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.

Spring Thaw – Lost Creek Falls

Courtesy: Cornucopia.net
Courtesy: Cornucopiawisconsin.net

I remember it like yesterday. It was spring, 2005 and I had just met this odd duck online named Steve. After dining over Chinese food and cheap beer we determined we liked each other enough to hang out again. Since it was spring thaw and Steve claimed to be an outdoorsman/forester, he suggested we hike to this remote waterfall that is off the beaten path but particularly spectacular this time of year.

An avid hiker and even backpacker at the time, I was delighted by the prospects of heading out on this adventure to something I had never even heard of. On a Saturday morning in April, we made the drive in his ’98 Honda Civic to a remote parking lot next to a cemetery near Cornucopia. It seemed a bit odd to me at the time and I started to wonder just how much do I know about this strange man that’s taking me to this remote location. It turns out that perhaps Steve didn’t exactly know where said place was either.

A snow covered ground and brown and green canopy of trees engulf us. The further we go into the woods, the more my feet squish and break through piles of snow leaving my feet damp and my leg muscles aching. Soon, my visions of murder are replaced with the calm that can only be discovered in the North Woods while one focuses on putting one foot in front of the other. As time progresses, I notice Steve looking around more than usual. I immediately become suspect because while I respect a man who takes in the outdoors, I can also immediately point out a man who is lost. We soon hit a clearing where Steve casually pulls out a satellite map and his compass and looks left and right… and then left and right again. “Hm,” he says.

I begin to panic. I, of course, have been paying absolutely no attention to where I was going. And, since I didn’t drive and was new to the area, I had no clue if we were next to civilization regardless of what way we walked or would spend the rest of our weekend wandering around hoping to find some snippet of life.

Since this was only our second date, I didn’t want to be rude so I refrained from going Erickson on him demanding answers. Instead, I casually question if he knows where we are. The repeated looks around the clearing are answer enough. After what seemed like eternity, he simply folds up the map and heads back into the woods. “I think I know where we are.”

My options are limited. I can either wander the woods in hopes a different random stranger finds me. Or, I can take a leap of faith and follow this stranger to this hidden gem in Bayfield County. I follow my gut, or in this case Steve, back into the dark forest. Soon we hear the trickle of water followed by a deep ravine filled with water, also known as Lost Creek Number 1. As we follow the water that has left its mark in this County Forest upstream the promise of a waterfall grows louder.

The waterfall itself is not that large, maybe 15 feet or so. But, in the height of spring thaw, the water volume is quite amazing. There is also something serene about how quiet the world is around the rushing of these falls. Unlike other falls, this one is out of the way, often overlooked and not easily accessible, allowing you to experience it alone. With no nearby roads, the sounds of traffic and city life disappear.

As soon as we arrive, Steve is ready to move on. Frankly, my wet and sore legs are as well. We make our way back to the car, this time not needing the map. But, something in me said there was something special about this day. I’m not saying I fell in love. But, similar to the river cutting its way into the ravine, Steve made an impression on my heart that day. Now, eight years later, that’s a spring Saturday I’ll never forget.

Unfortunately, I was playing it too cool at the time to snap photos of our first daylong adventure. I hope to return this spring, should it ever arrive in northern Wisconsin. I’ve also been told the fall colors are spectacular in this mix of hardwood and evergreen forest. Stay tuned for photos or find time next time you are in Bayfield County to venture out on this hike where perhaps magic can happen for you, too.

To get there: The route to Lost Creek Falls has changed since I first ventured there in 2005. Today, you can take Highway C south of Cornucopia 1.5 miles and turn right on Trail Drive. There, you will find a marked trail head parking lot. The falls is a solid 25-minute walk over uneven terrain.

Superbowl for the Dogs!

This weekend marks Superbowl 47. Being the sports fanatic I am (or more specifically fan of theatrical half-times, talking animal commercials and chips and dips), I plan to tune in. Truth be told, I had to Google who was actually playing, though. I’ll save you the trouble by telling you it is the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.

