Spencer Vanderhoof, Natasha Frost and namesake Tony Friesen. (Photo: Kris Kathmann)
Mankato bakers strive to epitomize the local food movement by sourcing from, producing in, partnering with and giving back to the community.
For the owners of Friesen’s Family Bakery and Bistro in Old Town Mankato, their business model is not just a part of their business strategy, it is the very heart of it. A business model based not on how money will be made, but how it will be spent.
By committing to locally sourcing everything from the ingredients in the food they make, to the light bulbs that illuminate their beautifully remodeled building, Tony Friesen, Natasha Frost and Spencer Vanderhoof are striving to develop more self-reliant and resilient food networks in the community, and while they are at it, improve the local economy.
The trio believes they have found a recipe for success with even parts of locally sourcing whenever possible, zero waste practices and exemplary customer service. And each of the three owners brings something different to the table.
Tony grew up in a baking family. His dad Ernest owned Pastry Palace and Friesen’s Bakery, and also spent time running the bakery departments at Madsen’s and Randall’s grocery stores. Tony absorbed all he could from his dad.
Tony says, “It’s just what I’ve always done. I started working for my dad when I was 13 helping at the Pastry Palace. It was a natural thing to go in to work at 2 in the morning before school in high school, because that’s when you fry donuts! I no longer fry donuts, but I am still at work at 2 in the morning to make sure pastries are freshly made for the day.”
Tony went on to work for Hy-Vee for 19 years, transferring all around the upper Midwest.
His partner in business and in life, Natasha Frost, is also an attorney that provides legal technical assistance on public health issues to communities and local governments through the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. She was Tony’s best friend in high school.
Natasha says, “So I was also hanging out at the Pastry Palace back in high school. Although I was there after school not at 2 a.m.! We were high school best friends, so when I say I spent a lot of time at the Pastry Palace, I mean A LOT of time at the Pastry Palace. So I know the history of Friesens and their baking. My journey took me on a different path, although through my work now I am invested in the food system and public health and I wanted to bring that aspect to our business model. I understand the legal aspects, so that helps demystify that stuff.”
Spencer Vanderhoof, a college student who has known Tony since his early childhood, helps complete the ownership triangle. His focus is on the customer experience. Like Tony with his dad, Spencer started learning from Tony at a very young age.
Spencer jokes, “I was born the year they graduated high school, so I wasn’t in their class, but when I was about 14 I started working with Tony at Hilltop Hy Vee. He helped me get my first job. I started out pushing carts, paying my dues. I can’t say I enjoyed that part too much, but my dad, Rob Vanderhoof, instilled a strong work ethic in me from a young age. Not to mention he stopped buying me things, so I had to find some way to make money! But at 15 I got to work with Tony in the bakery, and started learning that aspect of it. Also, I did well in high school in business classes so always had that feel for the business side of things.”
Since opening at 515 N. Riverfront Drive in May of 2014, the Friesen’s franchise has grown from occupying 896 sf to more than 5,000 sf that now includes ample seating, a full-service kitchen including a separate area for making gluten-free items, and a newly renovated conference center that can accommodate up to 50. Their menu has also grown from baked goods and a few soups, to baked goods, a full lunch menu and catering. Their workforce has also grown, starting with four team members they are now up to 14.
It’s a business venture that has not only paid off for the three owners, but for the community as well.
Connect: Friesen’s opened in May 2014 and the community immediately embraced you.
Tony: When we originally opened, our idea was that we were opening a bakery that would sell a little bit of soup. We had 896 sf, four tables, and it was crazy. We opened to lines out the door basically for about five weeks.
The first week we were open we had to close two of the days because we ran out of product. It was very apparent that we had underestimated what Mankato was looking for in Old Town. Within about two months time, we rented out another extension to our space to help with storage and to add space for seating.
That’s a benefit of being a small business. We had the benefit of being able to listen to the customer, and make adjustments to our business model as far as what the customer was looking for. You know just because what we wanted to do and what we thought we would do on day one, well, three months later, six months later, a year down the road we had to make a lot of adjustments and our company has changed.
Yes, we’ll talk about the details of the expansion later, but first let’s talk about what hasn’t changed with Friesen’s: your fundamentals.
