Mankato Business Owners Catalyze Local Food Movement

To say Mankato hungered for new dining options might be an understatement. When Friesen’s Bakery & Bistro opened three years ago, they had to close early several times because they’d run out of food.

Within two weeks, co-owners Natasha Frost, her husband Tony Friesen, and family member Spencer Vanderhof expanded their operation. Eventually, they opened a full commercial kitchen, allowing them to cook meats, provide catering, and prioritize locally sourced goods they couldn’t accommodate without adequate freezer or refrigeration.

They buy as close to home as possible. Honey, eggs, meat, produce and even light bulbs come from local sources. Wild rice isn’t available there, but they buy from northern Minnesota. Friesen’s agreed to buy a local supplier’s excess winter egg load until the CSA season gets going and demand rises once more.

“We see our local food system market as a piece of the local business system we are trying to support. That is Tony,” Frost says.

Friesen is a baker, who like Frost, grew up in Mankato. She describes their business as a for-profit enterprise that’s modeling and creating partnerships that are collaborative, not competitive.

The owners hired Sarah Haayer as executive chef. She shops the farm stands, networks with local farmers and has deep connections with The Food Hub, an alliance of local distributors and processors. Typically, scale buyers would go through a national distribution giant such as Sysco, Frost said, but through The Food Hub, buyers can find local vendors with whom to do business in mutually beneficial agreements.

“We see the Food Hub as being the center of the movement,” Frost said, “and supporting them to play that role is our role, that they are solid, promoted, supported. They are key in developing a relationship with producers and taking to scale.”

There is abundant interest: Friesen’s monthly farm-to-table dinner held in their event space in Mankato’s old creamery building is filling up through December. It’s a gathering place not only for local dining customers but for the food community itself.

“At all our FTT events it’s a community conversation. Three producers sit together every month, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Local growers and suppliers sit together and hatch new ideas,” Frost says. Friesen’s is also working with other partners to provide a free Farm to Kid’s Table event at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota.  Friesen’s is using it’s amazing farm to child care catering partnership with child care center Here We Grow to provide local food to children throughout the Mankato area.

By day, Frost is a lawyer with the Public Health Law Center, a non-profit at William Mitchell School of Law, and helps to coordinate Roots, Shoots and Boots, planning team working to define and assess our current food environment in order to identify opportunities to promote a food policy council and issues important to the local food system.

Frost’s long-term goal is to start a wider Mankato food council or similar network engaging all with a stake in the healthy, local food movement: producers, suppliers, and consumers.

Examples of concerns are lack transportation access to area food shelves, and tweaking land use and zoning rules to allow for more community gardens in underserved areas. Frost is keen to include those not yet as vocal in the conversation including low-income neighbors, immigrant communities, and those who use food shelves.

“Those voices need to be heard in forming a locally robust system,” Frost said. “One thing we are trying to do as Roots, Shoots and Boots is engage in those conversations to build the movement with an equity lens, making sure that people impacted by a broken food system are at the table to identify some of those solutions.”