Before the big game, though, I hope to check out a much tougher sport, right here in Bayfield County. The Apostle Island Sled Dog races will take off near Bayfield on February 2 and February 3. While not nearly as long or as competitive as the Beargrease, I find the race much more spectator friendly. There are endless chances to mingle with the dogs and mushers, not to mention get up close and personal to the start. And, unlike Beargrease, mushers finish the same day, doubling your opportunity to see more than doggy rear ends taking off in the snow.

That said, my favorite part of the event is watching the Youth Race (16 and under). There is something to be said about watching kids manhandle a team of sled dogs and race 6-8 miles through the North Woods of Wisconsin. I know I couldn’t. But, it is inspiring just the same.

A few years back, I was truly inspired by just how tough these girls were. It was the start of the race and the smallest of the racers lined her dogs up at the start. She was decked out in pink gear, a huge smile and weighed in at maybe 75 pounds max. A man, who I assume was her father, gave her some last minute tips. She nodded and smiled, ready for her turn to go. But, something went wrong when she was told to go. The sled jerked, causing her to flip off of it backwards. The spirited crowd went silent for what seemed like minutes but was perhaps mere seconds. My heart sank. But, before anyone could even react, she popped up and took off running after her team, jumping on the sled and heading full speed into the woods without a care in the word. Her dad just stood by grinning from ear to ear. I can only hope that I someday raise a child as brave as that.

I’m sure Superbowl 47 will display acts of strength, stamina and willpower not to mention emotional interludes displayed in 30-second acts. After all, these are supposedly the best players in the league and the biggest show in-town. That said, I cannot help to think how these players would fair in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin. For some reason, I think I’d bet my money of the Musher decked in pink.

Interested in seeing photos from a previous year’s race? Check out this like to the incredible Hannah Hudson and her take on the sled dog races of 2011.

Winter Fun Around Bayfield County

President’s Day is just around the corner. The heart of winter (especially in the northwoods where it has been known to snow in May) can be tough. Pretty, but tough—tough for business, tough for folks living here, and tough on one’s spirit in general.

To remedy this, a number of towns in and around Bayfield County have found creative ways to breath life into the folks that live here and encourage others to see how great we have it. Sure, there is the Birkebeiner, the nation’s largest Nordic Ski race… but I frankly prefer Book Across the Bay. The President’s Day weekend point-to-point race on Lake Superior, at night, with only 1,000 luminaries lighting your way is pretty special, as are the people behind the race.

In today’s Pioneer Press, there’s an article about the race and its history. I hope to write a different piece in the future about the unsung heroes who make this race so amazing.

Folks who might not be that adventuresome but enjoy a great laugh might want to consider heading to Drummond, Wisconsin that same day. I have the chance to attend the Bar Stool Races a few years back. The community festival is surprisingly family friendly and quite entertaining. Plus, where else can you see grown men (and women) hurl themselves down a steep slope on bar stools supported by skis?

 

Drummond Bar Stool Races                   Drummond Bar Stool Races

Two great events within 30-minutes of my house on the same day. What more could I ask for? And folks say we don’t have anything going on up here.

Still not convinced? The craziness continues the first weekend of March with the world’s largest weenie roast near Cable, Wisconsin.

Artisan Coffee Roaster calls Bayfield County home

Update: March 13, 2013

I am very sad to report that Harry Demorest passed away on Monday, March 11, 2013. I’ll be drinking a cup of Northwestern Coffee Mills in his honor and can only hope to live life with half the passion he had. Rest in peace Harry.

************

“I get to participate in people’s lives. It is an important part of their day and I get to be a part of it.” Harry Demorest, Northwestern Coffee Mills.

One thing I’ve grown to love during my freelance career is the opportunity to meet passionate people committed to something they love. This couldn’t be more true of my encounter with Harry Demorest of Northwestern Coffee Mills in Washburn.

The meeting was particularly exciting due to my recent discovery of how delicious at-home roasted coffee beans taste. Harry was quite patient with my new-found passion for roasting and allowed me to watch him in action, pick his brain for some simple tips on roasting, while also learning a bit about his journey as a coffee roaster which I’ll share below.

