09 16 2014
  6:28 am  
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The community now growing around First Harvest café and juice bar on Alberta Street is more dedicated than most.
The constant traffic in and out includes health food nuts stopping by for carrot juice, catfish-and-grits breakfast fans, and now, aficionados of home-cooked Cuban dishes.
The walls are covered with art by local African American artists, the counters stocked with flyers for other small businesses serving communities of color.
And owner Michele Cruse – who is still holding onto her day job — is working almost around the clock to keep the tiny restaurant humming without relying on any government loans, handouts or support.
It's all for a higher purpose, she says.
"One of the things I wanted to do – I always had an idea of making healthy, fresh juices and soups, and also providing the community with some education about it," Cruse said. "You really have to have a passion to be in whatever small business you're creating, and just know your hard work is going to result in something good."
Cruse said her career working with nonprofit corporations led her to imagine what she might do if her organization downsized and left her without a job.
"I thought, if I get laid off, I have business skills, and what would I like to do?"
After spending time drawing up a business plan, with help from father and business partner Hilery Welch, and business advisors, Cruse developed a detailed budget – and decided to liquidate her retirement to take the initial leap.
" I just said – hell, I'll go for it, and it's actually taken off pretty well," she said.

Cruse Control
The company first subleased a space to test the idea and put more money towards equipment, supplies and hiring workers. When their juices and soups proved popular, First Harvest moved into a vacant storefront on Alberta Street earlier this year.
"Believe it or not I have not financed anything," Cruse said. "I did it small at first so I spent as little as I could."
Right now the company has three cooks and four baristas, serving a menu that's pegged toward what their customers respond to.
"It was straight health food at first, and then I thought I could probably do something really good and throw a healthy spin on it," Cruse said.
Since it's a deli, her staff is building up on items to complement their signature fresh soups. Recently more seafood has been added to the menu and a new Cuban chef has introduced some Cuban dishes.
Also every Saturday she tries to introduce a new veggie drink.
"I do a potassium broth juice, it just has carrots, apples, a little bit of pear, ginger and sometimes I put a tomato in there, it's really good with celery — anything with ginger is good."
Cruse says on a typical day, she puts in eight hours at her day job then stops by the café to help close and take care of management issues. She's exhausted, she says, but it's worth it.
"Working a day job has helped me to make payroll and to actually kick in for the kind of things that — if we're not making the sales to cover our expenses — then I can actually support it through my salary," she said.
The financing issue is extremely important to her business plan, Cruse says, which revolves around not wanting to fall into debt.
"Well you know it's really difficult, whenever you get money from the feds there's a – not only is there red tape but there's a lot of responsibility behind it," she said.
"Plus when you're running a business it's really, really difficult to write plans, and to write to whatever requirements they have and to meet those requirements."
Eventually at some point she'll look forward to different financing strategies or grants.
For others who dream of starting their own small business – especially in the current economy where job security is a distant memory – Cruse says get out and talk to other business owners who are doing what you want to do.
"There's a huge amount of support among small restaurant owners, where you can get the best products, where you can get the huge discounts," she said.
"And I would also say buy local; as much as possible we try to buy from local vendors. We use Stumptown Coffee, we have a gentleman who makes organic teas, and we try to help other small business owners.
"And so that's two things, talk to other small business owners, and two, support them like they support you."
Visit Fresh Harvest at 915 NE Alberta Street in Portland, or call 503-719-4080.

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