Evan Ramstad
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The happiest place to be in downtown Minneapolis these days is Kobi Co., a boutique behind U.S. Bank headquarters where a teenager and her mother turned their candle-making hobby into a shop that's a scent and sonic respite for high-strung office workers.

I went to visit on a Friday afternoon, when I thought owners Kobi Gregory, 20, and her mom, Tasha Harris, would have a quiet moment. But a buyer for MartinPatrick 3had just visited to place an order for its North Loop store, and other shoppers continued to drop in.

"Thank you for your patience," Gregory said to customers whenever she broke away from telling her story.

The business, born in the pandemic and nurtured in a cold garage, is now in that toddlerlike stage where it's finding its footing after some early successes.

There are challenges, such as when storms during the Pride festival in June disrupted one of the year's biggest sales opportunities. "The weather took us out," Gregory said. "We lost two tents in two days from very large rain."

But there are also wins, like the deal with MartinPatrick 3 — a well-established and respected Minneapolis boutique. It came after Gregory and Harris had placed candles and other products in the Wedge co-ops, Patina gift shops, Kowalski's grocery stores and the store that's been a favorite of theirs for years, Electric Fetus.

A friend of Harris' got them out of the garage by giving them some unused street-level space on 9th Street. "We were really able to scale because of that," she said.

It all adds up to an education in business that's much different than the one Gregory expected when she was taking college-level math classes at DeLaSalle High School.

In early 2020, when she was a high school junior, Gregory made candles with the idea of selling them at community events to fund a tour of historically black colleges and universities. But the candles proved popular and friends asked her to make more. The tour of HBCUs was put off.

That's OK with Harris. "I believe her journey is her journey because I had a nontraditional journey from high school to college to my master's [degree]," she said.

Harris had left a corporate finance job in 2019 and, with the onset of the pandemic, she spent 2020 looking for ways to stay out of what, after two decades, had come to feel like a toxic career.

"I was praying, wondering what would be my next adventure and simmering in the background, because of circumstances no one could see, was this opportunity that is now Kobi Co.," she said.

The opportunity came because of the clever way that the duo packaged candles, scented soaps and other products with music playlists and other self-care tips in the pandemic.

"We leaned in to everything that was self-care for us," Harris said. "That became candle pouring."

They also got a hand from friends like Lutunji Abram, owner of Lutunji's Palate, a bakery on the other side of downtown. She brought Gregory into her booth at a weekly farmers market. And soon, Lunds & Byerlys, which had been selling Abram's pastries, sought Kobi Co. products.

Working in Target's Pro Bono incubator, which assists small businesses started by people of color, they got help with a website, financial dashboard and inventory management system.

A senior Target executive who guided them, Erika De Salvatore, sadly passed away in 2021. Gregory created a candle called Angel Essence as a tribute. "We attribute a lot of the good things that happened to us to our angel Erika," Harris said.

A local fashion producer, Grant Whittaker, invited Gregory to sell candles at an event he organized, then gave her tips about interacting with customers.

Kobi Gregory, right, shared a laugh with customers as Evealina Vang wrapped up a purchase at Kobi Co. in downtown Minneapolis.
Kobi Gregory, right, shared a laugh with customers as Evealina Vang wrapped up a purchase at Kobi Co. in downtown Minneapolis.

Evan Ramstad | Star Tribune

"You've got to stand up. You've got to look them in the eye and tell them about the product and smile," Gregory said. "He coached me on confidence, so that I was able to do these hard things that come with running the business."

A Kobi Co. 9-ounce candle retails for $30. This year, they tested their market approach by traveling to wholesale trade fairs in Chicago and Atlanta. They lined up one retailer in Atlanta but had hoped to do better.

Harris called the trips "an expensive answer to a question: 'Who is our target?'"

For now, they've decided it's someone who can afford a premium product and is looking for an experience. They offer candle-making workshops in their store as a corporate team-building events, or for bridal showers or even one-on-one dates.

Gregory and Harris say they feel they can't lose because so many people have supported them. That shows in the way they treat people who come in the door, in the way they invite customers to explore or to sit down and talk.

And in the way they stay focused. As I headed out the door on what was by then Friday evening, they disappeared into the back to organize products for MartinPatrick 3.