A Hot Time in a Cold Climate
A couple of years ago, Chanhassen resident Katie Usem would have been astonished if you had told her that she’d one day launch a sauna business way up on the North Shore.
Two years later, the idea seems to make perfect sense.
Usem and her family had been coming up to the Shore for years to relax and recreate. Last year, with Covid’s arrival, the Usems found themselves spending more and more time at their cabin in Hovland. The schools the family’s two young children attended switched to distance learning. And her husband, Sam, director of marketing technology, data, and operations for Minneapolis-based fintech start-up Sezzle, was able to work remotely, thanks to Cook County’s remarkably strong connectivity.
Late last year, “we came across the property we ended up purchasing,” Usem recalls. “It felt like just a special place that we wanted to make our home—but also to establish a business that was unique but very fitting for the North Shore and the history of the property.”
In late October, Usem opened Sisu + Löyly, a “sauna experience” that takes advantage of both its ruggedly gorgeous Grand Marais location and Minnesotans’ (re)discovery of “thermaculture.” Sauna has become, well, hot in recent years, with organizations and businesses in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in Minnesota providing access to its physical and mental health benefits. And like other families, the Usems are savoring the opportunity to live and work outside the Twin Cities while remaining connected to them.
Inspired by Place
The property the Usems discovered is located on East Bay in central Grand Marais, just off Highway 61. The main house was built in 1922 by a Norwegian fishing family and had been added onto several times since its construction. Also on the property was the original owners’ fish shack and a mechanic’s garage with an office on top. But perhaps the biggest selling point was the views it provides of Grand Marais’s aptly named Artist Point.
The Usems made an offer around Christmas and closed the following March. Two months later, the family moved up full time from the Twin Cities.
“It felt almost selfish to not find a way to welcome people to enjoy this,” Katie Usem recalls. “We just needed to find the right inspiration and vision to make that happen. And sauna was really a natural fit.”
It was a new kind of business for Usem. The Twin Cities native had spent about a decade working in the financial services industry in New York City and the Twin Cities, then took on strategy and operations roles at a couple of digital wellness start-ups. She had always loved using saunas when available during her travels. “And while there is access to saunas at inns and hotels and that’s great, to me what made it special is pairing it with an iconic view or some other unique experience that made it memorable, along with all of the other benefits that come with sauna,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to create here.”
Usem gave her new business a suitably Nordic name, comprising two distinctly Finnish words. Sisu (pronounced SEE-soo) can be translated as “extraordinary determination, a tenacity that is essential to the Finns’ way of doing things,” Usem says. “It’s very applicable to Minnesotans, to living on the North Shore, and to life in general, especially with the rough year or two everyone has been going through with Covid.” And löyly (LOW-loo) “refers to the steam that rises off of the hot sauna rocks when water is introduced.”
Partnering with area artisans, including wood crafters Wilder Woodshop, Usem began renovation of the two nonresidential buildings this past summer, work that wrapped up in October. The fishing shack was transformed into the sauna building, and the mechanic’s garage was converted into the “sauna lounge,” which includes restrooms, changing areas, and a fireplace space where coffee and tea are served. Next to the sauna building is a bonfire pit area that has “the same wonderful views as inside the sauna,” she says.
Winter Coming? Chill Out
Though Sisu + Löyly doesn’t offer any overnight accommodations, it’s close to local hotels and “within 15 minutes of a majority of the vacation rentals,” Usem says. She has been working to build relationships with those hotels and the rentals’ owners to get them to recommend Sisu + Löyly as “something exciting and new to do” in the area.
Usem’s sauna business did get off to a promising start, with more than 100 customers during its first three weeks. She has also is offering yoga classes in the sauna lounge, and she’s considering adding other amenities in the future.
But for now, the former Twin Cities resident says, “the most rewarding thing for me is seeing people leaving here more relaxed than when they arrived.”