Mark Vue is the new owner of Bubai Foods grocery store in Walnut Grove, a staple in the community for nearly 20 years. He purchased the business with help from the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s (SWIF) microenterprise loan program and took ownership in March 2020.

“I saw the purchase of the grocery store as a learning opportunity. I felt like it would give me a chance to gain and hone the necessary skills to grow a successful business while having a relatively low risk of failure,” said Vue, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Southwest Minnesota State University. “The first few months have been both equally challenging and rewarding.

"Luckily, I had plenty of people to help mentor me through the process of starting the business. With their help and with the help of the previous owners, it was a smooth transition.”

Bubai Foods offers a wide selection of items while filling a local need for Asian food staples, from pantry items to produce like sweet Thai mangos and rambutan, a small tropical fruit with a hairy shell.

Walnut Grove has a population of about 800 and is home to a large Hmong community. At the last census, 46 percent of residents identified as Asian or Pacific Islander.

Vue previously worked part-time for several years as a cashier at HyVee, where he learned about grocery retail operations behind the scenes, including point-of-sale systems and customer service. 

Nothing could have completely prepared him for running a grocery store during a pandemic. Within the first month of running the business, the effects of COVID-19 became apparent in both the behavior of consumers and the disruption of the supply chain. The inventory of Asian foods that are mostly shipped from overseas was acutely affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“Recently, for any given order it is not uncommon for 30 to 50 percent of the requested inventory to be out of stock in one way or another. Right now, we just have to work with what we can get. Fortunately for us, we have a very understanding customer base that has helped us persevere through these difficult times,” Vue said.

Loan funds from SWIF helped Vue purchase the building, equipment and inventory and have provided working capital.

“Mark was willing to apply his skills to something new, and that entrepreneurial spirit is benefitting both him and the community. We’re happy to support him in this venture,” said Jackie Turner, SWIF economic development officer.

Loan programs have been a key function of SWIF since its inception to support communities and businesses throughout southwest Minnesota.

In 2001, microlending was added to existing programs as a tool to support small businesses and people looking for self-employment opportunities. Microloan clients receive free technical assistance from SWIF staff to improve their business management skills.

Areas of support include business planning and financials analysis, QuickBooks training, marketing assistance and other training opportunities for the life of the loan.

This microloan program receives funding assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more information, contact SWIF at 800-594-9480, (320) 587-4848 or via e-mail at loans@swifoundation.org.