Bulk Foods in the Woods… Why not?

This article first appeared in the December issue of Business North. I couldn’t help but sharing for the simple fact that it is folks like Kitten that make living in northwest Wisconsin so awesome. Plus, where else in the U.S will you find a massive Bulk Food Store in the middle of nowhere… Definitely off the beaten path but worth driving to any chance you get!

What comes first – the chicken or the egg? This is a common conundrum among new business owners trying to determine how fast to grow their business. Kitten and Eric Dymesich are no exception. But, the Mason Wisconsin couple isn’t letting that stand in the way of their dream to own and operate a local bulk food store.

kittenThe Bulk Food Store, LLC was something Kitten dreamed of opening since moving away from her childhood home in southern Wisconsin. “I grew up shopping at Amish stores,” she says. “After I moved up here, every time we would go visit my family, we’d stock up on supplies at those stores.”

It was after one of these trips that Kitten casually mentioned how great it’d be to have an Amish bulk food store in northwest Wisconsin since the closest one is hours away. Eric, who is always up for a challenge, took that comment to heart and decided to make her dream come true.

To accomplish this, Eric spent many hours in an Internet Café researching the industry. While this process is similar to many other entrepreneurs, Eric’s situation was slightly different due to the fact that the Internet Café was in Iraq. In addition to being an entrepreneur, Eric was also a combat medic who was deployed to Iraq in 2010.

While the time difference and location made business planning difficult, the couple never gave up. Upon returning home in 2011, Eric used his leave to set-up shop at their home in the outskirts of Mason. Doing so, accomplished several things.

“I always planned to be a stay at home mom,” Dysemich says. “This allowed me to run the store, while taking care of our two children.” The couple also had the space since they had built their home with extra space built in for a potential small business.

“We own this building and live here. When we were starting out we got some advice which was start small and build yourself up, and this was a way we could do that.” In July 2011, their doors were open.

Since then, business has steadily grown. But, their location has continued to be troublesome. Located on a country road outside of Mason, Wisconsin and at least 5-miles away from U.S. Highway 2, customer acquisition is difficult. Kitten says putting a covered wagon on Highway 2 has drawn a lot of attention. But, they are continuously looking for creative ways to market themselves in hopes of bringing new customers to their shop.

“We keep experimenting to see what makes a difference for us,” Dymesich explains. To date, they’ve advertised in local newspapers and radio, managed a blog, crafted articles for a free newspaper, managed a Facebook page and have a web presence. They’ve also started selling some of their foods online.

products Today, their marketing and hard work appears to be paying off. On any given week, they can see between 40 and 60 customers shopping the endless shelves of bulk beans, grains, flour, rice, pasta, nuts, dip mixes, candies, seasoning, dried fruits, drink and dip mixes and various local products such as honey and meat. At first glance, it might sound like a long drive to visit a grocery store but Dymesich says they are different.

“We are different because we provide our products with less packaging which allows you to get more for your money. It also allows you to choose different sizes.” She goes on to explain that the couple is also focused on bringing a better quality product to the consumer.

Some of their best selling items include unbleached, unbromated all purpose flour, Australian licorice, black cocoa, cheddar cheese powder, chick soup base and a variety of seasoning and spices.

A combination of unique, premium products at a bargain price has convinced customers it is worth the trek to Mason to shop. But, to be sustainable, they know they need to keep growing if they want to create a long-term sustainable business.

Most recently, the couple has expanded into a new market. For over the past year, they had been purchasing and selling Northwestern Coffee Mills beans out of Washburn, Wisconsin. When they learned former owner Harry Demorest has passed away, they began a conversation with his daughter Kate about the future of Northwestern Coffee Mills to ensure the long-time legacy of the locally roasted coffee continued. When it became clear Kate wasn’t going to keep the business going, they decided to acquire the business. Demorest had a long-time, robust customer base that he shipped coffee to in more than 40-states across the U.S. Today, the Dymesich’s hope to regain that customer base and build on it.

As for what the future holds, Kitten says they hope to continue building business in their current location to prove the business model and need for a bulk food store in northwest Wisconsin. Once that happens, they hope to move their store but continuing to live their dream of owning and operating a local business providing quality food to their customers.

Goat Cheese Anyone?

