“Small Business Overcomes Challenges of the Pandemic”

How one small business survived COVID

José Hernández displayed a bag of dried yellow elder flowers from the counter of his Lake Street shop in south Minneapolis. “This one is beneficial for diabetes,” he said in Spanish.

Tronadora is one of the herbs that saved Hernández’s faltering suitcase store. When the demand for suitcases dropped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he drew on his rural Mexican roots and began selling medicinal herbs instead.

Now his store, La Petaca (suitcase in Spanish), has established a customer base. People come in looking for various herbs, and, as demand has grown, so has the range of Hernández’s inventory. This shop meets the needs of the Latino community searching for alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals.

“The customers come here and ask for a product and tell you what it’s for, so you get the product and then sell it to others,” he said.

Hernández, 48, arrived in Minnesota undocumented from the Mexican state of Tabasco in 2003. He immigrated in pursuit of a better life and to support his family in Mexico, he said, but Minnesota has since become his home. He worked a variety of jobs until he gained his legal residency in 2018.

A year after he received his green card, Hernández started to consider starting his own business. He was tired of working for others.

“In 2019 I was laid off, so I started to investigate what it takes to start a business,” he said. “I was only going to focus on selling suitcases for travel.”

Advisors were doubtful, and organizations he asked for help told him it wasn’t the right time to start a business. “Everyone would tell me, ‘Don’t do it,'” he said.

But Hernández forged ahead and opened his store at Plaza Mexico, 417 E. Lake St., in March 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold. He soon had to close the store, then named J & B Alta Tendencia.

When he reopened, Hernández discovered that COVID had suppressed travel so much that no one was buying suitcases. He had come from a small community where herbal remedies were used by his grandparents, mother, and neighbors to treat ailments like headaches, sore throats, and fevers. So he chose to take advantage of that knowledge and sell herbs instead.

The store was in danger of closing again only a few weeks later, due to the civil unrest that erupted after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May 2020. Protesters demonstrated for several nights on Lake Street, where the police department’s Third Precinct headquarters was located, and several businesses were looted and burned.

Hernández’s store, located about two miles west of the Third Precinct, wasn’t hit, but merchandise was thrown out as neighboring vendor stalls were looted or damaged. Hernández, who doesn’t like to discuss what happened, said what’s important is that he was still able to work.

Most of his customers come from outside the Twin Cities and keep the business afloat, he said. Some travel from as far as North Dakota and South Dakota to buy medicinal herbs.

Hernández said there are good times and bad, as with any business. The shop, like many in Plaza Mexico, isn’t fully stocked right now because vendors tend to offer fewer items at the start of the year to save money. The business is entering some of its slow months.

“There are days that nothing sells and others where we sell a month’s worth,” he said. But he added that it doesn’t worry him, smiling and pointing upward: “He’s who decides it all.”

Earthy and floral scents fill the small, packed space. The walls are lined with packages of dried herbs, vitamins and over-the-counter medicines from different Latin American countries. High on the walls above the herbs sit a few suitcases, a reminder of how the business came to be.

Hernández’s limited English-speaking skills have limited his customer base, along with non-Latino shoppers who are unfamiliar with medicinal herbs and skeptical about their use as alternative medicines. But he said he’s grateful to Minnesotans for giving him the opportunity to live his dream.

“Americans don’t understand our customs — they can’t comprehend how tea can lower blood sugar levels,” Hernández said. “We don’t know everything. But it can help, this medicine is a help.”

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan’s stories in your inbox.