In this episode, we have the pleasure of sitting down with Chris Montana, the founder of Du Nord Social Spirits. You may remember Chris from our previous interview a few years ago, when his distillery was just starting out. But since then, his journey has been nothing short of remarkable. From surviving the devastating events surrounding the murder of George Floyd to expanding, rebranding, and retooling his business, Chris has truly experienced a renaissance. Join us as we hear from Chris himself about the evolution of Du Nord Social Spirits and the creation of the Du Nord Foundation.
Discover how authenticity and a commitment to social impact have shaped the brand, and get inspired by Chris’s candid and honest approach to entrepreneurship. So grab your favorite drink, sit back, and get ready to be inspired by Chris Montana and his incredible journey with Du Nord Social Spirits.
SHOW TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS:
Speaker A [00:00:12]:
Hello, everybody, and welcome to the makers of Minnesota podcast where we talked cool people doing cool things. I’m here with Chris Montana from DuNord Social Spirits, and I think I first interviewed you. I was thinking it had to be like 4 or 5 years ago in the Harvard Broadcasting Studios. I think your wife came in too at that time, and, you weren’t denied social spirits at that time, you were just denied. And I also feel like maybe was the coffee liqueur like the second release that you had? because I feel like we were talking about Freya then.
Speaker B [00:00:48]:
No. The, so the coffee was was a little later. Jim was our second, then we went to apple, then we went to coffee, and then we went to to, to whiskey. Right? So if we were talking cafe free, I mean, the thing is is that I’m always talking about cafe free days. I’m always talking about freedom. And so highly likely that we were that we were discussing for you anyway.
Speaker A [00:01:11]:
It’s funny because somebody gave me the the apple spirits. And, I remember when I got it, I got it for my birthday, and I thought it was really great, and I was excited, but my first feeling was kinda like, I wonder, like, when I’ll drink that or what I’ll do with that. And it turns out I’ve just been drinking it on the rocks throughout the summer.
Speaker B [00:01:34]:
Yeah. I mean, that’s we we have a guy. His name is Daniel Victory. It’s cocktail guide. cocktail genius. But people ask me, like, well, how do you consume the spirits? My answer is usually in a cup. you know, if maybe down the rocks. And sometimes with a lime nearby, if it’s the gin, but, yeah, I think, I think that’s how spirits should be. They should be made so that way you can just drink them, and they don’t need a a lot of, lifts to count.
Speaker A [00:02:04]:
Yeah. I don’t allow myself, Freda. in the house, which I know is terrible to tell you, but if I have it in the house, then I’ll drink it, like, at 10 o’clock at night, on the rocks like as like a aperitif and then I can’t sleep because I love it so much. So I will only allow myself to order it in a bar because then I feel like I’ve still got the drive home, like I just I can wait for that coffee to get through my system a little bit because it’s so delicious. I have no self restraint when it comes to that product.
Speaker B [00:02:42]:
And oddly enough, she she actually didn’t have anything to do with the with the creation of Cafe Freda, Louise Borman, who we affectionately call Freda, a former teacher of mine. but I think she does take very personal people’s reaction to Freda. I imagine both good and bad, And so I think that, you know, as proud as I am to hear that, I think she’d probably be equally proud.
Speaker A [00:03:03]:
So your story has changed a lot. when we first talked, you were one of the only African American people in the distillery business. certainly in the north, but generally across the south too, you were like with a handful of folks. since then, your entire operation was burned down during the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing riots that happened following. you have expanded, rebranded, retooled, do you want to just give, like, in your own words? a recap of sort of this renaissance of your company because it’s been a pretty phenomenal story.