In this month’s Business North, I have several articles covering a wide range of topics from a local goat cheese maker, to an off the beaten path bulk food store and an in-depth look at the man behind the Evergreen Country Shopper. I thought I’d share the goat cheese story first, because well, who doesn’t love pics of cute little goats? I haven’t had a chance to spend time on the actual farm. But, the diligent reporter in me did find time to test the product. Good stuff Maynard. The cheese is awesome. And, I love that the farm is in Herbster–a personal favorite spot of mine, especially since my hubby and I keep buying land over in that neck of Bayfield County.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy the article. And, the next time you are in the area, you consider picking up some of this artisan goat cheese that you just won’t find in the aisles of any big chain. Happy eating!

Local Cheese Makers Partner Up to Provide Artisan Cheeses from the North Woods

Photo Courtesy: Mary Dougherty
Photo Courtesy: Mary Dougherty

47-year cook Michael Stanitis knew he didn’t want to be a chef forever.  But, he wasn’t exactly sure what he did want to do with his life. He knew he loved goats. And, he knew he loved goat cheese. So, eight years ago he began a journey on his Herbster homestead that today has resulted in a successful artisan cheese line.

“It just kind of happened,” he explains of his Sassy Nanny cheese line. “While I was still working, I got a few goats and started messing around with making cheese.”

It is a huge leap to go from making cheese in your backyard to becoming a licensed cheese producer. In the State of Wisconsin, you need at least three licenses including a cheese maker license, a dairy producer license and last but not least a cheese plant license. While Stanitis was confident about the first achieving the first two licenses, building a state certified cheese plant just wasn’t in his budget.

“It would have cost more than my house to build the cheese plant on my own,” he explains.

It was about this time that he met nearby farmer Fred Faye, who was also interested in making cheese—only using sheep’s milk. Faye, who lives on an old dairy farm, had the barn structure that could be converted for the facility. He also had the desire to make the investment. After much debate, the two decided to share costs on the facility but operate their businesses separately. This was three years ago.

University of Wisconsin-Extension Bayfield and Ashland Counties Agriculture Agent Jason Fischbach says these types of partnerships aren’t uncommon among farmers in northwest Wisconsin. “One of the goals of our agricultural development efforts in the Chequamegon Bay area is to foster networking and collaboration among our agricultural entrepreneurs.  By working together, these entrepreneurs are able to share resources, lower production costs, and access markets more effectively.” He goes on to say, “Our region has a long history of farmers working together and today is no different.”

So far, this partnership seems to be one more success story of two farmers working together to create a value-added product. Today, Stanitis says his business is doing well. This year he’s on track to produce and sell about 4,000 pounds of goat cheese. He focuses on the local market—and by local he means within about 100-miles of his Herbster farm. He extends a bit further south into Eau Claire. And, while he’s been asked to provide goat cheese in the Twin Cities, he’s hesitant to break into that market.

“I’m a strong believer in the local food movement,” he explains. “There are goat cheese producers closer to the Twin Cities than I that should really be in that market versus me.”

Photo Courtesy: Mary Dougherty
Photo Courtesy: Mary Dougherty

He currently focuses on distribution in regional food co-ops including Whole Foods in Duluth and the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland, along with various local markets. You’ll also find him at local Farmer’s Markets on the weekends. Right now, he’s selling everything he makes minus a small winter stash that ensures his regulars can purchase in the off months.

He sells a variety of cheeses that are primarily fresh pasturized cheeses. Lake Effect, which is a fresh spreadable cheese and Cabra Fresco, which is similar to queso fresco, are his most popular.

“I think people like the Lake Effect because it is fresh, soft and versatile,” he says. “It has  great flavor but not so much the aged goaty flavor that people associate with goat cheese.”

He’s also slowly entering the aged, raw cheese world with a variety of cheeses including a red wine washed rind Winey Kid and Finit Su La Paille which is a classic French-style moldy rind aged soft cheese.

The herd, which is 35 goats strong, is a herd he’s built from the ground up. In terms of what makes a good goat, Stanitis says he has a different breeding program that some farmers. “My goats don’t have to set world records in production. They just need to provide a steady production during  the lactation season and be in good body condition.”

As the goats reproduce, he keeps back the kids from the mom’s who have served him well while placing other goats with families in the region that want a couple quarter of milk for their family.

Despite his success, Stanitis recognizes he needs to make some changes to enjoy long-term sustainability. He currently produces the cheese and milks his herd of 35 goats daily, entirely on his own. Long term, he hopes to grow his herd to 45 goats to have a little more cushion in his day-to-day business operations.

