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Amy Ling

By Borrower Stories

Food-Lish-Us – Cyndy & Dennis Scott and their family-run food…bus

Food-Lish-Us: A food…bus?

At any one of the community events around Denver, Colorado, there is bound to be a collection of food trucks. Nothing adds to the festivity quite like a dozen boxy vehicles, each emitting a steady stream of delicious food and mouthwatering aromas into the air. 

In any given congregation of food trucks, however, Cyndy’s truck stands out. And that’s because it’s not exactly a truck…

“My husband sent me out looking for a food truck. And I came back with a bus,” she recounted when we interviewed her about Food-Lish-Us, the business the couple started together. “My whole thing is I wanted to stand out…I wanted to be different…And so, you have to learn, ‘Okay, what’s the hook.’”

Indeed, her bus-turned-truck is twice as long as an ordinary food truck, cardinal red with a pink accented “Cyndy’s” displayed in large, looping letters. The background is painted to resemble an 80s cafe, complete with records and a checkerboard floor.

In terms of standing out and hooking customers, it does the trick. The unique bus is reflective of its owners, Cyndy and Dennis Scott, a couple united in pursuing their passions, helped along by a small business loan program for veterans like Dennis. 

“We wanted to do something for us. Something that we can control, versus somebody telling us we have to punch a clock.”

Their story is captivating, but what really draws a crowd is the food they create together.

Irresistible food that connects a community

Good food has a unique power to bring a crowd together. And the beauty of food trucks is that they congregate first, and the people come after.

“I get the biggest thrill out of watching people enjoy the food and loving it…”

Cyndy’s truck serves homestyle meals “just like Grandma’s,” meant to evoke a feeling of warmth and security. She dishes up burgers, fries, and most notably, Cubanos: a salute to Chef, the movie from which Cyndy and her husband originally got the idea for a food truck.

Indeed, her customers eat it up. Cyndy remembers with particular fondness the Parker Days, an event she served at which had over 300,000 attendees.

“We never had not-a-line in front of us,” Cyndy told us proudly. Throughout the 3-day event, she regularly left the truck to restock on ingredients, navigating through the crowds in a golf cart to reach her car and drive to the nearest grocery. Their truck spontaneously ended up being part of a parade at the end; and afterwards, people wanted to tour the inside.

Of course, there were stressful days, too.

At Brighton’s Tiny House Festival, she and her husband Dennis found themselves frantically trying to put out a grease fire that had combusted on the stove. Remarkably, their customers stayed in line; and once the fire was out, they proceeded to order food as if nothing had happened.

Either way, it seems that customers love Cyndy’s food. And that, for her, is the greatest reward. 

“I get the biggest thrill out of watching people enjoy the food and loving it. It brings comfort to me…and it brings comfort to them,” she told us earnestly.

Customers waiting to order from Cyndy

A lifetime of cooking and adventure

Self-described as a jack of all trades, Cyndy has enjoyed a diverse professional background. At age 15 she began her first job as a cook on a guest ranch in Wyoming. After that, she would become a nurse for 25 years, then a bus driver, a beautician, a tour guide, and a saleswoman in the auto industry. 

“My life has been one adventure after another. And this is the next chapter of my book.” — Cyndy, states on her website

Eventually, however, she and her husband Dennis decided they wanted to stop working for corporations and start doing what they loved.

“Our kids thought we were out of our ever-loved minds,” Cyndy laughed. “But we wanted to do something for us. Something that we can control, versus somebody telling us we have to punch a clock.”

Dennis Scott, a veteran who also had experience cooking in the military

She and Dennis began to look into the idea of starting a restaurant. The couple was disappointed to find that a brick-and-mortar restaurant was beyond their means. New inspiration came, however, when they watched Chef, a movie about a talented chef who quits his job in a restaurant to start a food truck, where he can enjoy the freedom of cooking his own recipes — a story not unlike their own.

So when they sold their house, they used the proceeds to buy the bus, taking the opportunity to make their dream into a reality.

Inching along

Cyndy and Dennis looking over a menu sign

Running a food truck is never a cake walk, and it was especially difficult in the beginning.  In their first year with the truck, 2017, Cyndy and Dennis relied on the volunteer efforts of their family and friends to staff their business — something which Cyndy greatly appreciated, but laughingly recommended not to do.

“Everyone that knows us, they can’t believe that we have yet to give up…”

To meet various expenses, the couple applied for a loan with a regional bank but were turned away. However, their banker referred them to the Valor program, an extension of Colorado Enterprise Fund (a CDFI that CNote partners with) which offers loans to veterans.

