Free program in North Mpls this week aims to ‘crack the code’ to lucrative government contracts

Photos courtesy of Sheletta Brundidge Robert Grace of Be Graceful Cafe Catering

When you think of a business owner that has secured multiple government contracts, you might imagine a construction company or a business that sells computers or phone systems.

But Robert Grace, who’s built a powerhouse business based on government contracts, got his start selling popcorn, ice cream, and hot dogs. “My first government contract was for the concessions at the Ramsey County beaches,” said Grace, founder of Be Graceful Catering, a certified minority-owned business.

Since then, Grace has won multiple concession contracts from local, state, and federal government sources. The stadiums, field houses, and arenas where Minnesota’s favorite teams play and our public pools, beaches, and parks all have public ownership and so are committed to using a percentage of minority-owned vendors, including at the food stands.

“In 2015, I became the first minority concessionaire at the University of Minnesota at the Gopher football stadium. That took me to contracts at Williams Arena and at Mariucci for Gopher hockey,” he said. “Now we’re at US Bank Stadium and the airport; that one is a federal contract. I have cafes in a state office building in St Paul and the Public Service Building in downtown Minneapolis.”

Grace has upped his food game, now selling an array of drinks and tasty hot sandwiches at his concession stands. He offers wraps, and salads and caters boxed lunches at his cafes.

He’s become a job creator, employing eight people full-time and hiring dozens of seasonal workers. But his road to success was not always easy. “I made a lot of mistakes and I must have lost seven or eight bids before I was even considered. You got to understand how to do the paperwork, how to submit it, and meet the deadlines,” he said. “You have to make adjustments and put your time in.”

Grace wants to share his hard-won knowledge to help other minority-owned businesses to compete to win government contracts. Grace will be but one of the speakers at an upcoming free event aimed at “cracking the code.” It will explain the importance of becoming a certified minority-owned business. There will also be information to shed light on bidding, the procurement process, and resources for entrepreneurs of color.

Presented by the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Office of Equity in Procurement, the October 12 event in North Minneapolis will provide hands-on, practical guidance to small businesses. The program is part of a state initiative that aims to reduce disparities and empower small diverse businesses in state contracting.

Grace will be there to encourage other small business owners. “Seeing a business like mine motivates the next group of young guys trying to do the same thing. I know I’ve opened the door to other minority concessionaires,” he said. “Government contracts give everyone a shot; it’s an equal playing field.”

Grace knows that minority-owned businesses like his have a strong tradition of service and giving back. “I employ kids of color in the city. Like for the swimming pools in St Paul, I recruit high school kids, 30 or 40 work for me in the summer, some stay with me and then work Gopher games,” Grace said. “They say, I have a sister, my momma wants a part-time job’ and there we go. I’m a Minneapolis guy and I’m here to invest in my own community.”

“Cracking the Code: State Purchasing Power & Economic Prosperity in North Minneapolis” takes place on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), 2001 Plymouth Avenue North in Minneapolis. Networking begins at 8:30 am and the event takes place from 9 am to 12:30 pm. To register, go to https://mngov.ecenterdirect.com/events/1799 or call 651-201-2402.

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