“I always knew this would be hard work but this is really not sustainable,” he says. At 47-years old, he knows he can’t keep up the 12-hour work day, 7-days per week forever.

In a perfect world, Stanitis dreams of a couple that is interested in starting a goat dairy farm in the area that he could buy direct from.  “I would be all behind that,” he says. “I’d help them get set-up. But unfortunately, it is not that easy to find people in that.”

So for now, Stanitis continues to milk goats, make cheese and distribute it. Despite the hard work, he says he wouldn’t trade it for anything. “I still can’t believe how great this has been. I’m fortunate because people want to support me and I produce a great product.”

To learn more about Sassy Nanny or find additional locations you can purchase Sassy Nanny cheese, please visit their website.

Fun Times! Coffee Roasting Article Wins Statewide Award

I just learned that an article I wrote on Roasting Your Own Coffee won a gold award at the Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association Excellence Awards ceremony in the category of How-To. It ran in Duluth-Superior Magazine last fall. It turns out the article never made it to their website but I dug it out of my archives to share.

In terms of buying green beans Northwest Coffee Mills out of Washburn is no longer an option since the passing of Harry Demorest. (But for those who love his coffee, the Bulk Food Store in Mason has taken over the business). Alakef is still an option. Or, my new personal favorite spot is Happy Mug Coffee. Great product and the owner is willing to go above and beyond in providing some at-home roasting tips!

For those who take the leap to roasting their own coffee, Happy Roasting!

 Holiday Gift Guide-
Home Roast Coffee: A unique and fun holiday gift for coffee addicts
Some of our fondest memories revolve around the sites, smells and flavors of palette pleasing delights. From the cool sensation of ice-cream on a hot summer day, juicy burgers fresh of the grill, the sweet surprise of sugar snap peas straight from the garden, or a freshly picked berry from the heart of the North Woods, these simple palette pleasers improve our everyday life. But, for the millions of coffee addicts in the US, nothing compares to a fresh cup of coffee consumed daily.

This year, why not share in this intimate experience with your closest friends, by carefully hand roasting raw coffee beans as the perfect holiday gift? The process itself is simple, start-up costs are at a minimum, and the outcomes are endless.

Similar to the grapes used in wine, coffee beans vary from region to region with certain areas being known for specific types of beans. Even this can vary, though, based on the conditions of any particular growing season.

Separate from the region, Arabica and Robusta are the two general species of coffee beans made available. Arabica, which contains less caffeine, tends to have a wider variety of flavors. Robusta, on the other hand, has more caffeine but tends to be lower grade than Arabica. For the purpose of at-home roasting, we recommend focusing on Arabica beans.

To roast at-home, the first thing you need to do is purchase raw coffee beans. Alakef in Duluth or Northwest Coffee Mills out of Washburn, Wis. sell raw or green coffee beans online. In terms of selection, reading the brief summaries of the beans will give you a general sense of flavor. Sumatra, Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala and Costa Rica are great regions to start experimenting with and will provide a wide range of outcomes when roasting. Assuming you start with a moderate flavored bean, the largest variable will be how dark you roast your beans.

Once you have the beans in hand, it is time to start roasting. There are several ways to roast at-home but our experience is it tends to be smoky (especially if you burn the beans) so be prepared to have your smoke detectors go off. And, as beans roast they shed what is often referred to as chaff, which can get extremely messy. While this is the downside of at-home roasting, the fresh flavor of a home-brewed coffee far outweighs the cons.

There are many variations in how to roast beans but what you watch for is the same. The beans, which are green in color, immediately begin to lose their moisture during the roasting process. Shortly after placing the beans on heat, you’ll begin to hear a cracking sound, often referred to as pyrolisis. This first crack occurs just below 400 degrees. At this point, you’ll have created what is often referred to as a Cinnamon or New England coffee. As the bean heats, it’ll get darker. At 400 degrees, it’ll be light. As it approaches 415 degrees it’ll become light-medium, then medium and medium high. By the time the bean reaches 435 degrees, you’ll start to hear a second crack. During the second crack, the beans will go from being dry and brown to having an oily surface. Soon after, you’ll have an espresso bean. And, for those who like extremely black coffee, you can roast up to 475 degrees which is a dark French or Spanish coffee.

To start out, a medium roast tends to be the most forgiving because if under roasted you will have a nice light coffee versus the risk of being too underdone and if over roasted, you’ll have a full roast rather than an extremely burned, smoky mess. Once the beans have reached the desired outcome, immediately remove them from the heat source and begin cooling them with a fan. At this point, especially if you are roasting your beans extremely dark, cooling the beans quickly is key because as long as they are hot they will continue to roast each other. To expedite the cooling process, wear heat resistant gloves and continuously rotate the beans. This will also help remove the chaff.

In terms of how you heat the beans, there are numerous at home contraptions that’ll work. Perhaps the easiest is using a popcorn roaster. Poppers with side vents work the best because the airflow more evenly heats the coffee. To roast the coffee, limit yourself to 85 grams of coffee per roast and recognize that this may eventually burn your roaster out. Once the popper is on, slowly stir the beans until they start to pop. After their first crack, monitor them until they reach the degree of darkness you want. At this time, pour them directly into a bowl and begin the cooling process.

Another option is on the stove top in a large fry pan with a crank lid that allows you to stir the beans while having them covered. Line the fry pan with a single layer of beans and place on direct heat. In this case, gas stove tops work best. Roasting this way can take up to twenty minutes and requires continuous rotation of the beans to ensure even roasting. While tiring on the arm, it is the most intimate and easiest way to make sure you don’t burn your beans.

Our personal favorite, though, is roasting on a grill outside using a steel drum with holes attached to a rotisserie. Similar to stovetop roasting, this can take up to 20 minutes but you can do larger quantities and the mess is outside.

These methods tend to be smoky and take a while to perfect but are a hands-on, inexpensive approach to crafting the perfect holiday gift for your coffee loving friends and family. Expect to pay about half the price for green coffee beans as normal beans but recognize you lose some weight in the roasting process.

If at-home contraptions aren’t your style, a second option is making an investment of several hundred dollars for an at-home coffee roasting machine which simplifies the process and guarantee you more consistent results.

Once roasted, the beans will need to rest at least overnight prior to grinding. To preserve flavor, grind the beans at the last minute possible. Or, better yet, present them as whole beans with a burr grinder (the best way to grind coffee) as the perfect holiday gift. Roasting beans can be a rewarding and flavorful gift for friends and family, along with something you can give yourself year-round. Once you’ve perfected the craft, it can save you money as well while providing fresh brewed coffee at home.

Beth Probst is a coffee addict and freelance writer in Iron River, Wisconsin who began roasting her own coffee beans after discovering the closest coffee shop open by 7 am is more than 30 miles from her home.

What makes a great cup of coffee? A Bayfield roaster just might have the answer…

What makes a great cup of coffee? Is it the quality of the bean or the company you share it with? I’ve recently become a coffee snob after discovering the difference in quality a cup of coffee made with freshly ground beans can bring to one’s morning. Since caffeine plays such a critical part of my morning, I also started to play with roasting my own beans at home to see if I could create the perfect morning brew. While the end result is not as great as the pros, it certainly beats a burned cup of ground coffee from our local gas station.

I’m finding, though, that part of the joy of that morning (or afternoon) brew comes by sharing it with someone special. Perhaps that someone special is yourself, alone on your deck listening to the loons sing before your newborn wakes up and life takes a sudden turn into the unknown. Or, perhaps it is catching up with a long-time friend that you rarely spend time with. I am now convinced that whoever or however you enjoy that cup of coffee matters. And, I’m not alone. So often, the local coffee shop is the core of a community.

This past month, I had the opportunity to chat with Big Water Coffee owner Danielle Ewalt about her venture in Bayfield. She and her husband Jon took a leap of faith and invested their lives in Bayfield. So far, it is paying off. While we have yet to meet in person, I hope to meet them someday when my adventures take me to Bayfield. In the meantime, here is the piece I wrote about them, along with some fabulous photos by Hannah that ran in the October issue of Business North Magazine. Enjoy!

 Beating the Odds in Bayfield

Photo Courtesy: Stonehouse Photography
Photo Courtesy: Stonehouse Photography

Once named the Best Little Town in the Midwest by the Chicago Tribune, Bayfield swells with tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Given the sparkling blue lake, quality shops, gourmet food and quaint Bed and Breakfasts, it is easy to see why this is town is a hot spot for tourists and businesses alike during peak tourism season. But, come off-peak times, the town paints a different picture. With a population of just over 500, many businesses recognize year-round sustainability is a pipe dream and turn off their lights.

