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Minot’s Gourmet Chef celebrates 30 years

Charles Crane/MDN Denise Lindbo stands in her downtown Minot store, which is set to celebrate 30 years of business in the Magic City on Saturday.

Four years ago, when Olivia Kimberlin and her family moved to Minot, it was in the middle of a brutally cold polar vortex. While they endured the education that only an upper Midwest winter can deliver, Kimberlin knew one way she could while away the hours cooped up indoors.

“We moved up here, and we had no friends and didn’t know a single soul in town. I’ve always been a baker and loved to bake and cook and I was like, ‘I’m making lemon lavender biscuits. It’s happening.’ There was a hitch in the giddy-up because I could not for the life of me find dried lavender,” Kimberlin said. “I was calling around to all of the different grocery stores and they sent me to Gourmet Chef. I came down intending to buy one $8 jar of lavender. Two hundred dollars later, I walked out with a job application.”

After a two-hour long interview with Gourmet Chef’s owner Denise Lindbo, Kimberlin was hired on the spot to work at this downtown Minot staple, which is set to celebrate 30 years serving and educating home bakers and chefs in the community. Now the business’s event coordinator, Kimberlin credits the culture fostered by Lindbo for her employees and customers for motivating her to take the job and to stick around.

“It’s really gratifying to be able to come into a place where you don’t just work there, where people are invested in you like they’ve invested in the business. Having someone who cares about you as a person first and employee second is huge,” Kimberlin said. “Yeah, I get my job done, but the reason I keep coming back to work is because I have people here who care about me, and Denise fosters that culture.”

Before Gourmet Chef, Lindbo was working at Coach House Gifts at Dakota Square Mall while she finished her business degree at Minot State University. Despite thriving at Coach House and being offered the opportunity to manage her own store in another community, the prospect of uprooting herself from her hometown just didn’t have the appeal of starting something new in her hometown. Lindbo credited her mother, Mary, for the initial inspiration to go into business for themselves, with their idea and concept hammered out in a meeting at the Ground Round in 1993.

“I’m kind of a homebody, so I didn’t want to go. My Mom came up with this idea, because she’s like me. She’s always got to be doing something,” Lindbo said. “She went to the library and started researching stuff, and a friend of mine took me to visit Creative Kitchen in Fargo. You know, I’m not a great cook myself. I’m not a chef, but I love the whole feel of it.”

Eventually they made a connection with Joel McLendon, a Dallas-based wholesaler who was known as the “Gourmet Guru” for helping individuals realize their small business dreams. More than 500 retailers opened their doors with McLendon’s distribution chain and showrooms over the years, including Gourmet Chef.

“At that time, he was about 70 years old. There’s no franchise. He just said, ‘Here’s everything you need to start.’ It was awesome,” Lindbo said.

Gourmet Chef first opened its doors in the Fair Building in downtown Minot, the same building where it resides today, in a space that was only a meager 400 square feet. Six months later they were expanding, knocking down a wall so they could make more room for storage space and a small office. After five years, Mary was ready to hand things off to Denise, who has held the reins ever since.

Gourmet Chef now inhabits 4,000 square feet, with every surface covered with specialized kitchen appliances, gadgets and dozens of unique or hard-to-find ingredients and spices. In addition to an olive oil and vinegar infusion station and espresso bar, Gourmet Chef also has a robust test kitchen for classes and demonstrations.

“Our job now is educating people. People want to learn about that gadget. They want to learn cooking. They want to be entertained. They want an experience. They want to feel something about whatever it is that they’re buying, and then they want to share it with people,” Lindbo said. “Let’s educate you on how you can do that so that you can experience it and enjoy it.”

Kimberlin also noted the almost soothing quality that hits customers as they walk through the door, many of whom like her also found themselves grasping at straws looking for that key ingredient or tool preventing them from achieving their home-cooking potential.

“People come in who are in a panic, and sometimes you can see them kind of relax. This is their happy place, and it’s pretty awesome that this has built up into a store where people go, ‘Gourmet Chef has got me,'” Kimberlin said.

Lindbo believes the success and longevity Gourmet Chef has enjoyed isn’t simply due to staying up to date on trends and the interests of the public. It took years of hard work and a dedication to the human element by engaging every customer in a meaningful way.

“People think that owning your own business is super easy, but that’s a crock,” she said. “I’m just loving what I do. I’m making sure that we listen to our customers, that we treat them respectfully. That’s one thing my mom taught me. The minute somebody walks in that door, you greet them. You hand them a cup of coffee and make them feel welcome. We were lucky to find a niche that people love. Life’s too short for bad friends and bad food.”

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