Nicolaas Mink — co-founder and former CEO of Madison-based Sitka Salmon Shares — and his wife, Danika Laine, have purchased a 21,000-square-foot former dairy factory on seven acres of land at 6858 Paoli Road.
At the time of purchase, the building had been home to several apartments and three businesses — The Gingko Tree, Lily’s Mercantile & Makery, and Vert Cafe & Plant Gallery – the first two of which will relocate, while the latter closed completely.
The building had been for sale for a few years, and Mink and his wife found out last April.
Mink, and his wife – who was a marketing executive – are a part of the great resignation going on across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With two girls, ages 11 and 5, they were looking for something different to do. Particularly Mink, who said that traveling to fisheries in Alaska from May to September annually as part of his former career was fun when he was younger and enjoyed the bachelor life, but now with two young girls and particularly with COVID-19, he became concerned about all the traveling.
Mink and Laine live 15 minutes away from their new business, near the border of Madison/Middleton, and like so many others, enjoy coming to Paoli for its food and shopping.
Since closing on the property last September, the dream for the site has grown exponentially. Initially they sought to just restore a part of the factory, but after learning more about the building’s history, they decided to undertake a major restoration of the entire building.
At first, Mink had only thought about putting in a pizza restaurant to run with a friend. But between last May and July, as he spoke with area dairy farmers – some now in their fifth generation – he said a dozen “powerful experiences and interactions” made him think differently about the building and his business plan.
“At that point, we didn’t know how integral this place was to thousands of farmers over a century, not to mention hundreds of people who came to work here,” he said. “We were uncovering a beautiful mysterious world and bringing clarity to our brand and business concept.”
Inspired by the many stories that they heard last year, they’ve since received approval to list the property on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
Before launching seafood delivery company Sitka Salmon Shares, Mink taught history at the University of Wisconsin campuses in Stevens Point and Superior, and has a PhD in history UW-Madison.
Now he wants to honor the history of the building, which was built in 1888, and became a hub of the area’s dairy industry.
Swiss cheese, butter, and processed milk were produced at the site for nearly a century. By the mid-1950s, the factory was one of the largest dairy factories in the state, supporting hundreds of small dairy farmers in Dane, Iowa, Green, Rock, and Lafayette counties.
It was purchased by the Pabst Company in 1955 who kept it in operation until 1980, when it was shut down.
What has Mink and Laine just as excited as the the building’s history is its future – and the close connection between the two.
While the number of small, family-owned dairy farms has shrunk significantly since 1980 – there are still some of the same families in the area with small herds of 50-60 dairy cows, just a generation or two down the line from when the factory was still in operation.
And discovering that is what led to their big idea — Seven Acre Dairy Company.
The new business venture is set to center around a micro dairy plant focused on soft serve ice cream and butter made on site, using milk from many of the same farm families that delivered to the original factory before it was shuttered in 1980.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do, I didn’t know about its history,” Mink told the Press. “But as I learned more about the dairy factory’s importance to local farmers whose kids now run their farms – almost every farmer in the area delivered to this place, it was central to who they were – I decided to restore it as a place that embraces that history, building an experience around that.”
Included in the plans are a cafe that will serve sandwiches, ice cream, coffee, wine and beer as well as a sit-down, higher-end, farm-to-table restaurant. Its cuisine will include dishes based around indigenous Wisconsin plants and Native American recipes.
Demolition of parts of the building – such as deconstructing the apartment units — began at the beginning of March, while construction on the new vision is set to begin in May.
The building kind of became a sprawling, Frankenstein construction over the decades as new advances in dairy technology such as refrigeration resulted in new wings being built, and multiple shipping and receiving wings and spaces for pasteurizers and separators.
The new creamery will have an “open kitchen” type concept, allowing people to get up-close and see where the butter and ice cream is made.
In the boutique hotel, there will be eight regular inn rooms and eight river view suites with “luxury amenties,” Mink said and furnished with wood reclaimed from the site.
Decades-old brick that has been covered in plywood is being exposed for the first time in years.
The experience Mink and Laine are envisioning won’t be just about the Dairy of their namesake, it will also be about the Seven Acres.
The property’s seven acres is planned to eventually be home to a fully-restored oak savanna and prairie, with hiking trails, a boat landing, and gardens.
They’ve been working since October to remove invasive overgrowth to create a “beautiful, manicured landscape,” and they’ve hired a landscape architect to achieve that, Mink said.
The trails will lead back to what was once the whey disposal lagoon.
“Locals remember the smell,” Mink said. But no one will recognize it when they’re done, he said. They will be adding picnic tables, seating domes, and vending areas for markets and manicuring it with stone.
They hope some day people will wind their way back to this seating area to enjoy their ice cream or play games.
Some of those invasives such as the Boxelders are being used to create new furniture that will be used on site.
The new venture sits at a crossroads for Mink, bringing together multiple disciplines of his. He sees a lot of similarities between when he worked with small operators in the fishing industry and when he will someday work with small dairy farms. He geeked out over the history of the building thanks to his past as a historical buff. And he also has a background in environmental studies, guiding some of his interest in adaptive restoration. He even worked in ag policy earlier in life.
But even so, Mink and Laine knew that they had zero experience in starting or operating a creamery. Fortunately, already just down the road, there was another creamery with two very experienced operators.
Anna Thomas Bates and Anna Landmark, co-owners of Landmark Creamery, will lead Seven Acre’s dairy program as the company’s chief dairy officers.
It was an opportune time to approach Landmark Creamery, as the company was already in the process of expanding its own operations from a retail shop and cheese aging facility to include all aspects of dairy production.
Landmark’s shop down the road will remain open, but will now benefit from greatly expanded production and shipping space at Seven Acre.
By combining the knowledge of Landmark Creamery with the milk produced by small dairy farmers within a few-mile radius, Seven Acre Dairy aims to be the epicenter for a “hyperlocal dairy shed” Mink said.
People sitting outside eating ice cream will be able to see the farms where the milk came from just a few fields or pastures away.
“We’re trying to add value to marginalized or smaller modern food producers,” Mink said. “People don’t know butter and cheese is coming from fewer and fewer producers and factories. Less Wisconsinites are involved in production these days. It used to be not a single family was not intimately connected to dairy.”
And Mink wants visitors to Seven Acre to feel intimately connected, which is why he’s been collecting an “amazing amount of ephemera” from the building’s 134-year-old history including photographs, artifacts, old signage. While he said he doesn’t want it to feel like walking into a museum, he still wants to incorporate the history into the experience.
Mink doesn’t want it to feel like a glib theme park, either. He said he wants an “authentic and meaningful” experience that both lets people witness the production and enjoy the consumption of dairy while “embracing and appreciating the story” of Wisconsin’s dairy heritage.
“There’s something special about the heritage here and we want to do whatever we can do to acknowledge this is part of this area’s history,” Mink said. “This is an amazing opportunity to restore this building, but also preserve that story — that heritage — and allow people to be part of that, share that heritage.”