Big Water Coffee on Main Street is one of several exceptions to the rule. But, achieving this goal didn’t come easy and remains a constant work in progress—something owners Jon and Danielle Ewalt thrive on.

As for how they became owners of the coffee shop on Main Street, Danielle claims it was “serendipitous.” The couple, who was in their mid 20’s, dreamed of opening up a café somewhere in Wisconsin. As they were exploring small towns to possibly build in, they found themselves in front of a for sale sign in Bayfield on a crisp October day. “We had never been to Bayfield before but we had heard it was a cool progressive place,” Danielle Ewalt says. “After seeing the shop we did some research and ultimately decided this was the place for us.”

By February, they were living their dream of operating a coffee shop in small town Wisconsin. “John and I love food and drink. That’s how people connect with each other,” explains Ewalt. “We love the coffee shop because it is a gathering spot for everyone. Anyone can come and enjoy a $2 cup of coffee and feel welcome.”

Despite their passion for community, keeping their doors open hasn’t been easy. “We had no experience in food service,” says Ewalt. “We’ve made a lot of changes since we first opened. It has been a steep learning curve.”

For example, the couple no longer offers made to order food, instead focusing on being really good at what they do—making quality coffee drinks. They’ve also learned to scale their business up and down, going anywhere from 6-8 full time staff during slow times to 15+ during the busy summer months.

Photo Courtesy: Stonehouse Photography
Photo Courtesy: Stonehouse Photography

Jon, who is a self-taught roaster, has spent years perfecting his craft. He’s shadowed roasters he respects and cupped endless cups of coffee to learn how to get the best flavor from the beans. The couple has also learned that when it comes to quality coffee, freshness counts. “Our freshness differentiates us from other coffees in the area.” This includes encouraging folks to recognize coffee is perishable and stamping their package with a roasted on date. “A lot of companies don’t do this because they don’t want coffee to be seen as a perishable product, but we recognize that’s what makes our product different.”

As they have worked through the kinks of being self-taught business owners, Ewalt says a welcoming community has made the entire experience worthwhile. “You really get what you give in this community,” she says. “Once people realized we weren’t leaving in a year, they found no reason not to invest in us. It really is a supportive community.”

It takes more than a supportive community to remain profitable year-round, though. As a result, the Ewalts have spent the past few years focusing on how they could grow their business during off-peak times. As the only local coffee roaster in the region, the couple saw an opportunity to expand their wholesale business.  To accomplish this, the couple invested in new packaging that includes a UPC code, which is easier for other business to handle. They also hired a full-time wholesale rep, with an ultimate goal of balancing out the extreme seasonality doing business in Bayfield brings to them.

Despite this growth mode, the couple remains committed to community. They find ways to give back to their community—whether it is donating free coffee to local non-profits or serving on the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce.  In fact, their coffee shop is just an extension of the community—a spot for folks to sip a perfectly brewed drink, break bread (their bakery items are fabulous) and come together.

Bayfield Chamber of Commerce Director David Eades says having this type of business open year-round is key to bringing a community together. “Having a year round coffee shop is vital to the life of a small town – or any town. Not only does it serve as place to energize with a cup of coffee and a scone before you head out on your daily adventure, be it sailing, kayaking, skiing, hiking, or just going shopping, it also serves as a gathering and meeting place for the locals to discuss the pressing issues of the day. The coffee shop serves as an anchor business for the visitor as well as the resident as they begin their day and is an integral part of life in a small town.”

 To learn more about Big Water Coffee, visit their website here.

Local Brandy Coming to Iron River!

It is no secret I love living in Iron River. And, here’s another reason: White Winter Winery. I first learned about the winery while working at Northland College. It turns out the owner are alums, which lead me to their shop to do an article about their mead. Fast forward to today, and when I do drink, their Blueberry Mead is a favorite dessert drink of mine. Local berries and honey, made by a local couple in my hometown? It doesn’t get much better than that.  Or does it?

Last month I did an update on their business for Business North. It started as a piece about their Green efforts and being a member of the Travel Green program in Wisconsin. But, I was also thrilled to learn that they’ve jut received their distillation permit allowing them to create a local fruit brandy. It won’t be ready for two years but in the meantime, the permit also allows for them to start distilling Eau Di Vie – which is water of life in French. The colorless spirit will provide a hint of smell and flavor of regional fruits and maybe even be ready by this holiday season… in case anyone is looking for that perfect Christmas present for me!

