“Our 1939 Pure Oil station became a transmission shop in the late 1960s. During that time, the structure was under-loved and under-appreciated for its architectural merit,” Endres says. “All the windows were foamed over and vintage copper and brickwork was covered with steel siding. It wasn’t empty for long when we stumbled across the property in the summer of 2002. It was love at first sight.”
They closed on the property in December. The self-described “hardworking farm boys,” who met as horticulture majors at the University of Minnesota in the early ’90s, saw potential in the space and were confident in their vision.
“[Tangletown Gardens] started because we wanted to have complete control over our product diversity and complete control over our product quality,” Engelmann says. “We didn’t want to only be able to buy the plants that all of the re-wholesalers in the area decided to grow.”
Tangletown Gardens has evolved since then, and Endres and Engelmann have now launched several successful ventures together, including a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and a farm-to-table restaurant during the height of the economic recession and a small, humane farm in an era of corporate dominance. But their focus has not changed.
“If we don’t have at least five major failures a year, it’s only because we didn’t try enough new things,” Engelmann says. “We are willing to look for opportunities, and we realize that a lot of times, opportunities are disguised as hard work. But we’re not scared of hard work.”
And they aren’t afraid to bet the farm.
Back to their roots
Endres and Engelmann realized they had a lot in common during college. Both grew up on small family farms, and were inspired by their grandmothers’ love of plants and gardening. Despite this, neither thought they would end up working in horticulture.
Endres started as a pre-architecture major and Engelmann pursued environmental studies at the University of Minnesota, but their passion for plants took over, and they later changed their majors to horticulture and met while in the program.
“We would go above and beyond to learn more from where we were at that stage of our lives,” Endres says, explaining that they were involved in extracurricular activities, including a plant judging team. “That’s something that continues to this day, as we’re always yearning to learn more and push ourselves and push our ideas and innovations to a point where we can better ourselves.”
They stayed in touch over the years, but had never worked together professionally. Endres was managing Highland Nursery in St. Paul, helping grow the business over the eight years he spent there. He was looking for someone to help him run the business, and he thought of Engelmann, who was sales and production manager at Swanson’s Great Northern Nursery, a company he helped launch.
Engelmann decided to move back to the Twin Cities. He worked at Highland for about a year when the college friends decided to pursue their own business.
“We realized it was time to take our giant leap forward,” Endres says. “We were very much interested in finding that absolute best urban garden location. We felt at that time that we had this clear vision of having this out-of-the-ordinary place that offered things that might not be typical or ever seen in our marketplace at all. We put a lot of energy into finding a perfect garden center location.”
Tangletown Gardens’ opening was a huge success, and the owners partially attribute that to the supportive Tangletown neighborhood that surrounds them. They also promoted the opening with signs on their store, located in what happened to be the 17th busiest intersection in the area at the time.
Endres described some of the details that went into establishing the store and core values that continue today.
“The way we merchandise and present things to our guests, the details in the way we grow things, and making sure we’re very approachable and not pretentious,” he says. “Being customer and community focused. We’ve always been passionately creative, relevant and innovative and trend-setting. The public and consumers, especially in urban areas, are fickle. They want the newest things and ideas. Being ahead of the game, instead of following what everybody else is doing [is important].”
Because the retail store is on a small city lot, from the beginning, Endres and Engelmann knew they needed extra space for their growing operations and to be more competitive on buying inventory like pottery. The farm Engelmann grew up on, which is 45 miles south and west from the store, was the perfect location. His father was no longer farming and had been renting the space. Endres and Engelmann started out small, with a little hoop house and renting just a quarter of an acre for additional inventory, but added more slowly as the business expanded over time. On their opening day, they had locally grown, Tangletown crops, long before buzzwords like sustainable, local, organic and artisanal were mainstream.
Ahead of the game
Their success continued during their first several years in business, but then the recession hit in the fall of 2008, and no one knew what to expect. Endres says they had considered adding a food component to the business, but the timing never seemed right.
“We decided if we’re ever going to do a food side of our business, this is the time to do it,” Endres says. “We were both very scared. No one knew how bad it was going to be or not bad it was going to be, so we braced ourselves. Up until that point, our product was a luxury item. We needed to have something to cushion things, and we thought no matter how bad it’s going to be, people are going to want to eat.”
