Even in the early days of dating, husband and wife team Carter and Neah Person couldn’t keep their passion for wine bottled up. Coming from a restaurant family and being owners of Mankato and St. Peter’s favorite eateries Dino’s Pizzeria, Flask, Tav on the Ave, 3rd Street Tavern, and Number 4, the Person’s know just how well food pairs with wine. They poured their love for great wine enjoyed with great people into Cork & Key to serve restaurant-level hospitality to liquor store shoppers, giving Southern Minnesotans a taste of bold new flavors from vineyards near and far.
What steps did you take to open your business?
CP: When COVID hit, we weren’t allowed to sell anything from behind the bar. We went from having five restaurants open 14 hours a day, to being open extremely limited hours at only three locations where guests couldn’t even come in the door. I ended up with more free time at home where Neah and I got creative and started experimenting with new wines.
NP: We found ourselves driving to the cities to find more of a variety than what big box stores around here had to offer.
CP: We realized there might be a market for people in Mankato who were looking for different wines or adventurous spirits to try. That’s how Cork & Key got started.
Why did you choose this career path?
CP: I started out as the bartender for my dad and uncle in my family’s restaurants. I didn’t plan on working in the family businesses, but over time I realized my parents had done something really special. After bartending and working with cocktails, I naturally progressed into wine. A bartender takes ingredients and mixes them to create something that is better than each of the base ingredients. For me, wine is like that already. The winemaker has taken their grapes, their process, and honed it to create this finished product.
NP: Every time we have wine it’s during a social event and we’re usually sharing that bottle with family and friends, so I think pairing wine with those memories has always been something that’s really intriguing to me. Outside of Cork & Key, I work fulltime as an early intervention teacher for the Mankato school district.
What personal strengths help you excel in your chosen career?
CP: I’m a learner and a visionary. When I’m researching a new topic, I’ll read two books a week on it. I like to think about the future possibilities and dream about what could be, especially when it comes to ideas related to new businesses and how they can be run.
NP: Being detail oriented and organized are strong characteristics for me. I think that has helped me not only with Cork & Key, but overall with my job as a teacher. I am persistent at continuing to learn, grow, and find those details that do matter. For example, there are little tags on the wine at Cork & Key that talk about the characteristics the products have. I think people appreciate those small little details and help to guide making a wine or spirit choice that they will enjoy.
What is your favorite part of running your own business?
CP: It’s working with family. I love being able to sit down and talk about our businesses with each other. We have a really close family. The family aspect for me is that glue that attracts me to everything we have going on in our lives.
NP: Cork & Key has allowed us to make all of these really wonderful relationships within our community and bond with people. Maybe they’re celebrating their 50th birthday or 20th anniversary. It’s so fun to share those experiences with them and be part of special moments.
What inspires or drives you?
NP: I’m driven by our community. I love when people come up and tell us they tried this new product and absolutely loved it. Serving them in that way is so rewarding.
CP: Responsibility to my staff. Between Cork & Key and the restaurants, we employ over 250 people, and I owe it to them to continue to perform to make sure their jobs are secure. Outside of that, I love building things. I’m always looking for what can be my next project.
What advice would you give to other young professionals?
NP: Having a vision for something you’re passionate about is so important. For us, we said we want to start a liquor store, so what are the steps to start a liquor store? Then we created a plan for what we would like to accomplish in five years, ten years, and so on. If you don’t have a vision for the future, it’s going to be really hard to continue to grow.
CP: While it can be challenging, business is a ton of fun. If there is a part of you that wants to own your own business it can be done.
Looking back on the beginning of your business, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
CP: I wish I knew that things feel slow in the moment, but when you look back it goes fast. I always think too far ahead and then want things to happen faster. It’s OK to sit in the moment and enjoy it as it is. Everything is happening at the pace it needs to happen.
NP: We didn’t really know what to expect opening a store during COVID, but we were so well supported by great neighbors in our community. I wouldn’t feel so apprehensive about it now. People are so supportive and they love to see small businesses grow.
It’s happy hour, what are you drinking?
CP: During the summer, white wine, always.
NP: It’s refreshing. We go to the lake a lot, so on a hot day we like to drink something colder, crispy and fruity like white wine.
Unlocking Wine Myths with Cork & Key
Do you really need to let wine breathe?
NP: It really depends on what experience you’re looking to have. If your whole reason for opening that wine is to break it down and evaluate it, let it breathe. Personally, when we go out to dinner we don’t get that serious about it. I’m just ready to enjoy a glass of wine with my family or friends.
Are wines with a screw top a lesser quality than wines with a cork?
CP: This is a common misconception. Bottles with screw tops can range in price point from $5.00 to $60.00 and more. You won’t have the same effects as you would with a cork because the cork allows some very fine amounts of air to go in and out of the bottle. What the screw top does is offer a tighter seal.
Does wine really get better with age?
CP: Wine changes with age. As wine ages, noticeable things happen and different flavors come out. However, there are wines that are made to age and there are wines you shouldn’t age at all.
NP: Rosé for example is not a great wine to age. We can enjoy that right now.
CP: I believe all the wine on our shelf is approachable to drink now. Some of it can age, and if that’s what you want to do, then you should let it age.
NP: While we were dating, every Valentine’s Day we would buy each other a bottle of wine to stick in our cellar to age. Now we open it on a birthday or special occasion, so that’s a fun thing we do for each other.
1630 Madison Ave
Mankato, MN 56001
Phone: (507) 779-7000