WILLMAR —The festival that started as a way to showcase Willmar’s love for coffee while highlighting the people and businesses that make this community what it is, Willmar Fests was finally able to celebrate its 75th anniversary in its 76th year.

As the pandemic finally loosened its grip on Willmar and the rest of Minnesota, the Willmar Fests Board sought to highlight those businesses that make Willmar great — its small businesses.

That's when Willmar Fests Board member Sarah Swedburg remembered hearing about an event that Willmar had put on previously, the “Taste of Downtown.”

“I have heard nothing but this event since I got to Willmar, so we wanted to bring it back,” Swedburg said. “We thought this was a perfect way to bring the event back, get downtown businesses involved with the Willmar Fests Block Party and kind of give people the opportunity to test out the waters [with food] that maybe they haven't tried.”

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The board set up the two-hour tasty tour during the Willmar Fests Block Party and featured nine of downtown Willmar’s small businesses and restaurants; Rosita's Grill, Bihi’s Restaurant, Freida’s Cafe, Estrella Bakery, Somali Star Restaurant, Star Grille, Azteca Mexican Restaurant, The Goodness Coffee House — someone had to bring the coffee — and Spur’s Bar & Grill.

Tickets were $20 each with only 100 available.

For Steph Dearing, along with her two boys, Carson, 8, and Logan, 4, the “tasty ticket” was a good way to try something new and —as most mothers understand — “It was mainly to exhaust my kids but it ended up being [that we] able to get familiar with what's around the area, try different foods and expand our taste in cuisine.”

Keeping their business, let alone opening their doors again after almost 18 months of pandemic precautions, was not easy for small businesses as many did not have the capital to sustain a long-term closure.

In a 2020 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America research article on the impacts of COVID-19 on small businesses found that the pandemic highlighted “the financial fragility of many businesses.” With the average small business having “monthly expenses over $10,000, had only enough cash on hand to last roughly two weeks.”

Whether you have been open for 27 years, Freida’s Cafe, or less than a year, Star Grille, getting those customers back in their doors is the next challenge being fought by businesses around the country.

For Swedburg, helping small businesses to succeed in Willmar leads to a vibrant and sustainable future for the city as a whole.

“If they did it again, we would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Dearing.

Tickets for the sold-out event went faster than Freida’s pancakes and Swedburg said we can expect a “Taste of Downtown '' at next year's Willmar Fests with all the positive feedback she received from the community and business owners.