Dennis, who had served in the military and even cooked for the officers, qualified for the loan. After a simple application process, they received an approval within the week.

Cyndy looks on from the window of her truck

The loan provided just the financial cushion they needed to meet maintenance fees, buy inventory, and pay for unexpected expenses — like towing bills of up to $1,400 a pop for that oversized bus. In addition to the money, they also received invaluable financial consulting, such as training in Quickbooks. Cyndy recognizes the difference the loan has made in the smooth running of her business, and she is grateful. 

“Thanks to the Valor program, we’ve been able to inch our way along without too much of a headache.”

The adventure continues

Today, in addition to Cyndy and Dennis, Food-Lish-Us employs two professional chefs and two general hands. The goal is that Cyndy will spend less time on the truck, focusing instead on background work such as marketing.

Cyndy Scott and her husband Dennis (left) with their team (right) standing proudly outside their food truck

As for more long term goals, Cyndy and Dennis are thinking about adding another truck to meet the demand of their food at local events. And they have not quite let go of their dream to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The adventure of the food bus continues — and who knows where it will stop next.

For now, the two are just happy to be along for the ride, doing what they love, on their own terms and bringing a smile to the world one Cubano at a time.

Learn More:

The Colorado Enterprise Fund, was founded in 1976 and is a non-profit lending institution that offers loans to entrepreneurs and small businesses unable to get traditional bank financing. For over 40 years, Colorado Enterprise Fund has been helping people realize their dreams of starting and growing their own businesses.

Food-Lish-Us – Visit their website to find out where they’re going to be serving up food next.

CNote – Interested in helping create another success story? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like the CEF The Colorado Enterprise Fund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.

By Borrower Stories

Jeremy Priest – Knotty Ties – Made In The USA, With Purpose

Ties that fit all

A tie can say a lot about its wearer. The first ties marked out the court members of Louis XIII, a French king who had admired the neck accessories of the Croatian mercenaries and adapted them as mandatory attire for royal gatherings.1

In the following 300 years, ties evolved into the more simple and streamlined form we know of today, but through subtleties in color and pattern they continue to provide distinction to their wearer. A red tie, for instance, can signal charisma or authority, while a tie covered with hotdogs might send a different message altogether.

Product offerings at Knotty Tie Co. in Denver, CO

That said, a tie is an accessory you want to get just right. Knotty Tie Co. makes it easy to do just that.

From its chic and accessible e-commerce site, customers can select and order ties from the comfort of their own homes. With over 350 patterns and 560 color options, they can design just the right tie, bowtie, or scarf for any occasion: from themed wedding attire to workplace swag, to a thoughtful gift for a loved one. They can even customize from scratch, entering their ideas on the website, which the company’s graphic designers will then mock up for them.

It’s a unique company that creates unique ties. But even more distinctive is the story behind it.

A unique business model derived from an altruistic mission

When we asked what he did to make his customers happy, President and CEO Jeremy Priest mentioned the phrase Made in America.

“For us, Made in America isn’t just a reason to buy…”

What this means is that his company produces every tie in their facilities in Denver, Colorado. With equipment they bought and painstakingly learned how to operate, they print the patterns customers select onto quality fabric. Then they sew the fabric into ties — completely by hand.

Employee operating textile cutting machine at Knotty Tie

This allows them to produce small batches of customized ties in a relatively short amount of time, something their competitors, many of whom manufacture overseas, cannot deliver on.

For us, Made in America isn’t just a reason to buy, it legitimately gives us a competitive advantage,” said Jeremy. Later he added, “It’s incredible how the mission [of the company] weaves into that.”

And it’s the mission of Knotty Tie Co. that truly makes it stand out. Surprisingly, it has less to do with customized ties, and more to do with the people who make them. The employees who sew the final product by hand are all refugees who fled various conflict countries to start a new life in the US.

Refugee employees at Knotty Tie

And CEO Jeremy Priest’s mission is to provide them, and other refugees, with meaningful employment opportunities.

The birth of a mission

“The mission of the company is to create meaningful employment opportunities for refugees…”

Like most people, Jeremy didn’t initially enter adult life with enough belief in a cause to build an entire company around it. Instead, his convictions grew gradually through life experiences.

The first of these was a military career of six years, four of which were overseas. “One of the things I witnessed in my military duties…was that people were yearning for economic inclusion and economic opportunities.”

Inside the store of Knotty Tie Co.

This inspired him to study economics and get an MBA in entrepreneurship. At the same time he was pursuing his studies, he saw that there was a population with economic need in his very own community: the 2,000 refugees who set roots down in Colorado each year.

“I really recognized that there were enormous barriers to employment and that society generically wasn’t really recognizing the barriers, and wasn’t recognizing the dignity of the arriving population and the contributions they could make,” Jeremy said.

One of Knotty Tie’s employees intent upon his work

Instead, many refugees had to take random jobs with odd hours as they struggled to transition to their new lives.

Thankfully, there were non-profit programs that helped refugees transition, providing English classes and developing their job skills. Jeremy volunteered for one of those programs. But a key interaction in 2011 convinced him his clients needed something more.

“To me it seemed like there was just something missing…”

He was training two refugees in janitorial skills when they told him they had 20 years’ experience in sewing and a lifetime of experience in farming. In “a crisis of his conscience,” he realized he was training them in the wrong skills.

“I appreciated the resettlement agencies…But to me it seemed like there was just something missing — and that was the connection between [the refugees’] existing skills and the employment pathways we should be putting them in touch with.” And that made it less meaningful for them.

Employee cutting tie

Thus began an effort to convince the non-profit to not only train the refugees in basics, but employ them in their existing skills, namely sewing. But when Jeremy realized this was outside the scope of the program, he began to take matters into his own hands.

Scrapping it

Raising up his own enterprise to employ refugees in meaningful work was no easy task. In the beginning, it was just Jeremy and his undergrad classmate and co-founder Mark — and they had to scrap it.

Knotty Tie co-founders Mark Johnson and Jeremy Priest

“Truth be told Mark and I were just so broke that we didn’t have cars,” Jeremy told us when talking about the early days of his company.

“Our first office was in an artist collective and we had to be able to walk there.” During their Kickstarter campaign in 2013, the two frantically produced ties, Mark in the afternoon after his shift at a cafe, and Jeremy all day before his night classes.

As the company took shape, they sought investors who would fund them despite them not having a high credit score. Thankfully an impact investor gave them seed funding of $40,000, and with it the valuable affirmation that their idea was worth all those long hours. This enabled them to hire two refugees with sewing experience and purchase some equipment to scale their efforts. It also qualified them to receive a loan of $10,000 from Colorado Enterprise Fund, a CDFI in CNote’s network.

“CEF was really an angel at the time in which nobody one else was willing to consider us on paper…”

With the money, Jeremy and Mark were able to meet payroll and purchase more equipment.

Later, when Jeremy showed CEF they could cut costs by two-thirds by manufacturing in-house, they provided a second loan of $100,000 to buy their own textile machinery. It was through CEF that Knotty Tie was able to fully implement its Made in America business model.

Knotty Tie’s textile printing machine

“CEF was really an angel at the time in which nobody one else was willing to consider us on paper,” Jeremy reflected. “They were willing to altruistically evaluate why we’re doing what we’re doing and what we were able to accomplish to date.”

Meanwhile, Mark, who was talented in technology, had taught himself graphic design and e-commerce and taken classes in full-stack web development, all of which equipped him to make the beautiful storefront website we see today.

Future plans for Knotty Tie

Mark and Jeremy in front of their storefront

With his signature eloquence, Jeremy told us of his future plans. His vision–both lofty and inspiring–includes developing business models to employ refugees even in camps overseas.

“These are refugees, but they are self-sufficient.”

In general, he wants to spread his mission of refugee employment to other for-profit enterprises, changing the global narrative from refugees who are helpless, to “These are refugees, but they are self-sufficient.”

But for now, he is focusing on the tie company, which he hopes to make a shining example of refugee resettlement enterprises to the world.

Marc Munyakabuga, production manager

We think he’s doing a good job of it. To date, Knotty Tie has a formal board of manufacturers consisting of seven members. Additionally, it employs six sewing refugees, two of whom have started college courses to pursue careers in fashion design.

One Congolese refugee named Marc currently serves on the board as production manager. In the future, he wants to start his own small business.

Learn More:

The Colorado Enterprise Fund, was founded in 1976 and is a non-profit lending institution that offers loans to entrepreneurs and small businesses unable to get traditional bank financing. For over 40 years, Colorado Enterprise Fund has been helping people realize their dreams of starting and growing their own businesses.

Knotty Ties – Visit their e-commerce store and buy custom ties for any occasion here.

CNote – Interested in helping create another success story? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like the CEF The Colorado Enterprise Fund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.