Nearly four years ago, weary of budget cuts and layoffs, Dawn Demry left her role as a career counselor for an option she had long considered: turning her uncle’s customized food cart into a regular business.
She called it “The Little Hot Dog Wagon” and knew that one ingredient, in particular, would give her a special edge: her much-loved homemade sauerkraut. With a passion for high-quality food and recognizing the need to strengthen her business knowledge, Demry turned to the Harlem Local Vendor Program (HLVP), a food and retail entrepreneurship program run by the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center and the marketing and business development nonprofit Harlem Park to Park.
Geared toward local sellers of food and gift products, the program has taught 200 entrepreneurs business basics through classes, provided one-on- one counseling sessions, and helped to connect entrepreneurs with retailers and foodservice providers since it launched in 2015.
“This is an intense program,” says Kaaryn Nailor Simmons, assistant dean, community partnerships, and managing director, Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, which is housed in David Geffen Hall. “You go from having a product which may have only been sold at local bake sales or church picnics to getting it in front of major procurement officers in less than a year.”
Today, Demry continues to expand her business, selling her fare everywhere from a food truck at the new Columbia Business School buildings on the Manhattanville campus to local restaurants and Key Food, which has contracted with her to distribute her sauerkraut in super- markets throughout the East Coast.
Nine other HLVP participants also sell their products on the Manhattanville campus, where customers can find cupcakes and other baked goods from Chatman J. Cakes, Italian cookies from DiLena’s Dolcini, and Jamaican jerk seasoning from Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights. HLVP products can also be found in other Columbia University cafes and dining facilities, and outside the University in major retailers such as Nordstrom, Macy’s, FreshDirect, and Whole Foods, which has worked closely with the program since its inception.
Incubating Local Food Entrepreneurs
The ingredients for HLVP started to come together in 2012 when Nikoa Evans, co-founder and executive director of Harlem Park to Park, reached out to Whole Foods Market, which planned to open a store in Harlem. As part of a larger community engagement strategy, the retailer began sponsoring the Harlem Harvest Festival, a fair for local artisans and small businesses.
In 2015, after watching the growth of many producers participating in the festival, Evans and Whole Foods launched the Harlem Local Vendor Program to prepare local, homegrown startups to sell their products in the new store.
Around the same time, Nailor Simmons was exploring ways for the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, one of 24 such small business counseling and training centers in New York State, to help local food entrepreneurs. She and Evans partnered in 2016 to develop HLVP into a more comprehensive procurement program combining business education, access to kitchen facilities, and marketing assistance, while still helping entrepreneurs to be- come suppliers to Whole Foods. “We wanted to create a pipeline of local suppliers,” says Nailor Simmons.
After Whole Foods opened in 2017, Nailor Simmons further refined the curriculum, working with Evans to create a cohort program for 20 to 25 participants each year. Participants included businesses at various stages, from founders of new startups to entrepreneurs producing goods out of their homes and established small businesses looking to expand. In addition to food-based businesses, participants who produced beauty and gift products, which Whole Foods also carries, were eligible to participate.
“We realized we were on to something,” says Evans, who is also founder and chief strategist of BNP Advisory Group, a marketing and business development consulting firm.
Classes, Coaching, and Procurement
Today, the HLVP program focuses on three core areas. In the first component, Small Business Development Center staff, along with Columbia University staff and students, teach classes in marketing, finance, and operations. For example, Vicki Dunn, assistant vice president of Columbia Dining, teaches sessions on food costs and industry trends. And early in the year, Columbia Business School MBA students work with HLVP businesses to refine their target market and customer.
In the second component, participants receive regular, one-on-one coaching sessions with Small Business Development Center staff and others. Dunn, who keeps an open-door policy for HLVP participants looking for advice, recalls an animated three-hour- long session with Demry, during which they discussed brand extensions, pricing, and how packaging for bulk foodservice customers compares with retail. “She has such a passion for her product,” says Dunn, who suggested a chipotle-flavored version of the Little Hot Dog Wagon’s kraut, which Demry is test marketing.
