Neal St. Anthony
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Last spring, like many business owners, Junita Flowers was in a jam.

Her cookie business, called Junita's Jar, produced one of the hit products offered since 2018 at the Seasoned Specialty Food Market in St. Paul. But two other avenues of distribution — corporate meetings and events tied to personal growth and enrichment — were clipped by the stay-home shutdown when the pandemic hit.

And then, when George Floyd was killed in late May at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, Flowers lost access to a commercial kitchen in a building at the intersection where she went to produce big orders.

By the end of the year, however, things had turned around completely. "I started in March thinking I couldn't make it," Flowers said. "And we finished 2020 up 40% in sales. I still can't believe it."

The rebound came with the help of Kayla Yang-Best, who runs Seasoned Specialty Food Market and mentors entrepreneurs, and some valuable customers.

Seasoned Specialty works mostly with minority women with great food ideas who are willing to "co-retail." Yang-Best invites promising small-batch food makers to get traction with consumers by offering products at the store. She charges a flat fee for shelf space but gives all the revenue from product sales back to the maker.

Flowers was considering shutting down a business that had been a promising star of the 2018-19 Finnovation Lab Fellowship for social-enterprise entrepreneurs.

But she had built a following with some corporate event planners in the metro area, who ordered Junita's Jar cookies for business meetings and lunches. Flowers also found customers at what she called "Cookies 'n Conversation" sessions, often for women coping with personal crisis or trauma.

Before the pandemic, she scheduled such outreach chiefly at college campuses. Flowers, 48, would talk about her experience escaping an abusive relationship, getting help and moving to a better life. She would tell audiences that baking, the passion that became her business, helped her transcend domestic violence.

When things hit a low point for Junita's Jar last summer, a different conversation — about social justice after Floyd's death — started to have an effect on the business.

At SPS Commerce, a retail software company in downtown Minneapolis, executives started to examine community relationships and practices and gave $100 to every employee to spend at black-owned businesses.

Flowers already had fans among the company's employees. Soon, they were ordering her cookies and promoting the business on social media. Others in the Twin Cities tech community took notice.

In August, Flowers learned that Junita's Jar had been selected as one of two women-owned businesses in the Twin Cities to receive a $10,000 grant from PepsiCo Inc. as part of outreach by its Stacy's Snacks business. Some advice on marketing and development came along with the grant.

Early this year, Chicago-based Foxtrot Market selected Junita's Jar products as one of its "up and comers." Out of more than 900 submissions across the country, the retailer selected five winners. It now sells packets of Junita's Jar cookies on its website and stores.

Connie Rutledge, who leads the Finnovation Lab associated with the Finnegan's craft brewery in downtown Minneapolis, said she isn't surprised Flowers turned things around.

"Junita is a survivor of an abusive relationship that led her to work hard on her business and to help other women," Rutledge said. "And Junita and Kayla, through foods, are proving the 'networking effect.' And how important it is to build those connections. Entrepreneurs like Junita need more shelf space."

Yang-Best, 48, an attorney and former executive at the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, loves to cook the dishes and broths of her Hmong culture. She would share food at work with Bush colleagues and get raves.

So she decided to started selling dishes at community festivals and farmers markets. In the process, Yang-Best learned how hard it is to cook the foods, then be on your feet for five or six hours selling to the public and wind up taking home less than $100.

"And others were doing worse than me," Yang-Best said. "Farmers markets are tough. I wanted to set up a system to sell more for our small-batch producers from communities of color. To build something that others can be part of through co-retailing."

She cut back her hours at the Bush Foundation in 2017 and then left in 2018 to pursue her vision.

"I realize the challenge for small-batch producers once you are beyond the farmers market," she said. "You realize there aren't many producers of color on mainstream store shelves. And in culturally specific food stores, the majority of foods are imports. That's fine, but please include the local makers."

Yang-Best, who has invested more than $250,000 in Seasoned Specialty Food Market, is still fine-tuning the business.

"The goal of this market is to break even so that the market supports the work of creating access and entry for our food businesses," she said. "I'm still investing because I'm still proving the market."

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