Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

More Than a Hobby: Tim Blanski


Tim Blanski of Granary Woodshops, Spring Grove, Minnesota

Story and photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)

Historic dream home you’d finally saved up for? Check.

Corporate tech jobs and a community of friends provisioning a predictable retirement? Check.

Logical next-step: Give it all up for an acreage in the rural Driftless, funded by woodworking skills dated to junior high?

Wait. What?

TimBlanski“It’s true,” Tim Blanski of Granary Woodshops says. “We hadn’t been in our dream house in St. Paul nine months – a house we’d walked past for years and saved to buy – when an ad for this acreage caught my eye in the paper.” One tour of the 1880 brick farmhouse and outbuildings at 18666 County Road 4, north of Spring Grove, Minnesota, had both Tim and his wife, Lisa Catton, testing fate. “We got back in the car, and she asked, ‘Do we make an offer tonight, or tomorrow?’”

MoreThanHobbyLogoThe problem was, they’d have to make a different living to make the move. As a marketing executive with an eye for salable detail, Tim set up a woodworking shop in the acreage’s original granary and turned his attention to the growing trend of artisan crafts made from reclaimed antique wood. “At first I made just gift boxes, picture frames. I’m not God’s gift to woodworking – this was stuff straight out of your average school shop class,” he says with a laugh.

Lisa, who continued contract tech consulting part-time, pitched in with varnishing and managing the fledgling business’s public relations, and they peddled their first goods at craft shows across the Upper Midwest. Soon, Tim found his niche: a rare patience for not only salvaging historic barns and sheds but in working the wood just enough to let its story shine.


“All my wood is trouble,” he says, explaining that he’ll spend days matching up weather-worn grooves at the mitered corners of a box, or travel a state over to have a one-ton white oak burl sawn into slabs with the live edge (the outermost bark or surface) intact. “I’m giving people the story of this wood, its history,” he says, “and that means not shearing it down to its smooth heart. I leave the saw marks, the nicks and grooves mice have worn a passageway through.” He also believes in letting the material’s colors create their own mosaic. “I don’t paint or stain anything. I work with the texture of the wood’s original paint or patina.”

Now specializing in custom furniture, particularly farm tables and decorative side pieces, Tom will build four or more buildings into a single piece: walnut for the base, cherry for the upright table trestle, rare 1-inch-by-12-inch barn siding across the top, oak trim fumed to a deep mahogany color by the ammonia of its previous installation: a horse stall.

LiveEdgeWood BlanskiShop

He also aims to give his furniture a full life of its own, calling in the mechanical expertise of other craftsmen to make the leaves in his tables sturdy, for example. “This is mortise and tenon,” he says, pointing to tiny rectangles inset in a table’s edge, “and these hold a single oak bridge across the leaves when fully extended,” he says, jigging a discrete set of polymer tension knobs just out of sight. “Reclaimed, antique wood is some of the sturdiest, most valuable wood to grow on earth,” he says. “Its worth is not just in looking pretty. It’s in doing a job, part of daily life.”


As his finished pieces have expanded in size and notoriety – it’s been nearly 15 years since that first handmade gift box – Tim has pared back art show travel, preferring instead to host prospective customers at the farm, where they can walk with him through his neatly stacked trove of woods in his barn and express exactly what they envision for their table or chair or entryway mirror frame. He makes a steady stream of contacts through his website,, and on, where clients are looking for something a little extraordinary.

“I started out woodworking to make a living, almost a desperate living,” Tim says. “And instead I found a passion. Creativity came pouring out of me. I get up every day excited about what I get to make next.”

Learn more about Tim’s work at or by setting up a visit to The Granary Woodshops in rural Spring Grove, Minnesota.


Kristine Jepsen understands the compulsion to ‘make things,’ as evidenced by whole drawers in her home of light-gage wire, glitter, beads, fabric scraps, papers and, especially, writing instruments. She’s proud to call the Driftless home, where creatives are far from the exception.


Check out Tim’s work in Lanesboro!

Lanesboro Arts presents “Story Wood: Combining Nature & Rural History”, an exhibit of 3D woodwork by Tim Blanski. The exhibit opens with an artist reception on Saturday, April 16, 2016, from 6-8 p.m., and runs through June 12, 2016. The reception will include wine and hors d’oeuvres, as well as live music. Always free and open to the public, the Lanesboro Arts Gallery is open five days a week through May and six days a week through December. Inspire(d) is a proud sponsor of this exhibit! 🙂


Sum of Your Business: “Happy” Joe Whitty


Sum of Your Business: “Happy” Joe Whitty
Intro and interview by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2016 Inspire(d)

MannyMaryAnn_NEWForeword: While this story has just come out in our Spring 2016 issue, the news of losing Decorah’s Manny Madrigal has also just reached us. Manny, whom owned and ran the Decorah Happy Joe’s with his Wife Mary Ann and family for many years, was a one of a kind. He was well known in Decorah, played a mean game of pool, and worked out almost everyday. He will be missed in the Decorah Community and at Happy Joe’s. Our condolences to the entire Madrigal Family.