Here’s a link to the full article if you’re interested…

Duluth Rocks

It is no secret that I love living on Moon Lake. In fact, life in northwest Wisconsin is pretty amazing. But, prior to my life in Wisconsin, I spent about a decade working, living and playing in Duluth. Leaving Duluth was extremely tough. There is something enchanting about the city. Many say it is the big lake. As someone drawn to water, I can relate to that. But, it is more than the world’s largest freshwater lake that makes Duluth so unique. This past summer I had an opportunity to write an article for Minnesota Business Magazine exploring why folks do business in the city. It came out last week as a 10-page spread. The online version can be read here. 

The article gave me an opportunity to connect with some of the new entrepreneurs to Duluth, along with some old favorites I’ve interviewed in the past. New or old, these entrepreneurs share a passion for life outside of work that reminds me that life is about more than what you do on-the-clock. It is a refreshing and welcome message to hear from successful business owners.

The article also gave me an opportunity to interview Mayor Don Ness. My path has crossed with Mayor Ness since the early 2000s. I first interviewed him while working in news about his efforts to keep young people in Duluth through an initiative called Bridge Syndicate. Later, I played on a softball team that he occasionally played on as well called Bacchus Crew. (For those wondering what Bacchus means, think Greek Mythology and drinking). While my memory is a bit foggy, I am pretty confident we lost nearly every single game we played. But, it was a great networking opportunity that provided plenty of laughs. Even then, I admired Don’s drive (he was President of the City Council). Since then, I’ve enjoyed watching him from the sidelines making a positive impact in a place I still to this day love. Duluth is lucky to have him.

Bottom line, it take more than a big lake to make a city grand. At the end of the day, the people matter. And in Duluth’s case, there are some great entrepreneurs and leaders at the forefront paving the way for a bright future in Duluth. And that is something I was proud to write about. I hope you enjoy the article!

 

 

Got Milk? (Guest Post by Beth Probst, author of circletouradventures.com)

This past week I had the opportunity to share my favorite ice cream business along Lake Superior for the oober cool “Girl from the Northwoods” blog. I also did an article in the July issue of Business North about the dairy industry and Tetzner’s. I frankly don’t have the patience or desire to ever go into dairy farming, but as a true northerner who loves my cheese, milk and ice cream (not to mention top the tater but that’s a whole different post), I’m sure glad there’s still folks out there willing to put in the time and investment for dairy. Enjoy the post and be sure to check out their blog as well!

Girl from the Northwoods

dairy sign

Ask anyone, and you might be surprised to discover that I’d choose pickles over ice cream any day, even when I’m not 7.5 months pregnant. I’m the gal that used to win pickle juice drinking contests as a kid while I watched my friends gag over the salty, tangy goodness of a chilled vinegar drink. That said I’m not one to discriminate against sweets just because my taste buds prefer salty, so I can throw back a bowl of ice cream like no other.

I’m not sure if that makes me an ice cream connoisseur. But, it does mean I have an opinion about the best ice cream around Lake Superior and that’s Tetzner’s.

Tetzner’s Dairy Farm is located just outside of Washburn, Wisconsin.  The family farm dates back decades—in fact 82-year old owner Philip Tetzner has been in-charge of the family affair for 64-years. He took over the farm…

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Dining at the Delta Diner

deltadiner

Reason #568 I love living where I live – the Delta Diner. I first dined at this hidden gem after a winter hike several years ago. The buzz about this diner in the middle of nowhere had been building and I knew I just had to make the trip to Delta to check it out. Um yeah. Amazing. Great atmosphere, super friendly service and one of the most creative North Woods menus I’ve seen. The Scandinavian in me loves the super thin, flavor packed pancakes and the carnivore in me drools over the fresh ground sirloin patties served up on Burger Monday. Add in handmade sweet treats, such as the caramel apple pie and life’s complete. All of that said, when I set out to do an article on a local investment group recently, I had no idea I’d stumble across another factoid that demonstrates just how amazing the Delta Diner is to my stomping grounds.