The word artisan means different things to many people but I think everyone would agree, this man knows coffee and is creating a great product right in Bayfield County that everyone should have the pleasure of trying at least once in their lifetime.

Here’s a copy of the article that initially ran in Business North and some photos from my adventure.

P.S. If you’re reading this and feel a strong desire to buy me a present, this is a great option, as is any of the fresh roasted coffee at Big Water Roaster in Bayfield. While newer to the game of roasting, I find their stuff fabulous as well!

Coffee Artisan Finds Comfort in Northern Wisconsin

harrydemorestSitting in an unassuming office in north woods Wisconsin, Harry Demorest points to his hands and simply says, “these are working hands.”

Working hands are not uncommon in northern Wisconsin. In fact, the pre-dominant industries in the region demand sweat equity. But Demorest isn’t working the dominant industry of northern Wisconsin. The truth is, his at-home business isn’t even signed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something extraordinary taking place at this 20-acre spread in Washburn, Wisconsin.

Demorest’s trade is one of the oldest in the world—a craft that defines people’s morning around the world. You see, Demorest is a coffee roaster who has devoted his life to mastering the craft. At 70, he’s most certainly one of the oldest, active coffee roasters around.

Demorest first started learning about coffee in Milwaukee in the mid 1900s at Northwestern Coffee Mills. Demorest didn’t know coffee would be his life’s work—the fact is he was getting his masters degree in economics and was bound for corporate USA when he determined he liked working with his hands. Fate stepped in and before he knew it, he was no longer a college student but an apprentice of the coffee industry.

Training among some of the long established, successful coffee roasters and merchants (the company dates back to 1875) in Milwaukee, Demorest learned everything he knows about coffee by practicing the trade. Over time, his mentors moved on and in 1974, Demorest finalized purchase of the business.

At the time, the business included retail, mail order, servicing area restaurants and a small wholesale operation. In addition to coffee, there was also a tea and spice business. A solid businessman, Demorest constantly sought ways to grow business. In the 70s, this included being listed in the Whole Earth Catalog. Many of those customers remain his base today.

After years of battling retail and the Milwaukee business front, Demorest decided it was time for change. In the late 90’s, he and his family moved to northern Wisconsin. He credits the move for making him a better roaster.

“You don’t feel the same pressures up here that were in Milwaukee,” he says. “In Milwaukee there were too many other things to focus on.” The move also marked the last time Demorest had a retail store. Then again, he doesn’t really need one.

Today, Northwest Coffee Mills roasts over 800 pounds per month during slow times and more than 1,000 pounds per month during peak times. Most of the coffee goes directly to 500 customers in 43 states across the United States. The rest is distributed locally. In addition, he sells about 100 pounds of special blended teas and additional spices. He estimates selling more than $2 million in the past 20-years alone, but remains incredibly humble.

When asked about his accomplishments, Demorest is quick to point out that coffee is similar to a chair in that it needs four legs. The legs include the grower, roaster or processor, brewer and the context in what you drink the coffee.

Demorest says he is just “the processor,” but he takes the job seriously. “I get to participate in people’s lives. It is an important part of their day and I get to be a part of it.”

In his 40+ years in the business, he has watched the industry evolve into a marketing machine that at times grows tiring for this 70 year old.

“You walk down the coffee aisle in the grocery store and pick up different packages of coffee and they are all the best, freshest, world’s greatest coffees. How can that be? It ends up being all fluff and no stuff.”

The roaster at Northwestern Coffee Mills in Washburn, WIsconsin.
The roaster at Northwestern Coffee Mills in Washburn, Wisconsin.

At Northwestern Coffee Mills, Demorest has mastered the other extreme. He spends minimal money on marketing. His website is simple. His customer base is loyal. His focus is customer service and making sure each batch meets his expectations. He doesn’t claim to be the best but instead lets the product speak for itself.

During our visit, he shares his process. Roasting a 25-pound of Sumatra to a full, medium body blend, Demorest takes his time. A single roast can take up to nearly an hour—something Demorest says large commercial roasters balk at.

