food entrepreneurship

Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery: the Family Business with Strong Minnesotan Ties

Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery, a family owned business in Spring Valley, has garnered national attention. This restaurant, vineyard, and cidery is Minnesotan to its core, from the people to the products.

Launching businesses is nothing new to Four Daughters owner Vicky Vogt, especially businesses with her daughters. She’s run an upholstery business, flipped houses, and managed an eBay business. All of the endeavors were successful. But it was time for Vicky, her husband Gary, and their daughters to try something new.

Enter Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery.

“I wanted to start a business that my daughters would be interested in moving home for. So that was the drive [to start Four Daughters],” Vicky explained.

At the time that Vicky and her family entered the wine industry in Minnesota, it was very new but growing rapidly. There were several variables and risks involved in opening a winery and vineyard, and her daughters wanted to wait before jumping into the process.

“And I said no. If we’re going to do it, we have to do it now,” Vicky said.

Vicky wrote the business plan for Four Daughters in 2010 and planted their first grapes that same year. The very first Four Daughters building opened in December 2011. Vicky and Gary even got two of their daughters to move back home to help run the business.

Expect a unique experience when visiting Four Daughters. This gem is tucked into rural Spring Valley, a thirty-minute drive directly south from Rochester. The entire Four Daughters estate includes a restaurant, tasting room, event room, six-acre vineyard, and fully operational winery and cidery.

Vicky and her family devote time to crafting the guest experience at Four Daughters. They realize that most people have never visited a winery before and want to ensure that their guests are comfortable. Usually Gary is walking around Four Daughters speaking with visitors. Even when I walked into the restaurant and gift shop before hours, I was welcomed in by the hostess who didn’t even bat an eye at someone wanting wine at 10AM on a Tuesday.

Four Daughters wants the combination of the food and the wine together to be an experience during visits. The restaurant holds special, reservation-only dinners on Thursday nights, featuring a handcrafted tasting menu with a food and wine pairing. Four Daughters constantly changes their menu and serves several different types of foods, from calamari to dumplings with an Asian flare.

Vicky’s family has been entrenched in wine production long before the doors at Four Daughters opened. Grape growing in Minnesota has some unique challenges compared to production in other areas of the country. Our climate here is damp and the grapes face mold and rot issues. It’s obviously a lot colder here than in wine country like California. Vineyards in Minnesota use special cold-hardy grape strains, many of which were developed at the University of Minnesota, that can survive temperatures down to thirty below zero. Vicky’s father was part of the Minnesota legislature in the 1980s; he fathered a bill appropriating funds to the University of Minnesota to study and develop these type of grapes. Unfortunately, he passed away in March 2010, at the time Vicky was writing the business plan for Four Daughters. But those same grapes made the restaurant and vineyard possible in the first place.

Four Daughters wines, made from these Minnesotan cold-hardy grapes, are popping up all over the place. They were served at the 2015 SXSW film festival. Four Daughters was even the Official Provider at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

How does a winery from Minnesota get into an international film festival? Apparently it takes a lot of time and the right connections. Ten years ago, Vicky created a large cancer research benefit and pulled in a band featuring Derek Hough and Mark Ballis from Dancing with the Stars to play. She became friends with their manager and poured at some of his documentary releases, which eventually led to Sundance.

Besides wine, Four Daughters also produces and distributes hard cider. The Four Daughters cider, called Loon Juice, additionally has strong Minnesotan roots. Honeycrisp apples, a fruit also developed at the University of Minnesota, makes up the base of the cider.

Five years after opening their doors, Four Daughters is still expanding. Quick growth is a challenge itself for the business.

“It’s hard to sometimes keep up with everything that you have to do to keep growing. We’ve been building since we’ve opened. And I’m hoping that next year will be a year we don’t build something. So we can just keep growing within the buildings that we have and continue that growth without a building project,” said Vicky.

