Since 1948, Zaiser’s has been a family-run retail boutique and gift store in downtown Nisswa
An ownership change occurred at the start of 2022 with Biff and Katie Ulm taking over from Biff's parents, Mark and Kay Ulm, who bought the downtown Nisswa store in 1989.
NISSWA — After owning Zaiser’s gift shop on Main Street in downtown Nisswa for 33 years, ownership officially transferred at the start of 2022 from Mark and Kay Ulm to their son and daughter-in-law, Biff and Katie Ulm.
Biff has managed the store since joining his parents there in 2012. As the official owners, Biff said it’s still all about family, which describes the retail boutique from Day One.
“To this day, we keep it very close. It’s still a cooperative team,” Biff said via cell phone while driving to Atlanta for a wholesale show.
“It’s about the work, not the titles,” he said of his leadership team and employees.
Employee Sarah Hanson, 22, started working at Zaiser’s one summer while in high school and now works there year-round. She loves small business and reiterates Biff’s comments about the family atmosphere at Zaiser’s.
“It’s like a family here. Everyone is super close. We all work together,” she said. “It’s a small group of people that’s really close-knit.”
Hanson said Biff and Katie are like a second set of parents to her, and she called Kay “Grandma Kay.”
Mark Ulm succinctly shared the history behind the store that beckons people to “shop behind the red door” in this Dec. 28 post on Facebook:
“Zaiser’s was started in 1948 in Nisswa by Rose Zaiser. Her son, Dave, ran the store with her until she died. Kay and Mark bought the business in 1989 from Dave’s wife, Arlene, after he died. Starting Jan. 1, Biff and Katie will be the new owners. He has run the store for many years and has been in the gift-shop business with us for most of his life. We have always credited him with taking the business to a whole new level.”
Biff became involved right from the start.
“I was in ninth grade the first year my parents bought the store,” he said, when the Ulms were living in Garrison as owners of a meat market and the Mille Lacs Curio Shop.
“My grandparents would go up there for three days, and then my dad and I would go up there for four days that first summer,” Biff said, noting they stayed in an apartment in the back of the store where Rose Zaiser had lived.
“It was a much smaller shop back then,” Biff said.
Zaiser’s has been in the same location since 1950. When Rose and her husband, Hugo, opened the souvenir shop in the 1948-49 shopping season, it was in the current Lundrigan’s building while the current store was being built.
Growing up working in the store, I don’t regret anything.
Shoppers can see where additions to the store were made over the years by noting where the floors change colors. The apartment eventually was turned into an office and storage space, and a former outdoor garden became an expansive shoe display room.
Biff said Dave Zaiser kept a lot of historical materials in the basement, including postcards, catalogs and the original blueprint of the store.
Though the entire Ulm family has been involved in the store - Mark and Kay’s daughter, Holly, also managed Zaiser’s at one time - they never considered changing the store’s name.
“It was fun that we were a family business,” Kay said.
Biff and Katie’s three children have worked there as well.
“Growing up working in the store, I don’t regret anything,” Biff said.
But he and Katie understood the idea of working under parents, so they told their children - Zoey and Max, who are now college students, and Gus, a Brainerd High School sophomore - that their first jobs could not be at Zaiser’s.
“But they all ended up working at the store,” Biff said, adding he’s truly enjoyed working with family over the years.
“I lean into my dad and my mom when there’s big decisions on the line. How can you not with someone who has that much retail experience and have done what they’ve done?” he said.
A young entrepreneur
With his dad as a co-signer, Biff took out his first business loan at age 16 for $4,000 to start a DJ company that helped put him through college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“I always had entrepreneurial interests,” he said, adding his parents’ philosophy was that you made smarter purchase decisions if you earned the money you made.
His entrepreneurial pursuits included owning The Painted Turtle, a retail gift boutique next door to Zaiser’s from 1997-2003, owning a photography studio, and creating Nice Enough Stickers wholesale business in 2017.
“My degree was in marketing. I love business and I really love small business,” he said, noting his passion for photography as well.
Running both a photography business and a retail store at the same time became too much, however, as Biff had married Katie - whom he met when she worked at Zaiser’s and he at The Painted Turtle - and they were raising a young family.
So he chose photography and sold The Painted Turtle.
“To this day, it was the hardest business for me to sell and walk away from,” he said.
After a 12-year career in photography that required extensive travel, Biff made another career change so he could be closer to home and family.
“My mom and I co-managed (Zaiser’s) in the summer of 2012,” he said. “At that time, I just knew it was time for a new chapter. And Zaiser’s has always been such a special store to our family and I knew I could take it to the next level.”
A lot of our success has been with team members. I hate using the word ‘staff’ because they're almost like family.
His parents trusted him and were hands off.
“I’ve always run the store like it's my own, but made clear I was the manager,” he said.
The philosophy he’s carried through business is that the way you create success is by creating success for others.
“My job is to create amazing experiences for customers,” Biff said, adding the true niche for Zaiser’s is to find products shoppers won’t find online or in big box stores.
“A lot of our success has been with team members. I hate using the word ‘staff’ because they're almost like family,” Biff said, naming Ana Hennes, Kristine Fjeld and Katie Bowman, who cooperatively manage the store.
That frees him up to focus on his wholesale business, Nice Enough Stickers, which he first created as a line for Zaiser’s.
The challenge of retail is maintaining hours and being dependable for customers. Biff said his team allows both to happen.
He and Katie remain involved at Zaiser’s. A Brainerd High School teacher, Katie does bookwork and organizational tasks for Zaiser’s. Biff works weekends at the store.
“She maintains a healthy dialogue and keeps me grounded,” he said of his wife.
The best part of Zaiser’s is the customers, Biff said.
“It’s just crazy - there’s customers that I remember when they brought their kids in and their kids were little. Now you see them, and their kids are grown adults with their kids with them.”
Gifts available to shoppers are vastly different now than when the store first started, evolving from souvenir T-shirts and shot glasses.
There’s so much tradition in Nisswa, where people are on vacation so are usually in a good mood. Biff enjoys creating that positive experience, as well as working with other small businesses.
Saying he’s been blessed with the success in his life, Biff looks forward to the future and carrying on the original Zaiser’s tradition.
“It’s really easy to continue to have a place where people can see some stuff that they’ve never seen before,” he said. “When a person comes into our store, we just treat them like a guest in your home.”
“From the bottom of my heart, I want to see Nisswa thrive,” Biff said.
Mark and Kay
Driving in their motorhome to Texas, Mark and Kay talked about what they enjoyed most about owning Zaiser’s.
“We just enjoyed retail overall,” Kay said.
“Being self-employed,” Mark added, noting at one time they owned six gift stores. “We enjoyed people.”
Kay said they mainly dealt with tourists, who are really happy people.
“They’re on vacation. You’re dealing with the best customers,” she said.
Mark loved being involved with the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce and activities.
“You’re doing business in the town and trying to give back to the town as well,” he said.
Mark and Kay once owned six stores, including The Totem Pole. Zaiser’s became their lead store - “the biggest and best” - which is partly why they eventually owned just that store.
“How can you not love Nisswa?” Kay asked.
Nancy Vogt, editor, may be reached at 218-855-5877 or email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.