Focusing on the local market helped Minneapolis native Eric Dayton go big — shining a huge spotlight on his independent shop Askov Finlayson and redefining the Midwest under its own terms, as the North.
Dayton and his brother bought what he described as “run-down warehouse” in an industrial Minneapolis neighborhood and in 2011 opened a 100-seat restaurant, The Bachelor Farmer; a cocktail lounge, Marvel Bar, and the 1,000-square-foot Askov Finlayson.
While the other businesses took off, the store stalled.
“My brother and I sat down and tried to figure out what the problem was,” Dayton said. “We realized that the store, which carried a very limited selection of things we both liked, only made sense to the two of us. We wanted Askov Finlayson to have a very personal point of view, but we made it too personal and it wasn’t working.”
The brothers reworked the store, dropped women’s, put tailored clothing and outdoor apparel together and began thinking more about identity and what was great about their restaurant, which focused on local fare.
Figuring the Midwest was a designation imposed by Easterners, the two made hats proudly declaring their coordinates on the map: North.
“We figured if people liked our idea of the region as the North instead of the Midwest, they’d buy a hat and show their pride,” Dayton said, noting that the 150 hats that were expected to last through the winter sold out in four days.
“We really didn’t have to sell the hats with the idea at all,” Dayton said. “People just got it intuitively. And since then, remarkable things have happened.”
A movement took hold that included press coverage, a broad embrace of the new North identity and thousands of people who pledge their allegiance with North gear from the shop and its web site.
“In a connected globalized world, where customers can access just about anything anywhere from their phone, I don’t think people respond to universality,” Dayton said. “I think they respond to specific, to a point of view. When we travel to a new place, we don’t want to eat at a Cheesecake Factory. We want to try the great local restaurant we read about because it helps us fully experience and connect with where we are. By being rooted in where we’re from, Askov Finlayson has been able to stand out in a crowded landscape of small independent stores across the U.S.”
That store has now moved to a bigger location with more looks from the growing North brand and a new attention to service that draws on both Dayton’s collection of businesses as well as lessons that grew from the store’s runway success.
“Turns out that buying a nice bottle of wine isn’t all that different than buying a nice piece of outerwear,” Dayton said. “What customers respond to are great stories told by nice people.”
He said the store’s employee should jump at the chance to talk about the details of its offerings.
“If the story behind the product is one we’re a little uncomfortable telling, that’s probably a sign the product doesn’t belong,” he said.
And Dayton clearly knows where he belongs.