While interviewing Washburn Mayor Scott Griffiths about an initiative he’s involved in encouraging folks to pull their money from Wall Street and invest in Main Street, he suggested I speak to Todd about how he worked with the local community to drive his business forward. While the two initiatives are unrelated, I followed up and wasn’t too surprised to learn about the folks who wanted to invest in Todd’s vision. The article ran in this month’s Business North but in case you missed it, here’s a rerun of what can happen when you commit to a project you believe in–others can’t help but follow your dream with you.

Next time you find yourself in Bayfield County, make time for the meal of your life at the Delta Diner, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

To get there: Delta Diner is located at 14385 Cty. Highway H in Delta, Wisconsin. Truth be told, if can find Delta, you can find the Diner. From the East or West on Highway 2 turn south on H in Iron River.

One other notable – if you’re in the area, be sure to check out the Rainbow Lake Wilderness area 4 miles north of Drummond, Wisconsin. The Delta-Drummond road is a great way to access the North County National Scenic Trail within this area which encompasses 6,583 acres. It also just so happens this was one of the first wildernesses designated back in 1975. The first few snapshots of this slideshow are from the trail–yet another overlooked gem in Bayfield County.

Grassroots Group Aims to Invest in Main Street

A grassroots Chequamegon Bay area group has a vision of creating options for northwestern Wisconsin residents to invest their money in Main Street versus Wall Street.

The local investment group consists of passionate individuals and regional experts who are helping navigate and research the concept. One member, who first introduced the idea to the area after attending the Building Local Ecnomies (BALLE) conference in Washburn, is Mayor Scott Griffiths. He said the movement is about providing opportunities for both local businesses and investors.

“It would be a way for someone to go to invest in a business they know and believe in versus sending their money away” to Wall Street, he said.

Unlike a loan, the goal is to find creative (and legal) ways to make equity investments versus loans to help a business grow. By accepting such investments, recipients don’t have to worry about interest payments up front but can grow their business while the investor gets a return based on how well the company is doing.

While the concept sounds simple, finance regulations are not. As a result, the group is studying its available options.

“We’re also trying to determine who and where the businesses are that could benefit from this type of investment,” Griffiths explained, and how much they’d be willing to invest.

He envisions the process will ramp up as people learn about it and the group has successes to share with the community. And, while participants can’t take credit, one local business is experiencing significant success with raising capital through its local customers.

Success in Delta

Delta Diner opened its doors in 2003. The East Coast diner sprung up practically overnight in the middle of nowhere, or in the owner’s belief, the middle of somewhere – Delta, Wis., a dozen miles south of Iron River.

“Every time I drove by that spot with the broken down cobblestone building, I felt something should be there,” owner Todd Bucher said of the site.

After doing his homework, Bucher learned that from 1923 to 1972, the site was something special. The broken down cobblestone building was actually the old Delta Store, which included a gas station, groceries, post office and tavern. “It was the center of the universe for folks living in that area.”

Today, it’s home to the authentic East Coast diner. Bucher recognizes Delta isn’t exactly a population center, but says his focus is creating a unique destination dining experience to which folks will drive. So far, he seems right.

It wasn’t soon after he opened his doors that customers recognized how unique the dining experience was and approached him to see if there was a way they could become a part of his dream. While he appreciated the gesture, Bucher genuinely believes that until you prove your concept the financial risk should lie with the owners.

As time went on, business exploded. Successful as it was, to reach the next level he needed to built it out and maximize efficiencies. However, after 24 months of exploring finance options, he discovered traditional lenders just weren’t interested in his business model.

It focused on slow growth. After opening, he removed about 30 percent of the seating so they could focus on the customer experience and ensure they were bringing in the right type of customer. He knew that if he built an experience you couldn’t get elsewhere, people would make the drive, which would bolster sustainability. The banks didn’t agree.

“They looked at the fact that we were walking away from revenue and said, ‘you’re doing what?’”

Frustrated by his experience, he worked with a consultant to create a five-year business plan and explore other finance options. It turns out that state statues allowed him to take on a number of LLC members who were more than investors. These folks would actually own a percentage of the business.

Bucher knew people were interested, so he found creative ways to let customers know if they wanted to get involved, it had become an option.

“We didn’t want to impose on our customers,” he explained. “We didn’t want to imply that we want your money but instead that the door is open if you’re interested.”

Working with his brother’s ad agency, he organized a subtle campaign displayed within the diner that let interested parties know something was happening. If they reached out to Bucher, he steered them to a password protected video that explained his vision for the diner and what the equity involvement would entail. If folks were still interested, they could attend an informal meeting to learn more.

