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Kieran Folliard's Next Round: Major Diversification

The Twin Cities’ happy Irish warrior flogs his accessible whiskey while he prepares to diversify.

Kieran Folliard's Next Round: Major Diversification

It’s best to be careful when diving into the deep end of ethnic stereotypes. But it is also safe to say that with Kieran Folliard you get a whole lot of Irish. Notes of peat and mist and thatch fleck from him like, well, like aged-in-oak whiskey. He’s arguably as well known as any restaurateur in the Twin Cities and may very well have interacted with more of his customers than any of his peers have.

A lot of people know Folliard, and probably quite a few them think of him as a personal pal. He has that effect—instant buddy. He makes connections, largely because of what’s missing. Which is to say the unmitigated blarney. Flattery? Absolutely. A seductive way with a tallish tale and a deep reservoir of charm? ’Tis so. But flagrant, pasture-grade County Mayo B.S., of the kind that sinks a business reputation deeper than a lame cow in thick mud? No.

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There’s a there there with the guy, which you get immediately, or as soon as he moves to the science of distilling, the tactics of rebranding Irish whiskey for a generation that has grown up with a serious sweet tooth, and the business opportunities in the world of craft meats and cheeses.

It doesn’t hurt that at 58, Folliard looks the part. He is the (very) rare guy who can actually pull off the disheveled, tad-bleary, four-day stubble look. On Folliard that much-aped style comes off as unimpeachably genuine. No one, man or woman, laughing at one of his Irish aphorisms wonders if he has taken grooming cues from some silly Fashion Week stylista.

Phil Roberts, CEO of the Parasole group of restaurants, (Salut, Pittsburgh Blue, Manny’s, among others) has known Folliard well for years and has even consulted for him from time to time. “He’s a delightful guy,” says Roberts. “He’s funny and fun to be with, and as a businessman he has very good instincts. I’ve found him and the people around him quite smart.”

Back in Minneapolis in February for a single day amid a two-month barnstorming tour for his 2 Gingers whiskey, Folliard looks a wee bit ragged, like a couple more hours sleep might do him a bit of good. But he’s on the countdown to the opening of a 26,000-square-foot meat and dairy processing facility, and among other hassles, several vital chunks of equipment coming in from Italy are being held up by U.S. Customs in New York.

2 Gingers is the brand he sold to Chicago-based Jim Beam Inc. three years ago, retaining the titles of both chief Irish whiskey ambassador to pub owners, restaurateurs and liquor distributors, and CEO of the Irish distillery that cooks the stuff. The whiskey gig and the meat and creamery adventure are advancing simultaneously, which explains the fashionably haggard look.

Creating Consumables

Nevertheless, Folliard guides a tour of the next stop on his “journey,” as he and his people are fond of calling the experience of life. What he refers to as “the food building” is a low-slung, mostly one-story aggregation of unremarkable architecture more or less catty-corner from the ornate Grain Belt brewery in Northeast Minneapolis, not far from Dusty’s Bar, home of “the homemade dago.” Were it not for the numbing 2-degree weather, the smell of dagos would likely be wafting his way.

For more than a year Folliard and his team of six, a couple of whom were with him when he owned the Local, the Liffey, Cooper and Kieran’s Irish Pub, have been putting the old (some parts of it very old) veterinary stable through a floor-to-ceiling renovation (total investment, $2.5 million). When completed it’ll be the operational center of his next adventures in hospitality.

Red Table Meat Co., led by partner Mike Phillips, best known locally for his tenure in the kitchen at the Craftsman, the well-received East Lake Street restaurant, will specialize in aged, some might say artisanal, cuts from locally raised livestock. Skyway Creamery, managed by Reuben Nilsson and Folliard’s son, Seamus, will do much the same with a variety of dairy products, primarily cheese, from happy Midwestern grass-fed cows. Simultaneously, upstairs, in a not-at-all corporate office suite of exposed 100-plus-year-old brick and gnarled oak support pillars, Folliard will lead Digging, the marketing, legal and management operation for Red Table, Skyway and whatever else might come through the door. Folliard owns 49 percent of Red Table (Phillips owns 51 percent) and 70 percent of Skyway.

“The way to think of this,” says Folliard, “is that Digging is a holding company for Red Table Meat and Skyway. Mike and Reuben and Seamus are providing expertise or sweat equity for their share, while we apply the marketing and administrative talents, so to speak.” The endeavor he says was entirely self-financed, with the exception of a “small loan” from Venture Bank, “with whom I’ve done business for quite a long time.”

Phillips, an Iowa native, is nursing a bad cold but he jokes, “I’m sort of the guinea pig here, in this arrangement. But the important thing is that the decisions are still my decisions. Kieran and his people are here for consulting and the groundwork [of building out a vendor network]. The arrangement makes sense to me because the alternative is a single storefront somewhere. But supporting a 4,500-square-foot processing facility with a storefront gets tricky, fast. With Kieran you have a guy who has good relations [with restaurants, grocers and delis] all over the state. Everything is a gamble. But those established connections mean a lot.

