Minneapolis’ Most Innovative Black Entrepreneurs and Makers
There are as many ways to be a Black American as there are Black people in America. Here are 10 local innovators, and their contributions to making our city (and country) great.
Article By Mecca Bos
In my years as a food writer, I’ve spoken to countless Black chefs who report false assumptions by their white audiences—that because they were Black, they must be automatically cooking Soul Food, or that they should be cooking Soul Food.
Blackness is not a monolith. There are as many different, unique, and beautiful ways to be Black as there are Black people in America. But to be Black in America can also mean greeting each day with an added, weighted layer of existence: disentangling how you see yourself from how society sees you.
In Minneapolis (and all across America) we have Black pizza makers, ice cream and bakery owners, fine dining and vegan chefs. We have Black farmers, contractors, architects, and fine artists. America is home to Black innovators in every sector you find white innovators. Notable, because American education, industry, and governmental systems were not set up for Black people to survive and thrive. But we do.
In almost every sector, you will find Black creators and pioneers thwarting preconceived notions and endless barriers.
Chris Montana: Drinks pioneer and social justice warrior
As one of the only Black distillers in America, and the first and currently only in Minneapolis (Ramsey Louder recently left his partial ownership position at ONE Fermentary and plans to open a brewery of his own sometime in 2021) Chris Montana was already a relatively famous figure in Minneapolis’ food and beverage scene.
But then when his distillery DuNord Craft Spirits was caught in the path of the uprising protesting the killing of George Floyd along East Lake Street, he became an even more prominent figure thanks to his social justice contributions in the face of adversity.
Prior to the killing of George Floyd, Montana, his spouse and business partner Shanel Montana, and local distillery Tattersall partnered and converted their distilling efforts to hand sanitizer production, All Hands, donating to organizations in need, and fulfilling nationwide shortages.
Then, they founded the DuNord Craft Spirits Riot Recovery Fund, raising almost a million dollars for surrounding businesses who suffered damages during the protests. With a background in law, Montana is also assisting with providing legal and financial resources to affected businesses.
Timi Bliss: Letting Black children see themselves in their stories
When Timi Bliss was a kid, her mom brought home picture books by Ezra Jack Keats, the author noted for featuring a Black child as the main protagonist in his picture books, including The Snowy Day. That book is known as the first American picture book with a Black character as the hero. Bliss says the books were a huge influence on her, since the characters looked like her and other kids she knew. But Keats was a white man, and says Bliss, “Me being a woman of color, I’m best suited to tell my own story.”
She started writing bedtime stories for her daughter when she was little, and now that Bliss has a four-year-old granddaughter, it occurred to her to make Charlie the main character and publish the book she originally wrote for her daughter, In Search of the Sandman, in 2017. That book will eventually be a trilogy, finishing with In Search of the Boogeyman, which she’s working on now.
The Black experience is “front and center” in her work, says Bliss. Nana’s Magic Cornbread Spoon, which she’s also working on now, is about finding strength in family and heritage.
A grant writer by day with a talent for sewing, Bliss says children’s books are a creative outlet that works “really, really, well” for her.
“Writing can be really isolating, but this is so refreshing, so playful, so innocent.”
While children's books featuring Black heroes are easier to come by 50 years after Keats’ put a Black boy in The Snowy Day in 1962, Bliss says that representation of Black children in children’s literature is still lacking. Her works, which are heavily influenced by Keats, will “always feature “Blackness and Black people,” at their core.
To order books: timibliss.com
Angela Dawson of 40 Acre Coop: Disrupting agricultural food systems and creating equity
Angela Dawson was on track towards a corporate law career when a call came from some farmer friends in Oregon. They wanted to know if she would like to learn how to grow medical cannabis. The daughter of a farmer, she went on sabbatical and took the challenge.
That moment changed everything for her. Not only did she earn more money than any year prior, allowing her to pay off debt and save enough cash to buy a plot of land of her own, it opened her eyes to the systemic racism in American agriculture, and the chasm between who is getting rich, and not getting rich on what is projected to be one the United States’ most lucrative crops as it replaces plastic in the next several years, thanks to its biodegradability: hemp.
Dawson dropped her law career, bought her land in Pine County, Minnesota, and immediately began facing a set of challenges directly linked to her status as a Black woman farmer in rural Minnesota. But her legal background came in handy, and when she began doing research, she didn’t have to go far to understand that her farming career had almost instantly taken her to a much larger calling.
“We are disrupting agricultural food systems and creating equity for Black farmers but also for all farmers.”
40 Acre Coop, is the first national cooperative supporting socially disadvantaged farmers, offering resources and a support network for farmers working within the agricultural system that was never built to serve them—Black farmers currently make up fewer percentages by population now than ever before in American history.
Resources include everything from access to certified seed to investment advice.
