A micro-loan helps fund the passion of BBQ entrepreneursby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
Studies show that, nationally, small businesses fail at an alarming rate -- on average, just two-thirds make it two years. Fewer than half survive four years. With the economy in a slump and credit harder to get, the challenges are even greater, especially for food businesses struggling with high commodity and fuel prices.
Brooklyn Park, Minn. — It's a little after 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and the sun streams through the windows of Gene and Bridgette Perry's Brooklyn Park kitchen. The husband and wife are hard at work, readying the day's fresh batch of barbecue.
They've been together 18 years. Bridgette had no idea when she married Gene they'd end up with their own barbecue business.
"We had a lawn service and a dirt hauling business before, on top of our full-time jobs and raising three kids. No, I didn't know," Bridgette laughed.
On top of running GP's Delicious BBQ, Turkey, Fish and More, Bridgette Perry works full time for the Minneapolis nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities.
Gene works for the Department of Corrections in Stillwater. For a long time, barbecue was just his hobby. But when the bottom of his first barbecue grill burned out from too much use, he knew it was more serious than that.
"The bottom cooked right out. I mean, literally dropped right out, so that was it," said Gene.
So, six years ago, the Perrys began catering parties using recipes Gene developed over the last two decades. Now, they deliver a whole menu to locations around Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park.
They plan to expand their route this summer and start working some festivals. The goal, Gene says, is to one day be able to leave their day jobs and concentrate full time on barbecue.
As soon as they can swing it, they hope to open a restaurant. Key to this plan is the enormous Southern Pride wood burning barbecue smoker sitting outside in the driveway.
The smoker weighs about 2,000 pounds and can smoke 700 pounds of meat at once.
"That's what you wait for," Gene said, "to get my hands on that piece of equipment and finally -- I mean, it might sound crazy to a lot of people, but it's like a first date."
The Perrys estimate the new smoker will allow them to make five times as much barbecue at one time than they can now. And it will make it possible for them to handle really big events like the Minnesota State Fair.
"Our decision to get that was a major investment," Bridget said.
"We couldn't do nothing much bigger than what we have been doing with what we had," Gene added. "So we were forced. There was no way, no way. People don't like to wait, they like to eat."
To buy it, the Perrys took out a loan from the St. Paul nonprofit Neighborhood Development Center, a group that helps entrepreneurs develop successful businesses.
Many of the entrepreneurs the center works with are immigrants, and most are low-income or otherwise don't qualify for a traditional business loan.
The Perrys also took a 16-week entrepreneur training course, where they developed their barbecue business plan.
Small business owners like the Perrys tend to take on too much at once, according to Bonita Martin, who runs the training program.
"They don't always ask when they need it, so it just helps that we have what we have and that we stay in touch and connected with them," saids Martin, "and make sure that they can get the help that they need."
The center has expanded its technical assistance program to offer continued support for entrepreneurs who've completed the training program. Even with that extra support, today's rising gas and corn prices are hitting food businesses hard.
Gene and Bridgette Perry watch their bottom line carefully.
"I would say the ribs, that's probably the most expensive thing. The ribs and the fish, probably," are the most expensive, Gene said.
"The prices? Yes. Just in the last 30 days, I've been seeing them go up a lot more," added Bridgette.
The Perrys try to cope without passing that increased cost onto their customers. Their most expensive platter costs $8. Shopping at restaurant wholesalers and recruiting family in a pinch helps a lot, Bridgette says.
Still, their profit margin is slim. But the Perrys are doing the right thing by building their business slowly and cultivating a following before trying to open a shop, says Jessica Zeaske, associate director of the Venture Center at the University of Minnesota.
"If you are going to take all the risk of a startup company or a small business, don't also take market risk," said Zeaske. "Know your market, know what your customers can spend. Know what they are going to be spending in the next few years as much as you can, before stepping into a small business or a startup."
The Perrys are planning to open a restaurant within the next few years. They're particularly interested in north Minneapolis but say they want to make sure to find the right space at the right price.
Gene still has five years to go before he can retire, and they say they need both incomes for as long as possible.
So for now, they'll continue pulling double shifts. Bridgette handles the scheduling, ordering and shopping after her regular job. Gene gets off work Friday nights at midnight. He's up at around 3 a.m. to start the day's grilling.
Despite his and Bridgette's hard work, Gene Perry says he wouldn't have it any other way.
"This is the best job in the world. I could do it every day, no question, no doubt. Every day in, day out. It's a lot of fun," Gene said.
They are trying to build a strong business they can pass down to their children.
"It's hard work and we won't lie, will we, but it's rewarding. You know you're not just doing it just so you can buy a bigger house. You're doing it so you can give somebody else an opportunity. And that's what it's about," Bridgette said. "Our dream is to be able to grow this and hand it off, so it can continue to generate wealth for us. This is going to be the wealth generating thing that we pass on."
Besides, says Gene, it's good eatin.'
- All Things Considered, 05/02/2008, 5:46 p.m.