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CDFI Helps Native American Businesses Thrive During (and After) COVID-19

In small-town Montana, Big Sky Cafe attracts a loyal following. 

In April 2020, as many small businesses scrambled to figure out how to keep the lights on during the sudden onset of COVID-19, Suzanne Racine was instead laying the groundwork to open a new business: Big Sky Cafe. 

“We signed our loan papers at the end of April 2020 and we were like, ‘should we really do this?’ you know… and we just decided to go with it,” Racine says.

Located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Cut Bank, Montana, Big Sky Cafe is part of a building that’s over 100 years old. The restaurant had been closed for about a year and a half before Racine and her family decided to purchase the property and try to revive the business. “We had to do a lot of remodeling,” she says.“The building was in pretty bad shape; the restaurant itself and everything.” After three months of painting and remodeling, the business opened August 3rd.

It was no easy feat. “It’s very scary,” says Racine of opening a business in the midst of a pandemic. “We followed the governor's guidelines on everything and just went with that.”

The pandemic wasn’t Racine’s only challenge with attracting customers to Big Sky Cafe.

“It's just hard to start a business in this area,” she says. “People are so used to running to one of the bigger cities. We have Great Falls, which is about 100 miles away to the southeast and then Kalispell is about 100 miles away to the west.” Racine says a restaurant is “one of the few businesses that can really make it in a town this small.”

There are also fewer financing opportunities than you might find in a bigger city like NYC or L.A., which is why CDFIs like NACDC, which supported Racine, play a vital role.

“A lot of mainstream financial services, like banks, they don’t really fund startup businesses. But we do,” says Angie Main, executive director of NACDC Financial Services, adding that they’re able to “get really creative” with financing. 

NACDC is a community development financial institution focused on providing financial support to Native American entrepreneurs and small local businesses. Aside from counseling services and technical assistance, they're also working on a building for incubators to boost the number of Native entrepreneurs in places like Cut Bank. They hope it will be available next year. 

NACDC has a fully Native American staff, and has itself also received support from other CDFIs such as Oweesta Corporation, which have helped NACDC build capacity, expand their loan products and build their loan portfolio. 

“One of the biggest challenges right now is the fact that on the Blackfeet Reservation, there's not a lot of facilities for business development or business startup,” Main says. “We're from different reservations but we know what the needs are. We know what the struggles are. We can relate to our clients.” 

Big Sky Cafe’s success despite opening in such an uncertain time is a testament that it is possible to actually build a thriving business here if you meet the needs of the community. Today, Big Sky Cafe serves not only locals, but is attracting patrons form surrounding communities like Shelby and Browning who are drawn to their classic diner eats and sought-after homemade pies. 

“We’re doing really well,” Racine says. “People are very good about patronizing local businesses. [Thing is] there was really nowhere else to eat breakfast in the whole town. And so, we open at 6 AM and serve breakfast all day long. People love that.”

This article is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.