Business ideas shared with coffee

By: By Scott Bigelow - [email protected]

ST. PAULS — Successful small businesses don’t often start life in a vacuum, and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Entrepreneurship Incubator came to St. Pauls Wednesday morning to offer its help.

“As communities like St. Pauls reinvent themselves, small businesses will be important,” said Barry O’Brien, dean of UNCP’s School of Business. “We are holding meetings like this one throughout Robeson County.”

Incubator Director Thomas Hall said the “ultimate goal is to build a network of entrepreneurs who can help each other succeed.” The series of morning events is called One Million Cups, a nationwide movement that brings community entrepreneurs together to exchange ideas over a cup of coffee.

Fittingly, the event was held at Tortillas Carolina, a 6-week-old restaurant located on Broad Street in St. Pauls. The restaurant is a new business venture launched by Enrique Elisonda, a veteran entrepreneur with a restaurant in Clinton, and a tortilla factory nearby that employs 40 people.

“We use locally grown corn to make 160,000 pounds of tortillas and chips a week,” Elisonda said. “The tortilla industry is one of the fastest growing in America.”

With Tortillas Carolina, Elisonda wanted to replicate the neighborhood restaurant concept favored in Mexico. With a tortilla machine in the restaurant, his focus is on fresh and local.

“To make our tortillas, we worked with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to get local corn that is suitable for human consumption,” Elisonda said. “Some restaurants buy their chips from Georgia and Washington state. We are local and fresh.”

Menu, trucking and marketing issues were discussed during a question-and-answer session.

“We would like to expand and need all the marketing help I can get,” Elisonda said.

Marketing also was an issue for the second presenter, Audrey McGirt, owner of Lilies of Hope. Lilies of Hope is an in-home, non-medical assistance service for the elderly and disabled.

“The Entrepreneurship Incubator is helping us start our business,” said McGirt, who employs up to 35 workers. “The biggest issue for us is getting the word out.”

Solutions emerged as St. Pauls’ pharmacist Joe Williams, of Brisson Drugs, offered help.

“I have a second business that is a home health provider that seeks to prevent hospital readmissions,” Williams said. “We are looking for folks like you all the time.”

Lilies of Hope started life in an office in the Entrepreneurship Incubator, located in downtown Pembroke. Its director is pleased with the community response to the program, which is funded by private and state resources.

“We have nine private offices, and we are going to add 16 lower cost offices,”Hall said. “We can support a new business in so many ways.”

The Entrepreneurship Incubator is housed in a 20,000-square-foot renovated storefront in downtown Pembroke. Eight start-up business currently occupy the nine offices that are fully supported with Internet and other technology. There are offices for consultants and two conference rooms, and a large lobby. All are available for use by the public.

“The Incubator has worked with 65 start-ups in just the last six months, and 44 jobs have been created as a result,” Hall said.

The Incubator is funded by UNCP, Golden LEAF, and the Thomas Family Foundation. Partners in the building include UNC’s Small Business and Technology Development Center and the Pembroke Chamber of Commerce.

“Our goal is to service the entire county, and One Million Cups supports that by rotating each week through Pembroke, Red Springs, Lumberton and St Pauls,” Hall said. “The Incubator is also beginning the Startup Gring, a Google for Entrepreneurs program.”

UNCP’s Incubator and its Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship will play host to an Entrepreneurship Summit on April 20, he said. For information, see its website.

By Scott Bigelow

[email protected]

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-416-5649.

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-416-5649.