St. Peter entrepreneur tweaks local bait shop into successful bait and biker bar/grill combo.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
It’s not that there’s anything particularly unusual about Brad Hermel. It’s just a lot of little things. For instance, there’s the tan 1973 VW Beetle he drives up and down the two-and-a-half-mile hill between his home and business, Hermie’s Bait, Bar & Grill.
Another oddity, his bait business, which came with the building and is open year-round, accounts for no more than 10 percent of company revenue. But Hermel, with tongue in cheek, explains that people would have burned him out if he had closed the bait shop.
“There’s a need for a bait shop, especially when we have all these lakes and the river around us,” he explains. He’s open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most days, local customers occupy quite a few of the seats.
“It’s a down-to-earth bar, the music isn’t loud, and we have a warm, welcoming and casual atmosphere,” Hermel says.
Though the business has an on-sale, off-sale liquor license, Hermel maintains, “Most customers come for good food, good service and good prices. If you offer that, you’ll have people coming back.” There’s the additional allure of being just east of St. Peter on Minnesota Hwy. 99, a designated Scenic Byway, not a bad place for an establishment also known as a biker bar.
In addition to the old VW and the bait shop-biker bar and grill combo, there’s a visitor’s touch of surprise seeing the children’s toys around the house Hermel lives in as a self-described bachelor. Then, of course, there’s the seemingly instinctive entrepreneurial approach, something he claims is “in the genes.”
“I come from a long line of entrepreneurs,” Hermel says. “I was born and raised in the wholesale candy and tobacco business. I was loading candy trucks when I was seven or eight, sweeping the warehouse floor and marking trucks for painting.” His father, Clifford, sold the business in 1968 to his brother Howard, and then ran the Gibbon Ballroom, which seated 1,400 people. That gave his sons, Brad and Tom, the opportunity to load coolers with pop and beer and to sell popcorn during events.
“I actually popped and sold popcorn for 50 cents a bag with my friend Jay Schaus,” Hermel recalls. “We had 25 cents of that to split. On a good night we walked out of there with 10 or 15 bucks apiece.”
Working in the family business as a youngster, Hermel learned to understand supply and demand, work with people, be honest with them, and he learned the necessity of doing tasks when they needed doing. School was a different matter.
“I should have paid more attention in class and done the assignments, not goofed off,” Hermel says. “I might be farther ahead if I had carried on past high school and gone to college. But, I’m a ‘people person,’ so I might not have been happy doing something else.”
In 1974, an 18-year-old Hermel gained more hospitality business experience by working for his brother at The Mixer, a New Ulm bar. As Hermel discusses his family’s business interests, he throws out details such as, “My father sold the Gibbon Ballroom, which he had bought from his father, the same year Tom sold The Mixer—1978.”
Hermel changed gears then and spent the next three years trying a few blue-collar jobs. Along the way he acquired a wife (from whom he later divorced) and had three children, Josh, Sarah and Adam. The explanation for the toys in his house and yard are the four grandchildren he now has.
“I had a job in 1979 with Geldner Construction, burying phone cable,” Hermel says. “I did that for a year-and-a-half, then drove semi for nine months and moved on to Komatz Construction, where I operated large road equipment and drove dump truck.” Next he worked at the Unimin silica plant in Ottawa, Minn., where he ran a large front-end loader in the pit. About the time he was due to be laid off in 1982, his father heard about an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
Hermel can still recall the conversation he had with his father. Hermel says, “He said ‘You got a wife and three children to feed. There’s a bar for sale in LeSueur, the Green Mill Bar. Get in the car.’ He didn’t ask me. We went there, looked at it and made the offer. It was accepted three days later. I was scared to death.” He took over the bar on June 2, 1982.
“I was standing behind the bar the first night in my polyester gray pants and my white shirt,” Hermel recalls, “following my father’s advice to look professional.” (Nowadays he wears blue jeans, a Hermie’s logo T-shirt and a Hermie’s camouflage baseball cap.) “The drinking age was 19 then. It was graduation night in LeSueur, so there were many visitors in town. I think I sold $1,200 in beer, pop, liquor and cigarettes.”