Tony: Definitely and that is what has allowed us to do what we’ve done. When we decided to do this, we wanted to do it right and that meant talking to other local small businesses we admired so we could learn from them. So before we opened I talked to Mom and Pops down the block here to find out how they handled their waste and the composting systems. I talked with The Coffee Hag to find out more about what they do with community involvement. In fact, Jen Melby-Kelley was the first person I sat down with months before we opened because I wanted her to know that we were coming in to be a part of the community. Not to compete, but to complement the other businesses here and what they are doing.Those two businesses were our biggest influence and we knew that if we were going to open a business down here in Old Town, there were certain things we had to pay attention to. And those were the same things that were already important to us; locally sourcing, zero waste and community involvement. Now I hope as we have seen our composting and our local sourcing be successful for us, it is affecting other businesses. Just as we looked to our neighbors in Old Town as an example, we hope others will now also look up to us. And we’ve started talking about it more, so if other businesses are not paying attention, they should be.
I know your original business plan was to locally source the ingredients for your products, but you’ve really taken it beyond that haven’t you?
Natasha: I think it has really evolved. We wanted to make quality products from the beginning, and source locally whenever possible. We knew that was something really critical to us. And in my world, my day job, I have seen it is hard for restaurants to do that. We were really fortunate because our head chef Sarah Haayer, was already doing that. That’s the way she cooks at home. Her vision is to use fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. So it was easy from that perspective as she was already on board with it. But that was only part of it. We are in Minnesota so we don’t always have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so from a systems approach it’s been a challenge. We’ve been able to systematize it though with help from The MVAC Food Hub. That partnership has been critical. Before, Sarah was actually going to different farmers to get the product. Now with the MVAC Food Hub just up the road and able to deliver to us, that has been a great step in that process. Because of that, we are able to expand our locally-sourced options. And with our kitchen expansion, we are now able to source pork from right down the road.
So, that was the original idea, to have locally-sourced food products and be able to support local farmers and producers. But now our local source vision is so much more than that. From a strong early relationship with Greater Mankato Growth, to getting our bikes from locally-owned Nicollet Bike Shop, or going to Tune Town to get records, we are committed to supporting local business in the way we shop for non food items and personally as well.
Tony: Can I interject? There is something I’ll never forget. One of the things I saw two years ago when we got our first batch of rhubarb from Lisa Coons, Lisa came in to drop off a whole big bunch of rhubarb so we gave her lunch for her and her family as a thank you. We then posted on line that we had locally-sourced rhubarb muffins and it was like a swell of people coming in! They were so attached to that and that was probably the moment for me that I realized that the fundamentals that we believed in, that were just us and part of what we do, also had a lot of potential as a marketing tool. A very genuine marketing tool. It’s not having sales, it’s not offering stuff half off, it’s not clearance. It’s just this very genuine thing that we would be doing anyway. We are so committed to it, I get excited when I can locally source our light bulbs at Denco! When you can look at it all the way down to that, just think what we can do as a community.
Yes, just imagine if the region committed to buying from each other, what a strong, vibrant economy could be created. But is that feasible? Isn’t there a higher cost for you in doing that?
Tony: Well, take honey for example. I could buy a 50-pound pail of honey for $126 or I could buy a 50-pound pail from a local, smaller producer for $154. That extra $28 I spent stayed in our economy and supported that family. From a customer point of view, I would personally rather spend an extra 75 cents on my lunch and know it supported families that live in my community.
Natasha: And also, we know how that honey is made. That’s the other thing, if you understand how and where your food comes from you can make better choices, healthier choices. Spencer’s generation is leading that movement in many communities around the country.
Spencer: Truly, my generation wants to know where their food is coming from and not only that, but who are the owners of that business. And we really want to be invested and stay connected to the community we are living in. There is growing understanding that we can’t just stay connected through social media, we have to stay connected in a personal, really fundamental way. I think Friesen’s is a part of that movement because we are connecting with other businesses.
It seems that in order to make those principles you’re founded on work, you need those connections with other businesses.
Tony: I believe our strength and what has made Friesen’s as strong as it has been have been the partnerships and commitments that we’ve made to locally sourcing. And for others interested in it, I would say to just start somewhere. For us it started with wanting to support Valley Veggies near Lake Crystal, then it moved to Moody Bees Honey and Curiosi-Tea House, those sort of things. Just building partnerships every chance we can, like our partnership early on with Prairie Pride.
