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WV lunch gatherings give businesses a boost

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JEAN TARBETT HARDIMAN
The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON (AP) - BethAnn and Scott Earl had not originally planned to start their new business, Noni's Farm, this summer.

They established an urban garden at their hilltop home in Harveytown and planned to just ride out this summer and see how things progressed.

But then The Wild Ramp opened, providing a year-round venue downtown for them to sell their produce, and they decided to go for it.

So far so good, and thanks to a new program that offers micro-grants to small businesses, they're going to be able to extend their growing season and raise crops like spinach, Chinese cabbage, collard greens and kale through the fall and winter.

Noni's Farm was able to take a $320 micro-grant received at an Entrepreneur's Cafe event this summer to purchase equipment for a high tunnel, a plastic-covered structure that's a low-cost version of a standard greenhouse.

Organized through Unlimited Future, Entrepreneur Cafes are held monthly and give three local small business owners a chance to pitch a business idea in front of a group gathered for lunch.

The lunchgoers then vote for the best idea and the monthly winner gets a micro-grant to help them toward the goal. Lunch is $15, of which $5 goes to the caterer and $10 goes into the pot for the winner.

"I think it's a great concept," said BethAnn Earl, who is starting this new venture after retiring from the Navy. "It provides assistance to some small businesses who are always looking. You put your own money into it and sweat, but you only get so far, so it's great to have some support from the community."

Unlimited Future, which is a business incubator and resource center in Huntington, has been hosting monthly Entrepreneur Cafe events since April, giving more than a dozen local businesses a chance to share their business ideas with a group. Money has been provided to help businesses do things such as buy bookkeeping software, establish a website and buy farming equipment or marketing materials.

Past winners are River & Rail Bakery in Huntington, The Wild Ramp in Huntington, Bright Futures Learning Services in Charleston, Avalon Farms owned by Roy Ramey, Noni's Farm, and JB's World of Bowling.

Everyone gets at least $300 because of sponsors such as Richwood Industries, Huddleston Bolen, and MUG and PIA, Simply Whisk and SCORE.

Also, winners get a vertical banner from Brand Yourself, an hour of free marketing consultation from Firefly, and an hour of free bookkeeping consulting from First Choice Bookkeeping. Also, ComAssist offers one hour of free business consulting.

Rachel Houston, operations director of Unlimited Future, who has organized the cafes, said it's not difficult to find people willing to help.

"Luckily, we've been blessed with people who want to do this," she said. "I haven't had a hard time finding somebody to present or provide the food.

"It's an easy way to make a difference," she said. "You can give $15 and see it pay off right before your eyes."

She also likes that it gives self-employed entrepreneurs - who often work alone and don't often get a chance to make connections - a chance to share ideas with people they might not encounter in their day-to-day lives.

"They may win a prize, and if they don't, they've still had a chance to get the word out about who they are and what they do," she said. "It's a great networking opportunity."

The audiences are a mix, said Houston and Gail Patton, director of Unlimited Future.

"We have a variety of people," Patton said. "We have bankers who come and people in business themselves. The sponsors come, and we have everyday people. Past winners come back - that makes it a lot of fun."

BethAnn Earl is one who's attended every cafe.

"There is a synergy. There is a movement, and if you talk to people, you can feel it," she said. "Entrepreneurs and small businesses are trying to make it and people are investing themselves and their money and their times into the city.

"If you go to the Entrepreneur's Cafe each month, you see new businesses or relatively new businesses growing. It's awesome. There's just an energy that's just growing. I think we're on the edge of something."

That energy can be seen in multitude of projects. The Entrepreneur's Cafe was modeled after a similar community project, CAFE Huntington, which does the same type of thing to help provide grants for community projects, many art-related, Patton said.

What's exciting is that the idea is catching on statewide, Patton said. Vision Shared and Create WV have decided to replicate this program around the state.

"They are going to have a Cafe at the Create WV Conference in Charleston," Patton said. "There have been (or will soon be) cafes in four other cities so far."

This year, Huntington has also started Cash Mob events in which community members are encouraged to patronize a targeted local business on a Saturday afternoon.

Participants in a "Cash Mob" are urged to spend at least $5 or $10 at the store being "mobbed." The Cash Mob was introduced to Huntington by the grassroots community development organization Create Huntington. The group hosts Chat 'n Chew meetings from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Thursday in the lobby of the Frederick Building, and participants vote on a business to be mobbed each month.

The idea of supporting small business owners is gaining steam in Huntington, Patton agreed.

"I think it's becoming more visible. People are more aware we have small businesses," she said. "It's kind of fun to be in Huntington right now, I think."

Entrepreneur's Cafe events are usually planned for the third Wednesday of each month, and finish promptly within one hour.

The next Entrepreneur's Cafe will be held at noon on Oct. 17 at Huddleston Bolen, LLP at 611 3rd Ave. in Huntington. Food will be provided by Outside the Box catering.

The following Cafe will be a special event, held at Savannah's, and will be the final of the year.

"It's going to be a bit longer and will have four presenters rather than three, and we'll have past presenters come back and talk," Patton said. "We're looking for companies and people to give extra prizes....

"Savannah's is doing the lunch for $5 a head. It blows my mind how generous people are being," Patton said.

The ticket price for this event has yet to be set.

Guests may prepay or pay at the door. To sign up as a presenter or audience member go to www.unlimitedfuture.org or call 304-697-3007.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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