Food Connections Spotlight: Craig Weber

There was no better witness to the restaurant industry’s turbulent 2020 in the Twin Cities than Craig Weber of Coldwell Banker Commercial Coalition Group. Commercial real estate is his trade, but restaurants are his wheelhouse, which makes him a perfect fit for our Food Connections meetings! Learn more about Craig, how he works behind-the-scenes with restaurants and what projects he’s looking forward to in 2021.

How did you get started with Food Connections?

I met Lori (Gerdts) at a networking event around 5 years ago. She started talking about her company—which sounded interesting to me because I’m in the commercial real estate business with a strong focus on restaurants. She invited me to one of the meetings, I hit it off with the group and it went from there. And they’ve been great. I love the different folks they bring into the group. It’s a great mix.

Can you explain what do you do for a living?

I’m a commercial real estate associate broker. Primarily I look for space for my tenants or clients to lease or buy. I also have clients who are currently marketing and selling their buildings for commercial real estate.

Retail, which includes restaurants, is my forte. Unfortunately, I had about an 80% drop in business at the start of COVID. But things are starting to pick back up. I got a few deals done this spring—one specifically is a second location for the Buttered Tin, which we just finalized on April 1st. They’ve got a great new location in Northeast Minneapolis.

Where did the restaurant emphasis come from in your work?

It’s just the foodie passion in me. When my wife and I go on vacation, I drive her nuts because—pick a location, say, Tampa, Florida— I’ll find a few spots that Guy Fieri has tried. Or in Savannah, Georgia, I scouted out a BBQ joint with an entrance in a back alley. It was just this mom-and-pop place that seats about 14 people with probably some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had.

What’s unique about working with restaurants compared to your other clients?

They’re not like a warehouse where you can open your doors, get shelving in, have one guy running a forklift and away you go. Restaurants have to have a concept and find the crew they need. And then you throw equipment into the mix—I have some clients who are waiting 20 weeks for delivery on some equipment. There are a lot of moving parts with restaurants compared to places that just need four walls and a roof.

Do you cook yourself?

Yes, I am the cook in the family. You name it and I’ll give it a shot.

Where do you find your cooking inspiration?

I like throwing things together and seeing what works. A lot of it goes back to my mom and grandma cooking during the holidays. Also, my oldest brother and his wife used to own an old-fashioned supper club down in Reinbeck, Iowa, and a pizza joint in Waterloo, Iowa. I worked at both of those back in college.

Is there a particular recipe or cuisine you specialize in?

My staple is pizza. In my house, Friday night is pizza night. I usually do the standard pepperoni and sausage. Then I’ll go leftfield and make something like a Canadian bacon and sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut on a pizza, huh?

Yep, it’s a big controversy whether or not sauerkraut belongs on a pizza. Same with pineapple. I like both! 

This has been great! Anything else you’d like to cover?

Speaking of pizza. I recently partnered up with a gentleman and we’re planning on opening a pizzeria in South St. Paul. We’re getting our ducks in a row right now. As far as I know, I have not seen this pizzeria concept before. I’ve been to a lot of different places around the nation and nothing sticks out like what we want to do. The décor will springboard things to make this stand out as a destination. 

Why You Should Partner With an Agency That Understands Foodservice

“It can’t be that complicated, right? I mean, it’s just food.”

You’ll never hear that at an agency that specializes in foodservice.

In reality, foodservice is filled with problems that require experience and creativity to solve. To create effective strategies in this industry, you shouldn’t just partner with an agency that knows marketing—you need to find one that understands the nuances of foodservice and how that knowledge impacts getting your product sold.

Here are just a few of the hurdles that a dedicated agency can help you navigate:

Reaching multiple channels

Foodservice branches out into very specific channels that have their own needs. What a K-12 foodservice director cares about is very different from an independent pizzeria operator. The same is true for a restaurant chain vs. a catering company. Understanding and being empathetic about the pain points each operator is facing is critical for your campaigns to break through.

Distribution strategies

Understanding the push/pull of how a product gets into distribution and is pulled through at the operator level is critical to creating an effective strategy. Driving engagement with your sales team and brokers can make or break a product launch. If you’re not getting the product slotted, there’s no chance operators can order it. At the same time, driving demand at the operator level helps ensure your product is getting pulled through—and will stay slotted.

Influencing decision makers

In this industry, there are no impulse purchases. There’s a lot of weight behind a decision maker’s choice for a foodservice partner, and it’s often a lengthy process to get there. A good foodservice marketer knows this long-game very well and builds their relationships with key players accordingly.

