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Wednesday, August 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Local restaurant startup among many that take advantage of Women’s Business Center at SNAP

Travis Dickinson and Justin Curtis are partners in the restaurant Cochinito Taqueria, which they hope to open in downtown Spokane by mid-February. They took advantage of business resource classes offered by the Women’s Business Center at SNAP. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Travis Dickinson and Justin Curtis are partners in the restaurant Cochinito Taqueria, which they hope to open in downtown Spokane by mid-February. They took advantage of business resource classes offered by the Women’s Business Center at SNAP. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Judith Spitzer The Spokesman-Review

Imagine you have a killer business idea and the only thing you think you need are the funds to launch it. You’re on your way to being your own boss. Right?

With 2018 underway, many aspiring entrepreneurs are considering the plunge of starting a new business. But starting and running a small business doesn’t just happen overnight – it’s a process, according to Cara Weipert, manager of the Women’s Business Center at Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP for short).

Open to both men and women, the WBC is essentially a one-stop business resource shop, according to Weipert, offering business training, individual business consulting and mentorship, credit building education and small-business financing.

In 2017, Weipert said, WBC team members met with nearly 500 aspiring entrepreneurs who needed help with business plans, accounting systems, technical help and even startup loans.

“Last year, the WBC also helped clients start up 41 businesses, financed 18 businesses, provided financial literacy for 600 clients and provided credit-building counseling for another 240 clients,” Weipert said.

“Financing is available and we fill that niche for entrepreneurs who aren’t able to get a business loan because they’re a startup less than two years so they haven’t built up any business, or client’s who have less than stellar credit,” she said. “Our goal is to get client’s started and running a successful business.

“It’s not just that we’re lending the money, but we are part of the chain to make your business successful.”

That is accomplished through training, individual conversations and very specific information that’s targeted toward a particular business, Weipert added.

“So we’re mindful that each type of business has its own set of concerns and certifications, margins and city departments they have to work with or through,” she said. “We’re a good place to start and we not only provide education and assistance with business plans, accounting systems and startup knowledge, but we can refer clients to other resources.”

Business partners Travis Dickinson and Justin Curtis, have utilized many of WBC’s services over the past several months, including writing a business loan for a new restaurant. Dickinson and Travis said they are almost ready to launch Cochinito Taqueria, a downtown “fast and casual but chef-driven taco shop.”

The new eatery is set to open in mid-February at 14 N. Post St., next door to the Volstead Act, in the roughly 1,200-square-foot space occupied formerly by Mi Casa.

Dickinson, previously head chef at Clover, a restaurant near Gonzaga University that opened in 2012, and Curtis, who until recently was Clover’s service and bar manager, are hoping to create what they say will be an incredible dining venue in Spokane. The two men attended Post Falls High School together back in the day, they said, and reconnected while working at Clover.

Although Dickinson said he knew about SNAP – a Spokane nonprofit known for programs that support Eastern Washington residents in need of services ranging home foreclosure prevention to energy assistance and weatherization– he didn’t realize the WBC offered small business loans ranging from $500 to $100,000 as well as education and ongoing support for small businesses.

“When you dive into opening a small business you think you know everything, and then you figure out how little you actually know. So it’s nice to know that we have a partner who can help when we do hit those hurdles and bumps in the road,” he said.

One of the bumps in the road for Dickinson and Curtis was getting the money needed for opening a new restaurant, somewhat of a challenge given that restaurants typically fail at an alarmingly high rate in the first year, according to industry data.

“We had already sent applications to three or four traditional banks, and we were approved by two of them, but in the end, working with SNAP and really talking about what they do, we were excited about the fact that they wanted to work with us to build something,” Dickinson said.

“We got the feeling that at SNAP it’s more about employing people, and there’s a sense of community, a kind of a charitable edge to it that we feel pretty strongly about as well,” he added.

“We’re really banking on the fact that Spokane cares about who’s doing their food, cares about where their food comes from and cares about there being a story behind a business. So we’re really going to try to be as transparent as possible,” Dickinson said. “Everything’s going to be made in-house. We’re not a chain; we’re local people trying to do it right – on the plate – presenting a high quality product at an affordable price point.”

Cochinito’s Tacqueria will employ 12 to 20 employees when it’s up and running Dickinson said, and diners will order food and drinks in line and seat themselves, eliminating the need for table service.

