By Kelly Westhoff
Bella Lam is busy. Not only does she run Coconut Whisk, a vegan baking mix company she co-founded with her partner Myles Olson, but she is also in the midst of opening a café in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Coconut Whisk Café, will be an extension of the baking mix company, serving vegan pancakes, waffles and pastry items made with Coconut Whisk’s signature recipes. Smoothies, coffee drinks and boba teas will also be available.
Running a café had never been part of Bella’s business goals, but the opportunity fell into her lap. In 2020, Bella participated in an incubator group run by Lunar Startups, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that coaches minority small business owners. It was through her connections with Lunar Startups that Bella became aware of the available café space.
“When I started Coconut Whisk, it was very based on my feelings,” Bella said. “Vegan baking was something I felt passionate about and I just went for it. When I was introduced to this opportunity to have a brick-and-mortar presence, all those same feelings came rushing back and I found myself getting excited about the idea.”
“Maybe jumping into things is my style,” Bella laughed, “but I do think a lot of people underestimate themselves when opportunity is presented. We all experience limiting beliefs and wonder, Will this work? How will this be received?”
Bella’s Lunar Startups group helped her push through her doubts about starting the café. “I had to acknowledge that I do have three years of running a small business under my belt, and now I’ve built a great network of support that I didn’t have when I started a business the first time,” she said.
One tip she culled from her own entrepreneurial experience that would help her open the café regarded fundraising. Previously, Bella had used IFundWomen to help her first business gather money for a product launch and marketing campaign. It’s an online platform designed specifically for women business owners, offers virtual workshops that help female entrepreneurs feel comfortable and confident going after cash. It also hosts crowdfunding pages.
“We’re really bootstrapping it, using credit cards and savings to open the café,” Bella said. To increase available monies, she once again turned to IFundWomen to host a crowdfunding campaign. To begin, Bella set a modest goal of raising $5,000. “I decided to set the bar low so it would be easy to see the momentum grow,” she said. “If we meet our initial ask, it will be easy to add stretch goals.”
Bella met her goal. The Coconut Whisk Café crowdfunding page opened in February 2021. By mid-March, the initial $5,000 ask had been reached and stretch goals had been added. The fundraising page details purchases the café will be able to make at each stage of its fundraising goals. The initial $5,000 will be used to pay an architect for design work, buy a neon sign, and cover licensing fees and a couple other startup costs. The next stage, $8,000, will be used to purchase kitchen supplies and pay an artist to create and install a mural in the café. Additional fundraising goals of $10,000 and $15,000 will help the café build out a pastry display case, install a sound system, acquire an espresso machine and more.
“We have a segment of our customers that are very passionate about our products,” she said. “For them, it feels satisfying to add some extra dollars to our fundraising campaign to be able to help Coconut Whisk expand.”
Because the café is an outgrowth of the vegan baking mix company—which in part sells its products online—the café’s crowdfunding campaign is receiving contributions from a geographical area wider than just the Twin Cities. Bella has even heard from contributors living in other states who are planning a road trip when the café opens. “There aren’t a lot of vegan cafés out there, so people who live the vegan lifestyle are willing to travel to experience one,” she said.
“I want the café to be an inclusive bridge of cultures, of American culture and the vegan movement,” Bella said. “I’m excited about the design of the space. It will be bright and clean.”
Besides her established customer base, Bella expects the location will also draw walk-in foot traffic, especially as workers return to office buildings as pandemic protocols loosen. The entrance to the café is on Nicollet Avenue, a pedestrian thoroughfare in downtown Minneapolis. The café’s storefront looks directly at Target headquarters. Previously the space had housed Haskell’s Wine Bar. Bella is planning a May 1 opening with a 9 a.m.-2 p.m. schedule from Thursday through Sunday. “I will be working there for the first few months,” she said. “I like to be welcoming. That’s the voice I bring to the Coconut Whisk brand, and that’s the energy I want to bring to the café.”
“I’m excited about bringing Coconut Whisk Café to life,” she said. “I’m excited that the café will get to help reenergize and reinvigorate downtown Minneapolis.”
About the author: Kelly Westhoff is a freelance writer who always enjoys talking to women business owners. She finds their energy contagious and their stories fun to share.