Speaker B [00:03:47]:
Yeah. We’ve gone through a lot of changes, and I think that you know, at the core, we’ve stayed who we were, and a lot of the changes that we went through were really about just getting closer to who we were. I was at a you talked about the fact there are many more, Black and Brown, brand owners and distillery owners out there now. I was at a a summit of them nearest and Jack advancement initiative. And I was talking about our branding. I was talking about our original branding. And when we started the company, because originally it was my wife and I, started it. she eventually would shift back into her real job or or only focus on her real job, and I would keep going with the Nordman. when we started it, we didn’t have any marketing professionals or anything. And so we thought, well, we gotta look like a distillery. We we need to look the part and to to us, that meant it needs to be kinda old looking because that’s what distillery bottles look like. And so we went for this 1920s of apothecary feel and, you know, I liked those bottles. But they weren’t us because, again, we weren’t it’s what we didn’t do and what a marketing professional may have done and said, well, who are you? And what is your brand? And what is, what does your brand mean? We didn’t do that. We said we more were saying, well, what do people wanna see us like? And, when we went through the rebranded and which started in 2020. think with what we were doing is we were asking the right questions. They’re like, who are we really? And then it was denied craft spirits, which of course no one ever remembers the craft spirits, but the change to social spirits was that’s who we actually are. Right? We, we are about people, and we’re not just about people in the social sense that, you know, having a drink is obviously best done with with company, but but also in the fact that we want to have some social impact on the world. In 2020, really solidified that. You know, we call it that was the kick in the ass, and we needed it. right, because we needed to stop trying to act like a distillery. Yeah. It’s gonna act like somebody else, and we needed to just stick take a step back and say, we just need to be us right, authentically us. And so, you know, we did go through, a pretty significant rebrand and and a lot of the product names changed Cafe Frida did not change because I’m not crazy. but, but, yeah, and but Again, we didn’t change, like, we didn’t change what was in the bottle. We didn’t change, you know, how we were doing things. but we wanted to be a little bit more authentic. We’ve obviously had some some different opportunities come our way since then, and the business now looks a lot different than it did 4 and primary to that is the existence of the Dennard Foundation. And so now we have this kind of 2 pronged approach at both the social side of the impact that we wanna have and the social side when it comes to actual spirits.
Speaker A [00:06:34]:
Do you wanna talk about the foundation?
Speaker B [00:06:37]:
Yeah. The foundation, and and I think a theme that people should get from the path of Dennard is that we don’t always know exactly where we’re going. Right? And just to be honest about that, it’s not that there was a grand plan for all of this. It really was we reacted to things as they came to us and perhaps a if I had had some more business acumen, maybe I would have planned some of this out, but we really didn’t. And the foundation is the best example of that. And then it was formed kind of by accident, largely because we were too successful with a fundraising campaign to try to get some money into other people’s hands and where we tried to $30. We ended up raising about a
Speaker A [00:07:14]:
Speaker B [00:07:15]:
and we wanted to have a tax efficient way to get that into, into the place that needed to go into some of the other businesses to help with the food and supply bank. and then other activities that the foundation would do in the future. And so that’s why the the Newark Foundation was born. But up until that point, I would often be at, you know, industry events, American Craft Spears Association, you know, things like that. talking about what we were doing to try to diversify the industry. And my answer there was and I still stand by it. Right? I mean, for the size that we were and are, it was that we are gonna be a door for people. We’re gonna be a place people can come in and they can get their start. And, you know, if you if you could find some quote from me from the days of yore, I’d be like, and I hope some of those people will come in and they’ll become my competitors at some point. the problem was that’s really, really small ball. it only affects people who are just right here who happen already wanna be in in the industry. And even so, the odds that that’s really gonna make that much of a dent in the spirits industry as a whole. Sun to none. And post-twenty 20, we’re like, we can’t just talk that. We can’t just go around and say it because it sounds good, man. I think it comes from a cheap trip song, cheap tricks song, the talk is cheapest when the story is good. Like, we realized we were telling a good story. but we weren’t doing as much as we should be doing And so that’s where I think we’ve looked at the foundation and said, you wanna know, we need to put our money where our mouth is, and we need to actually add And so we ran the community market for a couple of years, free of charge, giving out food to people who needed it. that followed on the food and supply bank. And then we had the grant program that gave out $15,000 grants until we ran out of money. and, other companies that needed it so that way they could get, back on their feet. And now we’re faced with, I think, the most interesting and challenging piece, which is what do we do that has some long term, like, generational effect? And I think that within and that’s gonna look like, different things in different places. But in Minnesota, I think that it has to do playing again back to that social piece that there are a lot of resources out there for people who are interested in chasing their business stream just like I did. but the path to them isn’t exactly clear. and there isn’t a nexus that joins them together. And I think that there’s a role that we may be able to play there. And so that’s, you know, if you think about from making, you know, grinding corn and making booze at 3 AM in the morning, you know, before going back to the lawyer job to now, you know, doing some of this with the foundation and, you know, we’re we’re putting vodka on Delta Airlines, there is not a linear path that connects all of it. but I think it took us a little while to get there, but I think we are more us than we’ve ever been.
Speaker A [00:10:13]:
Yeah. And you I don’t, like, I don’t know if this is the right word because it’s like, you’re not like a kid, but you have a real, feeling of emotional maturity that’s coming through to me. that I don’t know, you just seem really confident and really comfortable in your space. And I think that comes through certainly experience, but also tragedy trauma community, meeting different people along the way, you have a real confidence about you. And I think you were confident when I first met you too, but that was more about the product. This is more about the lifestyle, the dream, the people that you’re bringing along with you on the journey.
Speaker B [00:10:58]:
Well, thank you. I think, I think I’ve had some really good teachers and some of them have been people, and some of them have been events. But I’ve had, you know, and if you if you’ve met me before, I probably won’t get through a conversation without talking about teacher but, you know, I’ve had teachers who asked me to really look at myself and say, like, are you who you think you are, or are you playing somebody else? Are you playing in the version of yourself that you think people want you to be? And, you know, there’s a store I won’t bore you with the entire story, but it has to do perspective and 6 blind men touching an elephant and trying to describe it. And I carry that with me every day because that value of perspective and understanding that look is you could be the best that you could pass possibly be at whatever it is you’re trying to do, you still only have your own perspective. And as a small business owner starting off, just me in a room, and growing and adding more people in, I’ve had to learn how to work with other people who are better than me at a number of things that I used to try to do and feel like I was the coolest dude on the planet because I was doing everything. Well, now I work with other people who are much better and I get to learn from them. And I think that I draw confidence from them. I draw confidence from those experiences. and, you know, like I said, it took us a long time to get to actually know ourselves. And I think that you know, knowing oneself is is a very difficult thing to do, but it took us a long time. But now that we’re here, now we don’t have an excuse, now that we know who we are and we know what we’re supposed to be here doing, we gotta go do it. And that I think is much easier than that journey to figuring out who you actually are.
Speaker A [00:12:46]:
I think too for businesses that make it to a 5 year anniversary, they say if you make it there that then you’re likely to continue on, but many folks don’t make it to the 1st 5 years just because there’s so many challenges along the way. But I do think it gives you all of a sudden, it’s not just about you. It’s not about your dream. It’s not about the product you’re making because you’re probably literally not making it anymore would be my guess. it is about, you know, stepping in to figure out who you’re going to take with you on this road and the impact that you have in your life in your family amongst the people that you talk with every day. I remember laying in bed 1 night, and we had had our company 10 years at this point, and we were thinking about selling it. And just, like, really thinking like, wow, many of these people have been working with me since they graduated from college. you know, they’ve bought their first house. They’ve had their second child. Some of them have been divorced and now are single moms. Just the weight of who we carried along with us and how to transition if we did sell the company in a way that was gonna work best for them. made a lot of decisions along the way that as our we left that business and we left the sale of the business that eventually did happen with our employees being employee owners of the company we sold it to of their benefits carrying forward, of their vacation time carrying forward, many of the folks that worked for us still work for the company. We pull it to because they’re employee owners and at some point they’ll get to cash out. You know, we took some risks along the way to make that happen, but I feel so good about that as someone that had a business that allowed us to do the things we wanted to do gave us a little bit of a safety net for moving forward into our retired lives. I do air quotes because I don’t think people really ever retire. but all of those employees, for the most part, were taken care of into that next step. I feel real proud of that.
Speaker B [00:14:53]:
Yeah. And I I think that, you know, one being a good person just treating people the way you wanted the treated, should be the baseline or anything you’d do. I I do get, and I and I appreciate the profit mode because I think it drives a lot of really good things. But I think it can also, as you mentioned, you know, you could have made more money. It can also drive you to do some really bad things to the people around you. And so there is the altruistic side of it, which is just be a good person. but I think there also is just a straight up and down business side to it. I think that it is when if people feel valued, I mean, I remember the jobs that I’ve worked everything faster with car wash, all kinds of things, work Congress in a lot of different times. When you feel valued, then you’re you’re invested. Those relationships matter to you. And you know, this job market are really any. People can move. They can go somewhere else. They can work anywhere. They don’t have to be wherever they are. And so if you aren’t providing, you know, a place where people feel valued, I don’t know that you’re gonna survive, and you certainly aren’t going to be able to build on the kind of institutional knowledge, and expertise that a company naturally generates as it goes through its life cycle and has its ups and downs. And we, you know, we have the benefit of people who’ve been with us for years years who have seen us do a lot of different things. I mean, we’ve you know, Maria who runs production now, as you say, I don’t make anything anymore. She does. she’s seen us go from a company that was entirely based on our cocktail room, one that didn’t make any alcohol at all, and instead made nothing but hand sanitizer is to now a company that has no cocktail room and is entirely in distribution and then is going through this next phase where we’re going to be, you know, dealing with a restaurant. I mean, she’s seen all of that. And so it’s not just me. I’m not along, you know, just just by myself. But I don’t think she’s here if, you know, this is just a job where she’s punching the clock. I think there have to be relationship. She has to know if she matters.