“And he’s been hands-off. He’s a good guy who offers his advice when you need it and lets you do your thing.”

For a time, Digging, led by Carrie Nicklow, (her husband is part of the famous Nicklow restaurant family), was known as “Driven Donkey.”

“But it was too good a brand to use for [a marketing business],” says Folliard as he points out rooms for community events, windows for visitors to look in on the creamery process (“not that it’s all that exciting”) and a sizable locker for aging Phillips’ meats. “Too good, especially with our tag line, ‘Kick your own ass.’ So we’re saving it for something else.” Which could be, maybe, fermented products like drinking vinegars and tempeh. “I think that’s going to be a growth market.”

“Digging” comes from a Seamus Heaney poem of the same name that famously asks the reader what sort of shovel he has to handle the tasks he’s meant to do.

A Survivor With a Wandering Eye

The (very) short history of Folliard’s career in Minnesota, which means leaving out the two years in the late ’70s he spent raising milk cows with another restless Irishman in Saudi Arabia, goes like this: After arriving in 1987 as president of Andcor Cos., a venture capital gig with a specialty in entrepreneurial companies, he quickly grew bored with the corporate world, (“big companies struggle with innovation”), and gravitated to the one thing that all Irish lads and lasses know—pubs.

He’s had a few misses along the way. There was Molly Malone’s, where Haute Dish is now on Washington Avenue. A couple tony expense-account places—Merchant’s and Brasserie Zinc on Nicollet Mall—came and quickly went. But the losers have been outnumbered by winners, beginning with Kieran’s Irish Pub (since moved into Block E) and, unquestionably, the Local, where, with his eye for culinary talent, he hooked up with chef Steven Brown of Tilia in Linden Hills.

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Folliard laughs. “As I like to say, I began by flogging milk t’ the Arabs and I’ve ended up flogging whiskey t’ the Yanks.” Like all Irishmen, Folliard has no shame about dropping the same lines over and over again, and no one ever seems to mind.

“Beneath all that Irish charm,” says the South Dakota-born Brown, “is a lot of guile and grit. He’s learned a lot over the years. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s told me, ‘I’ve fallen down seven times and gotten up eight.’ Hell, after [Brassiere] Zinc failed, he took a real beating. He put up his house to deal with that.

“But he’s one of those guys constantly generating ideas and energy. He gets the hospitality business. And especially now, after all he’s been through, he gets the business end of it.

“The Local,” Brown continues, “had great sales right out of the gate, but not so much profit. What Kieran learned was how to keep shuffling the deck. I don’t know how many general managers we went through until he found the team that made it work. ‘Slow to hire, quick to fire,’ is something he’s learned along the way. It’s made him both a great advocate and counselor.”

Back in Northeast, in the food building, Folliard flops on a workbench and says, “Thing is, y’see, even when I had the pubs, I wanted to be in the production business. T’ get back to the land, you might say. Somewhere I still have plan I drew up years ago for a sausage business. It would have been a wet sausage, not like Mike’s here, which will be dry. But I’ve always liked this sort of thing, always wanted to be in it somehow.”

Birth of the Gingers

Despite the Local’s renown as Jameson Whiskey’s biggest single account, Folliard had a wandering eye. His relationship with the Kilbeggan Distillery back in County Westmeath (a 70-mile drive southwest of Folliard’s home sod in Ballyhaunis), and its master blender, Noel Sweeney, led him to develop 2 Gingers in 2010. Named for his red-haired mum and aunt, he regards it as a “more accessible” whiskey.

It is, he says, a whiskey easily mixed for appeal broader than the manly, gasp-inducing traditional stuff. With team Folliard’s marketing wit, 2 Gingers clicked. Married to a not-so-strong ginger ale, garnished with lime or lemon, and served in “an egalitarian setting” like a fine Irish pub, even women fond of mix-amenable vodkas and gins liked what they tasted.

In a nutshell he says, “I wanted to go after domestic beer and vodka drinkers.”

On July 4, 2011, Folliard, bowing to a law prohibiting distillers from also selling retail liquor, sold off his Twin Cities restaurants to longtime employee Peter Killen. He won’t disclose the price. Barely five months later, Beam stepped in and bought up Kilbeggan’s parent company, Cooley (Ireland’s last independent distillery), for a little more than $95 million. Ten months later, in a deal a coy Folliard puts at seven figures, Beam picked up 2 Gingers as well.

As a further example of our “go big or go home” world, this past January Beam itself was bought up by the Japanese liquor giant Suntory in a $16 billion deal. For his part, Folliard is unconcerned. “There’s no reason for them t’ change anything we’re doing. For me, I suspect I’ll have to buy a couple more Rosetta Stone disks, but otherwise it’ll be business as usual. Things are on a good track.”

