The gurgling shriek of a milk steamer and smell of fresh pour-over coffee fills the air of Bean and Brush Creative Coffee. Vintage-inspired asterisk-shaped chandeliers illuminate the art on the walls. Four children chase each other, dodging brightly colored chairs and glancing every so often at their moms, who are relaxing in armchairs in the middle of the cafe. It’s a scene that could be found in any metropolitan area anywhere. But this isn’t a major city, or even a suburb: it’s the town of Hallock, population 981, located among the farm fields and prairie lands of far northwestern Minnesota.
A trendy coffee shop in a small town isn’t groundbreaking news. However, Bean and Brush is just one of several new businesses and initiatives that have taken root in Hallock in the last few years, all striving to reinvigorate the seat of Kittson County and challenge the misconception that rural towns are doomed.
To Hallock locals—both those born-and-raised and transplants—the appeal of their town is obvious. They have a recently renovated K-12 school, medical center and hospital, library, senior citizen center, and fiber-optic internet. For entertainment, there’s the bowling alley, pool, golf course, curling club, brewery, distillery, and brand-new school auditorium that doubles as a movie theater. Lake Bronson State Park is a 20 minute drive east, Winnipeg less than two hours north, Fargo just over two hours south, and, from Grand Forks International Airport (one hour south), you can go wherever you want.
The people living in Hallock do so because they want to—because they believe it’s a great place to live. They also believe a lot of other people would agree with them, if only they knew how great Hallock was. So they hired a creative marketing team to spread their gospel.
Leading the charge to beautify and share Hallock with the world were Cheri Reese and Kristin Eggerling. The two business owners (Far North Spirits for Cheri, along with husband Michael Swanson; C & M Ford dealership for Kristin, along with husband Paul Blomquist) are also members of the Hallock Main Street Committee, and had long been discussing ideas for attracting new businesses and residents to town. Kristin applied for a grant from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation to go toward the branding effort, and, after getting it, things began to take shape.
In late summer 2017, the decision was made to use the grant to hire Bodega Ltd., the creative team Far North had worked with to develop a new website and help put their spirits on the national (and, increasingly, international) radar. Much of the initial visioning work had already begun, but Cheri and Kristin wanted Bodega to help them take it to the finish line. The goal: to have a brand in time for Hallock’s 135th anniversary celebration, June 14–17, 2018.Minneapolis-based Bodega is Liz Gardner and Josef Harris. They are partners in life and in business, and started the company in 2014 after years of working separately as a creative director (Liz) and PR and social media manager (Josef). They describe their firm as a “multi-disciplinary creative studio” that creates “worlds through integrated positioning, creative direction and branding, interior design, PR, and social media.”
The duo has worked on projects large and small all over the world. Their current client list includes Nike, a restaurant/boutique in Miami, and a manufacturer looking to expand her company into new areas (her current business involves selling pre-Communist era Chinese antiques made from a type of tree that no longer grows). Completely different projects but all approached with what Liz and Josef define as the ethos behind their business: empathy, openness, and value congruence. “Our work is very empathetic,” Josef says. “We can apply it to anything; we just have to listen.”
To create a brand for a place like Hallock—a town whose opportunities and advantages can’t be summed up with the ease of “I [Heart] New York”—takes more than just catching people’s eye. “It’s about figuring out what the essence of the place is, and then capturing that feeling of the place and the people in a place in the brand,” Liz explains.
Some of Hallock’s essence is expressed in its 60 or so businesses, several of which opened in the last two years and are owned by young couples. A Kickstarter campaign for Bean and Brush reached its goal within a few days and helped the shop’s owners, Frank (who is also the pastor at Grace Lutheran Evangelical) and Kate Johnson, both in their early 30s, transform a former jewelry store into Hallock’s first coffee shop. Lindsey and Ryan Evenson, also in their 30s, own Revelation Ale Works along with Ryan’s brother, Josh, who is also the head brewer. Farm Town Floral was recently purchased by 31-year-old Mandi Samuelson, who, with her husband Tanner, also just bought one of the oldest buildings in downtown Hallock—Gullander Hardware—but haven’t yet announced their plans for it.
Another thing these new businesses have in common: their owners are all Hallock transplants.
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In 2010, the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission sent surveys to new residents of rural towns in west central Minnesota to find out why they’d moved there. The top five reasons: a desire for a simpler life, safety and security, affordable housing, outdoor recreation, and, for those with children, locating a quality school.
Hallock has all these qualities. But there’s something else about the town that residents cite again and again: the spirit of entrepreneurship. “It was just the right people at the right time,” says Todd Johnson of the recent boom of new businesses. Johnson is a Hallock lifer and, along with his brothers, owns the local Cenex station and Johnson Oil Company. “I think there was just a concerted effort, and the fact that Cheri and Mike [of Far North] came home from jobs in the metro and elsewhere and said, ‘We can do this.’
“At the same time the Rev Ale thing was happening—very entrepreneurial, let’s give it a go,” Johnson continues. “Success breeds success. People saw that and said, ‘Well that’s fun, what else can we do to improve the lifestyle here?’”
When Lindsey and Ryan purchased their space for Revelation Ale in 2016, there were eight vacant buildings in downtown Hallock. Today, there are none.
There’s a lot to consider when creating a brand for a place. History, industry, personality, an overall sense of identity: everything the town is, has been, and strives to be represented in a font, color scheme, and tagline.
The first thing Liz and Josef did to tackle this task was immerse themselves in everything Hallock. Liz dug into a bicentennial compilation book filled with the people and history of Hallock and built an inspiration wall filled with the things she felt intentionally tied into the brand they were creating: fashion, signage from the 1960s, key tags from rural motels, vintage matchbooks.
It was during a late 2017 breakfast meeting with several of Hallock’s patriarchs that things started to click for Josef. “They gave me so much shit—just teased me relentlessly, in a loving way,” he laughs, recalling the men’s reactions to his puffy winter coat. (They, on the other hand, were wearing “maybe a flannel.”) The men invited Josef to join them in playing a dice game: they didn’t tell him what the game was or how to play—just that he lost every time. Eventually, they started to open up. “I just kind of listened,” Josef says. “They talked a lot about why they love the place, why they’re still there—it was very real. They talked about how they enticed CHS (the agricultural company) up there. There was one guy who was the only dentist in town and he was retiring, and how big of a deal that is. […] You start to really understand why this is important. They were very kind and genuine.”
After 10 months of researching, interviewing, brainstorming, and vision-board building, Liz and Josef homed in on eight key descriptors they felt best represented Hallock: neighborly, ease, tranquil, industrious, quirky yet traditional, hard working, problem solving, and natural resources. Ideally, the ensuing brand would appeal to the ideal future Hallockian, a person they identified as “a pioneer who prefers originality and creativity in business, life, and leisure.” If successful, the project would achieve the town’s goal of attracting 100 new neighbors in 10 years.
On April 12, 2018, Bodega presented their vision for a Hallock brand to some 45 people at Bean and Brush. Every step of their process was outlined, and everything was up for discussion. They unveiled a new typeface and showed how it might one day be applied to street and business signs. They showed examples of possible merchandise—buttons, patches, sweatshirts, matchboxes—designed to be retro yet modern, and branded with the town’s new slogan, which was to be finalized at the meeting. Color schemes, design details, their sources of inspiration: it all came up, and it all was eventually posted on the town’s website for further review.
As with any proposal for change in any town, not everyone in Hallock agreed on the brand—or even the need for a brand in the first place. Of those in attendance at the presentation, a handful raised objections—about design elements, the color scheme, the tagline. “We [Cheri and I, and I think Paul] liked ‘Edge of the world,’” Kristin Eggerling recalls. “But people really didn’t like it. A couple people did, but it really turned a lot of people off. […] Everyone heard ‘End of the world.’ It’s ‘edge’! Nope. They heard end and that just ticked them off.”
They all eventually settled on “Things are clearer up here,” a nod both to Hallock’s never-ending sky and the slower pace of life so highly valued by many (if not all) of the town’s residents.
The branding’s physical presence has yet to take hold around Hallock, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already in place in spirit. “There’s not a lot of stress here,” says Todd Johnson when asked what he’d tell someone why they should move to Hallock. “The branding slogan, ‘Things are clearer up here,’ is all kind of part of that concept. It’s a little more relaxed here.”
A slogan being lived out by the residents of the place it was designed to embody—place branding in action.