The restaurant has a full liquor license, but no sit-down bar area. The days and operating hours have not been locked down, he said, “but most probably we’ll go dark one day a week, maybe Mondays, so we can have a family life.”

Dickinson and his wife, Karina, a native of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, are expecting their first baby in March.

“We’ll open maybe by 10 a.m. and stay open until 9 or 10 p.m. The bar next door is pretty excited to use us to provide meals, so we may leave someone in the kitchen late night,” he said.

Karen Campbell, SNAP technical assistance manager, said WBC team members were honored Cochinito’s decided to work with them, adding that the combined years of experience the two men have in the restaurant industry made Dickinson and Curtis’ business plan stand out immediately.

“Those years of industry experience – you can’t train into that,” Campbell said. “And in their business plan, some of the things like sourcing quality ingredients and really spending the portion of their dollars on that was (impressive).”

Campbell said the Cochinito menu has itself been a marketing tool.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such enthusiasm as we saw with our loan committee,” she said. “Everyone said ‘get us more information, when do they open, this menu looks incredible.’ ”

The menu will consist of eight to 10 small plate appetizers and salads, and eight to 10 taco options that will rotate through specials, all sourcing local ingredients.

Cochinito’s opening menu lists authentic Mexican cuisine like posole – braised pork, chile and hominy stew, cotija, cabbage, radish, cilantro, chips –and sopes – thick fried corn cakes – duck confit, mole poblano, candied pepita, cotija, and avocado among it’s appetizers. Entrées include a taco menu with six to seven varieties daily, such as the heritage Duroc pork with cheek carnitas fried crisp, salsa verde, cotija, onion, cilantro and lime, and the fried maiitake mushroom taco that is marinated in chili garlic oil, with manchego, pepitas, romaine, radish, salsa de arbol and truffle.

Dickinson said he thinks it might be a way to push the Spokane area, culinarily speaking, to new and different options, and “just a touch out there offerings.”

“Everybody has carnitas – which are typically made with pork shoulder,” he said. “We’re making ours with pork cheek that is a little higher priced for us, but makes an awesome carnita – one that’s super succulent, and sticky and delicious,” he added.

There’s even a charred octopus taco on the menu.

“What we’re trying (is) to take the stuff you put on a plate for $20 to $50 in a fine dining place and put it into a $3.50 to $4.50 tortilla, so instead of having to commit to a $20 to $30 plate of food, people can try those same techniques with those same quality ingredients, at a better price point,” Dickinson said.

Campbell said that 80 percent of businesses that have been assisted through SNAP, whether it’s a loan or technical assistance, are still in business five years down the road, the inverse of the national average without the assistance of an agency like SNAP.

“That is based on SNAP surveys on income and longevity of businesses among its client base,” she said.

“Part of what we offer is ongoing assistance, and we work collaboratively like … let’s look at the lease, let’s look at the space, let’s look at the menu, let’s look at operating agreements, and how does that all work,” she said.

Dickinson and Curtis said they believe that WBC team members understand their business.

“The long story short is that they do understand our business model, and they understand what we’re up against … the things in this industry that make this tough … and they have the experience to let us come in and say, ‘Hey, how are we doing? What do we need to change on a day-to-day basis,’ instead of us looking at it at the end of the year and going uh-oh,” Curtis said.

Dickinson said while he and Curtis both have industry experience, a significant piece of what they gained from the WBC besides financing was business acumen and the ongoing support they will receive.

“I mean, we both we’ve managed a really strong back-of-the-house program, a really strong front-of-the-house program and we’ve got another small partner in the business that has a marketing background, but we’ve always worked in places where there was an office team and an accounting team,” Dickinson said.

He added that the two are on board with WBC philosophies and the offer of assistance along the way. “Moving forward that assistance continues and that offer is still on the table and its part of their program,” he added.

Campbell said WBC’s goal is to train and build capacity but also to act as a sounding board and figure out what needs to be done before there’s a problem.

“The WBC continues to keep in contact with small business clients so we’re kind of preloading for success, and training into that,” Campbell said.

The WBC partners with the U.S. Small Business Administration, business lenders, Avista Corp., Washington State University’s Center for Innovation in Spokane, the Spokane Public Library and Greater Spokane Incorporated’s Startup Spokane program.

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