St. Anthony: Humble Minneapolis marketers at the mend after COVID downturns

Julie and Katie Steller, entrepreneurs whose businesses were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, are on the way back.

Steller Handcrafted Goods and Steller Hair Co. each employ more than 15 people at decent wages. And the mother and daughter operate from recently expanded leased space in separate buildings near the intersection of Central Avenue and Broadway, bustling with small businesses.

Julie Steller, 64, the wife of a semiretired inner-city minister who raised six children, started making mittens years ago to generate income in lieu of much retirement savings.

“We’ve grown organically over eight years since I started making mittens,” said Steller, who topped $250,000 in revenue last year from sales of mittens, hats, scarves, cloth purses and vests sewn from old sweaters and blankets.

“Our products are useful and beautiful Scandinavian ‘repurposed and locally made’,” she said of her brand credo. “One of our fast-growing businesses is ‘memorial work,’ making products from sweaters of the beloved.”

She pivoted during 2020 and 2021 to mask making, particularly for neighbors, homeless shelters and nonprofits who paid what they could. She was honored in 2020 by WomenVenture, which years ago loaned her $30,000, for resilience and determination.

Last year, she made a small profit from an expanded office, work space and showroom in the refurbished Waterbury Building. The Guthrie Theater shop started selling her mittens and she landed a booth at the Minnesota State Fair’s International Bazaar.

“She’s very much an entrepreneur,” said Scott Lastine, her business adviser. “She thinks about products, her people and customers. She needs to focus on profitability and a better salary for herself.”

Steller pays 16 contract sewers $20 an hour to mostly work from home.

She’s a creative used to work long hours and credits Vision Bank and the Small Business Administration with helping her survive the COVID-19 shutdowns and revenue rollercoaster.

“I always loved making things,” she said. “I just didn’t realize that would extend to jobs for 16 women.”

She plans to take her “retirement job” into her 70s, hit $1 million in revenue, pay herself a regular salary of $50,000 and provide profit sharing to the women who sew.

“This also fits perfectly with my faith,” she said. “We take things that are damaged or no longer wanted and we give them new life. My work is a parable of my life; hope, redemption and the future. I try to love God with my gifts and love my neighbors with jobs and beautiful products.”

Katie Steller, 32, recently was honored with the “North American Hair Award” by the Professional Beauty Association for her yearslong commitment to free haircuts for those in need, through local nonprofits and people her stylists know need a lift.

A 10-year entrepreneur, she is an empathetic woman who has struggled with a chronic health issue since she was young. She quit her first job as a stylist over low pay to establish a “sustainable wage” plan for her employees at 10-chair Steller Hair.

Her banker at nearby Northeast Bank helped her obtain $215,000 in pandemic payroll-protection loans to cover the COVID-related disruptions and restrictions. Half the chairs had to be removed for a time to create safe distance. Her understanding landlord also reduced rent for a time.

“My business was hit badly when we were closed or at 50 percent capacity and hours reduced,” Katie Steller said. “I struggled to make rent and my pay. But I didn’t lose any of our team.”

She typically pays her stylists about half the price of a haircut, or a minimum wage of up to $18 an hour, plus tips. Steller Hair charges $40 to $95 per haircut, including a free trim between cuts.

She also has weathered a divorce and split with her business partner over the past decade. “I’ve never had an easy year in this business,” she said. “There’s always been risk and we were never financially ‘set.'”

The decade-old business peaked in revenue in 2019 at about $720,000.

“We’re growing again,” Katie Steller said. “And I think we’re sustainable.”

The Steller women bootstrapped, borrowed and worked long hours to survive — all the while laughing a lot and thinking about others.

Julie Steller helped her daughter through rough times when her health ebbed in high school.

She took her for her first professional haircut when Katie was teenager and suffering from a bad round of ulcerative colitis. Realizing how good the haircut felt helped seed Katie’s future business.

She also welcomed her daughter home during a protracted lean time, when Katie dropped her apartment, sold her car and took two buses to work.

She never questioned her daughter’s entrepreneurial dream. And she has turned to her daughter for advice during her business downtimes.

“We also have businesses built on similar values,” Katie Steller said.

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