The day before the grand opening of Pete’s Pops, its owner, Pete Cooney, was approached by a group of teenagers who asked him for a job.
“I told them to come back the next day at 11 a.m., and I would have a job for them,” Cooney said.
They showed up, and true to his word, he put them to work. A year later, some of that original group is still there.
It’s exactly what organizers of Rev-Up MKE, a small business competition hosted by the Near West Side Partners, had hoped for when they launched the contest.
“We wanted to attract high-quality businesses to our commercial corridor and also give opportunities to people who have the entrepreneurial spirit, not just to feed their family, but to support the community,” said Keith Stanley, executive director of Near West Side Partners.
Near West Side Partners is a nonprofit founded through the support of five anchor institutions: Harley-Davidson, Aurora Health Care, Marquette University, MillerCoors and the Potawatomi Business Development Corp. The goal of the organization is to revitalize and sustain the Near West Side by promoting economic development, improving housing, engaging residents and reducing crime in the neighborhood, which borders downtown.
Pete’s Pops, which operates a brick-and-mortar store in the Martin Drive neighborhood and sells popsicles at Miller Park, Fiserv Forum and out of carts, won the “Shark Tank” style competition in 2016. This year’s winners will be announced after a “live pitch” event at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24 at The Rave, 2401 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Stanley said winners are chosen based on the needs and requests of residents and employers in the community and also for their commitment to the neighborhood.
Kelsey Otero, associate director of social innovation at Marquette University, helps identify which businesses are a good fit for the Near West Side and also have a higher probability of success
“We look for a variety of businesses that will fill a need in the neighborhood,” Otero said.
Past winners include restaurants that feature healthy options, catering businesses, fashion stores, a business that offers piano lessons and a mobile salon shop, she said. A common denominator among them is that they all are dedicated to the West Side.
“That’s important because people want businesses that are not only reflective of the community, but also can hire from the neighborhood,” Otero said.
Chef Lisa McKay, owner of Lisa Kaye Catering and a 2017 winner, recently relocated her commercial kitchen to the Forest County Potawatomi Community’s Wgema Campus on West State Street. She’s planning to hold a job fair soon.
“I want to hire from within the neighborhood so my employees can walk to work,” McKay said.
Since Rev-Up announced its first winners in 2015, 26 new businesses have sprouted up in the neighborhood, several from the competition itself. Others came because they saw a neighborhood on the rise, Stanley said.
It’s not by accident that the businesses that have launched after winning the competition have been successful. Aside from cash prizes, (first place gets $10,000; second place, $4,000), winners receive $30,000 to $35,000 in marketing, financial and other services, Stanley said.
All finalists receive training and mentoring support leading up to the event, Otero added.
This year’s finalists include a dessert company, a New Zealand style restaurant and cafe, a transit company, a design and marketing firm and a farm-to-table restaurant.
Maybe one of them will become the next huge company, Stanley said, recalling that even mega institutions such as Harley-Davidson and MillerCoors started out small but now help to fuel the local economy.
The finalists are “continuing that legacy of entrepreneurship and community support,” Stanley said. “We want to help build the foundation of the next big business.”
AUDIO: Our partners at Bridge the City talk with past Rev-Up MKE winners: Lisa Kaye Catering, Pete’s Pops and Triciclo Peru.
POP UP MKE: Rev-Up MKE is not the only avenue for small businesses to get exposure. As part of Pop Up Milwaukee, 12 new businesses will make their debuts. Read more here from our partners at Urban Milwaukee.
Coming Wednesday: We talk with past winners and finalists of Rev-Up MKE to see what lessons they’ve learned and what advice they have for aspiring entrepreneurs.