Friday afternoons at the Clair Nelson Center in Finland are normally pretty quiet and last week was no different.
In the meeting room near the front, a couple of people were working quietly on laptop computers and further into the building the soft sounds of rising alt-country star Justin Townes Earle drift out of the industrial kitchen. In the kitchen, Shane Dickey was making the vegan sausages he and his wife, Gail Francis, plan to be the basis of their wholesale prepared vegan foods business, Superior Small Batch.
About two years ago, Dickey and Francis were heading back to the North Shore from visiting friends in the Twin Cities, but they needed to stop off at Francis's farmstead in Ojibwa, Wis., to pick up some furniture to bring back to the house they had rented together near Brimson and the two started talking about their experience in the food business. Both had experience in the food industry and in commercial kitchens and they had been working on recipes together for some time.
"We both had some interesting recipes that we thought were really good for vegetarian food and had had a lot of people who said we should market this stuff," Dickey said. "You never took it to heart because getting into the wholesale food business is an undertaking that I didn't really understand. We started thinking about and we thought, why not give this a shot, you know how it is on a long car trip, you talk and pretty soon you're making business decisions."
It wasn't long before the two were making plans to make vegan sausages for local restaurants and individuals to purchase wholesale. Francis is a full vegetarian and Dickey says he is about 80 percent vegetarian and the two initially wanted to find a protein source that was both sustainable and locally produced.
"We're both behind creating an environment where people have more sustainable protein options, more environmentally friendly diets," Dickey said. "We are interested in providing an alternative to factory meat and we eat a lot of prepared vegetarian food, but a lot of this stuff is expensive and it has a lot of ingredients that you don't know what they are."
What's more, Dickey and Francis wanted to reduce the environmental cost getting that food from where it is prepared to consumers' tables. Mass market vegetarian foods also consume fossil fuels to get from the factory to stores and restaurants.
Currently, Superior Small Batch has two varieties of "Brimson Bangers" to purchase, sausage patties made from the mix and a crumble that can be used in omelettes, pizza toppings or other foods. The sausages also serve as a great source of protein. Each 2 ounce serving, about two patties, contains 10 grams of protein and only 1.5 grams of fat. The base ingredients of the sausages are pinto beans and wheat gluten, which the Dickey purchases from a company based in Chicago. Many of the other ingredients, like maple syrup, Dickey is trying to secure a local supplier.
Currently, Superior Small Batch is looking to distribute to local restaurants in Duluth and on the North Shore as well as sell to individual buyers. Eventually, he and Francis hope to scale up production and distribute within a four hour radius of Finland, which would allow distribution to the Twin Cities and throughout most of northern and central Minnesota as well as much of Wisconsin. They also want to sell in bulk as much as possible to reduce packaging and waste.
Once they get a few more buyers, Dickey says he hopes to hire someone to help with production, which takes about two hours for each 5 pound batch. Superior Small Batch is committed to paying a living wage to anyone they hire and want to pay at least $15 an hour to any employee.
Dickey is also thankful to the people at the Clair Nelson Center for allowing him to use the commercial kitchen while Superior Small Batch gets on its feet. Part of the center's mission is to serve as a small business incubator and allow people to use its kitchen and other resources to help local residents get a business off the ground.
While Dickey admits the Brimson Bangers and the crumble are certainly a sausage analog, he and Francis are hesitant to call it a meat substitute.
"We're not super comfortable marketing our food as a meat alternative or a meat substitute, even though a lot of marketing folks would have us do that, because that's how folks are going to find it," Dickey said. "We don't see it strictly as a meat substitute, we see it as good food."