Engelmann remembers the day the idea to grow produce at the farm struck him. “A black peat moss bag had blown out into [my family's farm] field and hooked onto a cork stalk,” Engelmann recalls. “I walked out in the field, I stood up, and looked around, and I thought, ‘My God, you’re the biggest idiot in the world. You have all of this land that you could utilize just by saying you want to utilize it, and you’re not taking advantage of it’ … We never had to buy a farm. We were able to rent a little bit more as we went along and as we needed it and as the other things grew.”
In 2009, they launched an in-house farmers market at the garden center, selling produce grown at the farm. The neighborhood, once again, embraced it.
“We were able to get through that first year of the recession because we were pretty much guaranteeing that those customers were going to come back every week,” Endres says, adding that they continued buying garden center products as well as vegetables, they were just more frequent, smaller purchases. “At the end of the day, they were spending the same amount as they did pre-recession.”
That led to the launch of their CSA program in 2010, when they had 300 memberships their very first season.
“I assumed our target market would be middle-aged mothers who wanted to make better food for their kids,” Engelmann says. “Half of [the members] showed up at the very first pickup, and they were young 20-somethings who wanted really good food, cared where it came from, and they wanted a good price. We instantaneously had a new market. And they happened to become garden center customers, as well.”
A wise decision
Restaurants are historically risky businesses, with 60 percent failing in the first year, and 80 percent in the first five, according to a study conducted by The Ohio State University.
But once again, an opportunity presented itself. The space across from Tangletown Gardens — a 1960 Standard Oil Station that had later been converted to a custard shop — had shuttered and was for sale.
“That was something we were scared about, whether the timing was right to actually take a giant leap forward and buy the neighboring property, partially because we were getting through the recession,” Endres says. “We were on the fence, but eventually we talked it through, and decided if we are ever going to do it, it has to be now because of timing, and because we’ll be able to determine who our neighboring business is.”
They were already growing produce for their booming CSA, and they had the space to grow more and raise livestock, something Engelmann had already been doing on a small-scale, just-for-fun basis. The farm-to-table restaurant they decided to launch across the street in May 2011, Wise Acre Eatery, set them apart, and gave them the opportunity to differentiate their CSA, as well, by allowing customers purchase meat raised at the farm.
“The infrastructure costs were already there, so we were able to spread out more units over that same capital cost, so financially, [the restaurant] made really good sense,” Engelmann says.
The restaurant also provides endless cross-promotional opportunities and space for display gardens.
“Garden center customers were the very first ones to be in line those first few weeks that the restaurant was open,” Endres says. “Our favorite times of the week are the busy brunch days. A 30-minute wait for brunch is not a bad thing, because the customer happens to have an extra 30 minutes they can peruse the garden center and hopefully take something home with them.”
Success means offering something real
Since the beginning, Endres and Engelmann have always focused on the customer experience and quality of product, and that has helped them remain competitive and survive in an age where some retailers are struggling.
“[Retailers and garden centers] think they just have to do what they did 15 years ago, better. We don’t believe that’s the case,” Engelmann says. “You have to do something different then what you did 15 years ago, better. [Otherwise,] it’s just the same old game, repackaged.”
While many IGCs may consider e-commerce websites as competitors for their convenience, Engelmann sees brick-and-mortar as a strength.
“We have the luxury of giving our customers a visual experience that they can’t get at Amazon,” he says. “[The product] came from close by, it was produced by people who live in the community with them, and they can see how they are supporting the entire chain. It’s not just a dollar that goes into the imaginary abyss.
“People want to buy something that’s real from somebody who is real.”
They emphasize their story and the connections between the farm, the CSA, the restaurant and the garden center as much as possible.
“We have a little model at the Wise Acre that is kind of the mantra of the restaurant — it’s the shortest distance between the earth, the hand and the mouth,” Endres says. “But it’s true for the garden center, as well. We want to produce the annuals, produce the perennials, produce everything we can right here.”
That way, more can be invested in producing the food, the plants, and raising quality livestock like the Scottish Highland Cattle that roam their 140-acre property in Plato, Minn., instead of the fuel costs for shipping those items, Engelmann says.
“Especially the way that we chose to nurture the farm, we went back to the way we were brought up,” Endres says. “We felt the farm, which was rich with diversity, should be treated with respect, that the soil is tended and cared for and gets better over time. The animals are treated with respect and have plenty of room to roam and given diets that their bodies were designed to actually consume.”
By hosting special events at the farm and allowing CSA customers to pick up their shares there, people get to actually see how their food and plants are produced.