He shows off the door of a huge walk-in safe he rescued from Bjorkman Furs that now is installed in Digging’s office suite. The small room behind it could be a solitary detention cell. “I call this our employee motivation chamber,” he says, laughing. “You go in and stay until I hear some better ideas out of you.

“I wasn’t tired of the restaurant business,” he says. “I had no choice [but] to divest because of the law. But had I somehow kept them, I probably still would have started something new, I think. I like to start things. So this”—he glances at the polished floors, the pressure-washed brick and long runs of gleaming stainless steel awaiting product—“becomes an interesting leg of my journey.”

He says he likely wouldn’t have sold 2 Gingers to Beam if he owned his own distillery. “But I didn’t. So it made perfect sense, since we got on well, to ‘buy in’ to them, as I say, and use their marketing muscle to take 2 Gingers national. It would have taken years for us alone to have gotten it out of Minnesota. I love the business, but it is cutthroat—oh God, is it. The relationships are everything. But if I had my own distillery, here in Minnesota, it might have been different.”

On the Road: The Full Folliard

Metrics relating to 2 Gingers are a bit on the vague side. What Folliard (and Beam) will say is that they moved 20,000 cases of 2 Gingers in Minnesota alone before the Beam buyout. The goal—hence the crushing road show—was to have distribution in all 50 states by summer, with Kilbeggan furiously cranking up production. “Europe,” he says, “will have to wait.”

To appreciate what you might call the full Folliard in all his Celtic glory, you have to see him work a crowd—Jim Beam reps, the liquor store manager, a cute deli worker and the milling public—at a 2 Gingers tasting event in a place like the trendy Metro Market just north of downtown Milwaukee.

It’s the fifth of seven scheduled events on the second day of his Milwaukee visit, a two-hour meet-and-greet with whoever steps up to try a sample. One minute he’s cajoling two young women to declare an early happy hour, the next he’s trading tales with the store’s Polish liquor manager, a lifelong bar-owner. Check back a minute later and he’s posing for pictures, pretending to smash a bottle of 2 Gingers over the head of his designated pourer.

A fashionable Bay Area couple, Jim and Cindy Cleveland, in town for a funeral, can’t hide their amusement. Told that Folliard is a well-known presence in the Twin Cities, Cindy says, “I can see why.” Eventually Folliard rotates by, and the three lock up in an informed discussion of the best mixes for lighter whiskeys.

A Beam exec, Mike O’Leary, watching the show, says, “He’s a natural salesman. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

A few hours earlier, at a window table in Mo’s Irish Pub in the heart of downtown, Folliard explains that the vibe of his pubs, the branding of 2 Gingers, and by extension Red Table Meats and Skyway Creamery, is rooted in a family ethos that values a job well done, with little stock in affectation.

He grew up working on the family farm, and, he says, “my father would forever tell me, ‘If you’re not going to do a job well, then don’t do it at’all.’ And being a teenager, I‘d tell him, ‘Fine, I won’t do it at’all.’ ‘Get your butt back out there,’ he’d yell at me.”

“I don’t like snobbery. When I had the pubs, these sales guys were always coming in talking up their stuff as ‘the most exclusive this’ and ‘the most elite that’ and how everything they had in their bag was steeped in tradition. Like we we’re all going to put on our tweed jackets and go out huntin’ foxes later,” Folliard recalls. “I had to tell them, ‘Come on lads, knock it off. Don’t give me all the bullshit. Will ordinary people drink it? That’s why we have the tagline for 2 Gingers that simply says, ‘Drink with friends or with ice.’ ”

(Another team Folliardism about 2 Gingers: “It can stand on itself, even if you can’t.” Folliard’s wife, Lisa Kane, an oncology dietitian by profession, came up with a poster that says “Danger: Women and whiskey.” She is also, Folliard says, “my branding guru.”)

Live the Mission, Dump the Slogan

Clearly, Folliard intends for the egalitarian qualities of his pubs to extend to both 2 Gingers and various products coming out of the Food Building.

Folliard tells of talking to a group of Carlson School of Management students at 6 on a Friday night not so long ago. “I started out by saying, ‘What in the name of God are you doing here at this hour? Why aren’t you at a pub enjoying happy hour’? And one of them piped up, ‘We just came from there, and we’ll be goin’ back as soon as you’re done.’ But I still waffled on for an hour and a half, so I did.”

Naturally, the incipient entrepreneurs wanted to know “the keys” to doing it right.

“You know how you walk into some big companies and up there behind the reception desk you see the mission statement in big fancy gold letters? It’s complete bullshit. Nobody lives that, and I’m not just talking about Wall Street.

“So I told the kids that night, ‘If you start anything, don’t put it up on a wall. Have people know it by what you do every single day. By how you relate to people. How you treat people. How you treat the community, your resources, all those things.

“I‘m too old for the bullshit,” Folliard adds, “and all that gets in the way of the important ingredient of . . . clarity. Are we clear about who we are and what we’re doing? It may be the wrong thing, but are we clear about it?

“Do that and, hell, you’ll save yourself signage.”

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