If you grew up anywhere near a Happy Joe’s Pizza restaurant, chances are you either hosted or attended at least one of their epic birthday parties, with the honking of Bombay horns, the singing, the fire engine siren, and a birthday ice cream sundae presented in full glory with a candle (and cherry alongside the wafer cookie) perfectly placed on top. The elaborate performance may not have caused tears of joy to the younger birthday boy or girl every time, but the festive atmosphere definitely lent itself to a happy experience. And the formula (to this day) is not an accident. It – happiness – was one of the key selling points to the “crazy idea” that Joe Whitty took from nothing to the now multi-generational, franchised restaurant that invented the taco pizza (something we’re pretty big fans of at Inspire(d) HQ!).

Just west of Minot, North Dakota, in the sprawling Midwestern plains, Lawrence Joe Whitty was born the middle of five children. The family lived on a farm just outside of Des Lacs, milking cows, farming, and living in a typical farmhouse – void of modern plumbing and heated entirely by a wood stove. From a young age, Joe and his siblings learned the meaning of hard work, dedication, hospitality, and determination. And at eight years of age, Joe fell into a coma due to spinal meningitis and wasn’t given long to live. Nothing short of miracles and stubborn dedication led to his recovery – and appreciation of the life he was given. It’s a telling tale of Joe’s ability to overcome life’s challenges. The ups and downs of entrepreneurship are enough to give most people rough days, even years – add to that losing not one, but two wives to cancer, and you’ll begin to see the depths of Joe’s tenacity. This ability to survive – and thrive – is likely one of the reasons Joe has made giving back to the community, and especially handicapped and special needs children, a big part of the business.


A huge thank you to the Madrigal family of the Decorah Happy Joe’s for helping put this story together.

A love for connecting with every customer who walked in the door (or drove up!) started early for Joe – age 18 – when he bought and operated his first restaurant in Minot, North Dakota: The Keg Drive-In. He also learned how to make work – the place where you spend most of your waking hours – as fun as possible. The Keg didn’t last forever, but it did give Joe an even bigger love for being your own boss and making people happy. As his young family grew, Joe worked as a baker, which eventually led to a series of jobs in Davenport, Iowa (one baking for nuns!), and finally to managing two Shakey’s pizza parlors. Joe saw the fast rise that pizza was making – and the idea of a pizza – and – ice cream store was hatched.

Today, at age 78, Joe continues to oversee Happy Joe’s business – with over 50 franchises and stores in seven states – while enjoying a little more time for retirement projects. His passion and sense of family continue on in the business with son Larry as the president of Happy Joe’s, and daughter Kristel serving as marketing director. Yet Joe Whitty can still be found often in one of the many Happy Joe’s restaurants – from Davenport to Gilbert, Arizona – greeting friends and talking to guests, and he’s still a driving force in the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation which focuses on outreach to children with special needs.

HappyJoeThe Basics:
Name: Lawrence Joe Whitty aka “Happy” Joe Whitty
Age: 78
Business: Happy Joes Pizza & Ice Cream
Years in Business: 43
(The first Happy Joe’s opened in November of 1972 in the East Village of Davenport, Iowa)

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

In 1956 when I was 18, I bought the Keg Drive-in in Minot. I also met my wife Sandie there. The Keg only lasted a couple years, and then I went on to be a commercial baker – we eventually had the opportunity to move to Davenport, where I also baked for Mercy Hospital and the Catholic Nuns – that’s where I really got my pizza crust down – the nuns loved my pizza. When I managed a Shakey’s pizza parlor in Davenport, families were always coming in for pizza and then going down the street for ice cream afterwards. That’s where my idea for a pizza and ice cream place came from – I knew what I wanted to do.

I had wanted to be in business for myself for forever – I saw people doing it, and I was working for people who were doing it. They were driving nice cars and living in nice houses, and here I was working away for them. I decided to do it for myself.

What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

When you walk over and open up the door with that key – it’s your place. You go out and clear the driveway – it’s yours. You spend your whole life getting to that point. And of course the customers – good ones and “bad” ones. I’ve always taken time to talk to my customers, and it’s fun to hear how much people love the pizza and parties, etc. But I take as much or more time to hear the complaints – those are how you learn. If somebody isn’t happy or things aren’t right – I’ll stand on my head and whistle “Dixie,” – free ice cream cones, whatever it takes to make it right. Those often become our best customers, happy customers, because you make it right.

How about the worst?

The hardest part for me was maybe working too close with friends at times. Having to hold friends to business or franchise agreements or ending up in court. That can hurt, but you find your way through it, and you have to protect your original business interest and everyone else that has invested in it.

Buffet 2

Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

I had six banks turn me down for a loan to open my own place before I was able to convince someone. My friends thought I was crazy with the pizza and ice cream idea. It wasn’t until I showed up at Jim Schrader’s office at the Davenport Bank & Trust with my brass horn and yelled this huge birthday announcement for him, honking the horn, getting everyone to sing and laugh – I had no idea when his birthday was, but it got attention. The president came over and said “Good God, get this guy a loan so he’ll get out of here!” But it worked… I still had no idea if the idea would work, but we had the loan!

When we got ready to open the first Happy Joe’s, I invited a local Catholic Priest, Father Hoenig, to come bless the store. It was also at this time that I told the Big Guy upstairs that I’d take him as my partner – and I did. And I agreed that regardless whether things worked or not, I’d make sure we gave back to the community, and to those in need. When my first wife, Sandie, passed away all of a sudden from cancer – she was always right beside me in the business and such – I started pulling an empty chair up in my meetings. I’d get looks and asked who that was for, and I’d say it was for the Big Guy.

Another one of the first hurdles was coming up with a name we could trademark. I have a good lawyer friend, Bob Van Vooren, who helped us – we looked at all sorts of names with Joe in them, but were having a tough time. My then 11-year-old daughter (Julie) came down the stairs one morning and said, “If you’re going to have pizza and ice cream, and fun birthday parties, and all these happy things – why not call it Happy Joe’s?” That was it.

When the store took off, people noticed and loved the concept – I had people asking in the first year if they could franchise – I didn’t even know if I could spell franchise. But, after a nice couple had come in several times and asked me about the possibility, I told them I didn’t have the money or the agreements set up. They wrote me a check for $500 that night and said they wanted to be the first to franchise. I went out and collected every franchise agreement I could get my hands on – had a typist help me combine all the parts I liked and took it to my lawyer, who said, “Joe, this looks pretty good!”

We ran with it from there, and had franchises going in the next couple years. I had a lot of good help through it – always good help.


Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

When I built out the first store I had so much help from friends and other businesses. People extended bills, personal friends helped put the store together and paint and such, along my friend and lawyer Bob Van Vooren. I was so thankful for all their help, so I put their names up on the windows as free advertisements – I just wanted to give them thanks. Bob came in after I’d done that and nervously said, “Joe! You have to take my name off there – it isn’t even legal for me to advertise.” (as a lawyer). So I took the “Van” off of “Van Vooren” and figured he could get away with it. I couldn’t have done it without all of those people – and several of my friends – life long friends – came from running the business.

What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

I’ve often said if I had any more education I wouldn’t have ever opened the store – not enough start up money, the location, our crazy pizzas with sauerkraut and things, and having ice cream too. Nobody was doing that, but I said, hey I want to do this. Originally I only wanted one store – a place to support my family.

But, a little more education sure would have been helpful at times. Maybe if I had gotten to go to college I would have been able to do a few more things myself. I had to hire good people to fill the slots where I couldn’t do it.

How do you manage your life/work balance?

My family was always involved in the business. I used to tell my kids “Hey, I don’t have any money, but I do have hours, how many do you want?” The members of my family were part owners in everything we did through that – they waited tables, washed dishes, you name it. After I lost my first wife, Sandie – well, it was hire a babysitter or have them at the store! I figured it was better to have them at the store. My kids were getting checks from me as young teenagers. They also came along with me all over the country in our RV as we opened new franchises and did celebrations. We also had a lot of fun along the way – and now some of them run the company!

What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

Joe_KidBack when I was a Shakey’s manager, you know, checking on tables, talking to people, we still had the piano and banjo players back then. I had a gal come to the door one evening and look in. She asked if we would mind if her son could come in and listen for a bit – but that her son got a little loud when he was excited – he had special needs. Well, I had plenty of regular customers who got loud when they were excited, so what’d I care!? I of course told her to come in and enjoy – I treated them great, and her son really enjoyed himself. I wondered to myself how many other kids out there were at home – not able, or whose parents were hesitant to just take them out?

As soon as I had my own place going I knew I wanted to close the shop at least one day a year, just to invite children with special needs for a party – and treat them like royalty. And we did that our first year – it was great, and became a regular part of our business. As soon as you do something good like that, people take notice – we had newspaper write-ups, which I sometimes even got questioned on. You know, if everyone did things like this it wouldn’t be so noteworthy – there’s a lesson there.

We love it. We just had 1400 children participate in our Happy Joe’s parties at the i-Wireless Center from all over. I see some of these children year to year and they are so great – some kid came up to me this year, and I’m in my straw hat, smiling – and he says ‘Look! He’s still livin’!” another told me “I’ve got a complaint Happy Joe – you need to make the parties last longer!”

We also found that workers with special needs or disabilities could often find valuable places on our teams. Many are capable, and willing, and often help attitudes that bring a team together in the store. This just started because I wanted to make sure we showed a little care to these people – those kids belong to all of us you know, not just their parents. That’s what its all about.


Joe Whitty is also the author of “Not Your Average Joe”, a personal memoir of his life and the story of Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. You can find out more about Happy Joe’s and the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation at or

“Everyone has a dream. Not everyone is lucky enough to see theirs come true. Give credit to success where it is due, and always remember that with success comes responsibility. Whenever you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life for the better, take it! Because, ultimately, the biggest difference, you’ll discover, will be in your own life.” – Happy Joe Whitty from “Not Your Average Joe”


Benji Nichols celebrated countless birthdays as a kid at Happy Joe’s in Decorah, and to this day enjoys a taco pizza like nobodies business. He’s inspired by Joe Whitty’s life story, business spirit, and ability to overcome.

Sum of Your Business: Kate Rattenborg / Dragonfly Books


Sum of Your Business: Kate Rattenborg / Dragonfly Books
Introduction & photos (unless noted) by Aryn Henning Nichols

There are few places more magical than bookstores. You walk in the doors and can choose to go – virtually – anywhere. Across the world to China through a Peter Hessler book, into one of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggy chronicles, to Texas to see what that wild Jenny Lawson is up to, or even into your self as you carefully pencil in the spaces of an adult coloring book.

KateFor Dragonfly Books owner Kate Rattenborg, just walking into a bookstore wasn’t enough – she wanted it to be her very own. Now, for the past five years, she’s gotten to walk through those doors in Downtown Decorah most days. Some times she gets to be transported to another place – be it through a book, a customer, or even an author reading. Other days she SumBusinessLogo_2014has to do the less glamorous stuff: bookkeeping (the accounting kind), marketing, shelving – but no matter what, she’s happy to be living her dream.
Dragonfly Books is the stuff of a little Driftless town’s dreams, too. Kate and her two daughters, Sarah and Rachel – who often work alongside mom – make sure displays are fun and thought-provoking, events coordinator Kate Scott schedules great local, regional, and national (sometimes even international) authors for readings both in-store and around the community, and, most importantly, the shelves are totally stocked with a well-curated collection of books.

We were excited to feature Kate for this Sum of Your Business. This February 2016 marks her fifth anniversary in business, but we can hardly remember a Downtown Decorah without Dragonfly Books. Looking for a specific book? You can email the store to see if it’s in stock! They don’t have it? They can order it! Want it instantly? You can even order e-books! Indie book stores, guys. They’re where it’s at.

Name: Kate Rattenborg
Age: 55
Business: Dragonfly Books
Years in Business: 5.0

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

I’ve been a micro-business owner for the past five years. It is a career path that I love, but one that I did not see myself taking when graduating from college. My late husband, Steve, and I had often talked about opening up a bookstore once we were ready to retire, sometime off in the future. When Steve died unexpectedly in 2002, I shelved our dream while adjusting to life as a single parent.  Eight years later, I was driving home from a seminar where we were asked to state our five, 10, and 15-year goals. Almost as a lark, I had stated I wanted to own a bookstore, and my fellow attendees quizzed me on the concept, getting me to articulate more fully my dream, a dream that I had stifled for years. Throughout the drive home through the rolling fields, all I could think about was ‘why wait?’ Why wait until retirement? Why not take the plunge and open a bookstore now?  Well, there are a lot of miles between Cedar Rapids and Decorah, the traffic was light, and my mind raced with possibilities. By the time I reached Independence, I had formulated a list of the next steps I would need to take to move forward and make my dream a reality, including resigning from my job. (A very scary thought!) Yet, I needed to name my potential business in order for it to seem real. As I was trying out different store names that would fit in with Decorah’s ‘water’ street theme, such as Brown Trout Books or Eagle’s Nest Books, I drove through a swarm of dragonflies. Not once, but twice! Dragonfly Books. Just like with the velveteen rabbit, a “funny new tickly feeling” ran through me, and I knew I could make my dream Real.  Six months later, on my fiftieth birthday and with the help of my two daughters Sarah and Rachel, I opened Dragonfly Books.  It has been a fabulous first five years! (photo below courtesy Dragonfly Books)


