A small space pays off

PHOTOS BY RON STEVENS.
Dean Engelmann

Business partners Scott Endres and Dean Engelmann have transformed what was once a small Pure Oil service station in South Minneapolis into a thriving garden center offering some 3,000 varieties of perennials and (literally) tons of garden art. Now, after several years of growing success, they have branched out into offering produce to their customers in another successful effort: a farmers’ market.

“It’s something that we’ve always had in the back of our minds as a possibility of a way to grow our business,” says Tangletown co-owner Scott Endres. “This is our seventh season. We constantly add something to the mix of what we do. We never want to grow too fast; we want to make sure that we’re doing what we do right, that we have a market for it, and our people can manage it. We have a great team, and we have the space out at our farm. Dean’s family farm is where our farm is, and we lease about 25 acres from them—it’s the elbow room that we need in order to do this tiny urban space.

Red dragon carrots are just one of Tangletown’s unusual varieties of fresh produce.

“We’re already bringing in fresh things every day, so the produce seems to be kind of a natural add-on,” Endres says. Like a lot of businesses across the country, there was so much uncertainty in the economy that they did not quite know how the year would be. For a venture that kicked off in an economically dismal October, they can be forgiven for having a few doubts. They spent the winter off-season pondering the question, “Hmmm, what if it’s a bad season?’” he says.

“We reassessed a lot of things that we’re doing and looked at ways that we could re-invent ourselves to possibly throw our net out to a larger audience. One natural thing is that we’re in a sophisticated urban market which also has started to appreciate the idea of buying local and buying fresh and buying things that are sustainably grown, or organically grown, or all those kind of buzz words,” Endres says.

How to market the market

According to Endres, “Media attention is better than any ad we ever purchased. We’ve learned that if you put together a decent press release that says something exciting, people are going to get excited about it. We’ve had a lot of really great media attention.” Tangletown also uses an annual art and garden tour as a way to promote the market. The tour raises funds for local art and garden projects, and serves to introduce a lot of people to Tangletown.

“In addition to that, it’s a kind of community outreach that shows people we’re not just selling things, we’re giving back,” Endres says. The tour includes eight or 10 private gardens, with wine tasting in the gardens and local artists and art galleries displaying their work. At the end of the day there is a celebration at the store with local music and good food.

Endres adds, “We have that catered. This year we decided to do it a little bit differently; because we have all this produce we want people to know about, we teamed up with a chef at a local restaurant who is Mister Local Sustainable Farming. He loves promoting and using local products, and he’s a great ally, neighbor and friend. We wanted to help promote him as well, so we promoted the idea that the evening was to be a celebration of all things local, including his being here cooking for the entire evening with Tangletown-grown produce and working his magic with things grown at the farm. Ultimately, we got the press from launching the market, but also the press to accentuate the point that we have our own produce for that event.”

New signage was developed especially for the farmers’ market.

This was a test model for them, because it was the first year they’d commercially grown vegetables. “What we wanted to do was be able to figure out yields and timing of the yields for the next year,” Endres says. “Next year, we can launch it in a bigger way; we’ll sell shares in Community Supported Agriculture boxes (CSAs) to people who will pick up their produce every week; that will allow us to sell lots of produce and get a lot more people in here every day. It’s also great because the CSAs are paid in advance, so it allows $500 or $600 from each of those people to go into our bank account in early spring when we need the extra money. And we’ll know for sure we are going to sell that produce that summer versus just relying on people coming in to get food. We can sell more actual product if we have pickup days, and it’s not as refrigeration-sensitive.”

There’s a local organization in Minnesota called Tour to Farm, which is based on the national organization Outstanding in the Field. Endres says, “The idea is to promote local food throughout Minnesota and the country. Tour to Farm had five dinners this year and they went to five different organic farms throughout the state, selling 85 tickets for 85 dinners to very real farm settings where there are long, white-linen-tablecloth-covered tables overlooking a farmer’s field.”

Next year, Tangletown will likely be one of those Tour to Farm places and plans to bring a couple of chefs from other regions of the country, like a chef from one of the best restaurants in San Francisco—who happens to be a Minneapolis native.

“She’ll be coming here and planning a dinner at our farm where there’ll be 100 to 150 guests, and there will be plated courses right in the middle of the farm,” Endres says. “This will again really accentuate the idea of local.”

Tangletown’s farmers’ market has its own distinct signage.

There are a lot of bicyclists in the Twin Cities, too, and Tangletown’s owners believe it will be a perfect bike ride from Minneapolis to their farm in Plato—much of the distance is already a pretty nice bike path. “So, that’s another whole group of people we’ll be marketing to,” Endres points out. “It will literally be a tour to a farm. They’ll get out there and have a nice lunch and a tour of the farm and then come back.”

Still other ideas

Tangletown has developed a style of price tags throughout the store, but the farmers’ market items are tagged differently. Endres says, “It’s kind of co-branded. What we wanted to do was have it still be Tangletown Gardens, but also something brand new.” Because of that newness, they wanted the produce to look different. “We also wanted it to have a sort of farm ‘edge’ to it, so even with the graphics that we use for the farm market, it’s a little more rustic, sort of a hybrid.”

The Tangletown Web site (www.tangletowngardens.com) includes not only information and pictures of the store but—to keep customers up-to-date on the produce—there is a graphic of a spiral-bound notepad that lists the current produce offerings. A staff member keeps the listing current, and the site also offers a tour of the seasonal offerings of plants.

How did Endres and Engelmann decide what to grow and offer in their market? “Many of the varieties have been favorites of ours, as we have grown them for our own kitchens in the past,” Endres says. “Plus, there are varieties that we thought would be superior for culinary use, and ones we were curious about.”

Although Minnesota has an association of farmers’ markets, Tangletown hasn’t become a member yet. Endres says it’s partly a matter of having the time, and partly that their market is a seven-day-a-week effort, where most of the others are one or two-day events. “We already know how to grow decent plants; we have degrees in horticulture and growing and years of experience doing that,” he says, “and we already know how to market things. I think in the future, we’ll be more active in those associations.”

Right now, they’re plenty busy with their fresh corn, potatoes, herbs and … they’ve added a line of fresh-canned pickles!

Ron Stevens is a freelance writer based in the Midwest.