How to Support Veteran-Owned Businesses in Minnesota, From Craft Breweries to a Local CrossFit & Yoga Chain
By Andrew Parks
According to Minnesota’s last census, there are 29,773 veteran-owned small businesses spread across the state. When thinking about how to thank former members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps for their service, consider supporting the following local favorites. Not to mention any of the “Vetrepreneurs” in the vast database that is updated regularly here.
"I take a very photojournalistic approach to my work," explains Lens Grunt founder Luke Shepherd. "It doesn't matter if it's a wedding or a business; for the most part, I'm just going to be a fly on the wall and capture what you're doing."
Shepherd first adopted this approach when he was called up to fight in the Iraq War. After picking up a point-and-shoot camera at his platoon's Post Exchange, photography immediately became both a creative outlet and a much-needed psychic release.
"I was convinced my life was over at 18," says Shepherd, rather matter-of-factly, "so I wanted a way for people to see my experiences and remember me beyond the 18 years I was on this planet."
Unfortunately, most of the raw material Shepherd captured during the war is on a white laptop he lost somewhere along the way. In fact, the only shots that survived those formative years are spread between a couple SD cards. Everything else is merely a memory, and a driving, underlying force beneath the personal and commercial portfolio he's been building from his Northfield studio over the past five years.
Sam and Caren Smith’s family has run Itasca State Park’s only camp store and bait shop since 2005. The Navy veterans now have seven children who help with everything from hourly rentals of recreational gear (life jackets, helmets, volleyballs) to advance reservations of pontoons, paddleboats, canoes and kayaks. Open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the store also rents a wide variety of bikes (tandem, electric, child and pet carriers, etc.).
Just when you thought Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood couldn’t get any craftier, Ben Gipson and Matt Caple stepped in to buy Lake Superior Brewing’s old space down the street from Duluth Cider, Ursa Minor Brewing and Wild State Cider. The home brewers hit it off at a special Canal Park Brewing Company event in 2019 and saw Warrior Brewing as a way to apply the altruistic spirit of Trappist monks — Belgian-style brewers who benefited the Catholic Church — to Duluth’s tight-knit community of disabled veterans. The duo’s many educational and fundraising initiatives include 50/50 profit splits with organizations that help with hand-bottling and wax-dipping limited beers. They also host occasional alcohol-free brew days with small groups of former soldiers and first responders looking to learn the art of malts, hops, water and yeast.
Located just a mile from the World’s Largest Ball of Twine — a landmark so beloved it has its own “Weird Al” song — is a pet-friendly A-frame big enough to fit a family or friends looking to hit Lake Washington by snowmobile, boat or skis. Owner Eric Omberg spent 21 years in the military, including multiple deployments overseas. His sprawling property is spread across six acres of private woodland, and features three bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, an indoor jacuzzi, an outdoor hot tub and a pontoon that’s available to rent for all your crappie, walleye and catfish-catching needs.
Just under 500 people live in Jenkins, but its proximity to Gull Lake, Nisswa and the Whitefish Chain of Lakes makes it a perfect stopping point on the way to a long weekend of laid-back living or such #OnlyinMN events as the HBO-endorsedBrainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, a.k.a. the world’s greatest tailgate party. Melissa Klatt managed another brewery for a year before falling in love with the industry and opening Snarky Loon’s German-style beer hall with her husband, Joe, a veteran who spent 21 years in the Army and Coast Guard. Their small-batch system encourages head brewer Josh Estensen to experiment with everything from a nitro-infused milk stout that is light in alcohol but loaded with flavor to a boozy doppelbock with bittersweet notes of dark chocolate and dried fruit.
Andrew Craw and Heather Packer met each other while they were serving in Afghanistan and opened their “veteran-owned and community-supported” restaurant in 2018. Their devoted customers — who often order Front Porch’s beer-battered jumbo shrimp by the dozen — kept the couple afloat during the roughest days of the pandemic and a GoFundMe campaign that helped cover the mounting ICU bills of their newborn daughter. Packer is also one of two women who run the Wabasha-based Herb + Arrow. (The other is Danielle Sorensen.) Unlike Front Porch’s burger-led menu, it leans into lighter salads and locally sourced ingredients, along with brick-oven flatbread pizzas and other farm-to-fork fare.
“Lots of studying and hands-on learning” went into the winery Ashley and Dan Reller launched in the countryside overlooking Hunt Lake. It shows; while they’ve only been open since 2019, Vintage Escapes has already tripled its house-made offerings and received three double-gold medals at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition. Nine other wines also picked up a silver or bronze nod the very same year (2022). If you’re wondering what to order, Ashley says that Vintage Escapes’s Marquette has been their “pride and joy” from the beginning. Its first award-winning run can only be sampled by the glass here, as can a cranberry wine that’s a hit around the holidays.
Beth Fynbo may have turned down a $250,000 deal on Shark Tank when Lori Greiner, one of the show’s investors, wasn’t willing to go below an 18% stake in Fynbo’s Southern Minnesota company, but the Iraq War veteran did manage to rack up six weeks’ worth of sales in the weekend after her episode aired. Busy Baby is now a multi-million-dollar company with seven products for newborns and toddlers beyond its signature silicone placemat that sticks to surfaces and sports tethers for toys, so babies don’t throw them on the ground. Beth also convinced her brother Eric — a fellow U.S. Army vet — to leave a retail management role and join the company so they can continue to build on the start-up business Fynbo first developed at the local incubator program Bunker Labs.
Juvelyn and Saul Mellado opened the doors to their South Minneapolis restaurant as soon as COVID-19 kicked in, but the married couple didn’t let the industry’s shift toward delivery and takeout derail its launch. If anything, they built a cult following much like their short-lived St. Paul spot Mi Casa Su Casa. Unlike its predecessor, Órale focuses on Mexican food rather than a 50/50 fusion menu.
Juvelyn’s Filipino background still pops up in some hit dishes, however, from sisig and shredded pork tacos to soy-marinated steak chopped up with chunks of onion and blessed with an acidic blast of lime juice. Órale offers the occasional Filipino special, too, including crunchy lumpia rolls, pancit bihon (stir-fried noodles with your choice of protein), and halo-halo (shaved ice mixed with sweetened red beans, coconut flakes, wobbling jellies and ube ice cream). Anyone on active duty, or with a military background, is encouraged to swing by for a free burrito this Veterans Day.
Serial entrepreneur and former Marine lieutenant Mike Jones has taken the local gym scene by storm in the decade since he left a marketing position at 3M — first as a co-founder of the CrossFit pioneer Union Fitness, and then as the CEO of the far more accessible CrossFit/yoga combo Alchemy 365. Jones and his wife, Andrea (a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst), were both major architects of Alchemy’s meteoric rise, including five locations in the metro area and three in Colorado. Mike stepped away from his CEO role in 2020, but he remains a key shareholder and board member as Alchemy 365 eyes other expansions throughout the country.
Sergio Manancero enlisted in the Marine Corps soon after graduating from Osseo Senior High in Maple Grove and ended up serving two tours in Afghanistan before receiving an acceptance letter from the University of Minnesota. Before he knew it, he’d gone from clearing dirt roads of dangerous explosives to drawing up the ambitious business plan for Minnesota’s first Latino-influenced craft brewery.
“When I returned from the Marine Corps in 2013,” Manancero told the TV channel Denver7, “and started going to breweries in the Twin Cities, the kids I grew up with weren’t going to them, and so I was trying to understand why. The whole idea [behind La Doña Cervecería] was to create a space for Latinos to get entrance into the craft beer scene, because they were being left out.”
Latino culture, and the Uruguayan background of Manancero’s family, influences nearly every aspect of La Doña Cervecería, including its Saturday night dance parties, three-on-three soccer gamesand the Día De Los Muertos-inspired art direction of designer Luis Fitch. Cultural influences are also apparent in the beer it serves, such as a spicy IPA called “Hot Sauce is the Best” that’s been aged in mezcal barrels and brewed with dried, smoked serrano peppers. The company is also recognized as a Registered Benefit Corporation “aiming to make a positive impact on society, our workers, the community, and the environment.”
Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.
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