“We were looking for certain types of people to get involved,” he said. “We weren’t selling it as ‘Hey, this is a gold mind investment’. But instead, we were going after people passionate about our business model.”

Once again, Bucher experienced success. By the time the campaign was over, he had recruited 22 new LLC members to his business. They own 40 percent and invested $400,000 towards the diner. They attend annual meetings and vote on important business matters. And, while the return on their investment might take longer than is traditional, Bucher believes it will come.

“From an organizational standpoint, we are a good business with strong financials. But these people also have a personal or emotional connection to our vision. It is a different type of return.”

His investors have changed the future of the diner.

“The impact for us is huge,” Bucher said. “We have a larger, more efficient facility that we paid for in cash. This allowed us to do what we otherwise couldn’t have done.”

Looking ahead, Bucher is ramping up for an exciting couple years of growth and new experiences. One way he’s enhancing this destination dining experience is by offering a series of dinner events that range from a Blue Plate Lecture series that “treat the stomach and feed the brain” to themed meals and outdoor barbecues and bands.

The diner also plans to add e-commerce in the next 12 months to serve far away customers who might be craving the red beans and rice or homemade chipotle paste but can’t make the drive to Delta because as much as the diner is in the middle of somewhere, it is still a long distance from most places.

Start Your Year at Blu!

blu
Blu Ice Bar at Grand Superior Lodge near Two Harbors, MN.

Winter has a way of getting on my nerves. Long. Cold. At times boring, especially since I don’t excel at winter adventures. Luckily, I’m not alone. And towns and businesses all over the place are trying to keep things interesting in hopes folks like me will suck it up, bundle up, venture out and spend money and maybe even have some fun along the way.

Blu at the Grand Superior Lodge in Two Harbors was the first of ice bars that are popping up all over the northland. I had the joy of visiting it back in 2011. Two thumbs up to fun staff, creative drinks (and old-time favorites for the hubby), gorgeous artwork carved within the ice, and of course, my favorite color–Blue! I must admit, once you drink a couple of shots and sit on an icy bench, there aren’t too many reasons to linger around. That said, it got me out and was a great excuse to stay on the North Shore for a night. Even on the coldest of days, Lake Superior is still a beauty to look at!

Ice bar near Two Harbors, Minnesota.
Ice bar near Two Harbors, Minnesota.
Bartenders works his magic at Blu Ice Bar near Two Harbors, Minnesota.
Bartenders works his magic at Blu Ice Bar near Two Harbors, Minnesota.

Blu bar isn’t the only spot where you can get an icy cold beverage along the North Shore this winter. In Duluth, Little Angie’s is jumping on the ice bar bandwagon and upping the ante with a fire and ice theme. While I haven’t been in the bar, I’m a huge fan of their food so I imagine I’ll be having a drink or two there as well this winter.

Made in Wisconsin – Wreaths Galore!

There’s nothing better than the smell of a freshly made wreath. Well, actually there is, but that smell is up there in terms of wonderful Winter smells. But, have you ever wondered how in the world all of these wreaths are made? This past fall I had the pleasure of touring Winter Woods in Glidden Wisconsin. ImageThe 500 person community cranks out about 100,000 wreaths, swags and centerpieces in a 6 WEEK PERIOD. It takes about 90 employees to create these beauties that are then loaded up on UPS trailers, sometimes filling two or three per day, and shipped off to various places around the United States. As for supplies, the 200 tons of boughs needed to produce the products all come from the Wisconsin northwoods.

One of 90 employees busy hand crafting wreaths at Winter Woods in Glidden, Wisconsin.
One of 90 employees busy hand crafting wreaths at Winter Woods in Glidden, Wisconsin.

“All of the boughs we buy are local,” Ed Schmocker, the local manager said. “They tend to come from private or national forest land. Luckily we have about one million acres of that nearby.” He will spend about $120,000 buying boughs from approximately 50 different folks in the region who either cut for fun on the weekends or as their full-time job.

Perhaps this is normal. But I found this tidbit fascinating. As someone who spends a lot of time in the woods, I often come across folks parked on the side of the road with their truck beds filled with boughs. I always sort of wondered why you’d do this. Now I get it. If you want to learn more about the company, my full article is viewable here.