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Desrochers ready to create downtown experience - Downtown Destination Business Contest finalist

Bill and Lisa Desrocher are behind plans to open a microdistillery in Brainerd and are one of three finalists for the Destination Downtown Business Contest. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 5
Lisa and Bill Desrocher want to open a first in the area with a microdistillery, or a tasting room, that offers to create an experience not unlike an upscale coffee shop atmosphere but with spirits.2 / 5
Tours of the Brainerd Distilling Co. would provide a way for visitors to experience the operation and try a sample. 3 / 5
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The Brainerd Distilling Co. comes with a vision for a calm, relaxing atmosphere for a tasting room with about 30 seats where windows provide a view into the distillery.5 / 5

When their youngest child graduated from Brainerd High School in May, Lisa and Bill Desrocher had a fresh opportunity to take a new look at longheld goals.

And a business contest with a goal of creating an additional draw for downtown Brainerd came just at the right time to help them fast-forward their dream.

"We wanted to own our own business for a long time," Lisa Desrocher said. "We raised three kids and we are almost empty-nesters now so we talked about what business could we do together that would use both of our skill sets."

Bill Desrocher has extensive experience in sales and business management. Lisa Desrocher, a food scientist, has been developing food products for about 20 years. The high school sweethearts have two daughters, age 24 and 21, and a 19-year-old son. They said they thrive on being busy.

With talks and ideas already in play to start their own business, Bill Desrocher said the contest was good because it made them move forward and they relished the challenge. As both have full-time jobs, they were going to take the next year to work on the details. Until they saw the Destination Downtown Business Contest offering a $50,000 prize and a way to get a solid footing with a new business, while enhancing what downtown Brainerd has to offer. They had an idea they believed fit well for themselves and something that was timely in the market—a craft or microdistillery.

Natives of northern Minnesota and graduates of Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, Lisa Desrocher said a couple about their age started a craft distillery on their family farm and they've followed the couple's progress. The Desrochers visited their facility in June and it fit what they wanted to do.

"What we want to create is an experience not only for the local community but also for people who come to visit the Brainerd lakes area," Lisa Desrocher said. "We want to make quality products that speak to a wide range of consumers and utilize local organic materials wherever we can we want to source locally."

They want to show the whiskey barrels made in Park Rapids and other local growers.

"We want to create this great experience where people come—they'll see the equipment, they can tour and see how it's made. They can do a tasting. They can hang out in the tasting room. They can enjoy cocktails. If you are interested in how things are made, local ingredients ... that's really our mission and our vision."

They want to take things that are Minnesotan and look for ways to incorporate it like wild rice or rhubarb that are iconic to the region. They can envision Christmas shoppers walking in downtown Brainerd, stopping in, or groups starting a night out for dinner with a stop at their tasting room or as a nightcap.

"We really enjoy the downtown area," Bill Desrocher said

He said they'll have the opportunity to take something made in small batches and create a flavor that isn't like what is out on the market now.

They said the benefits of the small batch are there in taste and quality. Spirits come with a sweet spot with the good quality in the middle while both ends of the production are less so. The big producers, they said, cut those margins as close as possible for greatest profit. When the Desrochers toured microdistilleries they found the small batches had flavor they never experienced in mass marketed spirits. And they noted there are other benefits of that small batch creation as there are minimal side effects the day after consumption. For Lisa Desrocher, it's all part of the chemistry that has been part of her career in business and as a teacher. They are hoping to create a business they can leave as a legacy for their children.

They feel they have a good plan, Bill Desrocher said. It will be the first business they've owned but they have considerable experience to draw from. They have a goal of opening in June.

For the atmosphere of their tasting room, they envision a calm, relaxing location with about 30 seats where windows provide a view into the distillery itself and with a menu that changes seasonally. Cold winter days may be right for a hot-buttered rum.

Small groups of up to 20 could be scheduled for tour groups. Samples consist of 15 milliliters of each spirit. People can taste it and then decide if they want to buy a commemorative bottle of their favorite to take home.

Beyond the tasting room and the individual experience, the Desrochers see opportunities to distribute their product. Perhaps an area resort wants to use their spirit in its Old-Fashioned drink. They point to other craft distilleries in Minnesota who are now distributing their spirits on an international stage, with one selling its product to a hotel in Singapore. But their main focus will be really to appeal to the Brainerd lakes area, they said.

Growing industry

A Craft Spirits Data Project in 2017 evaluated performance and trends in the U.S. craft spirits industry, which was described as the first such comprehensive study for the beverage industry. Craft brewers were defined as licensed producers who are not openly controlled by a large supplier, meet ethical codes and fit under a production limit. The study was put together by the American Craft Spirits Association, Park Street and the research company IWSR.

Their findings included:

• The craft distilling industry sold nearly 6 million cases in 2016, up 18.5 percent in volume over 2015, with $3 billion in sales and 25 percent growth by value.

• The number of active craft distilleries in the U.S. grew by 20.8 percent, with 1,589 distilleries looking at the past 12 months ending in August.

• Employment in the craft spirits industry grew by 47.8 percent over the past 12 months, with nearly 6,000 new full-time jobs. As of August, the industry employed almost 19,600 full-time employees, an average of 10.5 employees per distillery.

• As of August, 2017, industry investments—primarily covering tasting rooms, additional production capacity and labor costs—reached $600 million in just nine months, up from $398 million for the entire 2016 calendar year.

• Exports are up 8.2 percent since 2015, with more than half a million cases exported with exports U.S. craft spirits reaching 566,000 cases in 2016.

The three finalists

• Brenda Billman-Arndt's Purple Fern Bath Company seeks to provide more than homemade soaps and bath accessories, offering to create a destination to make them.

• Lisa and Bill Desrocher are behind a plan for a microdistillery, or a tasting room, that offers to create an experience not unlike an upscale coffee shop atmosphere but with spirits.

• Ed Mattson's vision to expand on the Last Turn Saloon and Eatery is to create a draw for downtown Brainerd to host events, offer a brew pub and expanded restaurant.

About the Destination Downtown contest

The community effort behind Destination Downtown is offering a value in excess of $50,000 to help the winning entrepreneur locate a business in downtown Brainerd with support for success. Contest organizers created what they termed Opportunity Square, or four square blocks of downtown Brainerd—Front and Maple streets to the north and south and Sixth and Eighth streets to the east and west.

The final three were picked from a field of 49 applicants who responded to the business contest, looking to bring a new or expanded business to the city's core. The trio of businesses represent a combination of retail and experience-based attractions to add to the city.

To enter, applicants were asked to answer five questions this summer and from there, the entrepreneurs were whittled down until three remained standing. The winning applicant from the final three will be revealed Thursday at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber's Celebration of Excellence dinner and meeting.

Hear the finalists' stories on the DispatchCast

All three of the Destination Downtown Business Challenge finalists stopped by the podcast studio at the Brainerd Dispatch to share their ideas with host Chelsey Perkins.

The podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Alexa, Stitcher, Podbean—just search for DispatchCast—or go to www.brainerddispatch.com for a link at the bottom of the Dispatch webpage.

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