Order up! Red Willow Café builds community through entrepreneurial success
Theresa Desautel’s restaurant on the Colville Reservation in Washington state is not only changing palates but views about what’s possible.
Theresa Desautel had just two months to bring her first business to life in the Colville Tribal Government Center in Nespelem, Washington.
The tribe, upon awarding her the contract for Red Willow Café, made it clear they wanted her to open the restaurant right away, she recalled.
“But I didn’t have the money then for the initial food order, equipment, and payroll to make it happen,” Desautel said.
Instead of buckling under the pressure, Desautel turned to the Northwest Native Development Fund, a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that lends to underserved Native American businesses and communities in eastern Washington.
“They helped me adjust my business plan, and provided all the other advice and assistance I needed until I got the loan,” Desautel said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
“There are a lot of Native people who have grown up in a cash-only economy. While that’s changing, you don't have this long history of traditional banking and financing to help build these businesses,” said Ted Piccolo, executive director of the Northwest Native Development Fund.
Along with Red Willow Café, other loan recipients include a daycare center, a construction company that clears roads in the winter and fire lines in the summer, and a manufacturer of sweet grass shampoos and conditioners whose business has grown to add government consulting services. Together, the four businesses have created more than 40 jobs.
“People traded salmon for buffalo, and now trade logs for dollars,” Piccolo said. “We’re trying to bring the outside market in, and investments in businesses like The Red Willow Café are one way we’re doing that.”
Supporting our communities
Wells Fargo has helped support such efforts through its Wells Fargo Works for Small Business® Diverse Community Capital program. Since 2015, Wells Fargo has awarded more than $55 million to the Northwest Native Development Fund and 55 other CDFIs — investments to help launch new businesses and grow existing ones to create jobs, build wealth, and strengthen communities.
Wells Fargo decided to launch the program after its Small Business Diverse Segments Lending Study found diverse small-business owners needed more help in building credit and getting financing.
“One of our goals is to build the capacity of Community Development Financial Institutions like the Northwest Native Development Fund so they can provide more capital and technical assistance to the diverse small-business owners they know best, and in the most culturally appropriate ways,” said Connie Smith, manager of the Diverse Community Capital program.
“As the businesses they help nurture grow and succeed and build their credit, they can then become eligible and seek financing from more traditional sources,” she said. “It’s our hope that as more are able to access the credit they need to start or grow their businesses and increase their business skills, more will be able to build wealth through small business ownership and the result will be economically stronger families, businesses, and communities.”
Birth of a business
The idea for the Red Willow Café began when Desautel, who grew up on the reservation but left to start an engineering technology career in Spokane, Washington, returned to help build the Tribal Government Center.
She was one of its project engineers.
“When the building was almost completed,” Desautel said, “I was walking through its kitchen space and thought to myself, ‘I could totally pull this off. I think I could do this.’”
Desautel comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. Her father, a carpenter by trade, launched his own construction company. Her grandfather started and grew two businesses: a tavern, and an orchard.
"I want my three children growing up thinking it’s OK to think outside the box, too, if that’s required to follow their dreams."
“My family is full of role models, and my mom and dad in particular have been behind me all the way,” Desautel said. “I want my three children growing up thinking it’s OK to think outside the box, too, if that’s required to follow their dreams.”
Later, when the economy took a turn for the worse and Desautel got laid off from her construction company, she saw the tribe’s request for restaurant proposals and went all-in.
“I told my husband I had this crazy idea about a restaurant, and he supported me, and I submitted my proposal, got the contract, and here I am today,” she said.
Home of the "Cheese Zombies"
There’s not a fryer or vent fan in sight. The Red Willow Café has brought deli foods, salads, fresh fruit smoothies, and other fare to a community whose only other option was the small deli in its trading post grocery store.
Business is good and people are eating healthier, even if the café’s top seller is a baked treat called “Cheese Zombies.”
“We had them as kids in our school lunches,” Desautel said. “It’s like a quick yeast bread laid out in a cake pan with cheddar cheese and cut into squares. It sells out super fast.”
Desautel clearly knows her market, and continues to balance family and work to move her business and life forward — doing her food orders at home in Spokane for part of the week, and making at least three trips a week to check in on her restaurant’s staff, talk numbers with her bookkeeper, or take her place behind Red Willow’s counter to greet and serve people she’s known all her life.
“Sure, there are definitely some days when I think, ‘What did I get myself into?’ like any small business owner,” she said, “but I feel really accomplished and know I can do more.
“From this experience, I have really learned I like owning my own business. I am the deciding factor in my own destiny. I don’t have to rely on anyone else. It’s all up to me.”
Mike Williams produced the video for this story.