And now we see others joining in. Take Blue Bricks for example. They came to us and said ‘we want to partner with you’ and now with that partnership, we deliver fresh breads daily. And that has rolled into partnerships with Best Western, with Bonfire, with the Eagles Nest in Eagle Lake. The Verizon Wireless Center recently came to us and now we have an agreement to do the meals for the artists that come into town for the summer concert series at the Vetter Stone Amphitheater. They want to show those visiting our region, what we can do locally and that we are putting that extra care in. So when I sit down and I talk to anybody about their business, I will always tell them what will strengthen their business is making partnerships.
Natasha: And it all goes back to the business model. Lisa, you mentioned just imagining a Mankato region where we all put extra dollars into our local businesses. That would be great because that would mean those dollars stay here and support families here. If people will shop here, those dollars won’t leave our community and it just feeds back in. It’s a loop that can build a really strong, vibrant community. That is money that can be put back into quality of life and infrastructure like trails, education, safety, it all falls down the line.
So, I think we are really developing strong partnerships not just for our business model, but just supporting each other as local businesses. That’s been fun to see as well, because it’s not just shopping, it’s problem-solving together and cross promoting each other and celebrating successes of our neighbors. I mean when Jenn at The Coffee Hag recently won some awards, we were thrilled and it was great to celebrate that, a victory of an amazing, local small business owner. So it’s just finding those ways to support each other in our community.
It seems maybe the tide is turning away from the so-called Big Box stores.
Spencer: My generation, those in their early 20s, have grown up with kind of a chain focus. Mankato, I believe, started as a chain place but now it’s starting to have a different feel, especially in Old Town, with The Coffee Hag and Nicollet Bike Shop. You see people of all ages really starting to understand that not everything comes from Walmart or Sam’s Club. The local factor is coming back very strongly, and I think that Friesen’s has been a large part of that.
Locally sourcing is just one of your passions, the other is zero-waste.
Natasha: So zero waste from a catering aspect is to minimize products that go into the landfill. We do this by having reusable plates and silverware, and by having a compost stream for the food that’s left over, which is actually very little since our food is so wonderful! But food and paper products we compost and we recycle. We ensure and think critically about limiting food waste from the beginning but any we do have is going into the compost stream, so it gets put back into our environment. And then with recycling that leaves very little garbage that goes into the landfill.
Composting is critical because sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and so we might have some food waste. It’s exciting to see Mankato expanding in that realm as well. We now have composting for all residents for free in Mankato. Whereas we’ve been composting since the day we opened. Again, that was part of our business model, to ensure all goes back into the soil to provide nutrients for the products we buy from local farmers. A lot more businesses are doing it now and its easier now for residents to get that waste back into our system as well.
I know you said you got input from other businesses before you opened. Are you now rubbing off on other businesses?
Natasha: Oh yes!
Tony: Without a doubt.
Natasha: I think the locally-sourced approach for sure is spreading. It’s funny because it was part of our business model from the beginning, but it’s just been how we’ve shared those stories that’s been key. It’s all about how we communicate with our customers so they know what they are getting. I think that’s where we’ve gotten a little more savvy, is telling our story.
And zero waste is at the heart of what we do, inspired by Mom and Pops as they also had that as part of their business model. We are excited that other businesses are coming through and thinking about zero waste. It’s really important for our community to understand the waste system and to ensure we have a healthy environment for those growing up behind us, for when they get to be our age.
So education might be considered another thing you do!
Natasha: And impacting future generations because we now have this phenomenal partnership with Here We Grow. The kids there are a part of our composting stream. The food the kids leave on their plates goes into a composting bin that we bring back here. It’s exciting because they are seeing how it works. They are truly the next generation and we are helping be a part of showing them the value of local sourcing. They have a garden and we are incorporating it into what we offer here.
Tony: Here We Grow is a great example of one of the partnerships we were talking about. I am anxious to see where it can lead. Elizabeth from Here We Grow represents another small business owner that is running a business on fundamentals. Putting fundamentals ahead of many other things, and for her to be able to serve kids locally- sourced foods family style is amazing. They have a garden, so we can take an afternoon and pick green beans with them, then bring it back here, prepare it and the next day show them the whole farm to table from dirt to plate. That’s exciting to us to add that education aspect for those young learners.
The third key component of your business model was exemplary customer service.
