FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) _ Tom and Anna Tang’s family was the only Chinese family they knew of in Siloam Springs when they moved there 30 years ago to start the town’s first Chinese restaurant.
They knew virtually no English, used their life savings for the venture and had to take days-long trips to get the right ingredients, their daughter, Shu Lan Tang, said. They worked at least 12 hours a day and made their rolls from scratch as customers lined up at the door for a $4.99 lunch special. They learned how to handle the necessary permitting and taxes as they went.
Today, the undertaking would go very differently, Tang, 34, said.
The Northwest Arkansas (http://bit.ly/2ay2QJa ) reports that instead of a small group of area Chinese restaurant owners, there’s a Chinese Association of Northwest Arkansas. She estimated there are a couple thousand Chinese people in northwest Arkansas, whether they’re students, teachers or corporate employees. The U.S. Census Bureau reported 1,321 Chinese residents lived in Benton and Washington counties in 2010.
“Now there’s a Chinese restaurant everywhere,” Tang said with a laugh in Tang’s Asian Market, one of her family’s businesses in Springdale that sells frozen cuttlefish balls, fresh fish, rice and coconut. More restaurants made the business more competitive, she said, but “you have people here who are the same as you who can help.”
As it grows and becomes more diverse, the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area is gaining a reputation as a place where minority-owned businesses can start and succeed.
SmartAsset, which provides financial research and advice, named the area the nation’s third-best for minority ventures earlier this month based on how many there are in the region and how well they do financially. The Seattle area and the border between Tennessee and Virginia topped the list.
In March, the publication Fast Company put the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area at No. 2 in the country for minority entrepreneurs as well.
Several local experts and business owners credited the climate to a growing number of business organizations that are aiming their efforts at minority entrepreneurs. The reports counted as minorities people who are black, Asian, Native American or the overlapping categories of Latino and Hispanic, which refer respectively to people from Latin America and people from predominantly Spanish-speaking countries and can include people of any skin color.
Together those groups make up about one-fourth of the metropolitan area, which covers Benton, Madison and Washington counties and McDonald County in Missouri, according to the Census.
“What has made it right is the cooperation — from the Northwest Arkansas Council to the Walton Family Foundation to the Small Business Administration, the chambers plus the university working together to make this happen,” said Jay Amargos, who in the past worked on the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce’s multicultural committee and as head of minority small business inclusion for Startup Junkie Consulting in Fayetteville.
“The help is definitely there — it has definitely become more than it used to,” she said.
Minorities are a particular concern in assessing a place’s business climate because they generally start fewer companies. Factors like immigration, which can force people to restart their educations and savings, and histories of prejudice and exclusion of minorities from wealth, loans and other resources have all helped push down the rate, according to a report this year from Global Policy Solutions.
The country would be home to more than 1 million more companies if the business-starting rates among racial and ethnic groups were equal, the group found.
Northwest Arkansas has its own history as well, said Kathy Deck, director of the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research. Economic powerhouses such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Tyson Foods have brought in or hired many of the area’s immigrant employees.
“So if you come to northwest Arkansas, either to work for a big company or to serve the people who work for big companies, then you didn’t necessarily have to start your own business,” Deck said. Entrepreneurship also typically spikes during rocky economic times, she said, which would hardly describe the region’s low unemployment and steadily rising wages.
SmartAsset’s report relied on data from the Census Survey of Business Owners from 2012, the most recent version. It found more than 5,000 of the area’s 40,000 firms were at least 51-percent minority-owned. Most were owned by Mexican or other Hispanic people. That’s 13 percent of businesses here that are minority-owned, lagging the area’s 24 percent minority population in 2012.
Each minority-owned business averaged more than $300,000 in sales, receipts or shipment values, compared to more than $470,000 for non-minority-owned ones. On the other hand, SmartAsset found minority-owned businesses were also more profitable than their counterparts, meaning they have a higher ratio between earnings and costs.
Steve Cox, the Rogers-Lowell chamber’s senior vice president of economic development, said the group would be doing a disservice to the community if it didn’t reach out to minorities, women and veterans looking to start up a business.
The chamber has offered seminars on business basics in Spanish and classes with the university’s Small Business and Technology Development Center on how to secure government contracts, loans and other topics. Center consultant Martha Londagin said a similar course with the Fayetteville Chamber is coming up in September.
“Whether you’ve grown up here your whole life or are emigrating from another area, it’s always a daunting task” to start a business, Cox said. “Not just Rogers, but Northwest Arkansas as a whole is doing things the right way, where everyone is treated equal regardless of background.”
Still, Deck said the region could do more to build a “support network” for people unfamiliar with the business process. Other cities have chambers of commerce specifically for Latinos or African Americans, for example.
Rafael Rios, founder of Yeyo’s Mexican Grill in Bentonville and employer of about 10 people, said Startup Junkie’s outreach and advice for young businesses on how to expand is helping him keep his 3-year-old business running smoothly.
“They kind of keep me out of trouble when I’m going to make bad decisions,” he said jokingly, adding he has plans to expand to a sit-down restaurant and maybe begin canning salsa.
He agreed with Deck that more outreach programs would help draw in more people like him. Rios’s family runs a 6-acre farm for cilantro, onions, peppers and other produce that goes into Yeyo’s food and to other restaurants. But the food truck venture had a bumpy beginning, he said.
He was newly out of the Army and wanted to bring a different kind of Mexican restaurant to the area. Much like the Tangs, he spent “every penny” of 17 years’ savings on a food truck and learned the basic pieces of running a business as he went.
He found he needed to make costly modifications to his vehicle to meet state requirements, and he researched the permits he’d need to run the business near the Bentonville square only after he’d bought the truck, which he said was the opposite of what he should have done.
But working with the city’s farmers market and other local events helped get the business rolling, and now other potential food truck owners are coming to him for advice, Rios said.
“Bentonville is a city that caters to people, it’s a great place to start a business,” he said. “But you have to have a good foundation and you have to have a great plan.”
Once members of minorities dip their toes into running businesses, many share Rios’s desire for new or bigger projects. Amargos said she took her connections and experience with Startup Junkie to help start a meditation studio called i’MINDFUL in Fayetteville. The studio will offer individual and group classes in focus and mindfulness starting Monday and already has several corporate clients, Amargos said.
Jose Esparza, a self-employed RE/MAX Realtor in Bentonville who works with two other agents, said the Rogers chamber’s Spanish programs have been helpful for many Latinos who have good business ideas from their homelands. More programs in Spanish along the lines of Startup Junkie to teach young businesses how to keep going and grow could tap even more potential, he said.
“It’s like, `You know what? I’ve been thinking about this business but I’ve been putting it aside because I don’t know where to begin,”’ Esparza said, describing what he hears from others in his community. “If you put it out there for them, they’ll say OK.”
As for himself, Esparza hopes to start his own real estate business and have eight agents or more. His husband and he are also working on opening a venue for weddings and business events — including seminars for minority entrepreneurs. The business could come within six months, he said.
Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com