Get involved with 40 Acre by becoming a member—investment includes financial return. 40 Acre also offers classes on hemp farming, and the land includes a small AirBNB as well as campgrounds for those interested in staying while visiting the farm.
Best Care: Advocating for Improved Industry Standards for All
“This industry is dominated by people of color,” says Andre Best, a 15 year veteran of the home care industry, reminding us that people of color make up a disproportionate number of caregivers in America.
“People of color end up doing a lot of jobs that other people don’t want,” he says. The jobs are also disproportionately underpaid, as the state reimbursement rate for companies is very low. Best’s previous career was as a lawyer, and he uses that background to do lobbying and advocacy work, pushing for better pay and treatment for his staff, as well as for caregivers industry-wide.
“I believe that people have a right to live in their home and that caregivers should be treated with respect.” Best is an equity builder, understanding that respectful home care is a human rights issue, and that it can easily touch any one of us with an unexpected accident or medical diagnosis. He is also a leader in educating the public about resources for family members who are already doing in-home care, and are unaware that they can be reimbursed by the state for their work—ninety percent of people currently providing in-home care in the US are unpaid, a number that disproportionately affects communities of color.
Best Care provides paid time off, overtime pay, and health insurance to its staff in an industry where these benefits are not standard.
“This is almost a public education,” said Best. He’s passionate that the people tasked with taking care of other people should be well taken care of themselves.
With over 700 clients, Best Care has recently opened a second branch in Grand Rapids Minnesota, and says that while some companies specialize in serving specific communities, Best Care serves everybody—every race, every age, and can accommodate most home care needs.
Bella Nava Creations: Kosher Gourmet Bakery Stylings
“If you look at it from far away it really looks like a giant bagel, and I love bagels!” Brandie Itman started her bakery the way many stay at home moms do— in the home, in need of a pastime that worked with her schedule.
She’s a Black Jewish woman, and for a time, she had a certified kosher bakery, but she’s since moved on from doing certified kosher because it wasn’t a big money maker for her, and she reminds people that most foods are already kosher.
Her custom cake work has led her to acclaim, including a national award by Sweetest Bakery In America, where she beat out much bigger, better known bakeries.
Her creations are known for their attention to detail—“I’ve gone as far as taking someone’s favorite color and matching the flavor to that color,” she says. Catch her videos on Facebook, and an upcoming project where she and other bakers will provide tutorials and education.
Ashy Larry's Skincare: Making the World Less Ashy
When Nell Rueckl started making all natural foot care products at her leading wellness centers, Spot Spas, her partner Malcolm Beck quickly joined the effort: he needed something for melanated skin, and the market was lacking.
“I don’t think we should have to settle for what’s on the shelf,” says Beck. Commercial skincare products are overwhelmingly laden with alcohols, dyes, and other synthetic products, which ultimately dry the skin, instead of moisturize.
“Lotion doesn’t work,” he says. “Lotion gives you three hours and you’re back at it again.”
Taking its tongue in cheek namesake from a character on the Dave Chapelle show, Ashy Larry skincare products were born out of the specific needs for men with melanated skin, but everyone can use and benefit from them.
“We know what ashy is,” says Beck, referencing the term that the Black community uses for overly dry skin.
“We look like we ran through a bag of flour!”
Ashy Larrys body butters and hand moisturizers are marked by their all natural and all sustainable ingredients, including hemp and baobab— native to mainland Africa and known as the “Tree of Life,” both of which Rueckl says the body recognizes, thanks to receptors that are in our skin, ready to receive these natural products. The couple says they have received feedback that includes clients with long term skin issues reporting that the product has healed them—though they claim no medical advice, except for this, their motto: “love heals.”
The butters come in three divine fragrances, including sweet orange, rosemary, and jasmine, and are available to order online.
The Black Helpline Podcast: “Helping people who don’t know”
Born out of the easy conversation that emerges when three childhood friends meet for coffee, The Black Helpline has turned into just what the title suggests—a helping place for anyone—“Black people, people of color, and the melanin-challenged,” to come in and listen for a fresh perspective, and a little help.
Tricky Miki, Malcolm Beck (who also happens to own and operate Ashy Larry’s Skincare, also mentioned in this article,) and Jermar Arradondo all met as “punk rock kids.” They were Black teens looking for other outcasts, or just people who felt a little different and found them, and each other, in the punk music scene. Their friendship was forever sealed, and now that they are in their early 50s, they have endless things to talk about together. Those topics easily flowed into “We should start a podcast” territory, and now they’ve got more than a thousand loyal listeners tuning in to hear them discuss topics like: “Cancel Culture,” “Scarin Karen,” and other subjects affecting the Black community and beyond.
“If allies want to step up, you have to start by listening,” says Miki, a perfect reason for white people to tune in. Listening to the three hosts casually chatting about important Black concerns is like eavesdropping on a Black barbershop.
