Eddy Nunez’s livelihood is for the moment tied to the fate of a storefront in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest. The Ma & Pa Café is where Nunez and his fiancée, Madeline Colon, spend their days cooking, bussing tables, prepping food, and generally working their fingers to the bone, trying to keep to the three-year-old business afloat. In a tough neighborhood in a tough economy, it hasn’t been easy.
“A couple months ago, [my mother] was like, ‘Man, shut it down,’… . But that just makes me try harder,” said the 35-year-old Nunez, who served 14 years in the Navy before returning to Boston to open the business.
Enter Main Street Partners, a nonprofit startup created by two 2008 Colby graduates, Alex Russell and Bryan Solar. The venture works by pairing volunteers from high-powered management and strategic consultancy companies with small mom-and-pop businesses, some of which are struggling to survive, while others are trying to take the next step to expand or to achieve profitability.
“Our idea is to take these people on the top floors and pair them up with these [small] businesses,” said Solar, a 27-year-old native of Houston, Texas, whose grandmother, an immigrant from Mexico, owned a restaurant. When the restaurant fell on hard times, then college student Solar and his brother formulated a plan to save it—but came in too late. “We couldn’t help her in the end, but if we had gotten in there earlier…,” Solar said.
Like Solar, Russell, from the Boston suburb of Belmont, has worked in strategic or management consulting since graduation (Russell at L.E.K. Consulting; Solar at Brookeside). The Eureka! moment for creating Main Street Partners came, Russell explains, as he participated in the volunteer, community-building programs that many professional firms engage in: cleaning up playgrounds or working in soup kitchens.
“There was one time where a valedictorian from Dartmouth was painting a door. … I mean, we were doing things that consultants aren’t very good at,” Russell said. “Instead of making a building look better, we could try and save twenty-five, thirty jobs.”
Given that small businesses make up the bulk of employers in the United States, it seemed that helping business owners become stronger was a better way to preserve jobs and make communities stronger, Solar said. “Instead of helping soup kitchens run more effectively, we’re going to keep [people] from going to the soup kitchens in the first place,” he said.
Said Rachael Weiker, 27, a master’s degree candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and a board member at Main Street Partners: “It’s the ripple effect in the community—stronger business, stronger families, stronger neighborhoods, stronger communities.”
Solar and Russell’s entrepreneurial experience goes back to their sophomore year at Colby, where they started a door-to-door laundry delivery service for students. By their senior year Lazy Mule Laundry had six employees, and they were able to sell the business to two underclassmen.
“We were really nerdly about it,” Solar said. “We’d lock ourselves in our dorm room with a white board when sales flattened out, to try to figure it out.”
Part of their confidence also comes from their course work as undergraduates. Solar majored in international studies and minored in Chinese and administrative science. Russell shifted his major from computer science to economics after Lazy Mule Laundry gave him the entrepreneur bug.
The City of Boston’s small business development department helps guide businesses looking for help to Main Street Partners, and it has also provided seed money.
Their first project, in 2011, centered on a fitness/martial arts studio in Millis, Mass., just southwest of Boston. Since then, they’ve worked with approximately 45 volunteers from consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain to guide businesses ranging from a Pakistani/Indian halal restaurant in East Boston to a 79-year-old hardware store in Dorchester (among other things, they helped the owner connect with area property-management companies to allow for direct marketing).
For now, Main Street Partners, which is soon to be registered as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, shares many of the shoestring attributes of other start-ups. The office is located in a shared business space on a Harvard Square side street. There’s no sign outside or inside, and the actual office is the size of a small bedroom. The room has two tables, some laptops, a couple of chairs, and gray carpeting. The walls are a whiteboard covered with dry-erase-marker “To-Do” tasks and a picture with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “One Person Can Make a Difference and Everyone Should Try.”
The key, Solar says, is the desire and enthusiasm of small-business owners to embrace suggestions or new ideas. “I mean, if you’re a restaurant and you’ve got terrible food, there’s not much we can do,” Solar said.
This is why they’re optimistic for the Ma & Pa Café and why, despite the struggles, Eddy Nunez is too. He worked with a team from Main Street Partners earlier this year, and the café now appears on the business review site Yelp, has a Facebook page, and has new hours of operation and an updated menu. Nunez is also working with Russell to raise money through the online crowd-funding site Kiva Zip to put up an awning and get more attention from passersby.
“I want to put tables outside, you know, like a sidewalk café,” Nunez said. “You know, you’re in the business and you kind of get blinded. … I had the blinds up and I needed these guys to come in and say ‘Hey, let’s pull these blinds down.’”