Tony: It is such at the heart of what we do. When we interview, we tell people in the interview that our standard is that we have better customer service than anyone else and that is our standard. If I had another business owner come in and tell me that they were better at customer service than we are, I would be excited to go shop at their store to learn from them. When you set that standard from the beginning with your new employees, they come in and see owners on site, they see owners that greet the customers and take a personal involvement. You don’t stand a chance of walking in here and then back out the door without knowing we care about you.
Spencer: The people that are coming in to interview have to know the mindset that this is such a small interconnected place. There has not been and hopefully will never be a time when the owners don’t know who an employee is. Being so tight knit, we see everyone that comes in. Anyone that works for us, has to pay attention to that. I say people can go anywhere for a baked good but they come here because our customer service is a high standard, our most important aspect because that’s how we keep them coming back. With the big box stores sometimes you get lost because of the scope of what they are doing. Our scope is smaller, and if we can be an example of good customer service in Mankato, well then, we’ll be proud of that.
Listening to customers is also how you knew what to do as you expanded.
Tony: In the first three or four months, the things we heard the most were the need for more seating, the need for gluten-free items and the need for some sandwiches so we could have more lunch options.
So we rented more space and made those adjustments by adding more seating and a pantry so we could expand our menu. Not surprisingly though, we filled that up quickly! Then requests started coming in for catering. With understanding catering meant selling to such a large number at one time, Friesen’s as a company was faced with a decision that we needed to build a full-scale kitchen, a kitchen that would be comparable to anyone’s kitchen in town.
So that meant expanding again for the third time in less than two years.
Tony: Yes, we started looking around at different buildings that might be for sale for a production kitchen in the area, but we still had the desire to stay in Old Town. We ended up talking to our landlord at that time, Mike Brennan with Brennan Companies, and made on offer on the building we were already located in. We expanded from 1300 sf to now just over 5000 sf! We built a catering kitchen that has a separate dish room, walk-in coolers and freezers, plus a separate gluten-free production area.
And the gluten-free area is important to us. That was a big request from our customers. In fact, that has almost become a signature item for us, that we can produce gluten-free on site, and the items aren’t ordered in. We are the only place from here to Rochester to the cities that actually does that.
Besides the kitchen, we built conference rooms in the back of the building with the ability to house up to 50 people.
Sitting in the area now, it seems you try to pay a lot of respect to the first life of this building.
Tony: That was critical to us. The building was originally a creamery built in 1923. Then from 1960 to 2014, when we came in, it was offices. We like to think it’s coming into its third life. It’s a retail setting again. A large volume of people come through the doors each day. We wanted to take this back conference room and pay respect to the first part of this building’s life. We’ve done that with some historic pieces that are located in the building and we have some original pieces, such as the boiler and a door face.
Even in the renovation process, we stuck to the model of local sourcing. We invested a quarter of a million dollars in this building using local banks, MinnStar, Profinium and Minnesota Valley Credit Union. And we used 17 different local contractors. That’s our commitment to the community.
Natasha: In fact, we have Ayers Masonry outside right now working on our drainage system. Even the table we are sitting around was built by Old Fashioned Carpentry.
As the southern Minnesota region continues to grow, I see this as a way for the area to keep its “specialness.”
Natasha: Yes, we have strong ties with local small business owners, because we are a small business. But we also have strong partnerships with big business like the ones we’ve mentioned, Best Western, Verizon Wireless Center, so we want to provide a support network for other small businesses because the big guys have their own level of support. But I do want to ensure that part of what we are doing is having an influence on big business as well.
Tony: Verizon sought us out. They came to us because they had a meeting with the heads of their local people in charge discussing concessions and how to make concessions better. Well, one of the things they talked about was the buns. Well they can make the buns better if they got fresh baked buns. And that led them to us and from there we got into communications about how to make it better for the artists. So it was decided to offer locally-sourced catering to them. Verizon is a huge corporation but it’s made of people who live and work here. Us talking about locally sourced I believe had an affect on one of their meetings and that came back to us.
So, while a lot of our partnerships are with small businesses and that’s who we want to build up, we also have an appreciation for the people that work in the local offices of big business because they are a part of the community, too.
Any final thoughts? Advice for our readers.
Spencer: The biggest thing I could say is don’t limit yourself to your expectations because they might end up exceeding what you imagined! Just be ready to roll with the punches and whatever things may come. Be able to adapt to what the consumer wants and what the public is giving you as a response. Then you can be a part of something very special.
Spencer Vanderhoof is a marketing major at Minnesota State Mankato, that’s on top of his duties as one of the owners of Friesen’s Family Bakery and Bistro.
Spencer says, “As owner I manage day to day operations, employees and product. Customers are my number one priority, and customer service is something that I really hang my hat on.”
He enjoys his classes, but it’s what he is learning outside the classroom that is proving to be invaluable.
Spencer says, “One thing I am learning, is that it’s always bigger than what you imagined. I’ll be honest, when I came into this I expected it to be a lot more low key. I expected some days off, living a normal life while owning this business. But then you open up and see the response you get from everybody and you realize it’s just not gonna be what you anticipated.”
The operation’s rapid growth, meant Spencer had to learn to adjust quickly.
He says, “I came in very naïve, but right away my eyes opened to what this could be and what it means to own a business. Adaptability has been the key. I think the biggest learning curve for myself personally as a young entrepreneur was listening to those around me and being able to adapt.”
Local Connections: Farmers
The MVAC Food Hub located on North Victory Drive in Mankato is southern Minnesota’s first and only nonprofit local foods distributor. Now in its third year, the Food Hub strives to develop new markets for locally-grown foods by purchasing fresh vegetables from local farmers, then washing, packing and processing them for pick up by consumers.
“Locally sourcing is not a fad. People are becoming more conscious of where their food is coming from,” says Joe Domeier, director of the MVAC Food Hub.
The Food Hub supports around 20 farmers within a 50-mile radius of Mankato.
Domeier says, “This helps ensure our small, local farmers are getting paid a living wage for their food because they work hard. I don’t know many people that work harder than produce farmers.”
Before the MVAC Food Hub, when local institutions purchased food, most of the money flowed to large corporations outside of Minnesota. The food hub now directs those dollars to local, smaller farm families. Families who shop in our communities, send kids to our schools, and pay state and local taxes.
Visit www.mnvac.org for more information.
Local Connections: Contractors
When Friesen’s needed more space for an expansion, Tony and Natasha bought the building at 515 S. Riverfront Drive in Mankato. They embarked on a quarter of a million dollar renovation of the place. Now dubbed Frost Plaza, in part to recognize the leadership both Natasha’s parents have played in the Mankato community, the couple stuck to their commitment to support local business and used 17 local vendors. They include:
- Ayers Masonry LLC
- Bellissimo Paint & Coating
- Blinds & More
- Drywall Unlimited
- Guaranteed Electric Service, Inc.
- Kato Moving and Storage Company
- Mankato Computer Repair
- Northern Comfort
- Old Fashioned Carpentry, LLC
- Redline Signworks
- Ross Thate Custom Welding
- Strange Design, LLC
- The Tile Guys, LLC
- WW Communications
Local Connections: Suppliers
Friesen’s Family Bakery and Bistro proudly locally sources from the following vendors:
- B&B Specialties
- B. Stark & Co.
- Beans Coffee Company
- Compart Duroc
- Curiosi-Tea House
- Denco Lighting
- Goodtimes Manufacturing
- Hilltop Florist
- KC’s Best Wild Rice
- MVAC Food Hub
- Moody Bees Honey
- Red Feather Paper Co.
- Valley Veggies
True Family Business
To say Friesen’s Family Bakery and Bistro is a family business is an understatement, especially when you consider they think of many as “family.”
It all started for Tony and Natasha back in high school.
Natasha says, “Tony and I were high school best friends and actually that lasted through his career moves with Hy Vee all over the Midwest. And when I decided to move, he helped me move to California 15 years ago! We reconnected at our 20-year class reunion four years ago. It was fun to settle into a new sweetheart relationship. We had a history together and knew each others’ families. Family is very important to us. We are close to both of our families. Going into business together was an exciting addition to our journey together!”
As their journey continues, their family grows, which now also includes friends and community members they’ve met along the way.
Natasha says, “This is a true family business. I mean, you can go out front and see Tony’s dad helping at times. My family is very invested, too. My sister, Nicole Lange, is the accounts manager and jack of all trades. She is an invaluable member of the management team. Spencer brought in friends that have a strong work ethic as well to help us as we’ve grown. So that’s another reason we’ve been so successful, we’ve been able to bring in these different family, friends and community groups to help support us as we move forward.”
Friesen’s Family Bakery & Bistro
Phone: (507) 345-4114
Address: 515 North Riverfront Drive, Mankato, Minnesota