Progress: Mother-daughter profit from sew-sew work
RANDALL—When Janelle Johnson looked at the former creamery in Randall seven years ago, she didn't see an old building that was used to store antiques. She saw possibilities.
The two-story brick building off Superior Avenue in Randall is now home to The Old Creamery Quilt Shop, a creative and colorful endeavor to bring art and culture to the small town.
"She came to me with the idea to buy the building," said Linda Thesing, Johnson's mother and business partner. "She had worked out of Camp Ripley and kind of wanted to quit her job out there and do something different. She wanted to be an entrepreneur."
Johnson, a 37 year old from Little Falls, found out who owned the building—the building wasn't for sale—contacted the then-owner and made an appointment to see the building.
"She called me and said, 'Mom, do you want to go see something? And I'm like 'What?' She goes 'That building in Randall,' and I'm like 'OK, what for?' And so that kind of started the whole process," Thesing said.
"Two weeks later, we owned the building. ... The building was what pulled us in because it's unique, and we both knew that if you have something unique, it'll pull people in—and quilters travel—and we knew that because we're both quilters."
Leap of faith
Thesing and Johnson own and operate The Old Creamery Quilt Shop, which celebrated its sixth anniversary in June, and The Old Creamery Woolen Mill, a related business venture behind the quilt shop. The mill opened in September 2017 and offers custom processing for a variety of fibers.
""My previous position was the chief financial officer of Larson Boats in Little Falls," Thesing said of the boat builder that relocated in 2016 to its sister plant in Pulaski, Wis., to save money.
The 59-year-old mother from Fort Ripley and her daughter, who is a veteran, renovated the building in Randall themselves during a six-month period in 2012.
"When we first opened, we had someone make us the shelving to put our product on, but since then, we have come up with our own design ideas and ways to showcase fabric, display merchandise, and we've had a lot of fun with that ... part of what we love to do," Thesing said.
"We like to take old trash and turn it into treasure as far as display pieces. I mean we'll use old dressers, old tables, old crates—anything old. We repurpose it, we repaint it, do all of that to create our displays ... and that is what gets them to come back."
They pair share a passion for decorating, so renovating the creamery was like "a dream come true," according to Thesing.
"We had a contractor work with us ... but we did a lot sweat equity—a lot of sweat equity—to get it ready to go. ... But at the very beginning, we had trouble getting the financing to get it off the ground," Thesing said.
"That was hard because we were two women going in and asking for the financing, and we couldn't get it. We couldn't get it through the VA. The VA process is horribly time-consuming and so much red tape and paperwork that we finally gave up on that."
Local banks were not helpful either, according to Thesing, who claimed they would not even return calls the pair had made even though Thesing had worked as a chief financial officer.
"I had good paperwork. I had a good budget. I had a good forecast. I had all the necessary paperwork to present to a bank, and they were still skeptical until we went to Little Falls ... until we found Pine Country Bank ... so I'm kind of having the last laugh now," Thesing said.
"Minnesota is the No. 1 quilting state in the United States, and there's more quilters per area than any other state. ... We researched all that before we opened the quilt shop. ... We had all that written up to present to the bank, so they knew we had done our homework."
The words "Randall Creamery" in tall capital letters still adorn the facade of the building near Gaffke's Auto Repair on Sunwood Lane, making them strange bedfellows in the city of 650.
"I knew then I couldn't do this as a part-time thing, it just wasn't going to work, so I quit my (Little Falls) job, which was scary, but it's worked out well," Thesing said of those early days.
Johnson quit her job, too, at the time—a career in the Army at Camp Ripley—and her mother attributes Johnson's adroitness with marketing due to her youth as a reason for their success.
"She became the longarmer. We bought a longarm quilting machine that puts the pattern on the top of the quilt for the business, along with helping to manage the business," Thesing said. "And I—because of my background in accounting—I was able to do all the book work and ordering."
The women also raise sheep and had the wool processed in Fosston, Minn., but received word that mill would be closing, so they took the bull by the horns and opened their woolen mill on Sunwood Lane.
"We were like 'Where are we going to get our wool processed?' and we couldn't find another in Minnesota that would process our wool," Thesing said. "The only other mill in Minnesota was backed up for over a year, wouldn't take new customers."
What's in store
The quilt shop has a wide selection of patterns, books and notions, and a vast collection of designer fabrics, including Moda, Benartex, Riley Blake, Northcott and more.
"You'll find everything from contemporary and traditional fabrics, to batiks, flannels, baby cottons, seasonal prints and hand-dyed wools," according to the quilt shop's website.
"We knew that we would travel all over visiting quilt shops," Thesing said of quilters like herself. "We would prefer to get in the car and go to another quilt shop because it's just fun. Every quilt shop has different fabrics, different ideas, different quilts. There are no two identical quilt shops."
The tin ceilings and hardwood floors in the former creamery, which operated until the mid-1970s, immediately alert customers when they enter the building that this is no ordinary quilt shop.
"Quilting is very relaxing, and it's being creative. Certain people need to be creative. I need to be creative. I can't sit still. I need to be doing something. I love to be creating and making things, and for people like that, quilting fills that need," she said of the shop offering classes.
Colorful quilts—some with geometric patterns—are hung up or sprawled out, seemingly in an effort to inspire those who enjoy the time-consuming activity to create something of their own.
"I would say the average age of a quilter is probably in—it's not a cheap hobby, it can be expensive—that 50 to 100 age group. Typically, they're retired because it takes time. ... The demographics are older and more income because it's not an inexpensive hobby," she said.
"We do different presentations on tool demos, any quilting tools that we want to demo ... and then they get a discount on that tool, so we try to do promotions like that. ... And we do woolen mill tours."
For those who are not already overstimulated by seeing myriad prints and feeling the different colored wools available at the shop, an espresso bar is also part of the premises.
"Originally, we hadn't planned that to be a part of it, but as we started planning the layout, the footprint of the building and what we could all do here, then Janelle decided that maybe having a little coffee shop in it would make it kind of a destination possibly," Thesing said.
The Old Creamery Quilt Shop's new yarn area was where customers could sit and enjoy unique sandwiches that were sold, but that came to end in 2014 after the novelty wore off, she said.
"We did really well in the summertime ... and in the wintertime, it really slowed down because you don't have the lakes people ... so we decided that we didn't want to do the sandwich part of it anymore because it's hard to staff something like that for just a few hours a day," she said.
"But I love working with my daughter. We get along really well. From the day we've opened this, we've never argued over anything—not one thing."
The Old Creamery Woolen Mill's purpose is to process wool for small-scale fiber farmers. The mill can process wool 3 to 11 inches long, with no weight limit. The wool can come from a variety of animals, such as sheep, alpacas, llamas, goats, rabbits, elk and buffalo.
"I don't do a thing over there. She takes care of everything and has brought it to the point now, in just a few months, where it can be self-sustaining. She doesn't even have to be there. She just has a couple of employees who operated it," Thesing said.
"On the other side, I'm good at the creative side of things—designing the quilts and purchasing the fabric and making the samples and all of that, so we complement each other quite well."
• Business: The Old Creamery Quilt Shop and The Old Creamery Woolen Mill.
• City: Randall.
• Number of employees: Eight employees, including the co-owners.
• Trivia: Quilt shop housed in former creamery.