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Finalists vie for 2nd Destination Downtown business prize

Joy Potthoff (left) and her granddaughter Marie Kirsch make cookies at her home in Nisswa. Kirsch is a finalist in the Destination Downtown contest with her Knotty Pine Bakery, inspired by her grandmother’s baking. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch 1 / 6
Artist's rendition of Marie Kirsch's Knotty Pine Bakery, a finalist in the second iteration of Destination Downtown Business Challenge. Submitted2 / 6
Mark Nesheim, owner of Wings Cafe at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, is a finalist in the Destination Downtown Business Challenge. Nesheim's business idea would bring a bakery, diner and catering company to downtown Brainerd -- Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 6
Artist's rendition of Mark Nesheim's Sourdough Sam’s Cook Shanty, a finalist in the second iteration of Destination Downtown Business Challenge. Submitted4 / 6
Lindsay Topp owns BluPaisley Boutique in Nisswa, and is a finalist in the Destination Downtown Business Challenge. Topp proposes adding another location of her store in downtown Brainerd. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch5 / 6
Artist's rendition of Lindsay Topp's BluPaisley Boutique, a finalist in the second iteration of Destination Downtown Business Challenge. Submitted6 / 6

Three finalists are now in the final stretch before the winner of the second Destination Downtown Business Challenge is named next month.

Dreams, energy and enthusiasm are all traits in common for the final three, who are seeking a $50,000 prize to help start their business in downtown Brainerd. They have visions to bring a bakery back to the downtown, to open a homestyle restaurant with made-from-scratch bread, and to bring a colorful boutique with an emphasis on fair trade and the retail experience.

Finalists are: Marie Kirsch, Knotty Pine Bakery; Mark Nesheim, Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty; and Lindsay Topp, BluPaisley Boutique.

Marie Kirsch—Knotty Pine Bakery

Inspired by her grandmother, Kirsch came back to Brainerd from Chicago with the goal of opening her own bakery.

"The contest came at a perfect time for me to expand my business. It's always been a dream of mine to open my bakery," Kirsch said. Presenting her idea before the panel of judges for the Destination Downtown contest was a way to share her excitement to bring her business to downtown Brainerd, she said.

In 2016, she started her home-based Knotty Pine Bakery with baked goods made from scratch using locally sourced and sustainably raised ingredients. Kirsch's baked goods come in all sizes—from those for family celebrations to individual servings, such as her single-serving pie sizes. While working full time, she also established her business by taking her signature pies to farmer's markets. In addition to pies, the business plan notes Knotty Pine Bakery would be able to expand its offerings of cookies, cakes, bars, breads and more—like butter crumb coffee cake and pie-crust cookies—to include sweet rolls, artisan breads, doughnuts, and savory pies like chicken pot pie. All would be available from a storefront in downtown Brainerd within walking distance of major employers and neighborhoods in the city.

Kirsch wants to look into offering hands-on classes like a sugar cookie workshop to add an interactive relationship with customers. She also identified finding potential clients from other businesses—area resorts, restaurants and food co-ops. Baking is a lifelong passion for Kirsch. The north Brainerd resident said she followed the first contest closely and wants to be part of the trend of a revitalized downtown.

"It feels like there is kind of a spark in the air, people are wanting more and more to want to shop locally and support the communities they live," she said."People like myself, part of the millennial generation, we've lived out in the big cities and had that experience and now we're wanting to move back to the smaller communities.

"I'm excited to be part of that."

Mark Nesheim—Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty

Nesheim has a vision for a homestyle bakery, diner and catering company in downtown Brainerd with scratch-made bakery items made from in-house recipes. Items would include pan breads, peasant breads, rolls, buns and biscuits from a variety of ingredients, including wheat, sourdough starters, wild rice and potato flours. Sweet items would include muffins, scones, cookies, brownies, cinnamon and caramel rolls with daily specials of cheesecake, crumbles and cakes. The diner would serve a menu from fresh ingredients to offer sandwiches, soups, salads, pot pies and hot-meat dishes and stews, including vegetarian and gluten free.

"Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty's success will be in our tried and true ability to maintain a quality product at a reasonable price, in a welcoming atmosphere," the business plan noted. It's a combination Nesheim points to for success. He's already been applying that business model at the Wings Cafe at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, where Nesheim has been since 2014. His past work includes head chef positions at such restaurants as Iven's on the Bay.

Nesheim's vision for Sourdough Sam's links to a strong downtown history of diners and cafes and to improve on the model for today with homemade dishes—boiled dinner, hamburgers, hotdishes, soups, breads. He'd extend hours into the early evening to offer affordable supper either in his cafe or for takeout.

Nesheim believes part of the success for an endeavor is the positive atmosphere people find there for employees and customers. He said he believes in putting profits back into the business in wages and operations.

"It is something we have to do to be successful," Nesheim said. He believes the quality and consistency is what will set his business apart along with service speed. As an addition, Nesheim could see adding a grocerette for people who live downtown. In four years at Wings Cafe, Nesheim said they've been able to more than double the business.

"What we do we do by being ourselves, honest, hardworking, skilled and motivated," Nesheim wrote in his business plan. "We stick to the basics of service and food."

"I think we can really be a benefit to downtown Brainerd, I really do. I'm looking forward to it. I think it would be a real hoot."

Lindsay Topp—BluPaisley Boutique

Topp created a main street business in Nisswa that celebrates women of all sizes with a belief that clothing can make a difference in how a person feels—by the way the clothing feels and especially knowing it's serving a global good at the same time.

The store focuses on soft, breathable fabrics that drape to flatter a woman's body. Topp describes them as versatile fabrics that can go from day to night and be dressed up or down. In her business plan, Topp outlined the boutique's style as effortless and eclectic, bohemian and confident. Artistic.

"We feel everyone should be able to find cute clothes and feel good in them," Topp said.

Now in her fifth year in Nisswa, Topp's entry would expand her business to include a downtown Brainerd site. Highly energetic, Topp said she loves learning and continuing to improve. "That is why I was genuinely excited and hopeful to learn a ton throughout this fantastic opportunity."

BluPaisley Boutique includes clothing and accessories, jewelry and gifts. Topp said adding a store to downtown Brainerd could mean expanding a home decor department potentially with dinner settings and table linens or possibly moving into offering footwear.

"This has totally opened my eyes to different possibilities," Topp said of the contest. "This competition made me think we could have our own clothing line potentially. ... I feel like the best things sometimes happen when you are not expecting it."

The Twin Cities transplant makes her home in Merrifield with her husband and two young children. She said a new Brainerd market would offer an additional learning experience and should include the ability to routinely update inventory with the latest merchandise. The store's lines are locally made, made in Minnesota or the U.S. with fair trade clothing, jewelry and gifts supporting the maker. They also focus on supporting vendors who recycle or repurpose things—even orange peel jewelry or sunglasses from recycled plastic.

Topp said the contest opened her eyes to the business community in the Brainerd lakes area with people and resources she wasn't aware of previously.

The Dispatch will provide more details with feature stories on each of the Downtown Destination finalists before the contest winner is announced Nov. 15.

About the contest

• The target zone for the new businesses is in Brainerd's four-block downtown core, dubbed "Opportunity Square."

• More than 70 entrepreneurs submitted applications for the $50,000 prize to help start their business in downtown Brainerd and gain help from advisers to create a business plan.

• Last year, all three finalists went on with their plans to fulfill their business dreams in Brainerd.

• This year's winner will be announced Nov. 15.

How it started

The goal from the start was to attract those who had an idea for a startup in mind. One they may have shared with close friends or family. The contest was hoped to be the catalyst to move dreams into actions. The community effort behind Destination Downtown offered a value in excess of $50,000 to help the winning entrepreneur locate a business in downtown Brainerd with support for success.

The finalists in 2017 were:

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

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

• Ed Mattson wanted to expand on his Last Turn Saloon and Eatery in downtown Brainerd by adding space to host events, add a brew pub and expanded restaurant.

• The Purple Fern Bath Co., which won the contest, opened its doors on Laurel Street in downtown Brainerd in May.

• The two other contest finalists, the Desrocher's craft distillery and Mattson's Last Turn

Saloon expansion, also plan to be open for business in Brainerd by the end of the year.

The Destination Downtown contest was inspired by the Small Business Revolution initiative, championed by the Minnesota-based Deluxe Corp. A few years ago, Deluxe purchased Brainerd business Range.

The "Main Street" contest searches for "America's most inspiring small towns," the company's website states. The winning town receives a $500,000 revitalization effort and is featured in the online series "Small Business Revolution-Main Street. Deluxe started the effort after finding small businesses and small towns were still struggling to recover in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Brainerd's first nomination drew attention to the city for the sheer number of nominations received. Earlier this year, Brainerd was again one of thousands of nominated communities across the country and this time Brainerd made the top 10, but fell short of moving on to the final five.

For Brainerd's first Destination Downtown contest, the Deluxe Corp. volunteered $20,000 and a grassroots community initiative started in 2015. The local business community added $30,000 of value to create the $50,000 prize and offered resources to help an entrepreneur to give them every advantage for first-year success.

Last year, 49 entrepreneurs submitted ideas for the contest, which was funded in part by the Initiative Foundation. This year, local investors chipped in toward another $50,000 community prize package for a second round to find another business idea to come downtown. To organizers' surprise, this year the contest inspired even more entrepreneurs to submit applications—73 of them.

"It just blew away the entire committee," said Matt Kilian, Destination Downtown contest steering committee member and Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president, in an earlier interview. Kilian noted people thought getting about 50 applicants for a second contest may be a stretch. Instead they received a mix of potential startups with retail, experience-based businesses and eateries among others.

Contestants work with a coach and put together a business plan with financials. They work with Central Lakes College Small Business Development Center and meet with professional advisers. The finalists make presentations akin to the television series "Shark Tank" before a panel of judges, who then decide the winner.

This year's winning business will be announced at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce annual Celebration of Excellence dinner Nov. 15 at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake.

"Over the past year, we have seen a lot of energy and momentum in downtown Brainerd," Kilian said at the contest's launch party. "We want to strike while the iron is hot and find the next big business idea that will take us to another level."

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