“You’ll hear something that you haven’t heard before,” says Beck. “When you’re Black, you see a lot that other people don’t see. You have to be on swivel all the time.”
The Black Helpline is a place you can go to get a fresh perspective, and even more specifically, a fresh perspective on Black Minneapolis, the place all three hosts proudly call home.“A Minneapolis where we can't hear and respect each other is very foreign,” said Beck.
The Black Helpline is a place for respectful Black dialogue, and anyone who wants to listen, and respect it.
Tune in wherever you get your favorite podcasts.
2 Scoops Ice Cream: Preserving a Historically Black Neighborhood, Two Scoops at a Time
“No matter how old, what gender, what race, what is something that anybody can enjoy? Ice cream!”
When Brian White Jr. and his family decided they wanted to open a food business, it was key that it be a community hub, one that the neighborhood would immediately know was for them, with a product that anyone can enjoy.
The Whites are a St. Paul Rondo neighborhood family, and proud that they’ve been able to take over the space once occupied by Golden Thyme Coffee, a decade-old Black-owned neighborhood institution on the outskirts of old Rondo that some people have started to think of as “New Rondo.”
A brief history of Rondo, from the Minnesota History Center:
“In the 1930s, Rondo Avenue was at the heart of St. Paul’s largest African American neighborhood that was displaced in the 1960s by freeway construction. African Americans whose families had lived in Minnesota for decades and others who were just arriving from the South made up a vibrant, vital community that was in many ways independent of the white society around it. The construction of I-94 shattered this tight-knit community, displaced thousands of African Americans into a racially segregated city and a discriminatory housing market, and erased a now-legendary neighborhood.”
All of the businesses located within the building that 2 Scoops occupies are Black owned and operated, as well as the building across the street—a boon, since the historically Black neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying.
Brian White Sr., Brian Jr.s dad, is a chef by trade, and in addition to ice cream, check out the scratch pizza, soups, and chili—plus a BBQ beef brisket sandwich that they say is seriously on point.
Here’s a bonus: thanks to corporate and community support, kids can eat ice cream free if the family is in need. Just ask.
Tommie Daye of Tommie’s Pizza: Busting Stereotypes with Perfect Pies
“If it’s not a 5-star pizza, we can’t sell it,” Says Tommie Daye, chef/ owner of Tommie’s Pizza, the St. Paul pizzeria known for its abundance of 5-star reviews on social media.
“That’s kind of become our thing.”
A 30-year culinary veteran, Daye and his family happened upon the tiny St. Paul storefront, and since it had a pizza oven already equipped within, and they loved the location, they decided a pizzeria it would be. Daye developed his scratch-made-everything from his decades in the biz, and his experience has paid off— they’re a neighborhood hit, in a location with an abundance of pizza.
“I’m aware of how many other places that people can go to,” he says, and as a result, he’s teaching his family-run business that the gold standard is the only way to go.
“If it’s not the best, we won’t do it.”
It may come as a surprise that Daye has never worked a day in a pizzeria prior to opening Tommies, but culled his expertise from years in the business working in kitchens from nursing homes to sandwich shops.
Daye demurs when asked whether there’s a specialty or particular pie he’d like to call out, saying they put their all into every single thing they make.
But there is one Tommie’s specialty: just being there.
“Even if you don’t want any pizza or food, you’re gonna leave happier than when you came in,” he smiles.
Melanie Walby: Changing the collective story for the better
As Design Director for Pollen Midwest, Melanie Walby knows that design isn’t just a happenstance message you read on a sign.
“A lot of power is in messaging, language and images that we see,” she says. “We use design to influence change.” Pollen is a media arts organization that fosters empathy, and encourages connection across difference.
With a background in art thanks to great teachers who encouraged her drawing and painting, Walby found a satisfying confluence in graphic design, and went on to spend several years in advertising. She saw just how much energy and resources went into an advertisement, and she instead wanted to use that energy towards issues of injustice and oppression.
Walby says that the people she encounters every day in Minneapolis who are working in social justice are some of the most brilliant people she’s ever met, and her job is to “put a megaphone” on their work.
She is also deeply religious, and to her, design and activism can feel “like scripture and missionary work.”
Walby’s first solo exhibit as an artist will be in February of 2021 (details forthcoming) and the work will explore her identity as a mixed race Black woman, her cultural mix of having parents who hail both from the south as well as the midwest, as well as theology and faith.
A recent collection of stories and art by Pollen entitled “Are You OK?,” was designed in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, and, says Walby, created “a space to admit that we weren’t OK.”
“It’s about grace and remembering that we’re humans. . . justice requires humility."
About the Author
Mecca Bos is a longtime Twin Cities based food writer and professional chef. Her work can be found locally and nationally and on her Patreon page, patreon.com/meccabos. She specializes in stories about women, people of color, and especially Black people working in the food industry. She loves a cheap wine paired with a good taco.