“Large roasters want to hurry up and get the next batch in,” he says. For them, time is money. But for Demorest, time allots for the senses to engage in the roasting process. Watching the beans color, listening for the crackling sound and smelling the bean roast is how Demorest gauges the process. At more than 43 years of roasting beans, he trusts his 70-year old senses more than any gadgets, gizmos or lesson books. His customers appreciate that.

coffeeBefore we know it, the batch is done and cooling in a stainless steel container. Soon, it’ll be packaged up and sent off for a customer to enjoy at their kitchen table hundreds of miles away. It is just one of many things Demorest loves about the business. “I’m in the business of putting a smile on people’s faces,” he says.

Looking ahead, Demorest doesn’t know where the business will be in 5 or 10 years. “I just turned 70. I’m ready to reinvent myself,” he says with a chuckle.

Whistelstop Half-Marathon – Race Recap

As a Pisces, I am supposed to like water. I live on a lake. I enjoy swimming, long hot showers, and taking strolls along riverside beds. But, running in the rain? Not so much. But weather is not to blame for my latest and most lackluster race ever.

I’ll be frank. This wasn’t my best performance. Whistlestop 2012 will go down as the little engine that could… but almost didn’t. I could give you a host of excuses: inconsistent training and a nasty cold winding down as I lined up for the race, topping that list. But, when the rubber hit the road, I was my worse enemy.

The day started with my alarm going off and me not wanting to get out of bed. This was odd for me, given my first two races resulted in me being so excited I could barely sleep. The forecast of cooler temps and rain was a total turn-off. This paired with a runner who didn’t feel good and knew in her heart, she hadn’t trained as much as she’d hope.

By the time we parked at the start, I was feeling worse. I didn’t want to get out of the car. I eventually did, only to head to the porta-potty. It turns out, this was yet another mistake. Standing in line with less than 10-minutes to start, I felt my heart sink. Surrounded by a sea of performance gear, athletic buffs brought out my worse insecurities. My head started spinning with self-doubt. I didn’t train hard enough. I didn’t lose that 10-pounds. I didn’t stretch, get enough sleep, eat right, do enough core strengthening… by the time the Star Spangled Banner was playing, I was ready to quit.

I lined up in back and made small talk with some walkers. We joked a bit. The race started. I waved to my husband as the herd moved toward the start line. But, when my official race clock started, I checked out. And, the three mile pity party began.

I had no energy. No desire. I was cold. Tired. I knew I was going to finish at the bottom of the pack… again. And, in that moment, it just didn’t seem worth it. By mile 3, I was setting a pace of nearly 4 minutes per mile SLOWER than last year. It was time to quit. Nobody would care. I was sick. I had a hundred excuses to not finish this race. It’d be fine. I picked up my phone to call Steve as more walkers flooded past me. But I couldn’t do it.

I’m not sure why but that stubborn Fin in me reared her ugly head. I had put myself in this predicament and the Erickson in me decided I needed to get myself out. The only way to do that was to finish. Maybe I’d come in dead last. But, at least I’d finish.

It was that simple. Despite race rules, I cranked up the volume on my I-Tunes. And, I started putting one foot in front of the other. I quit caring about everything I hadn’t done right and instead moved. Guess what? It worked. It turns out while I hadn’t trained perfectly, I had trained. By mile 6, I was wet, cold and miserable but I was moving. I was hitting my times and undoing some of the damage during my pity party. As I got closer to the finish, my speed increased.

At mile 10 I was hopeful I’d somehow hit the goal I had set but my body was telling me different. I had made up time but not that much. I was running out of juice and the time space continuum didn’t allow for pity parties. But I kept pushing. I pushed hard enough that some folks inadvertently mistook me as a lead full-marathoner. If only they knew. I corrected them as I jogged on by, just hoping to shave a few more seconds off my time.

As I rounded that final corner, the few folks braving the wet weather cheered me on. To them, I was just another faceless runner crossing the finish line. But for me, that line represented something else. I never have been and never will allow myself to be a quitter. The rest is just details

The stats: I finished at 3:23 or 1,395 out of 1,474, missing my goal by 13 minutes. I didn’t set a PR, but I shaved 12-minutes off my time from last year’s race.