Crow Wing Food Co-op is the people’s choice for the final Destination Downtown Business Challenge.

The co-op was the grand prize winner after 9,000 votes were cast to pick the winning business idea from the final three, which were whittled down from 73 applicants. The winner was unveiled Thursday night, Nov. 21, at the annual Brainerd Lakes Chamber Celebration of Excellence dinner at Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake.

“We are so, so excited about this,” said Jennifer Jacquot-DeVries, a co-op board member and capital campaign chair. Jacquot-DeVries put together the business plan for the grassroots business contest and took the stage along with other board members and supporters. “This is just amazing, we are so grateful to everyone all the judges and coaches who helped us through this.”

Jacquot-DeVries said they were honored to be among the other finalists and hoped all would proceed with their business plans by next summer. Jacquot-DeVries said they were looking forward to being active and engaged players in the downtown Brainerd business community.

Crow Wing Food Co-op President Theresa Woodward (left) and board member Jennifer Jacquot-Devries accept the top prize in this year's Destination Downtown Business Challenge, awarded Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Celebration of Excellence at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Crow Wing Food Co-op President Theresa Woodward (left) and board member Jennifer Jacquot-Devries accept the top prize in this year's Destination Downtown Business Challenge, awarded Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Celebration of Excellence at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“Thank you to everyone who voted and helped us get here tonight,” Jacquot-DeVries said. “The really wonderful thing about this is that no single person won tonight. Our community won. Our local farmers won and the city of Brainerd really won.”

The Crow Wing Food Co-op, which has long been part of the Brainerd community on Washington Street, proposed a modern and expanded grocery store with convenient ready to eat healthy food options that would be grab-and-go with sandwiches, salads, soups and coffee. The member-owned co-op would include a mini cafe and smoothie bar with along with space for cooking classes and a future addition of a rentable commercial kitchen. Anyone can be a member of the co-op with the perks of membership but shoppers do not have to be members.

The co-op proposes to expand its retail space, prioritize pastured meats, organic products and locally grown produce. With 40 to 90 shoppers daily, who come everyday, Jacquot-DeVries said they feel they can also bring in tourists as food co-op shoppers tend to look for the local co-op when they travel. Jacquot-DeVries said they want to provide delicious, healthy, local food to the community and to help bring the community together.

The Crow Wing Food Co-op envisions an expanded retail space, mini cafe and smoothie bar in a modernized setting. Renderings courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting.
The Crow Wing Food Co-op envisions an expanded retail space, mini cafe and smoothie bar in a modernized setting. Renderings courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting.

“The chamber and all of you here tonight, you understand the power of supporting small businesses” and keeping those dollars in the community, she said. “That’s the ideology behind the Lakes Proud campaign to shop locally first whenever possible. That’s a powerful decision and one powerful thing that co-ops do is create that connection between local eaters and local farmers and local food producers. And so we just ask you to remember the farmers are small business owners, too, and so the wonderful thing about this is the co-op is dedicated to helping those small businesses thrive and together our community thrive.”

Jacquot-DeVries said changing the way people buy food can change the way people eat and can lead to better health.

“We truly hope to see this ripple through our entire community,” she said.

Theresa Woodward, co-op board president and CatTale’s Books & Gifts owner, said they believe the farmers in the community deserve whole-hearted support.

A goal with the expansion is to create more ready to eat food options and convenience food that also offer a healthy alternative and serve as grab and go items. The Crow Wing Food Co-op also hopes to offer classes on cooking with whole, nutritious foods. Renderings courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting.
A goal with the expansion is to create more ready to eat food options and convenience food that also offer a healthy alternative and serve as grab and go items. The Crow Wing Food Co-op also hopes to offer classes on cooking with whole, nutritious foods. Renderings courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting.

“Our mission is to be cooperatively owned grocery store dedicated to sustaining a healthy and thriving community,” Woodward said. “ … We are going to work hard to create a store that will serve for our farmers and our community for at least another 40 years and we are going to work hard to make all of you Lakes Proud. Thank you for this incredible show of support.”

Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president, said revitalizing and transforming downtown Brainerd by providing a little spark was the whole idea behind the contest.

All three business ventures were guaranteed prize money with the contest winner getting a grand prize package valued at $65,000 and the other finalists each getting a $35,000 prize package. This was the largest prize package to date for the third and final business challenge.

What’s next for contest finalists?

Kilian invited the other finalists to the stage: Trevor Kruse and Chris Smith, behind the Minnesota Makerspace plan and Lois and Steve Hensel with Loidé Oils & Vinegars.

Kilian said Minnesota Makerspace was one of the more unique business ideas they ever evaluated with the contest.

Kruse and Smith, friends since the third grade, dreamed of opening a business together. The 2011 Aitkin High School graduates hope to tap into a strong do-it-yourself base visible in the popularity and proliferation of shows dedicated to DIYers. They also want to attract those looking for entertainment that comes from an experience, such as a shared activity among family or friends, provide space and tools for hobbyists, and serve as a place where entrepreneurs could start their own business.

Chris Smith (left) and Trevor Kruse of Minnesota Makerspace, one of the final three businesses in the Destination Downtown Business Challenge, talk about their future plans Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Celebration of Excellence annual dinner event at Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Chris Smith (left) and Trevor Kruse of Minnesota Makerspace, one of the final three businesses in the Destination Downtown Business Challenge, talk about their future plans Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Celebration of Excellence annual dinner event at Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The partners are proposing to provide multiple avenues of growth for their business from a retail consignment space, an avenue for DIY classes and creation space for members, whether that is working on furniture, creating shelves or making craft items for the holiday shopping season.

Kilian asked them where they go from here and if they would be in downtown Brainerd in the near future.

“Absolutely,” Kruse said. “We’re going to open in 2020. That’s the plan. It was always the plan. I guess it was just kind of an idea and now it’s going to turn into reality. … Doing this has been just the most surreal experience for both of us.”

Kruse said the support from the chamber, the judges and everyone who voted has been an awesome experience.

Minnesota Makerspace looks to tap into the do-it-yourself community with workshops, DIY kits and classes, as well as offering space to members who are entrepreneurs and need a dedicated space for their projects and who may benefit from a consignment retail outlet to sell what they make. Rendering courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting
Minnesota Makerspace looks to tap into the do-it-yourself community with workshops, DIY kits and classes, as well as offering space to members who are entrepreneurs and need a dedicated space for their projects and who may benefit from a consignment retail outlet to sell what they make. Rendering courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting

“I can’t believe the support that we have gotten,” Smith said. “Just getting messages from random people saying, ‘Hey we love your idea. When are you going to be open? When can we be part of it?’ That’s what we strive for. That’s what we want. And we are so excited for them. We are so excited for everyone. …Together we want to help make Brainerd a better place. It’s a great place, but we want to help just make things super exciting to be part of and just do it yourself.”

For Loidé Oils & Vinegars, the Nisswa-based business looking to expand to Brainerd and add high-end appliances with demonstrations and cooking classes, owner Lois Hensel said they already made the commitment to be downtown.

Destination Downtown Business Challenge finalists Lois (center) and Steve Hensel of Loidé Oils & Vinegars are presented on stage by Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Celebration of Excellence event at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake.
Destination Downtown Business Challenge finalists Lois (center) and Steve Hensel of Loidé Oils & Vinegars are presented on stage by Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Celebration of Excellence event at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake.

“Everything is in the works, so we will be downtown,” she said to cheers from the audience of about 600 gathered for the event. “I think there was a lot of misunderstanding. Our main focus is actually to bring in the high-end professional appliances and do demonstrations with them because I feel that it is something that is needed in this area. Most people if they want to see demonstrations they are traveling to St. Paul or Minnetonka and this is going to bring in people from the borders. We are going to bring in those oils and vinegars with those demonstrations, have activities that people can join in, cooking classes, have builder demos, the whole works. So this is a long-term commitment for us and we just plan on continuing to expand as we go forward.”

Loidé Oils and Vinegars includes a tasting bar and gifts. It includes artisan extra virgin olive oils imported from all over the globe and aged balsamic vinegars from Modena, Italy. Rendering courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting
Loidé Oils and Vinegars includes a tasting bar and gifts. It includes artisan extra virgin olive oils imported from all over the globe and aged balsamic vinegars from Modena, Italy. Rendering courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting

Kilian said that is the future of downtown Brainerd and the lakes area, entrepreneurs who are willing to invest, innovate, treat their employees well and give back to the community. That’s what is seen with Brainerd General Rental and 3 Cheers Hospitality and with Dutch and Irma Cragun, the businesses and people who were recognized for their efforts with awards Thursday night, Kilian said.

That’s the magic of the Brainerd lakes area and the magic of the Celebration of Excellence event, Kilian said.

The Destination Downtown Business Contest was a community initiative. Organizers weren’t sure it would be successful here but noted the results exceeded expectations. A Destination Downtown Business Coalition was formed with the idea of keeping the name and energy of the contest moving forward. Past contest winners were Brenda Billman-Arndt of The Purple Fern Bath Co. in 2017 and Marie Kirsch with Knotty Pine Bakery in 2018.

For more photos, go to https://bit.ly/2pFEg3j.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.