Entrepreneurial Couple Carve Out Creative Business Niche
Sometimes business opportunities unfold in surprising ways. After several years of successfully running Lake Superior Honey Company, Jon and Erin Otis wanted to expand their product offerings. They had seen maple syrup aged in wooden wine barrels, and decided to try it with honey. What happened next wasn’t what they expected, but stands as a testament to the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“We got a couple of 59-gallon wine barrels from California and realized immediately they would be too big for the purpose we originally intended,” explains Jon. Still, they were determined to put the barrels to good use. He turned one into a rain barrel and took the other one apart, eventually using it to make furniture—most notably a “time out” stool for their daughter, then a toddler.
Friends and neighbors were impressed with the way Jon repurposed the barrels for these initial projects and he was encouraged to replicate them. Though sourcing single barrels is prohibitively expensive for such an endeavor, Jon called around, established some contacts and figured out a more economical way to proceed—buying barrels in bulk.
In brainstorming ways to utilize a shipment of 220 barrels, the Otises realized another opportunity. “This was right around the time the craft beer barrel aging craze was beginning,” says Jon. He approached a couple of local breweries to get a better sense of their needs.
Duluth Barrel Works initially sourced some red wine barrels for Fitger’s Brewhouse. The Belgian-style brewery, Blacklist Artisan Ales, was looking for white wine barrels, which Jon says were harder to find. But these formative relationships and the interactions helped steer the company’s direction. Based on brewer feedback, it branched out to source bourbon and increasingly more exotic barrels, like cognac and tequila.
Now five years old, the company has built a network of contacts and is able to source barrels from all over the world. With the hot trend of aging beer and food in barrels, a dwindling number of coopers (traditional barrel makers) and a shortage of quality materials such as white oak, this was no small feat.
Duluth Barrel Works provides barrels for most of the local craft breweries and for breweries further afield, such as Thunder Bay’s Sleeping Giant Brewing Company and Dangerous Man Brewing Company in Minneapolis. Home brewers and craft distillers can obtain smaller, five and 10 gallon barrels from Duluth Barrel Works too.
Besides rain barrels and stools, the company takes on custom projects and produces items like half-barrel tables and Adirondack-style outdoor chairs. The couple divides responsibilities. Jon handles most of the hands-on woodworking and much of the customer service, while Erin does the invoicing and some of the finishing work. She also does a lot of the creative brainstorming. A prototype of her idea for a barrel stave skateboard is currently in the works.
The burgeoning business isn’t without its challenges, especially considering the fact that both Jon and Erin work regular day jobs: Jon as deputy fire marshal for Duluth and Erin as production manager for Vikre Distillery. Jon is also working on a double master’s degree in business and management. Plus, they’re raising two daughters, ages 4 and 8.
Right now, Duluth Barrel doesn’t have additional employees but Jon and Erin hope to hire some help in the future. The primary goals for now have been developing relationships and ensuring quality products.
Jon says he particularly enjoys working with the brewing community and takes pride in the products they supply. “It’s fun and rewarding to work with brewers and see how they’re using our barrels. Allyson Rolph at Thirsty Pagan is doing some especially creative and inventive things with them,” he says.
If you order a flight of beer at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, you can taste beer aged in Duluth Barrel Works supplied barrels and see Jon’s handiwork too. The hefty tasting flights are made from a barrel stave and include a generous nine-portion sampler.
Duluth Barrel Works is built upon the principle of reuse. And the couple has made it a point to prioritize sustainability. It even buys barrels back from breweries once they’re at the end of their flavor life for use in furniture or other products. It’s essentially a zero waste company—extra barrel staves become candleholders, sawdust is mixed with candle wax to make fire starters and the steel barrel hoops are sold for various upcycled art projects.
“By reusing every part of the barrel down to the nails, hoops and sawdust we feel we are doing our part to respect the barrel, but most importantly, our community,” says Erin. “Duluth is such a naturally beautiful place, we are very fortunate to live and do business here.”
Written by Melissa Maki for Duluth.com the Magazine.