Speaker A [00:16:57]:
There is to a reckoning, I think, that’s happening, because there’s been a lot of companies, not or none that I need to name necessarily, but, you know, they talk the talk and they really looked like they were progressive until it really came time to put their money where their mouth is with their employees. And then they fell kinda short. We’re seeing companies are trying to decide whether to bring back workers and what workers need and workers really loving the flexibility of a hybrid model and It’s all very interesting time for the workers. We’re seeing unions. like, we haven’t seen since the early since the 1920s, really, their rebirth particularly in hospitality. Can we just talk a little bit about So you don’t have the cocktail room anymore. You’re now completely under distribution, going into, the airline industry in little bottles, which is a big leap for a lot of folks. Our friend Heather Manley did it with crooked water, and she’s had such a good experience. Tell me about the restaurant piece and what that looks like.
Speaker B [00:18:00]:
Well, because of and this this gets a little bit into the weeds here, but because of the way that our business is set up, And because of some of the limits that Minnesota law has built in, we went from not we basically, we produced too much. We grew too large to have a cocktail room. And so we you know, as we saw that coming, we thought, well, there’s no reason for us to try to reopen the denoted cocktail room as it was because we are gonna pass that production cap and we’re just gonna have to shut it right back down again. And that’s the kind of whiplash that we don’t wanna do to people. And so we started coming up with, you know, our our plan b. which requires us to get a little creative because as a owner of a distillery, I actually am recruited by law from havoc a restaurant, but my wife is. And so there’s a way that we can together, pull this together and create the, what we call, the spiritual successor to the denort cocktail room, but, you know, do it in a way that is legal. And that doesn’t just give us a platform for us, but gives us a form for other brands as well because the cocktail room, laws in Minnesota make it so you can only sell what you make. And even beyond that, there are some more specific laws that folks have put in about how you make what you make, which are, you know, fair fairly tight and strict and and restrain people from doing a lot of different things. And so by doing it this way, we are going to have to buy our own alcohol back, from distributors, but we’re also gonna have the freedom to bring in products from other diverse owned brands other Minnesota brands and create a platform for them as well. I’ve met a lot of I mean, I’ve met 100100 of distillers in the time I’ve been doing this. and their stories are very similar to mine. And I think it would be really great, and I’m really looking forward to having a place, a physical place again, where people can say we went to the north, but also having a place where they can go to the Norden, and they’ll be able to try product from the Norden, but they’ll also get exposed to some new stuff and some interesting stuff that people are putting out. up there.
Speaker A [00:20:11]:
Speaker B [00:20:11]:
We have sweet potato vodka. Uh-huh.
Speaker A [00:20:14]:
I’ve I’ve had a a sugar beet vodka.
Speaker B [00:20:17]:
Speaker A [00:20:18]:
And I know that I’ve had a potato vodka, so I can’t think of sweet potato, but I can totally see it working.
Speaker B [00:20:25]:
Yeah. Delta dirt distillery out in Arkansas. Black owned farm distillery. Right? And first black owned farm distillery in the country, and they’re making a sweet potato That’s great. That’s the type of product that people aren’t gonna get exposed to. So it’s exciting for us to be able to take things like that and bring them up to the twin cities.
Speaker A [00:20:41]:
When will it open? ideally?
Speaker B [00:20:44]:
So, the building’s under construction right now. it’s going into the coliseum building, which is the 27th and Lake Street. It’s a historic building, and it’s designated as such, and was also burned in 2020. but it’s slated right now for late spring. And, you know, we certainly wanna be open by, early summer, and we really want to be open by Juneteenth of next year.
Speaker A [00:21:07]:
Do you have the name?
Speaker B [00:21:10]:
So right. Not I can I can preview you as long as as long as we can get away with it. said, we’re gonna keep it pretty simple. We’re gonna have the De Nard Restaurant, the De Nard cocktail room. It’s it the building, the space is kinda split into, and so they’re there’s kind of 2 businesses in 1. So one will be the cocktail room, one will be the restaurant, but they’ll both just be Du Nord.
Speaker A [00:21:30]:
Makes total sense to me. it’s great to talk with you. How is your wife? Is she still teaching?
Speaker B [00:21:37]:
No. She is a vice president of development for BP’s solar arm. Wow. Yeah. She’s kind of a big damn deal. And this is why I say, like, it’s a good thing she kept on with her real career because while I was just losing money and, you know, chasing a dream, she was out there actually being the breadwinner and, you know, keeping food on our table. and we also have 3 kids to chase around. but, no, she’s doing well with that and continue to climb that ladder and, you know, may well be present in the United States at some point here.
Speaker A [00:22:11]:
I hope it should be the first woman. It’s about time. No, that’s not uncommon either that in a maker couple, you know, that one person kinda keeps the steady corporate job that provides the benefits and the stability as it were from a financial standpoint while you grow, we certainly did that. And then eventually, I did, leave my job, probably a year too early, and it created a lot of stress, but we got through.
Speaker B [00:22:38]:
Yeah. It was a stressful moment when I left mine. you know, vacated grew up pretty poor to leave a, a job, a reputable law firm, and,
Speaker A [00:22:46]:
Speaker B [00:22:47]:
cities was not easy. And it certainly wasn’t easy for her having dealt with me through law school because I wasn’t the most pleasant person during law school. You say, I wanna ask. You’re gonna leave it. but, yes, I mean, it’s that’s that’s the thing is that, I look at at the journey of the Nord, and particularly my my time with it and and what I’ve been able to do. And it’s like any small business. It is so tied to the family. And if you have that kind of support. I mean, neither of us came from money, so we didn’t have that going for us. Yep. That’s simply having that support and having, you know, a partner who was like, fine. If you’re making this career change, that’s not just a sacrifice for you. That’s a sacrifice for me too, because that means I don’t have as many choices as otherwise. would have. So to have a partner who’s willing to do that and be along with you on that ride is a huge asset. And I think, Bob, well, I don’t think I know. But for there is no denort today. So I’m, you know, if she ever listens to this Chanel, thank you.
Speaker A [00:23:49]:
She will. I’ll send it to her. Chris, it’s been great to catch up. I’ll look for the cocktail room debut of the restaurant next year. Any new spirits on the horizon that you’re excited about?
Speaker B [00:24:01]:
No. We’re trying to keep it. We’re trying to keep it, to the ones that we make. I think that in particularly now that we have this opportunity just to highlight some other people’s spirits. I think we’re gonna try to just keep doing what we do well and let everyone else do the other things as well as they can.
Speaker A [00:24:15]:
I wanna encourage people to try your gin too. I think your gin is underrated in terms of when people talk about good Minnesota Gins. I think it’s really fantastic.
Speaker B [00:24:28]:
Well, it’s that’s my baby. That’s, I spent a lot a lot a lot of time on that gin, and I can’t imagine going back to try to create another one like that, but, now I love that gin. And again, we have a lot of people who are like, well, we’re not Ginger drinkers and then they try it when they’re converted, but they’re not because it’s a new world, which is I have a lot of respect for new world. Gins, we do not make one. Right? It’s not the It’s it’s to Juniper forward, Jim, but it’s made differently. And I can be on here for the next hour that you don’t have, talking about how we make it differently, but you know, it’s one that’s awards too. It’s got all the gold medals that it needs, but, but, yeah, it’s it’s also, you know, it’s a challenge sometimes to get that in front of people when they see you have an Apple and a copy of a cooler, they want to sniff that instead. But, yes, I thank you for that plug because we really do provenance. it used to be called Fitzgerald. now it’s called prominence because of the prominence of that Juniper.
Speaker A [00:25:21]:
I just I think it’s really delicious. And when people talk about local gyms, it’s always on my list and high to because I think it is different. I think it has a different flavor profile. and it makes a fantastic gin and tonic. So there you go.
Speaker B [00:25:38]:
I’m sorry. That’s exactly what it was designed to do.
Speaker A [00:25:41]:
I love it.
Speaker B [00:25:42]:
Trying all those gins, I needed to have a gin that you could taste in a tonic.
Speaker A [00:25:46]:
Speaker B [00:25:47]:
That’s what that’s what we were aiming for.
Speaker A [00:25:49]:
I love it. Well, we’ll catch up soon. I’ll look forward to seeing you around here when you get the cocktail room going again and I’ll come sit in your restaurant and we’ll have a Toast and gin.
Speaker B [00:26:00]:
I’m looking forward to it. Always a pleasure.
Speaker A [00:26:03]:
Okay. Alright. We’ll talk soon. Bye.
Speaker B [00:26:05]: