While the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns have been a major source of frustration for small businesses, it also has forced owners to get creative to help offset large revenue loss. That especially holds true for Mandy Wroolie, whose MiniSota Play Café was among businesses heavily affected by the shutdown and ensuing reduced capacity restrictions. 

“The shutdown hands down forced us to be creative,” Wroolie said. “I’ve been joking that I’ve pivoted so much I could puke. It’s like a spinning top.”

The date was March 17. Coronavirus was a relative unknown and was starting its widespread wrath around the country. Gov. Tim Walz announced a “Stay At Home” order while shuttering small businesses in an attempt to help curb the spread.

While consumers could help restaurants recoup some losses via takeout and delivery, retail owners were left to think “now what?” For a business such as MiniSota Play Café, which is neither a restaurant nor a retail shop, brainstorming on new ways to keep the cash registering ringing was a must to survive.

Enter sensory bins and putty kits. An employee brought up the idea, and Wroolie had her make three sensory bins to test interest. It’s since exploded.

Sensory bins are made up of colorful rice, beans or water bead bases that are themed with toys. The putty kits, Wroolie said, consist of homemade putty that isn’t sticky, slimy or crumbly and doesn’t quickly dry. They are geared for ages 3-10.

“It’s been great,” Wroolie said. “I would’ve never started selling these bins without (the shutdown). My 6-year-old daughter helps out a lot. I’m doing local delivery right now, shipping them and bringing them all over the place. We are just hustling as hard as we can. We probably won’t be shipping them when we’re open, but they’ll be in the store.”

MOVING IN PROGRESS

Wroolie opened MiniSota Play Café in Champlin two years ago as a place to allow parents and caretakers to enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation while the kids played in a safe environment. The Champlin location closed on Halloween after two years.

The new location, set to open by the end of the month at The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes, will have more than double the space of the Champlin location with about 5,000 square feet. The idea for the cafe first came when Wroolie and her then 4-year-old daughter were at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul, but she worried the space was too large for kids to be safe.

“My daughter loved playing in one of the areas, and that’s all she wanted to do,” Wroolie said. “We liked it there, but it was so huge. I’ve got two kids and one needs to be in the infant area on a different floor.

“This is such a great space for us,” she said of the new location. “We had this opportunity present itself, and with the store frontage and the mall itself, it’s really great for us. This space markets itself.”

The new location will offer several different mock shops for kids as play areas while parents or caretakers can put their feet up and enjoy a cup of coffee. Carpet has been removed from the new location, and the concrete floor has been polished for easy and efficient cleaning when and if and when a child customer has an “accident.”

“The idea is we offer creative and imaginative play while adults can have a coffee, smoothie or latte’ and just kind of relax and talk while not being concerned their kids will get hurt by falling off or climbing up something,” Wroolie said. “One of the things I think that is cool about our concept is kids think that this place is for them. But it’s really for the parents. Kids beg their parents to come here. But it’s set up for parents to be able to sit down and have an adult conversation with someone else without constantly being in a panic with where their kids are.

“It’s a safe place for them, which is huge. I realized how hard it is for adults to meet up at places with small kids and socially enjoy themselves as much as the kids. Normally, if you go to a place, it’s either for kids or for adults. If you can do both, it’s normally because you have your little one in a stroller.”

A PLACE FOR PARENTS TO CHAT, RELAX

As a mom of a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old son, Wroolie understands the need to get out of the house when the opportunity arises. That was part of why she started the business.

One of the unintended benefits of the MiniSota Play Café was seeing how parents and caretakers, along with their kids, bonded while enjoying the business. Casual conversations between moms, or their kids getting to know each other in the play areas, often led to the exchanging of phone numbers.

“A lot of times, I’ve had parents meet new friends here,” Wroolie said. “When you’ve had your first child, it can be lonely and scary. To be going through that right now (during a pandemic), I can’t imagine. That lonely and scary time with having a newborn and not having a place to go is scary. I see it a ton parents talking start chatting all the time. Either the parents start chatting or the kids become good friends, it’s a really great situation for the caretakers and the kids.

“To be here, and to be able to spend my time with a proven concept and I can spend more of my time to make the experience better is great. Both of the kids have helped with ideas. That’s the fun thing. I’ve had quite the roller coaster of a year like so many small business owners. I couldn’t be happier I’m ending it on the note of (opening a new location). My kids basically got to be raised in the first location, so hopefully I helped make them proud of their mom and they can be more proud of what they see next.”

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