What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

I love that I have been able to create and shape a business that fits in with my own personal values.  I strive to foster an environment where diversity, creativity, excellence, and mutual respect is honored and respected.  It is rewarding to have created a business that promotes literacy and reading; a business that also is community-centered, complementing Decorah’s literary and artistic aesthetics.  One of the unexpected benefits has been the opportunity to work alongside my daughters in the bookstore.

How about the worst?

About a year after opening, I had to turn down an author event as I had too much to handle, there wasn’t enough of me to go around, and I had over-promised on what we could deliver.  It was clear to me that even though I didn’t think the bookstore was financially in a position to add non-family staff members, we needed to in order that the store could grow and flourish.  I was fortunate in hiring an outstanding and talented events coordinator, Kate Scott, who along with other part-time staff, has complemented my skill set in an amazing fashion. (photo below courtesy Dragonfly Books)


Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

It is easy to feel ‘alone’ when creating and running a micro-business. To counter this feeling, it has been important for me to network with fellow booksellers through my trade association, with other retailers in Decorah through the Chamber of Commerce, with other entrepreneurs, and with friends.  I use a variety of different opportunities, such as trade shows, face-to-face meetings, conferences, email, and even facebook, to reach out to others and not get lost in the (sometimes) lonely nature of small business ownership.

Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

Not surprisingly, much of my personal and business philosophy is drawn from a variety of books. Recent books that speak to me include Michael Gerber’s classic book on small business entrepreneurs, The E Myth Revisited. There are lots of pertinent ideas to apply from this book; my favorite is the reminder to schedule time to work ‘on’ and not ‘in’ your business. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities, and to ignore strategic planning, but without the latter, a business will stagnate and not be able to sustain itself. Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, a book about establishing outstanding customer service, is another book that has helped shape my business philosophy.


What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

How much fun I would have!! If I had known, I would have taken this leap years earlier!  Although I was perhaps somewhat naive about entering the retail business during an economic downturn, much less a brick and mortar bookstore, I think if I had waited until absolutely all my questions had been answered, I would still be in the planning stage. For me, I needed to just take the plunge, jump in, and make a few mistakes while learning what works.

StackBoxesHow do you manage your life/work balance?

I feel that it is not possible to separate out ‘work’ from the rest of ‘life’ so instead, I consider a life/life balance.  The hours I spend on my business are also a part of my life and not separate from my life. As long as I am able to foster friendships and good relationships with family – either inside of or outside of ‘work hours’ – I am content. However, I have at times struggled with figuring out how to relax away from the bookstore, as I took my relaxation channel (a love of reading) and turned it into a business.  I am now surrounded by the books that I love, in all genres, and I receive advance reading copies to review daily, sometimes by the bushelful.  I have no lack of reading materials! My evenings, when I used to be able to forget about the day-to-day activities of a eight-five workday by sitting down with a cuppa tea and delving into a book, are often the same.  However, instead of an escape, the same reading activity has become another arm of my work life.  Reading has become a time for evaluation of new products to order (or not order), preparation for work-related book groups, analyzing new trends in all genres, and reviewing the books read.  In short, I haven’t left my business behind. It’s been critical for me to find a new way to relax that is not business related.  And so, you can find me at the Blue Heron Knittery working on a scarf, participating at the ArtHaus Poetry Slam, or on stage with the Oneota Valley Community Orchestra, sitting in the viola section and losing myself in the music. (photo above courtesy Dragonfly Books)

What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work… The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs


Kate’s Recommended Reading
Add these to your reading list for 2016!

Shapiro_Muralist_Jkt_HRThe Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

When a young Abstract Expressionist painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) vanishes in pre-WWII New York City in 1940, neither her Jewish family living in German-occupied France nor her close-knit group of friends and fellow painters, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner, knows what happened to her.


Johnston_Descent_HC_jkt_HRDescent by Tim Johnston

The Courtland family unravels as their daughter never returns from a hike in the majestic, yet terrifying, Rocky Mountains.



NordicCookBookThe Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson

A definitive guide to Nordic home cooking from internationally renowned chef Magnus Nilsson, featuring over 700 simple and authentic recipes.



H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this in an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast. Madness, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir.