Paula Trenda, owner of Curly Girlz Candy, has been named 2020 Minnesota’s Small Business Person of the Year.
The U.S. Small Business Administration award makes Trenda eligible for the National Small Business Person of the Year award during National Small Business Week, which takes place the third week of September.
“Minnesota’s small business community is over 500,000 strong and Paula Trenda provides an inspiring example of how entrepreneurs here are making a difference locally as they position their products to meet needs on a national scale,” said SBA’s Minnesota District Director Brian McDonald.
“When I started out I just wanted to make chocolate and support my family. I was totally content doing that and working my little business,” Trenda said in March. “I started on the sugar-free candy because I have a lot of diabetic family members and I just didn’t care for what was out there in the market.”
The store relocated in 2017 from its original location in Medford to downtown Owatonna and has placed more than once in the Minnesota Cup — the largest entrepreneurial competition in the country. In 2019, the candy creator switched to sugar-free only online production, with a small selection of “sugared” candies available to order through the retail store seasonally.
Owatonna’s Curly Girlz Candy specializes in sugar-free, handmade, gourmet chocolates featuring local and fair-trade ingredients in many of its products. The company houses a production facility and a small retail location, which sells online, in-store and to local retailers. It also has begun exporting to Canada.
Trenda, CEO and founder of Curly Girlz Candy Inc., took a childhood inspiration and moved it to the next level. As a young adult, Trenda started making homemade candy with the guidance from her elder neighbor. What began as a hobby, turned into a career, when in 2003, Trenda became a chocolatier through an online program at the Ecole Chocolate School in British Columbia, Canada.
Trenda began to broaden her word-of-mouth clientele through selling gift boxes of candies and launched an online storefront in 2011 to meet high holiday demand. In August 2014, Trenda resigned from her full-time employment and opened her first retail space in Medford. In 2017, Curly Girlz moved into downtown Owatonna, which is now its brick and mortar home base.
In 2014, Curly Girlz Candy received an SBA-backed microloan through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, which also provided Trenda with ongoing technical assistance through the life of the loan. Trenda participated in Smart Start and Accelerate Your Business Training, a combined 12 months of training and coaching, one-on-one business consultations, and continues to participate in a monthly Food Peer Group for small businesses in the food industry.
Thanks in part to a growing business network and support from the Initiative Foundation, Trenda’s company hit a high with Curly Girlz Candy products featured in a Keto Krate subscription box service and as an official Super Bowl vendor. This winter the company plans to launch its proprietary sweetener blend to the general public, as well as a new candy product.
Trenda is active in her local community, giving back through community organization tours and working with high school and 4-H students to learn options for employment and entrepreneurship in the food manufacturing arena. Additionally, through Curly Girlz Candy, she provides donations and packages for local community auctions/events such as St. Mary’s School, Young Life, United Way and more.
Since the late 1980s, no one in Owatonna has had to feel alone on the holidays, thanks to the community dinners that serve upward of 1,000 people on both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This year, however, that may not be the case.
“Due to the current situation we’re in, we just can’t get the crowd together that we normally have for Thanksgiving,” said Mike Meyer, co-organizer of the community dinners hosted at the Owatonna VFW, as he and fellow organizer Joe Falteysek announced the cancellation of the 2020 Thanksgiving dinner. “We want to keep the option open for Christmas, but that is all going to depend on what happens with COVID.”
Due to the current constraints on gatherings and establishments in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the VFW would only be able to seat about 160 people for the community dinner at one time — a far cry from the typical 300 guests enjoying their meals with one another at any given time during the two seatings. Falteysek said it would also be near impossible to even follow all the current guidelines that dictate allowing people to enter in one door and out another.
“It was a really difficult decision,” Falteysek said. “But ultimately we didn’t have much of a choice.”
The 2019 community dinners were the first dinners the two men organized together, stepping in after longtime organizers Mike and Trudy Pierce announced their retirement in 2018. The Pierces took over for Virginia Stirens, who started the community dinner at the KC Hall.
While Meyer and Falteysek hope restrictions will be eased and the pandemic will be less of a risk come Christmas, they said they aren’t convinced that will be the case. Though they briefly considered having the dinners as a delivery-only option, Meyer said it would be too difficult to accurately prepare the correct amount of food for that type of event.
“The real purpose of the dinners is to bring all of us together,” Meyer said. “It needs to be in person so people can be together and socialize and not feel alone.”
Falteysek agreed with Meyer, adding that the dinners brought in a lot of happy faces that made the weeks-worth of work entirely worth it.
“I know a lot of families depend on these dinners, and we just want to apologize to them,” Falteysek said. “We also want to think them for coming in the past and hope that we can be together again for Christmas.”
In the first full week of 2020-21, Owatonna schools officials said they’re pleased with how smoothly the year started, and that they’re staying on top of of the what’s yet to come remaining in contact with health officials and making adjustments when needed.
“We’ve had a great start to the school year,” Jeff Elstad, Owatonna Schools Superintendent said, praising school staff for being flexible.
Elstad and Michelle Krell (director of teaching and learning) talked about how they felt the start went at Monday’s Owatonna School Board work session, as well explained how they are monitoring local COVID-19 data.
Developing a strategy that provides consistent programming to students is vital, according to Elstad. He says he meets with Krell and Steele County Public Health to go through the latest COVID-19 data, identify trends and discuss their situation every Monday afternoon. Beyond the communication with the local health department, Elstad said the district is also using an internal COVID-19 tracking tool. This tool helps identify when and if a student becomes ill, if they have received a positive test or if they have been in close contact with someone that has. He says the tool has been very helpful in keeping a rolling number and data to work with health services.
Currently elementary students are learning in person, and middle and high school students are using a hybrid model.
“We made a commitment to our district that we were going to keep consistent with that, but if we see a trend growing and its stays at that level then we have to adjust accordingly,” Elstad said about switching to a different learning model if needed.
The district has identified five key readiness indicators that will help the district understand if it’s ready to make the switch. The key readiness indicators are:
Staffing readiness — Elstad says this is a concern for the district as it is not flush with staff. This is particularly true if a group of teachers could not perform their job, say if they become sick or for other reasons.
Instructional readiness — Elstad praised Krell for the back to school plan she put together, which he says makes sure staff are well equipped and prepared to change models if needed.
Digital readiness — Each student has a digital device, according to Elstad. 2,500 computers were added to Owatonna School’s collection over the summer. Kindergarten and first graders currently have iPads and students in grades 2-12 have Chromebooks. The district has worked to provide internet access to students who may need it, Elstad says.
Operation readiness — Includes a variety of services the school provides such as child care, student nutrition, transportation, custodial and maintenance support as well as other responsibilities when it comes to the school operations.
Building readiness — Includes disinfection and sanitation processes, and utilization of space for social distancing and other barriers to protect staff and students.
Krell says the start to school was smooth because a lot of systems and protocols were already put in place. Any issues that came up were immediately addressed, according to Krell. Anyone interested in learning more about what the school is doing to mitigate COVID-19 can visit the Owatonna Public Schools COVID-19 webpage at isd761.org/covid-19/ covid-19.
Building relationships between teachers and students has become more important than ever this year. Krell argues that making these strong connections helps motivate students to take initiative in their schooling and do their work, even if it’s through a screen.
Twenty percent of Owatonna School students have chosen distance learning full time. Middle and high school students are participating in a hybrid model and elementary students are learning in-person with smaller class sizes and social distancing. These choices have been made based on local COVID-19 spread data.
“If we were to transition to the hybrid model there would be very, very small nuances that we would have to change or tweak to be able to slide into that,” Krell said about the elementary schools.
Owatonna Schools hopes to stay in the current in-person model for as long as it can, as consistency, especially for younger students, is important.
Fourteen elementary school teachers provide distance learning full time. At the middle school there are core classes that are specifically designed for distance learning, while other courses have teachers managing both styles of learning at the same time. High school teachers are also managing both in-person learning and distance learning simultaneously.
“The creativity of our teachers, the stamina and the resilience and just positive attitude has been really important for us and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that everybody has pitched in, it’s all hands on deck,” Krell said.