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Lightning launch program to support local small businesses

The Backing the Bay program will select one Tampa Bay area small business to work with each month.
St. Petersburg resident Sara Fludd will receive help from the Vinik Sports Group to promote her small business, "Pop Goes the Waffle," through the new "Backing the Bay" program unveiled Monday.
St. Petersburg resident Sara Fludd will receive help from the Vinik Sports Group to promote her small business, "Pop Goes the Waffle," through the new "Backing the Bay" program unveiled Monday. [ Instagram: @PopGoestheWaffle ]
Published Mar. 1
Updated Mar. 1

TAMPA — When St. Petersburg resident Sara Fludd’s specialty waffle pop-up food truck business had to shut down due to the pandemic, she was worried about her future. But she also had too much idle time on her hands and a commissary kitchen she was paying rent on, so she did one of the things she knows best.

She kept making waffles.

Fludd’s fledgling “Pop Goes The Waffle” small business sells waffle pops, savory and sweet liege waffles and waffle donuts around the bay area. Her waffles are sold at locally owned coffee spots like Kahwa Coffee and Blind Tiger Coffee Roasters, and were starting to fill catering orders for local businesses before the pandemic.

Among her waffle varieties: a unicorn waffle pop that is dipped in white chocolate and covered in Fruity Pebbles, the best-selling cinnamon bun waffle, seasonal options like peach cobbler and even a sausage, egg and cheese waffle with blow-torched melted cheese.

But when the pandemic hit, restaurants closed and the food truck scene gave way to quarantining. Fludd shuttered her operation for three months but still made her waffles to give to first-line workers, delivering about 5,000 to local hospitals and fire and rescue departments, then expanding her focus to working with the Pinellas County Urban League and donating to local food banks in South St. Petersburg and throughout the area.

“Just anyone we could find that had a need and were helping people, we tried to donate waffles where we could,” Fludd said.

Fludd’s business has gradually rebounded. And while she can smile when she says the pandemic has made her five-year plan more of a 10-year plan, her sales are operating at about 50 percent of what they were before the pandemic.

Now she will receive some help from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s ownership to promote her small business.

Over the past several months, Fludd has seen friends lose their food truck and been forced to close their restaurants. And while she’s making her way back, the food industry is still far from back to normal.

“You just don’t know from one day to the next if it’s going to be sustainable, if you’re going to be able to bounce back,” Fludd said. “I might say it was six to eight months of just panic. And we’re not out of it. It’s not constant panic. It’s very uncertain, and I think that it’s going to continue to change.”

That’s where the Vinik Sports Groups will help Fludd and other Tampa Bay area small business owners take that next step through its new “Backing The Bay” grant program. Unveiled Monday, the program is designed to help Tampa Bay area small businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic by providing them with marketing resources to boost their companies.

Each month from March through the end of the year, the Lightning will select one locally owned small business to work with the VSG marketing team to create promotional items such as videos, written features, promotions, custom graphics and Lightning radio spots.

At least half of the businesses chosen will be minority, woman, veteran or LBGT-owned.

“Clearly there is no marketing budget recovering from a year like we had in 2020,” Fludd said. “So I can’t even describe how great it is, because it’s something that we would never be able to purchase.”

Small business owners can apply starting today at BackingTheBay.com. There is a March 15 deadline for the months of May, June, July and August. The marketing assets are worth up to $50,000, according to Vinik Sports Group, so the program’s total contribution over the next 10 months can be as much as $500,000.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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