How a Grand Rapids entrepreneur helped make the North Woods hip

At one time, Megan Kellin couldn’t get out of Grand Rapids fast enough.

After graduating from high school, she thought she had put the northern Minnesota timber town in the rearview mirror for good. But after finishing college, traveling extensively and living in Colorado for a decade, the 38-year-old entrepreneur came home.

She has since become so enmeshed in the community that she can hardly pass a bar stool without saying hello. Collaborating with family and friends, she launched a string of businesses that put a modern spin on the traditional Up North lifestyle. Think: Paul Bunyan, if he drank artisan cocktails and used beard oil.

Her ventures — a boutique hotel, an event space, a lifestyle brand called Lake and Co., which includes magazines and retail shops — are all geared toward the same target customer: rural folks whose trendy, globally influenced tastes mirror Megan’s own.

“With all these businesses, it’s almost like we’re scratching our own itch,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s make lake living sexy.’ ”

As telecommuting decouples employment and geography, some smaller cities and rural communities have seen an influx of new residents from urban areas. So long as these mobile professionals can get a decent latté and microbrew, they’re embracing the extra space, easy outdoor access and lower cost of living.

And Lake and Co. is poised to tap this so-called “Zoom town” renaissance.

“It was a hard transition,” Megan said of leaving Colorado and moving back to her hometown. “I think starting what I did was my way of coping.”

The accidental hotel

Grand Rapids, straddling the Mississippi River about three hours north of the Twin Cities, was founded as a logging town. Over the years, it has enriched itself through taconite mining, paper milling and manufacturing.

Its most famous resident, “The Wizard of Oz” heroine Judy Garland, is commemorated with an annual festival and museum, made infamous by the 2005 ruby-slipper theft.

As young adults, neither Megan nor her husband, Lewis Kellin, who also grew up in Grand Rapids (they started dating in high school), shared the fictional Dorothy’s longing for home. They spent several years traveling in Southeast Asia and South America, climbing mountains and even hopping a cargo ship. They road-tripped the U.S. before settling near Breckenridge, Colo.

But in 2015, after their second child was born, they wanted to be closer to Lewis’ mother, who was ill. On a whim, they made a lowball, sight-unseen offer on a dilapidated, bank-owned Budget Host Motel on the edge of town that rented rooms for scarcely $100 a week. The next thing they knew, they were back home; Lewis began renovating the hotel, having accidentally entered the hospitality business.

The Kellins both come from entrepreneurial families, however, so they were comfortable with the risks of pursuing their dreams. And upon returning to Grand Rapids, they saw the town with fresh eyes.

“Coming from an outsider’s perspective, it was so easy to see what needed to happen,” Megan said. “You get here and there are, like, 13 pizza places, and you can’t find one good beer on tap. So it does really go back to, ‘What do we want to do? What is something that we want to enjoy?’ ”

Northern Minnesota’s lake country has always been naturally beautiful, but not known for being on-trend. Typical visitor accommodations are generally of the generic chain variety or laden in knotty pine and bear-or-moose motifs.

By contrast, the Kellins’ Hotel Rapids‘ lobby and bar/bistro could fit right into any hip, urban locale. The design evokes a rugged sophistication, with its mix of metal beams, stacked logs, and tufted-leather banquettes. The menu features crêpes and artisanal coffee, roasted in Lutsen, two things that aren’t easy to find in the area.

“It’s Business 101: offering something a little bit different,” Megan explained.

The hotel’s other unique amenities include a mobile sauna and the city’s first yurt (inspired by those Megan had seen in Mongolia, and perplexing to city permitting staff). The idea was to attract travelers seeking a memorable experience, not just a place to rest their heads. “It’s sort of a, ‘If you build it, they will come sort of thing,’ ” she explained.

Launching magazines

In Colorado, Megan had played a variety of roles — editing, sales, public relations, business strategy — for several wellness and lifestyle magazines, including one focused on the region’s mountain towns.

She thought there could be a market for something similar in Minnesota’s lake country, so she launched Lake Time magazine.

The idea was to celebrate the region by having community members write articles about their activities, from surfing Lake Superior to tapping maple trees. Ads feature Up North stuff: wood stoves, houseboat rentals, an event called the Great Nordic Beardfest. The magazine’s slick aesthetic — a blend of Scandinavian modern and lumberjack chic — garnered multiple design awards. By the third issue, it was on newsstands in seven Midwestern states and Canada.

Megan soon added a second title, Lake Bride Magazine, for what she calls “so not bridal” types like herself (she got married in the middle of a field ).

All interconnected

Since Lake Time magazine (which recently changed its name to Lake and Co.) frequently carried stories about local makers, Megan saw an opportunity to sell their wares. She opened a storefront with Kelly Kabotoff, a Grand Rapids native with retail experience, who had also returned from Colorado.

This spring, they opened four new shops around the state, from International Falls to Stillwater. The stores offer a curated version of national outdoor adventure retailers by stocking niche brands and hard-to-find products, such as coolers designed for cocktail-making, one-piece “ninja suit” base layers, or playful beach robes with dry pockets for cellphones.

Kabotoff likes sourcing from companies that are eco-friendly (clothing made of pulverized oyster shells and recycled plastic) or philanthropic (hats that donate to cancer research) when possible.

“People are making more conscious buying decisions,” Kabotoff said. “They’re buying the story.”

Megan also operates a strategic marketing and creative agency (one of Grand Rapids’ pioneering microbreweries was a client). With her sister, she operates a nearby guesthouse and event space. With Lewis, she rents a decked-out party bus.

The interconnected businesses feed off one another. If the magazine writes about an artisan distiller, for example, the stores might stock its cocktail recipe book, or Hotel Rapids’ bar might serve its spirits. The magazine also gains readers through placement in the stores and hotel rooms.

Ahead of the curve?

On a recent afternoon, Megan was at Hotel Rapids, tasting a new cocktail a bartender had concocted, when their conversation was interrupted by the roar of an ATV: A burly guy in a fluorescent vest was rapidly circling the neighboring parking lot.

“He’s literally [doing doughnuts] in the gas station parking lot!” Megan exclaimed. “So here we go! It’s a great juxtaposition.”

The moment revealed a town in transition. Would the community embrace the old mining pits’ recent rebirth as a mountain-bike mecca (Megan helped secure its funding)? Or were Megan and Co. too far ahead of the curve?

Megan said skeptics initially wondered how she’d ever reboot a motel so rundown, or find success in the already challenged industries of publishing and brick-and-mortar retail. Their doubt motivated her to prove them wrong.

Both Megan and Kabotoff sometimes think their business isn’t taken seriously because they are women living in a small community. (Megan has three kids, Kabotoff four.) “People say, ‘Oh, those Lake Girls, they’re so busy,’ ” Kabotoff said. “We’re entrepreneurs, not just ‘girls who are busy.’ We’re actually creating a company.”

But there are benefits to launching in a smaller town, Kabotoff noted. “I don’t think we would have ever started Lake and Company if we lived in the Cities,” she said. “I just think it would have been harder, it would have felt like a bigger leap.”

There’s also the advantage of lifelong relationships.

“Our first customer at the retail store was my kindergarten teacher,” Megan said. “This is the beauty of hometown.”

Megan met her accountant, Jared Whight, in sixth-grade band. After living in Oregon, Whight and his wife moved to Grand Rapids to be near family. When they looked at the amenities in town that would attract young couples like themselves, he said, it seemed that Megan and Lewis had their hands on every one of them.

Whight describes Megan as “fearless” and “collaborative” and says the projects she’s involved in have drawn attention from outside the region.

“Grand Rapids is already an awesome place,” he said. “But I think now it’s a little easier for other people to recognize that it’s heading in a really good direction.”

Shawn Wellnitz, president of the Duluth-based Entrepreneur Fund that counts Megan among its board members, calls her “a visionary” who has helped generate synergy. “You need those first adopters to push and get some success,” Wellnitz explained. “And once they get past that critical mass in a smaller community, then it takes on a life of its own.”

Megan is in the process of launching retail stores and magazines in other states, while continuing to hatch new business ideas. She’s helping to create a new co-working space in Grand Rapids and putting dome-style lodging and communal saunas on private islands near the Canadian border.

“Now we’re to the point where it’s like, ‘If you dream it, let’s just do it,’ ” she said.

Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569

Correction:
Previous versions of this story misstated the number of children the Kellins had in 2015.

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