The Entrepreneurial Leap

The Tastemakers panel: from left, moderator Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Tilia's Steven Brown, Salty Tart's Michelle Gayer, and 45th Parallel Distillery's Paul Werni and Scott Davis.

The Tastemakers panel: from left, moderator Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Tilia’s Steven Brown, Salty Tart’s Michelle Gayer, and 45th Parallel Distillery’s Paul Werni and Scott Davis.

Is it really the dream of every line cook to open their own restaurant? That was among the first questions posed by moderator Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl at the Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine Tastemakers event on Wednesday, July 17 at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. The title was “Going Solo: Twin Cities’ Finest Foodies Take the Leap.” It was an event more weighted with humor and oft-repeated business advice than detailed breakdown of original, successful operations, but that oft-repeated advice is repeated because it’s worth doing so—such as the sentence tossed by panelist Scott Davis, partner of 45th Parallel Distillery: “Everyone can be a rock star for one night, but you’ve got to learn to be consistent.” Oh, how many there are that should heed that.

But back to that first question. The answer: No, it is not the dream of every line cook. As with any profession, however, the longer one stays with it (and enjoys it) the idea of maybe—just maybe—running one’s own shop creeps into the brain.

That’s what happened to Steven Brown, owner and chef at Tilia, the hard-to-find-a-seat restaurant in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis. How long did it take him to get to that place where he felt he could open his own joint, asked Grumdahl. “Forty-seven years,” quipped Brown, his age when he signed the lease on the Tilia space.

Michelle Gayer, owner of Salty Tart at the Midtown Global Market, followed a similar timetable. “Forty-three years,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready (when I was younger).”

And she didn’t have time to think about it while she worked for Charlie Trotter in Chicago. Giving birth to a daughter changed that. “I can’t be a pastry chef for the rest of my life,” she said, adding that endless hours at work were no longer acceptable. “I gotta do something.”

The Tastemakers panel: from left, moderator Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Tilia's Steven Brown, Salty Tart's Michelle Gayer, and 45th Parallel Distillery's founder Paul Werni.

The Tastemakers panel: from left, moderator Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Tilia’s Steven Brown, Salty Tart’s Michelle Gayer, and 45th Parallel Distillery’s founder Paul Werni.

Gayer and Brown dominated the discussion, but it wasn’t without input from Paul Werni, founder of 45th Parallel, a spirits distillery based in New Richmond, Wis. That company gained a foothold in the market with its eponymous premium vodka, but has since added Border Bourbon and the more budget-minded Midwest label of vodka and gin. They also produce proprietary spirits, such as Referent, a horseradish vodka. Werni is a serial entrepreneur, who once had a landscaping business, which, he said, “Wasn’t my passion.”

Neither was distilling alcohol, but he saw an opportunity. “All this grain (from Minnesota and Wisconsin) is going to Kentucky and Tennessee to be made into alcohol,” he said. “Why not do it here?” That was 2007. Back then, there were only a couple dozen distilleries in the country. He was obviously ahead of the curve; there are now more than 250 across the country.

The takeaway for the crowd of about 100—a good chunk of whom were local entrepreneurs—is that, while Brown and Gayer were technically first-time entrepreneurs, they had truckloads of experience operating and opening businesses for others. Gayer moved to Minneapolis to gain the “opening” experience: she signed on to Franklin Street Bakery to start its retail operation. “Better to open a bakery with someone else’s money before I did my own,” she said.

Other items wanna-be business owners should heed: Take seriously your business plan and market research. On the latter, Brown monitored everything about the Linden Hills neighborhood. “I had a strong vision of what I wanted, but I researched the demographics,” he said—including neighborhood blogs. One he followed had a post that asked what might fill a vacant storefront. many of the responses were, “Would someone please open a neighborhood pub,” he said. “I knew then this might work.”

What makes an event worthwhile is for an audience is to leave with one thought they find rolling around in the noggin the next day. Here’s one from Steven Brown: “I was terrified to open my own business. I always thought I had to get more experience, I always thought I had to get a ‘little more under my belt.’”

The leap. To be an entrepreneur, one must take that leap. And it’s easy to be distracted by doubt, that “one more thing” a person might need—and never feel like they attain—to take that leap. Once Brown took the leap, he was soon digging into another venture, the Linden Hills Farmers Market. “You do it once, you can do it again,” he said.

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