Bleu Duck Brings Fresh, Kitchen Forward Dining Concept to Downtown Rochester

“We want to be a little bit of a different kind of restaurant in town. We want to have good food, good beverage, a casual atmosphere, great service. We just want to have fun with it,” said Erik Kleven, owner of Bleu Duck Kitchen, a brand new, sixty seat, American-style bistro in town.

Kleven and business partner Erik Paulsen are set to open Bleu Duck Kitchen on August 26th. For both chefs, Bleu Duck is the first restaurant of their complete own design and concept.

As a native of La Crosse, Kleven moved to the west coast during this high school years, where he also attended culinary school. Then he and his wife moved back to Rochester to raise their children in the Midwest. He worked both at Chester’s Kitchen and Bar and Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery, where he served as the Executive Chef and met Erik Paulsen, then the Four Daughters Sous Chef.

“You always think about wanting your own place at some point. …[Erik and I] get along pretty well. Fun is our number one thing. We spend more time with each other than we do with our families. So we better have a good time doing it,” said Kleven.

Bleu Duck Kitchen is a brand new concept for Rochester. The menu will constantly change and the experience will be new each visit. The chefs challenge Rochester residents to keep finding their new favorite thing on the menu.

“There’s going to be a wide variety of just really cool, classic dishes with new twists to them. We kind of have a very novel approach to our cooking. Dining is supposed to be fun. There’s no reason that the cooking towards it shouldn’t be as much fun,” said Paulsen.

Bleu Duck will make fine dining look effortless.

The chefs will implement a kitchen-forward concept so that diners feel like part of the cooking experience and become educated about their food.

Bleu Duck also has an event space, which following suit to the restaurant, will be completely unique. The main event area seats one hundred, while a private chef’s room can house twelve to fourteen people. This is not your classic venue. The space is very modern and completely customizable to what the customer wants.

“It’s their party. It’s not our party. They want it, we’ll figure out a way to get it done for them as much as we can,” explained Kleven.

Kleven and Paulsen are the chefs and owners behind Bleu Duck Kitchen, but there are other pieces to the concept.

Aynsley Jones, owner of The Doggery and also Bleu Duck, will also be sharing his cocktail making talent at the Bleu Duck bar.

Jennifer Becker, former Food and Beverage Director and Event Coordinator at the Rochester Golf and Country Club, is manning the event space and front of house.

Jennifer herself has been in the service industry since she was 13. She started by washing dishes and worked her way up. Jennifer and the Eriks worked together for a single night prior to jumping into Bleu Duck. Jennifer was volunteering at a fundraising gala for the Boys & Girls Club just this past May. As part of the event, the chefs Erik set up a popup restaurant in the Conley-Maass building.

“It was completely under construction. There was no running water. No bathrooms. And they were pulling out eight courses for forty people,” Becker said.

Kleven and Paulsen cooked a beautiful, eight course dinner smack in the middle of a construction zone. Jennifer was so impressed by the calmness and level of sanity they maintained, she knew she wanted in on Bleu Duck.

Kleven claims that their calmness stems from prepping and planning hard, but the pair are not easily rattled in the kitchen. Even opening a restaurant of their own, unique design has not shaken them.

Kleven and Paulsen’s biggest challenge came with taking off those chef hats and doing some design work.

“We’re cooks. We’re service industry. Hospitality industry. We’re not used to picking out lights and towel dispensers, things like that,” explained Paulsen.

Bleu Duck has a beautiful, historic venue to launch into this new wave of entrepreneurship for all of them. The restaurant is housed on the first floor of the Conley-Maass building on 4th Street SW. They even have table seating on the old storefront window platforms at the front of the building.

“You don’t get a lot of views like this out of any other restaurant in town,” said Kleven.

Plus, you just can’t beat the history.

“The history is very intriguing and I think that’s the selling point. People travel all around the world for places like this,” Becker related.

How to Pivot your Business Model: Transforming Sontes into a Rochester Brewpub

“But that’s part of being an entrepreneur, is forward thinking about where you’re going to be.  What do you want to do?  Where do I want to be in ten to fifteen years?” explained Tessa Leung, owner of Grand Rounds Brew Pub

Tessa has been innovating in Rochester’s food and drink scene for a long time.

This female businesswoman previously owned and ran Sontes, an upscale, locally sourced food and wine bar that used to sit right on the corner of 3rd Street SW and South Broadway.  While business at Sontes was great, Tessa could see that it was time for a change.  On April 15th last year, tax day for those keeping score, Tessa and her business partner/head brewer Steve Finnie opened up Grand Rounds Brew Pub, the very first brewpub in over twenty years in Rochester. 

Tessa previously met Steve at an event where he was serving up his beer and she absolutely loved his product.  “Then we looked at what was missing in Rochester and asked what did we really like,” she explained.  Tessa was passionate about wine.  Sontes was her “first baby”.  But when looking at Sontes’ business model, she realized the opportunity to really engage the local community and grow with Sontes was limited.

"Wine in the Midwest doesn't really scream camaraderie like it does in California, because we don't yet have that sense of wine culture, yet.  Wine is not a known commodity like beer in the Midwest.  But beer, it really is part of our Midwestern collective memories and consciousness."

Adding a community-focused piece was important for Tessa in this phase of her career as a food and beverage innovator.  While growing up in Stewartville, one of her favorite jobs was working at this local pizza place, a restaurant that was really inclusive and drew in everybody from the community.

“And it was the best pizza ever.  I’m not going to lie. …The whole town stood behind that.  The whole town got it.  The whole town was proud of that,” she said.

“I think in any business, and especially small business, I think involving the community and the local people, that’s what makes your business your business.  And that’s what makes your business really cool. …And it’s nice for Rochester people to say, ‘This is our beer.  We have this,’” Tessa explained.  

Even the Grand Rounds name is rooted in connectivity and community.  Grand rounds are part of the medical education process where physicians, students, and residents come together to talk about problems and to learn.  Gathering around the table over some beers at the end of the day is just an extension of this process. 

“What do people do when you get together and drink a pint?  You talk about problems.  You try to figure things out.  It’s kind of a grand round.”

The name Grand Rounds is a nod to Rochester’s past, but it also acknowledges Rochester’s future.  A future beyond these medical ties.  A future in entrepreneurship.  A future in beer.

The craft beer scene in Minnesota is one of the best in the country.  Minnesota has 105 craft breweries, or about 2.7 breweries per 100,000 people 21 years of age or older, according to the Brewers Association.  The beer scene in Rochester is starting to grow.  Kinney Creek set the pace, becoming the first brewery to open in Rochester since prohibition. 

“Rochester’s really starting to get this massive education on food and wine and beer and entrepreneurship.  Things aren’t what they were ten years ago.  And that’s good.  That’s really good,” said Tessa.

Now we have Kinney Creek Brewery, Grand Rounds Brew Pub, Forager Brewery, and LTS Brewing Company.  People are starting to take notice of our Rochester beers and breweries.  You don’t need to trek to the Twin Cities any more for a good, local craft beer.

“I’m so hopeful that this city becomes more like you see in Minneapolis or what you see in Portland or Seattle or Sonoma.  It’s a city that embraces that you have quality products and quality chefs and quality producers here and that Rochester does have a lot to offer,” Tessa explained.

Rochester has brewers making some phenomenal, award-winning beers from locally sourced ingredients.  As residents of this city, we’re starting to work through our beer primer and finally understand the difference between a brewery and a brew pub.  Our brewers are creating some innovative products.  Grand Rounds themselves just brewed their 100th batch of beer last month.  That’s 1400 kegs of beer. 

As a southeastern Minnesota born and bred girl, Tessa loves Rochester and the talent held within.  With all the changes happening in the community, Rochester is becoming an entrepreneurial hot spot in Minnesota and more and more people are finally starting to take risks

“I was the only one by myself for a quite some time that was doing something so different that it felt pretty lonely at times.  I really don't feel alone anymore.  It is nice be amongst fellow adventurers in the community, that are inspiring me!”