Lemon poppy seed muffins, buttery croissants, chocolate chip cookies, and gallons of cold brew cost more than the small debit transaction you make every morning at your favorite café.

In purchasing Crust Artisan Bakeshop on Main Street in Worcester, owner Alexis Kelleher turned to a local funding program to keep the community in caffeine and delightful pastries.

Together with the North Central Massachusetts Development Corp., the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce offers a microloan program providing loans of up to $50,000 for Worcester-based startups or small businesses that may have difficulty securing traditional financing.

Opened in 2014 by Armsby Abbey owners Alec Lopez and Sherri Sadowski, Ms. Kelleher, a Worcester native, started out as an employee at the 118 Main St. bakeshop.

After roughly 18 months displaying her knowledge and passion for the craft, Mr. Lopez and Ms. Sadowski asked her to purchase the company. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Ms. Kelleher’s passion for baking is widely known and she always wanted to own her own bakery – doing so was a different story.

Sandie Cataldo, manager of economic development at the North Central Massachusetts Development Corp., said three reasons business owners like Ms. Kelleher may be denied traditional financing can be any combination of a challenging or low credit score, lack of collateral, or a lack of business history.

“A lot of banks and credit unions don’t usually work with startups,” said Ms. Cataldo. “They would rather see someone with a bit of history – someone more viable.” In other words, clients who are more likely to pay back the loans.

And many of the microloan program’s clients learn of the opportunity after being turned down by commercial loan officers. This was the case for Crust. Recognizing she didn’t have much personal equity or collateral, “I fell a little short,” when applying for a traditional loan at the bank, said Ms. Kelleher who was 26 at the time.

Aware of how much she would need to purchase the business, and factoring in operations costs as well as additional “buffer room,” the turn down came as a “bit of a shock” explained Ms. Kelleher.

“The microloan program was great because it helped me fill in that gap,” she said. The microloan “was integral” for Ms. Kelleher to take ownership of Crust. “It was the only way,” she said.

The purchase took place Jan. 17, 2017 and today, Ms. Kelleher employs a combination of 10 part-time and full-time employees.

Although the microloan program cannot lend to nonprofits or investment businesses, a wide array of industries are eligible. From food trucks, grocery stores, and bakeries, to hair salons, dog groomers, and clothing boutiques – “the list goes on and on,” said Ms. Cataldo.

And the bakeshop isn’t the only small, Worcester-based business that has enlisted the help of the program. PAGEBOY Inc. Hair Salon on Harding Street is also the recipient of such funding.

The microloan program also provides technical assistance to clients.

Ms. Kelleher attests to these added benefits saying North Central Massachusetts Development Corp. representatives; including Ms. Cataldo and Norman Vigeant, vice president of lending; continue to be a resource whether its additional programming, lectures, or free sessions with their accountant.

Continuing to meet with the lenders to review progress and provide updates, Ms. Kelleher feels a similar connection nearly three years later.

“Every day is a learning curve when you’re a small business owner,” she said. “There’s a lot working against you – or it feels like that sometimes,” but the microloan program’s assistance, guidance, and additional tools make the difference.

Comparing running her small business to raising a child, Ms. Kelleher joked: “It takes a village.”

According to Ms. Cataldo, since the organization’s inception in 1996, the microloan program has lent nearly $7 million to more than 145 businesses. The partnership with the Worcester Chamber began in January 2017.

Visit https://www.worcesterchamber.org/economic-development/financing-micro-loans/ to learn more.


Dominique Goyette-Connerty was a marketing and communications associate for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. She is now a freelance correspondent. To read the entirety of the November 2019 edition of the Chamber Exchange, visit the newspaper archive.