In the third component, participants meet with potential buyers. The earliest-stage entrepreneurs can start by selling to Columbia University cafes, where they learn about the distribution process, smooth out supply chain hiccups, and grow their business. Lat- er, they may be approved as suppliers to Columbia’s dining halls and, after that, Harlem Whole Foods. If they do well there, Whole Foods might ask them to expand to other Manhattan stores and even nationally. (Janie’s Life-Changing Baked Goods, an HLVP alum from cohort year 2018, is now found in close to 50 Whole Foods stores.)
Products are carried in other major retailers as well. That’s Smoooth (cohort year 2015) sells grooming products for men of color at Macy’s, and Loving Culture (cohort year 2018), an organic hair oil product, can be found in Nordstrom.
“We have a burgeoning supplier community selling locally made products around the country,” says Evans.
To support national distribution, the educational curriculum offered by the Small Business Development Center includes an emphasis on the origin story of each business as part of the content created for online marketing. In order to grow the distribution channels for all, Evans worked with a local woman-owned branding firm to create “Shop Harlem Made,” an online marketplace for all of the vendors, which has evolved into additional sales opportunities for the collective of makers.
The program is also getting attention from buyers responding to the heightened awareness of racial disparities of the past few years. “They told me they’ve talked about how to address systemic racism and sexism and are now focusing more on women- and Black-owned businesses,” Nailor Simmons says. The program has increased its focus on women- and minority-owned businesses to facilitate such connections. Nailor Sim- mons has also received more inquiries from venture capitalists—funders who typically aren’t interested in food-industry companies.
Exploring all avenues to success, the program also includes the opportunity to participate in food and artisanal fairs like the Harlem Harvest Festival, which participants find provide useful consumer feedback. For example, through conversations with enthusiastic customers at street festivals, Jaqueline Queiroz and Johan Halsberghe of Mojo Desserts (cohort year 2018) became convinced they could open retail locations for their chocolate mousse, in addition to selling it wholesale. “People wanted to know where they could go to buy some more,” says Queiroz. “That was the question that always came up.”
In February 2020, the pair opened an 850-square- foot shop in East Harlem, right before the pandemic. The Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center led them through a strategically planned pivot supported by a $50,000 loan (later transformed into a grant) from the Columbia Emergency Loan Fund. The pivot included an expansion of the retail shop and retention of employees.
Demry continues to grow her business, aided by her sons Guy Jones as business manager and marketing executive and Fred McGee as assistant manager. With purchase orders for 275 Key Food supermarket stores, she is seeking financing to ramp up manufacturing and expand her distribution nationwide and to other big-box stores. And she recently put a deposit down on two more trucks with an eye toward franchising and opening a brick-and-mortar store.
“It’s been an amazing journey, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon,” she says.
A taste of Manhattanville
Upon completion, Harlem Local Vendor Program participants earn the opportunity to sell their products on campus. Visitors to Columbia Business School can find products from the following program graduates in the cafes or via food trucks. They are also found online at the program alumni marketplace.
Jean Chatman makes cakes—red velvet, rum, sweet potato cheese—and other baked goods with a taste of the South.
Sisters Nicole and Carly DiLena serve up southern Italian treats inspired by their nonna’s recipes.
After 25 years as a street vendor hawking her special jerk chicken, Fauzia Abdur-Rahman now packages and sells her marinade in colorful 8-ounce jars.
Dawn Demry makes her sauerkraut using her own secret ingredi- ents, sold via her food truck as well as stores and food services.
Drawing on his grandpa’s mousse recipe, Belgian chef Johan Halsberghe and his wife and partner, Jaqueline Queiroz, offer a variety of flavors, like dark chocolate and passion fruit, in stores and their own East Harlem mousse bar.
Yolfer Carvajal and his brother Donny and sister Dahyanna sell petit fours, vegan muffins, and other fresh pastries, mixing their Venezuelan heritage with French cuisine.
Wife and husband Petrushka Bazin Larsen and Nick Larsen’s handmade ice cream and nondairy frozen desserts use seasonal ingredients and flavors inspired by the variety of cultures found in Harlem.
Ronaldo Felipe and his wife, Luisa, serve cakes like the ones his Dominican grandmothers used to bake.
Harlem restaurateur and mixologist Karl Franz Williams’ ginger beer is based on a family recipe from St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Davie Simmons’ super-fruit beverages use authentic Caribbean recipes inspired by his early childhood in Guyana.