
Raniya Sheikh, 17, a Heritage Park resident who is a senior at Hopkins High School, said the new kitchen means her baking crew won't have to take the bus at odd hours to a kitchen incubator in south Minneapolis when orders overwhelm the capacity of the kitchen at Heritage Park community center.
"The new kitchen will be great for us at Green Garden and our business," she said.
"And we'll be able to rent space at reasonable rates to others in the community who have food-based businesses. My mom needs space to work with her spices, for example."
The expansion also makes possible cooking classes for as many as 100 elementary school students a year.
Former CEO Alfonzo Williams, 17, 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 loyal customers.
Last fall, Green Garden won the youth division of the annual Minnesota Cup entrepreneur sweepstakes, earning accolades and a $10,000 prize.
Elana Dahlberg is a veteran adviser to Green Garden who works for Urban Strategies, a nonprofit that provides youth and other programs at Heritage Park. She has known the Green Garden leadership team since they were in middle school.
Dahlberg said the kids are frustrated that they don't have the kitchen capacity to fill demand from restaurants, grocery stores and retailers who are interested in carrying their products. But that will be possible when the new kitchen is complete early next year.
And not just a kitchen. The property manager of Heritage Park is so impressed with the Green Garden team, Dahlberg said, that he's donating an apartment rent-free for use as the operation's headquarters.
Jacobi Simmons, 19, a Henry High School graduate who takes digital-design classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, is the Green Garden webmaster. He just launched a new website (greengardenbakery.org) and also works nearly full-time at Whole Foods in downtown Minneapolis.
Simmons said the Green Garden experience has fed his optimism and creativity, and has given him valuable entrepreneurial and managerial experience.
Ahmed said her goal by the end of the school year is "to have a new set of trained youth, ready to take over the new kitchen, complete the expansion to wholesale and improve our online system."
Sheikh is equally clear on paying it forward. "We didn't get into this for the money," Sheikh said.
"It was to learn about business and pass it on."
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144