How one small business survived COVID by offering medicinal herbs

José Hernández flaunts a bag of dried yellow elderflowers from behind the counter at his Lake Street shop in south Minneapolis. “This is good for diabetes,” he said in Spanish.

Toronadra is one of the popular herbs that helped save Hernández’s failing suitcase store. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit the bottom of the suitcase market, he turned to selling medicinal herbs, drawing inspiration from his upbringing in rural Mexico.

Today, his store, called La Petaca, which means suitcase in Spanish, is building a customer base. People wanted all kinds of herbs, and as demand increased, so did Hernández’s range of inventory. The shop serves the needs of members of the Latinx community looking for alternatives to traditional medicines.

“The person comes here, asks you for the product, tells you what it’s for, so you can get the product and sell it to other people.” he said.

Hernández, 48, came to Minnesota illegally from Tabasco, Mexico in 2003. Minnesota became home to him, although he said he moved to seek a better life and feed his family in Mexico. He worked a variety of jobs until he obtained his permanent residency in 2018.

A year after receiving his green card, Hernández began thinking about starting his own business. He was tired of working for others.

“In 2019 I lost my job, so I started looking at what it would take to start a business,” he said. .”

Advisors were skeptical, and the organizations he turned to for help told him now wasn’t the right time to start a business. “Everyone will say, ‘Don’t do it,'” he said.

But Hernandez pushed forward and opened his store at 417 E. Lake Street, Plaza Mexico in March 2020, just as the pandemic began to take hold. He was soon forced to close shop and named it J & B Alta Tendencia.

When it finally reopened, Hernández realized that COVID had made traveling so difficult that no one had bought a suitcase. He came from a small community where his grandparents, mother and neighbors used herbal remedies to treat ailments such as headaches, sore throats and fevers, so he used that knowledge to I decided to sell herbs instead.

The store was once again on the verge of closing just weeks later due to civil unrest after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May 2020. Protesters demonstrated for several nights on Lake Street, where the Police Department’s Third Precinct Headquarters was located. , and several businesses were looted and burned.

Hernández’s shop, about two miles west of the 3rd Precinct, was not attacked, but the goods were discarded after nearby stalls were looted or damaged. Hernández, who doesn’t like to discuss what happened, said the important thing was that he was still able to work.

He said most of his customers are from outside the Twin Cities to keep the business going. Others stock up on herbs from North and South Dakota.

Hernández said, like any business, there are good times and bad times. Like many stores in Plaza Mexico, the store is currently out of stock. This is because sellers tend to offer fewer items at the beginning of the year to save money. Business is entering a slow month.

“Some days we sell nothing and some days we sell a month,” he said. But he added that he wasn’t worried, smiling and pointing upwards: “He decides everything.”

Earthy and floral scents permeate the small space. The walls are lined with packages of dried herbs, vitamins, and over-the-counter medicines from various Latin American countries. A few suitcases sit high on the wall above the herb, a reminder of how business was done.

Hernández’s limited English-speaking skills limit his customer base, along with non-Latino shoppers who are unfamiliar with herbs and skeptical of their use as alternative medicine. But he said he is grateful to the people of Minnesota for giving him the chance to live his dream.

“Americans don’t understand our habits. They don’t understand how tea can lower blood sugar levels,” Hernández said. “We don’t know everything. But it helps. This medicine does.”

this story comes to you sahan journalis a non-profit newsroom dedicated to Minnesota’s immigrant and communities of color.sign up for free newsletter To receive Sahan stories in your inbox.

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