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Destination Downtown spotlight: Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty offers feast of opportunity

Mark Nesheim, who operates Wings Cafe at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, has visions for a homestyle bakery, diner and catering company in downtown Brainerd. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 7
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The vision for Sourdough Sam's reimagines a rustic logging camp with modern open kitchen providing hearty meals for a diner and scratch-made bakery. Artistic rendering by Widseth Smith Nolting3 / 7
Plans for the Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty diner include fresh ingredients with a variety of sandwiches, soups, salads, pot pies and hot dishes, stews, vegetarian and gluten-free. Courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting4 / 7
Plans for a Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty include creating a rustic, log cabin look that contrasts with a modern open kitchen. Courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting5 / 7
Homestyle cooking and breads made from scratch are part of the Sourdough Sam's concept. Courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting6 / 7
The Sourdough Sam's concept brings three businesses together -- a diner, bakery and catering business. Courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting7 / 7

As a finalist for the $50,000 prize with the Destination Downtown Business Challenge, Mark Nesheim's vision for Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty creates several businesses that feed each other.

The combination of a homestyle bakery, scratch-cooking diner, a catering company—and potential for a small store offering downtown Brainerd residents grocery staples—links all together. Combining provides savings and efficiencies for each as they use each other's products, limiting waste and providing additional revenue through retail sales.

"As far as Sourdough Sam's goes I think what I have to bring to the table is the ability to change the formula of what is going on down there," Nesheim said. "My business concept—in and of itself—is just a business. But what we bring is a whole new way of looking at operating a business in a community, because we bring community into the business."

Nesheim said they'd become part of the downtown Brainerd neighborhood.

"Most people that walk in here, we know them by name and we treat them like family," Nesheim said of his Wings Cafe operation at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. "That's exactly what we would do with that place downtown. That's what we can bring, plus we have absolutely the best quality food that you are going to find so we are going to have a destination to go eat. So we'll be feeding our neighborhood great food and the people that are outside that neighborhood are going to start hearing about us and are going to start looking for us."

Nesheim said that's been his experience with Wings Cafe, where people drive from Crosslake, Pine River, Backus and Nisswa. At Wings Cafe, they make their own bread, pies and cheesecake.

"You can sit and watch airplanes while you are eating breakfast," Nesheim said.

Nesheim said quality, consistency and speed are part of what sets his operation apart from others in the industry.

"We try to drive an affordable product," Nesheim said of deals at the plate. "We sell a good product at a low price. We are affordable. I want to serve the common man, that's my interest."

To succeed, Nesheim said he has to be able to count on the population in the city and the community within walking distance of downtown.

"The visual of the place is beautiful," Nesheim said, noting customers will be able to see into the kitchen. "It's going to be a bright, new, shining kitchen. It's really going to be inviting."

The idea for the restaurant is a rustic logging camp look in contrast to the modern kitchen.

Nesheim has ideas to add tourist gift items in a retail space as well.

Signature menu items could include items like wild rice porridge—cooked wild rice, cranberries, pecans, half-and-half, maple syrup—and boiled dinner, as well as hamburgers and cold or grilled sandwiches. Nesheim already developed a sourdough and sees creating sourdough pancakes and biscuits as well. The plan is to provide hearty food with vegetables and ingredients from the local community with a farm-to-table focus.

"We go local as much as we can," Nesheim said.

"What I bring is 40 years of service to the hospitality industry," Nesheim said, adding at age 60 he feels at the peak of his game.

Either way, Nesheim said he wants to move forward with the Sourdough Sam's bakery and bring that to the airport. After that, Nesheim said he'd look to see what options may be out there to help bring the rest of his concepts to life.

"We've got an idea that is probably worth going after," Nesheim said.

How the idea came together

Nesheim was sitting at the lunch counter at his Wings Cafe reading the newspaper when the idea for the second Destination Downtown Business Challenge came up. In talking with his staff at his airport cafe, he suggested submitting an application. Seated at a desk in a storage room at the airport, Nesheim filled out the contest submission on his computer.

The concept of the businesses working together came together readily. For his application, Nesheim's narrative covered four pages with additional pages detailing menus and prices for meals, breads, desserts—ranging from cowboy caviar to an Elvis Presley sandwich to wild rice porridge, chocolate rye bread and baking powder biscuits, among a host of other offerings, including sourdough.

Nesheim's homestyle bakery—with items made from scratch using in-house recipes—would create breads and desserts. Plans for the diner include fresh ingredients with a variety of sandwiches, soups, salads, pot pies and hot dishes, stews, including vegetarian and gluten-free options. Nesheim said he wants to provide those dishes once part of a hearty home meal.

He believes his experience and the combination of quality products at a reasonable price will help him stand out and be part of the success of a new downtown Brainerd experience.

Nesheim started cooking when he was in high school, working at the Tee Top Room in the former golf club in Baxter with a family work environment and scratch-cooking recipes. When he was about 20, Nesheim was working for a chain restaurant, which again operated with a concept of making nearly everything from scratch.

"That's something that's always been in my head, homestyle cooking," Nesheim said, describing it as challenging, but more fun to create and ultimately better food.

Nesheim learned on the job. He said he sought out restaurants in Minneapolis where he could learn and add to his skills, worked there two or three years and then moved on. Nesheim said he learned fine dining with painted plates and seven-course meals while at the Radisson Hotel South. He said his first chef experience came when he was in his 30s and he's worked as a manager and chef ever since.

About 1990, Nesheim wanted to move back to Brainerd and became head chef at Iven's on the Bay, later working in the metro and again in the lakes area in years following. Nesheim's been operating the Wings Cafe since 2014. He said the operation doubled its sales and an expansion is planned.

Nesheim said he brings an attitude of "yes" to work with the wait staff and what customers want His goal is maintaining a friendly, positive, uplifting demeanor.

"There are 100 ways to not say 'no,'" he said. "It's something we have to do if we want to be successful."

Nesheim said he's known restaurant operations where wait staff are afraid to talk to the cooks. He said he believes in investing in employees. With tight margins, Nesheim said successful operations come in treating staff well and paying them as much as possible—$10 to $20 per hour for qualified staff.

"I push the margins—I've always looked at it, I'm not in it to make money, I'm in it to make a living," Nesheim said. He said he believes everything else goes back into the business, in wages, benefits, equipment and upgrades. "I'm not your typical owner. I just don't look at business that way."

About the contest

• More than 70 entrepreneurs submitted applications for the $50,000 Destination Downtown Business Challenge prize to help start their business in downtown Brainerd and gain help from advisers to create a business plan.

• The three finalists are Marie Kirsch, Knotty Pine Bakery; Mark Nesheim, Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty; and Lindsay Topp, BluPaisley Boutique.

• This year's winning business will be announced at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce annual Celebration of Excellence dinner Thursday, Nov. 15, at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake.