"It's Not Just About Us"
Paul and Amy Hicks, Owners of Dandelion & Burdock, on Building a Community
By the 1950s, downtown Fergus Falls was a bustling center of commerce, with displays in every window, year-round parades, and all the optimism of a post-World Wars economy. When President Eisenhower's "Superhighway" system made its way to Minnesota, some downtown business owners feared the worst – that the city's central corridors would be filled by passers-through rather than customers. Fergus Falls grew westward, the mall model flourished nationally and locally, and to some it seemed all that naysaying may not have been for nothing.
For a time.
But today, business owners like Paul and Amy Hicks, of the clothing store Dandelion & Burdock, are part a movement to revitalize downtown Fergus Falls as an integral part of the community, to help spark a return to the days of window shopping and big downtown community events. Along the way, they hope to prove once and for all that a rising tide really does raise all boats.
A House, A Home
When Paul and Amy met by happenstance at a local restaurant several years ago, both had spent years punching the clock in 9-to-5 jobs. By the time their relationship turned to marriage, however, Amy had found success flipping houses, and Paul joined her, to include acquiring a real estate license and honing his skills as a handyman. They based their business on the satisfaction of creating a space that could change a family's lives.
When home prices spiked, house flipping became an expensive risk, and the decision was made to leave it behind. They moved into a new home of their own – complete with a big red barn and fields of dandelions. Neither was content to give up on self employment, and so they pondered alternatives, inspired by their surroundings. They imagined a new business, centered around home decor and tapping their experience with home renovation and design.
They had done their homework and planning, but another idea won out in the end.
Clothing, to include men's clothing, seemed a greater need, and Paul and Amy felt the new business would be a way to serve the community at large where their past business could serve only one family at a time. If all went to plan, they hoped to launch by June of 2020.
Dandelion & Burdock
With an academic background that included fashion, Amy Hicks was a natural fit for a clothing business. Along with Paul, she spent months driving around town to look at properties, weighing the advantages of owning a space or renting, and compiling an ever-expanding library of potential business names.
"I think I still have the list on my phone," Paul says with a smile and a laugh.
Greater Fergus Falls put the couple in touch with local business owners and consultants to help guide their big launch. They settled on the former Carnegie Library building, which had a warm, inviting space—fireplace included—that might have been divided into separate departments for women's and men's clothing. The name for each was a play on dandelions and burdock, respectively.
As they were ready to purchase, the space sold to the local newspaper, but the brief setback proved a blessing in disguise. Instead, Paul and Amy discovered a historic storefront on the 100 block of West Lincoln Avenue, with more passing foot traffic and easier parking. They named it Dandelion & Burdock, based in part on a popular English soda while also a nod to the scenery and style of their hometown.
What was supposed to be a June opening slipped to August following the state's early pandemic closures. When Dandelion & Burdock did open, under strict guidelines for masking and maximum capacities, they found customers supportive but limited in number.
"Everyone was afraid to leave their houses," Amy recalls.
There were myriad business and personal stressors at the same time. And as they worked day-in and day-out to build a brand, many days were light on sales. Their new store couldn't qualify for relief loans being offered to other businesses (which required tax documents from the previous year). The weight of it all was heavy on their shoulders.
"It was a tough start out," Amy says.
Summer and Sunshine
Despite the early struggle, where the business could often do little more than break even, the couple refused to give up. They learned to innovate and play to the strengths of a small, downtown shop.
Sometimes that meant learning to say no to carrying national brands if they couldn't compete on price. Sometimes that meant rewriting entire departments. They brought in men's suits and dress shirts, women's swimwear and dresses, bow ties, sandals, novelty items, sunglasses, and more. They targeted a fashion sensibility in keeping with the community and added practical prices to compliment.
"We're not traditional boutique, [where] everything's a $100 t-shirt. We try to keep things affordable," Paul says.
When they've had new ideas or needed a hand, Paul says that organizations like the Downtown Riverfront Council, Greater Fergus Falls, the Chamber of Commerce, and even the city's elected officials are never more than a phone call away.
"Everybody seems to be willing to help," he says. "If one's busy, the other's able."
And those relationships helped bring to life a series of summer downtown block parties. Dandelion & Burdock—thanks in part to a sponsorship by Green Plains, Inc.—has so far organized two downtown concerts which include music, food vendors, and local artists. A third summer block party is planned for August 4th, and you can find more information on the Dandelion & Burdock Facebook Page.
For Paul and Amy Hicks, community is at the center of everything their business does.
"It's not just about us, it's about the whole downtown," Amy says. "It's about Fergus in general and people – getting people out and enjoying life."
Paul says he'd love to see the events mimic the packed street markets of Europe, where people might drive from miles around just to enjoy the spectacle.
Perhaps in the years to come, the summer parties could span multiple city blocks. He'd like to see the event officially sponsored by the City of Fergus Falls, and he believes the recently opened Spies Riverfront Park (located immediately behind Dandelion & Burdock) could be part of the festivities. He sees positive change ahead for Fergus Falls and its downtown businesses. Amy, meanwhile, says the couple always keeps an eye on trends nationally and internationally. She says there's a visible pattern of small town downtown revitalization. She imagines a future downtown not unlike something in a picturesque Hallmark movie.
"We'd like to bring that to Fergus."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls