Posts Categorized: Community Builders

Pete Espinosa

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

Pete and Kari Espinosa (and dogs) / Photo courtesy Pete Espinosa

It’s 1964, and Pete Espinosa is five. He’s riding in the car, a little boy accompanying his mom and older brother Paul on the 80-mile drive from Mason City to Decorah, Iowa, to drop Paul off at Luther College. The trip, as Pete recalls, was bittersweet – as the trio hauled bins of possessions into Olson Hall, first there was laughter, and then there were tears.

“When you are five, nothing is more important to you than your mom, and I can remember my mom being so sad on the way home because Paul was her first child to leave for college,” he says. “That is impactful when you are that young.”

That visit would be the first of many. Pete returned to Decorah again and again through the years to visit Paul and then older sisters Pam and Ann at Luther. “Decorah was ingrained in me early,” he says with a smile. In 1977 it was Pete’s own turn to enroll at Luther, where he majored in speech communications and political science and, as a senior, met his future wife, Kari Tollefson, then a Luther freshman.

“When I graduated, I took a job with IBM in the Quad Cities, but came back to Decorah a lot over the next three years to visit Kari,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in Decorah for someone who did not live there.”

Pete steadily climbed through the ranks at IBM over the next 18 years, eventually serving as executive assistant to the company’s chairman and CEO. In 1999 he left IBM and went on to hold senior executive leadership positions at a handful of software companies before landing at Mortgage Cadence, where he currently serves as CEO.

As jobs took him literally all over the country – “I have lived in New York, Boston, Kansas City, the Quad Cities, Omaha, the Twin Cities,” he says – Decorah remained a constant, as he and Kari returned for Luther Homecoming and other events throughout the years even as they raised their three children, Josh, Justin, and Rachel. There was just something about this scenic small town.

In 2013, after spending a fun and memorable long weekend with Kari’s siblings and family in Decorah, the couple was inspired to put down roots in town, and join the community on a more tangible level. They bought a lot and built a house on Iowa Avenue. “We chose Decorah, and because of that we very much want Decorah to be successful,” says Pete. “We are not just rooting for it but want to do something positive.”

That has been their mantra time and again over the last six years. In 2014 the couple purchased and renovated Bottle Tree laundromat on College Drive, an investment that, while not necessarily very profitable, served the Decorah population in an important way. Then in 2015, Pete, teaming up with a few family members and friends, opened Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. The brewery was one of the reasons – Toppling Goliath Brewing Company being the other – that Decorah is on the map for craft-beer connoisseurs worldwide. “I am not even a beer drinker, and there was no financial plan that made any sense when we opened,” he says. “But we want to do good things for Decorah, and we thought this would be a good thing for Decorah.”

Pete and Kari at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. in Decorah, Iowa / Photo courtesy Pete Espinosa

And it has been. As it turned out, says Pete, head brewers Bob Slack and Justin Teff, make great beer: “I was blown away. We started winning awards, and we were getting more and more requests to rent out our taproom, next door to the laundromat.” Those requests inspired another change. When he received an offer to buy the laundromat, he accepted it, contingent that the laundromat would stay on the West Side of Decorah to serve that population. The move left the former laundromat space available to remodel into an event venue, which has been popular from the start.

In 2019, the Espinosas created another anchor for the community. Pete and Kari had long had their eyes on 211 College Drive, a spacious (11,000 square feet) building next door to Pulpit Rock that housed a furniture business. When that business closed, Pete and Kari bought the building to, once again, do something good for Decorah. “We wanted to build an establishment unlike anything else in town,” says Pete, “It was important that we didn’t put anyone out of business.”

The Landing Market opened in July 2020. Modeled after the Lynhall in Minneapolis, it offers a range of food and drink options, from fresh-brewed coffee sourced from Impact (also in town) and other items from distinctive wines to grab-and go sandwiches (made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients) as well as what Pete calls “the best French toast around.”

French toast at Jusin’s at the Landing Market in Decorah / Photo by Sara Friedl-Putnam

The French toast is a featured menu item at Justin’s, an eatery in the Landing Market named after Pete’s son, who has cognitive disabilities. Providing meaningful work opportunities for adults engaged in the Spectrum Network (which serves adults with cognitive disabilities) has been an integral part of the mission of establishing the food hall. “There aren’t a lot of employment options for Spectrum clients in Decorah right now,” says Pete. “But here they can help make yummy, reasonably priced food in a cool setting. That is a home run.”

