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Photo Essay: Faces and spaces of Milwaukee small businesses

“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to encourage, educate and assist our newer businesses to ensure they survive in today’s challenging business climate. Being a business owner isn’t easy and the city provides and connects local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to succeed. Milwaukee Small Business Week is just one way we do that.”Nikki Purvis, Director of the City of Milwaukee’s Office of Small Business Development

As a preview of Milwaukee Small Business Week 2017, local companies and entrepreneurs were featured in a bus tour that stretched across the city on May 1 and showcased their contributions to economic growth in the area. These images highlight the trip and its participants, showing the diversity that is thriving in Milwaukee in spite ongoing social and economic challenges.

Rockwell Mechanical does Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) work on contracts that include the Northwestern Mutual Tower, Bucks Arena, and Medical College of Wisconsin. As a Hispanic native from Milwaukee’s Southside, owner Antonio Velez moved his business from Port Washington to Milwaukee last year because all his business was based in the city, and the redevelopment of the Havenwoods area made it an attractive location.

“Starting a small business in Milwaukee is a challenge. I had to mortgage my house about 14 years ago, I sold everything and put it all into the business. But it was crucial getting certified, and I think it helped immensely. The minority certification for the city, as well as the state, it was hard to earn. Plus, there is a stigma attached to having that certification. People think like it is a handout, but we are lucky to get two contracts out of ten bids, that is how competitive it is.” – Antonio Velez

The Phongsavan Asian Market started in 2009 as cluster of food carts around an auto shop that had been foreclosed on Milwaukee’s Northwest side. Its new $4.2 million building now serves as a commercial and social hub for the Hmong and Southeast Asian community.

Owner Pai Yang came to America as a single mother and immigrant from Laos, through refugee camps in Thailand, and envisioned the Phongsavan Asian Market as a catalyst for new businesses in her adopted city.

What started on social media as an interest in Japanese card games like Pokémon, developed several thousand followers and became a club focused on video gaming. Now a thriving retail store and role model enterprise for the community, located in the heart of the inner city, Battlebox Studios is looking to expand into a complex of empty buildings on its block. Owner Bryant Wilcox has the vision to make the area a gaming oasis and positive center for kids.

“We have what we call a ‘voucher system,’ and this is how we get new members. A new kid can only come in if someone brings them and will ‘vouch’ for the guest. So if someone comes in and causes trouble, it falls on the person who brought the guest. If someone comes in and rips off stuff, the person who brings them is also kicked out. We have common sense rules, and they make kids be more mindful of their choices, because the actions of someone else can reflect on them.” – Bryant Wilcox

Our Daily Salt specializes in handcrafted items for the home kitchen, such as end-grain cutting boards, hand-turned wooden bowls, and a variety of hand-carved utensils. Owners Felisha Wild and Janelle Phalen won a competition sponsored by the Layton Boulevard West Neighbors (LBWN) that allowed them to move into the location on West National Avenue.

“I didn’t have any background in woodworking, but we remodeled our kitchen and as it started to come together I wanted to figure out what else could we do with the tools. I am a chef by trade, so I decide to make my first cutting board. That was about eight years ago, and from there people started requesting cutting boards. I was running Our Daily Salt as a food blog at the time, and we turned our basement into a wood shop which is something I don’t recommend because it makes a house a very dusty. Pretty soon the business was taking over our entire house, so we started looking for retail space.” – Chef Felisha Wild

James Durawa and Ann Brock started making pizza in a camper trailer on the side of the road in Portland, Oregon in 2009. Their innovative pies developed a good reputation and loyal following, and after returning to their hometown of Milwaukee the couple felt inspired to find a location that could support a good pizzeria.

“A lot of people use these roads as a commuter route on the way from A to B, but the surrounding neighborhoods have very loyal folks who really care about the neighborhood. And as a result, they care a lot about us. They are very grateful that we cleaned up this foreclosed property, and they recognize our diligence and commitment, and hard work. They love having a place to come and eat on this corner like WY ‘east Pizza. It is clean, and vibrant, and full of good food, where they can see their friends and hang out. So we are super grateful too.” – Ann Brock

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, with a background in publishing, advertising, and design, to the Milwaukee Independent. His list of awards include three consecutive top honors from the Milwaukee Press Club. Lee proudly uses MCTS as his exclusive mode of transportation, other than walking, for all the news stories he reports about in Milwaukee.

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