“Plants are what got us into the industry,” Engelmann says. “But our ability to really give people a unique, full-blown experience in the retail setting and connecting the dots between what happens on the farm and then having the personal element that goes with it, that’s where it goes back to we’re really trying to offer something real, not just a product.”
Tapping into passions
Many ideas and initiatives at Tangletown Gardens come from people who like what they do, and want to be involved in the business, Engelmann says.
“At one time we said we were never going to do landscaping. But then we had a woman show up, asking if we could work together,” Engelmann says. “Now landscaping is the single biggest revenue source in the entire company. Being willing to migrate to the talents of your people is the single biggest key to success. When you give people the ability to chase their passions, well guess what, they are going to do a better job and they are more likely to align with what you ultimately want to see in the end.”
Prospective employees are usually interested in the food side of the business, Engelmann says. The challenge is finding the right people for the garden center and the production facilities. They’ve found a solution for that, too.
“We say you will work in that part, but you will also work in these other [divisions,]” Engelmann says. “Now, when greenhouses and garden centers are having a hard time staffing, we have so many different pods that they can live in. We get them in the door with the food, and we just end up utilizing them in a lot of different areas and facets.”
The added benefit is that employees often discover passions they never knew they had.
“They end up finding out they love propagation more, and they didn’t even know,” Engelmann says. “All of a sudden they find out what they really loved is something other than what they thought they really loved. It’s more than just a job to a lot of people. They are doing something that has meaning to them, and it has meaning for us, too.”
Engelmann has found a new passion himself — he conducts a qualitative mineral analysis on plants to determine when they are at their peak in ripeness and nutrition. People may not care about the science behind it, but they know Engelmann does and will provide the highest quality of produce possible.
The same goes with their Scottish Highland Cattle — one of many reasons they selected the breed is because of their higher-than-usual content of Omega-3 fatty acids.
People do care about choice, and that’s one way Tangletown differentiates its CSA from others that have popped up in the area. Most CSAs only offer two sizes of shares, but Tangletown offers several, including a new “salad share,” and allows people to swap items. They have pick-ups in convenient locations, but they also welcome people to the farm to get their shares.
“[With other CSAs,] you might not even have the opportunity to go to the farm,” Endres says. “Without those real things that connect to real people, it’s just like everybody else, and why would we want to have our CSA be like everybody else when everything else that we’ve always done has gone a notch or two above that with the consumer in mind?
“People want to know where their plants are grown, and, especially younger people, want to know the story behind [companies]. They want to trust who is growing their food and how it’s grown, and they want to visit those places,” Endres adds. “They just don’t always have a choice. This makes it easy for them to make that right decision. By giving them an experience along with that. They can buy something that we feel really good about selling.”
Tangletown Gardens’ latest venture is an aquaponic production facility they launched in 2016 using koi instead of the traditional tilapia.
“From a quality standpoint, we decided not to raise tilapia. From an economic standpoint, a tilapia that takes nine months to raise would sell for $8 on the farm,” Engelmann says. “The cheapest, ugliest Koi is worth more than that, so it was a no-brainer, and we have an independent garden center to sell them.”
The main motivation for establishing aquaponics was to enhance their already “ecologically minded” growing practices.
“How do we do more with less and have a smaller carbon footprint and supply more food to people and keep it local?” Engelmann says, adding that the food supplies the restaurant. “We have better culinary quality for the restaurant and reduce our inputs, and utilize our greenhouse space for alternative production at times when it didn’t have production in it.”
They use 100 percent biological and botanical controls in their greenhouse as well, producing strong, healthy plants that “weren’t grown on life support and in an artificial environment.”
They are also conducting a strategic plan to better manage the multiple companies and improve how they interact and “function as one comprehensive, complete organization,” Engelmann says.
“Because we’ve been doing so many different things for so long, it seems like so much, but we’ve always added a little bit at a time. Now it’s time to look at everything collectively, bind it together, and make sure we’re all marching in lockstep to ensure success long term,” Engelmann says. “And to make sure we make pivots as a company so we can change along with the market that’s evolving around us.”
A big part of their success is not being afraid to take that next step and change.
“What’s been really fun for both of us is that we’ve evolved with our businesses. We’ve never said, ‘Here is who we are, and here is what we’re going to be, and that’s the way it’s going to be forever,’” says Engelmann, who is now building a home for his family on the farm he grew up on. “We have the capacity to chase more passions during the course of our lifetimes. We get to control that destiny.”