The Espinosas are also supporters of the arts. Pete and Kari purchased the former Wonder Bread store on Broadway Street in Decorah to ensure ArtHaus, a space for visual and performing arts, had a home in which to grow and thrive in the Decorah community.

Pete, center, with some of his family outside Pulpit Rock Brewing / Photo courtesy Pete Espinosa

“My wife and I believe that the more people you can help in a community, the better everything else turns out. That is the essence of the laundromat, the brewery, the Landing Market, and ArtHaus,” says Pete. “And it all goes back to the fact that we chose to be here so we want to do what we can to make this a special, unique place.”

In 2016, Pete was honored with the Luther College Distinguished Service Award. And in 2017, he joined the Luther College Board of Regents. “I said, sign me up, when asked,” says Pete. “I felt like I could help.”

Delivering Pete’s Distinguished Service Award, Eric Runestad, then Luther vice president of finance, summed up his essence thusly: “Pete is the kind of person that makes you think ‘I could do more.’”

That he is.


Sara Friedl-Putnam has tried the French toast at Justin’s in the Landing Market and can attest to the fact that it is the most delicious French toast in town, if not the region. 

Community Builder: Luke Zahm

BY ARYN HENNING NICHOLS
Originally published in the Fall 2019 Inspire(d)

Much of Luke Zahm’s mission in life has been about creating identity.

Whether it’s as a chef, or at his popular farm-to-table restaurant, Driftless Café, or beyond that, cultivating identity for the Midwest.

“I found my identity and connection through food,” he says. “Being from La Farge, Wisconsin, I didn’t have much of a sense of place when I was younger. My mom worked at Organic Valley for 25 years, and when OV kids went off to college, we were given stacks of coupons for free products, which was amazing.”

“Sometimes I would trade them for beer,” he continues with a laugh. “Free milk, eggs, cheese, butter, orange juice – all that stuff was gold when you were in college. But often we’d use them to buy our own food. So I walked into a Whole Foods for the first time in Chicago, picked up a piece of Organic Valley cheddar, and saw La Farge, Wisconsin, written on the back, in a way that had relevance and meaning. And it struck me: ‘These are my people, this is where I’m from!’ That never left me. I loved watching the Driftless Region grow in that way.”

Before that, Luke often said, “I’m from somewhere near Madison.”

His first experience in a restaurant was a high school job at the Subway in Viroqua where, as luck would have it, he would meet the woman he’d marry someday: Ruthie Yahn.

Ruthie and Luke Zahm outside Driftless Cafe

Ruthie and Luke Zahm outside Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. / Photo courtesy Driftless Café

“I was a certified sandwich artist – my Mom still has the certificate – and Ruthie was a small town princess,” Luke says, clearly settling in to tell a good story. “She was the worst customer I ever had! I was going through a Goth phase – and she came in and ordered a sandwich and was all, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing? Can I just come back there and make my own sandwich?’”

Luke, now 40, laughs. Life went on for the two – Ruthie headed to college in Tempe, Arizona; Luke in Chicago. But a restaurant would bring them together again – a Wisconsin supper club – where they both worked the next summer.

“She came to work all tan, and says, ‘Oh hey, I’m Ruthie,’ flirting, and I said, ‘Ohhh, I remember you.’”

They once again went separate ways, but eventually, both transferred to U.W. Madison. They – along with many other old friends from Southwest Wisconsin – met back up and became a tight-knit crew. And Luke and Ruthie fell in love. After they graduated in 2003 – Luke’s degree is in behavioral science and law, and Ruthie’s in nursing – they got married, and stayed in Madison for several years more.

“I thought I was going to be lawyer,” Luke says. “But I was working in restaurants the whole time, and I always felt a pull back.” To food, and to the Viroqua area as well. They moved home in 2011, with their two kids, Ava and Benjamin, in tow, and Luke went to work as an executive sous chef for The Waterfront Restaurant in La Crosse.

“I started hanging out with a lot of big chefs – getting all techy with molecular gastronomy,” Luke says. “Eric Rupert (a Madison-based chef) was my mentor, so I was telling him about all these experiments. He literally grabbed me by my head and said, ‘Dude, you are from the mecca of organics. It gives where you are so much shape and meaning. Cook that food. That’s your role.’ At the time I didn’t love hearing that. But I kinda knew it was in my DNA.”

It was a pivotal moment for Luke. He went back to the basics, spending 14 months working at the Viroqua Co-op bakery and deli.

“They opened their doors to the idea of the restaurant I wanted to create. They helped me articulate what I wanted, and gave people a chance to taste my food,” he says. It was during this time he and Ruthie had another baby, Silas. So life was busy. But they decided to take the leap to create Driftless Café anyway.

“We cashed in all our chips. 401K, savings – all of it went into this idea of this restaurant,” Luke says. “I was taking our new baby to bankers meetings, saying, ‘Here’s what we have. Loan us money!’ Nobody would do it. One day, I had a conversation with a local farmer. I was explaining my vision of what I wanted the Café to be. I wanted to put a spotlight on what farmers are doing, honor the heritage of their roots, plus what they are coming to be.”

When yet another loan didn’t come through, the previous owner of the Driftless Café came to Luke and said, “I’ll sell you the place.” Then that local farmer said, “I’ll finance it.”

“Now, I know I’m not the only farm-to-table restaurant out there… but I may be the only farmer-financed,” Luke says. “It was an amazing show of community trust. They really took a risk on this idea that Ruthie and I were worth it.”

Driftless Café opened under Luke and Ruthie’s ownership in 2013, and the restaurant quickly became a leader in local, farmer-focused dishes inspired by the region. And in 2017, Luke was named a James Beard semifinalist.

“Driftless Café’s motto is to do what it does at the highest level we’re capable of,” he says. “We want to be the authority on local cuisine, a bridge for the community, and a voice into the future.”

Luke at the Driftless Cafe bar

Luke at the Driftless Cafe bar / Photo courtesy Driftless Cafe

The same thing goes for Luke’s involvement with Viroqua Chamber Main Street – he’s been board president for the past three years. “I found I have a voice in it,” he says. “And I want my children to understand that to live and work in a community you have to be involved and active.”

The board has worked to inspire and empower future and current entrepreneurs to invest, sustain, and build up the community.

“In order to market the region, we have to capture those who are working to make things happen,” he says. In fact, years ago, Luke went to the Food Network in LA to pitch an idea for a show about food and a sense of place, highlighting this corner of the Midwest.

“They said, ‘To be fair, nobody gives a sh*t about the Midwest. All revenue is generated by the coasts. Good luck with the underwriting,’” he recalls. “Back in Wisconsin, I said, ‘Nobody gives a sh*t? I just don’t buy that.”

So when Wisconsin Foodie, an Emmy Award-winning show on Wisconsin Public Television, came to Luke about hosting the show after longtime host, Kyle Cherek, planned to step down, he was – of course – interested. After co-hosting a few shows last season, Luke took the job.

The TV spotlight might take some getting used to, though.

“I was canoeing with my daughter and her friend when another boater yells, ‘Hey, congrats on Wisconsin Foodie!’ I’m kind of an introvert, so it’s strange when people I don’t know recognize me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m trying to grow into that.”

“Maybe next time I’ll keep my shirt on,” he adds.

Life is – once again, or perhaps still – busy. Luke’s on the road four days a week filming with Wisconsin Foodie, plus working events and catering gigs, and keeping up with Driftless Café itself. He recently handed the reigns of Executive Chef over to Mary Kastman, an acclaimed chef from Boston who moved to Viroqua last year.

“Mary views and cooks with a different lens than I do, and I think that’s so important,” Luke says. “I see and taste the things she’s making and I’m floored. It’s so amazing how the same ingredients can make such different outcomes. I’m excited for her to create her own identity with food here.”

And luckily, Ruthie is – and has been – on board for it all.