When asked what the drinking age should be, Hermel has a ready answer: “It should be 19. By then everyone is basically out of high school.”
Hermel ran the Green Mill Bar for 14 years, which he sold in 1996.
“A guy just came in and wanted to buy it,” Hermel explains. “I lipped off a large (dollar) number and he came back two weeks later and bought the place—for that price.”
After he sold the bar, he took another detour from the entertainment business, but not from the entrepreneurial life. By that time his parents owned the Music Store-Radio Shack in downtown St. Peter, so he went to work for them at customer sales and kept the financial records. When his mother’s health deteriorated two years later, his family sold the business and he was unemployed.
“I had three weeks off in a row and didn’t know what to do with myself,” Hermel says. “I realized I had to do something, and electronics was not my gig. I saw a sign ‘Bait Shop for Sale.’ A vision came to me. I thought, What a perfect place for a pub, and keep the bait on the side. So I made an offer. I started this business with a building, a bait shop and a loan.”
He purchased the bait business and building from Dee Winkler on December 1, 1998. He took a year for renovation and opened in 2000 as a 3.2 bar, where customers brought their own bottles and he provided set-ups, seating 50. To get a Minnesota liquor license, he had to expand the seating capacity to 86, so he moved a wall in 2002. The following year he applied for a food license and put in the kitchen. Now, there’s seating for 86 indoors, with another 40 seats on the deck.
“If you turn that over three times in a night, that’s a good run,” Hermel says. Though he buys some local radio and newspaper advertising, his best promotion is word of mouth. Membership in the St. Peter Chamber of Commerce and several service organizations provides more contacts, especially when the Chamber gets many calls for a bait shop from people traveling through. The T-shirts Hermel sells, with a custom-designed logo showing a fisherman sitting on the banks of a river, also spread the word, taking it national on the chests of bikers.
The bait shop, which occupies a space about 12’x50’, has two refrigerators (one for night crawlers and angle worms, the other for leeches) and a walk-in cooler for pop, beer, juices and ice. A buffalo head, courtesy of his father, guards the doorway. The inventory is basic: rods, reels, bobbers, hooks, line, hunting caps and LP gas for motor homes and gas grills.
“I tried being a mini Cabela’s at first and lost $50 grand,” Hermel says. “The big boys can sell it for less than I can buy it.”
Next door, tongue-and-groove cedar throughout the bar area offer evidence of the $160,000 makeover in 2005, which included a new roof and an addition to the bar. That’s also the year separate restrooms for men and women replaced the unisex lavatory.
Hermel works about 60 hours a week, 12 hours a day from Wednesday through Sunday. That doesn’t include the bookwork he does at home.
“I do cooking and bartending,” he says. “I listen to customers’ problems. Like most bartenders, I’m a poor man’s psychologist.”
Hermie’s seven full-time and 24 part-time employees include his sister and brother-in-law, Susan and John Cook, to whom he credits his success.
“My mother and father worked all the time, so I was part of Susan and John’s family while growing up,” Hermel explains. “She’s 18 years older than I am. They got me to where I am today, and if I have too much fun, they pull the reins and keep me in line.”
Serving well over 225 people on the biggest nights, Fridays and Saturdays, Hermel credits much of the bar and grill’s success to its location on the Highway 99 Scenic Byway.
“In the fall it’s a beautiful ride and we get many bikers,” he says. “We just had some guys in from Florida. We’ve even had people from Sweden on the Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Ride in August. One of the riders gave me the Swedish flag he had on his bike. I have the flag in my office. Now, if it snows a lot one of these winters, we’ll get a lot of snowmobilers. We haven’t had much snow the last few years.”
The October ban on restaurant and bar smoking doesn’t worry Hermel. “I quit smoking years ago and don’t sell cigarettes. I don’t anticipate a drop in business. People come for the food. There’s a lot of work with food, but it’s my biggest asset.”
Hermel a.k.a. Hermie
While Brad Hermel isn’t the only family member to be called “Hermie,” he’s the only one who chose to use his nickname for his business. “People called my brother Tom and me, and our cousin Dave, ‘Hermie’ when we were growing up,” he says. “Now, Tom is Tom and Dave’s nickname is ‘Crockett,’ but I kept the Hermie name.”
Many people think of bikers (motorcycle riders) as rebels and renegades. Hermel is quick to correct that impression.
“That’s changed,” he says. “The roughneck bikers are pretty much gone. Everyone is welcome on a bike. It used to be if you didn’t ride a Harley, you couldn’t ride with them, but those days are over. A biker is a biker no matter what he rides. It’s all about camaraderie, battling the elements—rain, wind, sleet.”
Hermel has the solution to the occasional confrontation turned physical.
“Send in the women,” he says. “We’ve never had a serious fight in the parking lot and never had to call the police. A woman employee can break it up with eye contact.”
One memorable occasion involved burning rubber rather than hot tempers.
“Once, during an after-Sturgis picture party (we look at all the pictures people took with their cameras at Sturgis), one girl and guy decided to drive their Harleys into the bar and do a burn out,” Hermel recalls. (For the uninitiated, that means spinning the rear wheel until the tire begins to smoke.) “They filled the bar completely with smoke, and there was fine rubber everywhere. I was up at the house and got a call. By the time I got down there, the two people had left. We had to clean up before breakfast, which we started serving at 6 a.m. at that time. (Now, we run the kitchen from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) It smelled like burnt rubber for days.”
He’s no stranger to Sturgis himself, having gone to biker events there many times. One of his retirement goals is to “have a little spot near Belle Fourche, South Dakota, a little piece of heaven in the Black Hills.”
Hermie In Herbie
Hermel’s father Clifford is the explanation for Hermie driving his vintage Beetle.
“My father bought it in the mid-‘80s from the track coach at St. Peter High School,” Hermel says. “It sat in a shed and then I bought it in 1999. I just put a battery in it, put two tires on the back, loosened up the brakes and away we went. One tank of gas lasts a month for local travel.”
Vital statistics: Hermel was born in Mankato in 1956, grew up in St. Peter and graduated from St. Peter High School, the youngest of three children. Brother Tom is 10 years older; sister Susan is 18 years older.
Education: Hermel’s favorite classes were metal and wood shop because, he says, “You had to use your hands and use your imagination.” He disliked English and history because he had difficulty staying focused on the required reading.
Childhood goal: “I wanted to be a race car driver or race motorcycles,” Hermel says. “My brother and cousin had motorcycles. I was kind of born and raised in it.”
Current goal: “To have the business where it is today, a small bar and grill with an atmosphere, and to keep my small place full.”
Hobbies: “I make time for hunting deer locally and pheasants in Aberdeen, So. Dak.,” Hermel says. “I go fishing year-round and I like snowmobiling. I ride a 2001 Harley-Davidson standard. The first time I went to Sturgis was 1977. I’ve gone every year for the last seven years.”
Retirement goal: In addition to having a piece of heaven in the Black Hills, Hermel would like to buy a houseboat and live on the Mississippi River.
Business advice: “Keep your nose to the grindstone, be honest, be firm and be able to make changes with what works,” Hermel says. “Be optimistic. Don’t let one week in the trenches take the wind out of your sails. Don’t be afraid to address issues, even when it hurts.”
Greatest business asset: “I’m hard working, self disciplined and lucky.”
Best accomplishment: “Starting from scratch and building Hermie’s Bait, Bar & Grill.”
Most valued possession: “My Harley and my lake home on Lake Emily.”
Most valued intangible: “My relationship with my sister and brother-in-law.”
Alternate career: “Over-the-road trucker, which would be a way to see the country, and I like messing around with big machines.”
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