Support for small business in Minneapolis. : The Indicator from Planet Money Chris Montana is a Minneapolis distillery owner whose business was destroyed in rioting early this year. Since then, he's committed himself to supporting local businesses and raised more than $770,000. | Support The Indicator here.
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Coming Back From Covid

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Coming Back From Covid

Coming Back From Covid

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

All this week, we are checking back in with people whose stories we told in 2020. Today we are talking with Chris Montana. We first spoke with him back in August. Chris is from Minneapolis, Minn., and he owns a whiskey distillery there called Du Nord. In fact, after extensive research, Chris is now pretty sure that he's the only Black distillery owner in the whole United States.

CHRIS MONTANA: I found that out about two years later when I went to a spirits conference and realized I was the only one there...

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANA: ...Out of about a thousand people.

VANEK SMITH: Chris' distillery had a tasting room, and Du Nord had become a popular neighborhood watering hole before the pandemic. But Du Nord was also just a couple of blocks away from Derek Chauvin's police precinct. Derek Chauvin is the policeman who killed George Floyd. The whole neighborhood around the precinct was totally destroyed. Most of the buildings were set on fire, including Du Nord. Chris still remembers walking into his business and seeing fires everywhere and understanding that Du Nord had been pretty much totally destroyed. Chris says right after he saw his own business, he ran into one of his neighbors, a man who owned an Indian restaurant a few doors down.

MONTANA: And his business had been burned to the ground. This is a guy who's invested everything in the community, and you can't talk to him about anything without him, you know, eventually coming around to, how is this helping our community? And his business was burned to the ground, everything 100% gone. And he was saying, look; it's just stuff. And that probably was the most important thing that happened that day for me because he was right. It was just stuff.

VANEK SMITH: Chris decided he wanted to find a way to bring his business back and help out the other small business owners in his neighborhood. So he started a GoFundMe site, figuring maybe he'd raise a few thousand dollars, be able to help some people out. In fact, that GoFundMe site ended up being a total game-changer for Chris. More on that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: I mean, I'm looking at your GoFundMe page now. I opened it up. It's the Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund. Is that the one that you started to help local businesses?

MONTANA: Yep. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Seven hundred and seventy-two thousand dollars - a lot of these donations are, like, $20. This woman, Stephanie Merkel, donated $50 - (reading) rebuilding one donation at a time. Bruce Heinz donated $25 - (reading) we are a community.

MONTANA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. I don't know. How does it feel to, like, see people giving these, like, little amounts - like, so many people, like, 11,000 people who probably don't have extra money right now?

MONTANA: Yeah, and have no connection to me - not really, right? But they're looking to help, and that is a ton of faith. And, you know, for me, it's also a lot of pressure. We have to make sure that we are doing right by them and that we are being efficient with their money. And there are businesses today that are open because of those donations.

VANEK SMITH: Do a couple businesses come to mind that have opened with help from the foundation?

MONTANA: Yeah, that same guy who was a slap in the face to me of kind of get over yourself and end your pity party.

VANEK SMITH: The man who owned the Indian restaurant.

MONTANA: Yeah. As it happened, a few weeks later, we were in a position to write him the $15,000 check. And it's funny how all those things kind of come around.

VANEK SMITH: Oh. Is his restaurant open?

MONTANA: It is. It's not in that spot. Obviously, that's a pile of rubble right now.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, OK. He moved it.

MONTANA: But he moved it, and he's got it back open, and - yeah. And he's back in business.

VANEK SMITH: What's it called?

MONTANA: So his business is called Gandhi Mahal. He's got this program he calls Curry In A Hurry.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

MONTANA: And, yeah, you know, it's a really interesting business. And they're back up and running. And if that means that he's going to survive this, he's going to - in 2021, you know, there's still going to be a Gandhi Mahal. And it's just one little Indian restaurant. But if you lose the Gandhi Mahal and you lose all of the other ones - we're supporting a pharmacy, which was one of the few pharmacies that did house calls into the Somali community, right? Like, if you lose these little businesses that don't really - they don't make headlines, and they don't get on national news and whatnot. But it's the collective value of all of them that makes that area what it is. You can't lose that, or you lose your soul.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, are you hopeful about the neighborhood coming back? Sounds like the dust has settled and things are kind of rebuilding, but it also sounds slow. It sounds like there was just a lot of destruction.

MONTANA: There was a lot of destruction. And all of these places that were burned down - they're going to have to be rebuilt. And when we rebuild, we have to rebuild with an eye towards economic justice for those communities of color who today do not feel like their lives are valued. So it can't just be that we rebuild whatever. It's - we have to rebuild intentionally. There was a property we're looking at to put in this incubation space and help the next generation of Black and brown-owned businesses get started - right? - without having to pay rent.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, really? Is that part of what your foundation is doing, like, making a little incubator for entrepreneurs?

MONTANA: It is. I expect that within a couple of months, we will have figured out where this is going to go, and we're raising money to do it and frontend load the philanthropy because I don't know if this energy is going to last into 2021 or 2022. But it's there now, so if we go out and we raise those funds, then we can build structures. We can build vessels that can house some anchor businesses and create a place where communities of color can get their start.

And that's all about setting up a situation where when my kids go out to start their business, someone doesn't look at them like, you don't look like the guy who would own this type of business in the way that when I went out, they said, well, there aren't any Black distillers. You know, you don't look the part, right? And that's what we're working on now - building economic engines that will have an effect that lasts into the future. That's the kind of building that I think we need to be doing.

So that - I would say that probably takes up half my time these days. I don't spend much time talking about booze anymore. I spend more time talking about how we cannot have what happened after George Floyd was murdered happen again. And it won't happen again if people are able to say, look; this is ours.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

MONTANA: Right. But it wasn't theirs, and they knew it wasn't theirs, right?

VANEK SMITH: Right.

MONTANA: The check-cashing places weren't theirs, right? Like, we can change that dynamic, but we have to be intentional about it.

VANEK SMITH: What about Du Nord? Like, what do you see as the future for your distillery?

MONTANA: Well, we have the foundation now, and it does change things. Now that we have the foundation, when we sell a bottle of our booze, we can support our foundation. That's a fundamental difference. You know, in 2019, if you bought a bottle of our booze, you bought it because you like good booze and, you know, we're here to facilitate a good time. But in 2021, when you buy a bottle of our booze, then you're also supporting this foundation, which will be supporting things like the business incubation space, right? That's a very different model.

And so when I look at Du Nord in the future, I'm hoping that, you know, we're going to be much more aggressive about trying to get into new markets, in part because the mission has shifted. And it's a lot easier to - you know, seven years of running any business will tire you out.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

MONTANA: But when you recast it this way, it's a lot easier to get the energy to pour into that business because it's not just about making booze. It's not just about facilitating a good time, right? It's also about making real change in real people's lives. That's...

VANEK SMITH: It's fun again.

MONTANA: It's fun again. And that's the thing that is - it is so wild. And I think sometimes, I feel bad because I know what people are going through. So it seems odd for someone to say, hey, this is fun again. But it is because we're doing - this is - it's a new season, right? And it's so different.

VANEK SMITH: It's a sense of purpose.

MONTANA: Oh, definitely. So I'm optimistic about the future of Du Nord Craft Spirits. I think we're going to be all right.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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