“To be fair, Ruthie is the brains of the operation. Beyonce’s got it right, you know, ‘who runs the world?’ She takes care of it, and makes sure it works for our family,” Luke says. “Part of me would love it to slow down, and another part of me never wants it to slow down. When Ruthie quit job as labor and delivery nurse, we said, ‘Let’s do this thing ‘til it practically kills us.’ And when we put our heads together we could move mountains.”

At the very least – or perhaps the very best – they’ll move hearts and minds.

“Rural America feels like they’re not being heard,” Luke says. “Being from La Farge, or any small town – you’re telling me this doesn’t matter, and I’m going to prove to you that it does. I want to change how the conversation is going. I want to make sure at the end of my run with Wisconsin Foodie that people won’t ever be able to say this is flyover country again.”


Aryn Henning Nichols loves Viroqua and the Driftless Café, and is super inspired by Luke and Ruthie Zahm. They are walking their talks, and it is certainly showing.

Community Building is one of the most important things we can do in this life, so each fall, Inspire(d) features folks in the Driftless doing positive things to build community where they live.
Check out other Community Builders here!

Community Builder: Greg Wennes

Community Builder: Greg Wennes – Sunrise Care Facility, Spring Grove, Minnesota

Story and photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

It’s a sunny Thursday morning, and Greg Wennes is waiting in a plastic lawn chair, under the mature trees shading Sunrise Care Facility, just “Sunrise” for short. It’s a farmhouse on the outskirts of Spring Grove, Minnesota – known by locals as the Gilbertson place. As many as 10 men, all recovering alcoholics or addicts, can eat, sleep, work and find community and support here. They may stay weeks, months or years as they transition between formal rehabilitation treatment and regular, productive lives.

When Greg, owner-operator of Wennes Communications Stations, helped found Sunrise in 1988, it was among the first of its kind in this part of the Driftless. And while these days he’s a guy who has the glow of wintering in warmer places and who drives a glittering burgundy motorcycle, among other classic rides, he needs you to understand this about him first: He’s a recovering alcoholic, a lifelong condition.

There was a time when he himself came home from residential treatment to find his house empty but for a mattress and a dying spider plant, his wife and kids gone. He’s been to the depths, and he knows what it takes to climb out (and stay out), one handhold at a time. Sunrise was founded to provide the footing.

“Drinking is a lonely occupation,” he says, “but ‘sober lonely’ is incredible. It’s one of the most difficult parts of recovery.”

Opening a care facility isn’t the easiest thing in a tight-lipped Scandinavian community, where people keep problems to themselves, but beneath any public stigmatization that existed, Greg and other founders quickly assembled a broad base of support, across medicine, recovery treatment policy, public health, law enforcement, and ministry. The home opened as a non-profit with significant help from the Tweeten Foundation, previous owners of the local hospital. Renovated twice to date, Sunrise operates with resident fees paid privately or subsidized by state and federal public health systems. Supporters aspire to add a private wing for women soon, too.

“It takes an alchie to know and help an alchie,” Greg says of his friend and colleague Greg ‘Gregor’ Rostad, using recovery slang for an alcoholic, as opposed to a ‘normie’ (an un-addicted person). Gregor, also a successful business owner, is in his fifth year as administrator on-site at Sunrise, a job layered with management, mentoring, discipline, and compassion. “It takes being both an achie and a business person to make this place work,” Gregor says. Above all, he has to keep inevitable social challenges from trampling the bottom line.

Residents, each with his own private room in the stately farmhouse, make meals together in teams. They coordinate clinic and therapy visits, run errands in Sunrise’s two shuttle vans, and perform all the maintenance of the house and five-acre grounds. They also host and attend recovery meetings, both on-site and at other meeting spaces around the region. Friends and family can sign in to visit, and it’s common for residents to walk the mile or so into downtown Spring Grove to shop on their own, enjoy the view of neighboring pastures, and get a breath of normal, small-town life.

“Anyone can quit drinking,” Greg says. “The question is, ‘How do I learn to live and function in society as a sober person?’ Our goal is to provide a sober, safe sanctuary.”

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To join the conversation, Greg and Gregor recommend Facing Addiction (facingaddiction.org), a resource hub for those living with addiction or wanting to support someone who is. To learn more or support Sunrise Care Facility, visit sunrisecarefacility.com.