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Multicultural Market has evolved to offering encouragement, advice to ethnic businesses

Restaurant owner Ricardo Rodriguez, left, visits with Willmar Area Multicultural Market coordinator Roberto Valdez Jr. at the Los Primos restaurant. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- When Ricardo Rodriguez decided to go into the restaurant business a year ago, he discovered a new world of paperwork and regulations, made all the more difficult by a language barrier.

Rodriguez said last week that he probably could have gone through the process of opening and operating Los Primos on his own, but it would have been very difficult. Rodriguez has been operating the restaurant and catering business for a little more than a year on Lakeland Drive Southeast.

The Willmar Area Multicultural Market and its coordinator Roberto Valdez Jr. helped Rodriguez navigate tax laws and permit requirements, as well as offering marketing advice.

WAMM is "working on a vision" for Willmar that includes a thriving ethnic business community, said Valdez. While the original idea for the organization in 2003 was a central community market, it has evolved over the years into working with the developing small businesses in the community.

A few years ago, Willmar had three ethnic businesses, Valdez said. Now it has about three dozen. Many are in the downtown area, but they can be found in other parts of the community or operating from homes.

"The entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive," he said, "even in these hard economic times."

Valdez advises newer businesses like Los Primos and the recently opened Hilda's Salon in downtown Willmar. He and the Willmar Area Multicultural Market also work with established businesses in the community to develop marketing ideas and help them find ways to appeal to a broader audience.

Entrepreneurs who have come from other states or other countries can be surprised by the level of regulations in Minnesota, Valdez said. He tells them, "that's one of the things we should be proud of -- we're a state that does conduct itself well."

Abdulcadir Gaal, who runs the Somali Connection in downtown Willmar, said the Willmar Area Multicultural Market has made a difference in the city. "I know towns with people trying to do this same thing," he said. "But they don't have somebody like (Valdez) to go to."

The latest in WAMM's efforts is the development of a commercial kitchen in its building at 215 Fourth St. S.W.

The kitchen, which is nearly ready, will be available for rental to people who are trying to start businesses. For example, access to a commercial kitchen could help a small sandwich shop owner win a catering contract for a larger event, he said.

A number of people connected with the Willmar Area Multicultural Market, including Valdez, recently earned their food manager's licenses. A licensed manager must be on site when the kitchen is being used.

Some of the kitchen equipment was already installed in the building the multicultural market moved into a year ago, which had been a bakery in the past.

The commercial kitchen available for rent could serve as an "incubator" for new businesses and will also provide a place where people can take classes about starting a food business, he said.

The Willmar Area Multicultural Market has had a hand in offering advice for a number of businesses, including La Gran America, a tri-lingual newspaper, and

"WAMM started because dollars were leaving the community," Valdez said. More people shop in Willmar as a result of the growing ethnic business community. While Somali and Latino businesses may dominate, the ethnic business community also includes a Celtic tea shop

The ethnic businesses that might otherwise be competitors find ways to work together, he said. "Everybody helps each other, and that dollar multiplies itself here in the community."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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