Leveraging media partners

A good foodservice agency has long-standing relationships with multiple industry media partners. In addition to helping develop a solid media strategy, these partners can bring additional value through industry insights, targeted mailing lists and tradeshow sponsorship opportunities, to name just a few.

For 26 years, we’ve helped our clients navigate the unique world of foodservice marketing. Want to learn more about how we do it? Send us a question or give us a call at 612.353.3400.

5 Foodservice Marketing DON’Ts for 2021

The foodservice industry is gearing up for a major rebound—don’t let this opportunity go to waste.

After a year of restaurants serving fewer customers, streamlining their menus and experiencing day-to-day uncertainty, it appears that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the foodservice industry.

For foodservice marketers all around the country, this means that budgets are starting to look more optimistic in hopes that a year’s worth of pent-up enthusiasm will send consumers flooding back to support independent restaurants. This fresh start can be a huge momentum-gaining opportunity for you, so it’s important not to stumble off the starting block and watch competitors get ahead. As you navigate through the rest of 2021, here’s what NOT to do if you’re a foodservice marketer.

1. DON’T rely solely on your brokers.

Your brokers will rein in some great opportunities—but failing to incorporate any paid media or direct-to-operator marketing in your campaigns will have you missing out on a huge audience of potential partners. Also, look to 24/7 opportunities like social media to meet operators where they’re at any time of day.

2. DON’T be stingy with samples.

Operators are just like anyone else: if they’ve got a chance to sample before they buy, they’re going to leap at the opportunity. Make it easy for them to request a free sample, and provide plenty for your brokers to dish out.

One operator we spoke with actually switched distributors to get a product he fell in love with after getting a broker sample. Years later, it still has a starring role on his menu.

3. DON’T slip on cross-selling products.

Have your products work together by pairing them in your promotions. Also, try targeting existing customers (from redeemed rebates, for example) with a complementary product offering.

4. DON’T forget how busy operators are.

You may think that you’ve hit them hard with a new product offering or promotion, but operators are extremely busy and need to see the message multiple times in a variety of ways.

5. DON’T focus only on digital.

While digital media is great for driving to landing pages— and provides excellent opportunities for tracking and analysis—don’t overlook more tactile options such as print advertising and direct mail that operators can immerse themselves in.

In our 26 years of working with marketing managers in this industry, we’ve learned a lot about how to avoid common foodservice pitfalls. Have a food marketing question for us? We’d be happy to answer it.

5 things foodservice marketers should consider for 2021

The world of foodservice is dramatically different than it was at the beginning of 2020. Operators have done an incredible job of pivoting and meeting each new challenge, but what lies ahead next year is anyone’s guess. So, how should foodservice marketers continue to adjust to this new normal? And what’s in store for 2021? Surprisingly, a firm footing in the familiar may be the best approach.

Here are some tips and tricks to consider as you prepare for next year:

1. Keep getting the word out—because the pandemic won’t last forever

Advertising is often cut by brands when times are tough. But many believe that those who advertise during economic downturns actually come out stronger. Why? Not only are certain ad spaces cheaper, but maintaining a presence when times are tough can help maintain your image and instill more confidence in your target audience.

2. A channel approach will be more important than ever

The pandemic has highlighted the unique challenges that each channel is facing, and recovery will likely look different for each one. Understanding and marketing to those nuances will be critical. Operator-first messaging is a must as well. Many have had to call it quits, and there are plenty on the brink of doing the same. They’re in need of specific solutions and efficiencies that speak to their realities. So, try to speak directly about how your product or service is of immediate benefit to your operator audience.

3. Not everything has to be on a screen

For good reason, our lives have revolved around digital communication for the better part of 2020. But most people are craving connections that don’t require a screen—which could build a renewed desire for tangible, tactile marketing tools. Try balancing digital communication with high-touch marketing tools, such as sales materials and direct mail.

4. Be prepared for this “new normal” to continue post-COVID

Some of the changes that restaurants have adopted may stick around for a long while. Takeout, of course, has been foodservice’s most valuable asset, and will continue to be the crucial source of revenue for so many operations. Similarly, ghost kitchens created all kinds of efficiencies and opportunities pre-pandemic and are currently breathing new life into restaurants. Keep these in mind when you’re talking to operators in 2021— and remember to stay agile and adjust to any left field developments.

5. Meaningful connections will be more important than ever

Of course, there’s plenty to look forward to as well. When large gatherings are safe again, people in this industry and beyond will be eager to make in-person connections. Expect a pent up demand for experiences like tradeshows and other industry events. At the same time, virtual events are likely to stick around, with convenience and cost savings making sense for many. When we’re out of the woods, look to cover all your bases by adopting a healthy mix of both face-to-face and digital gatherings.

Looking for more ways to connect with operators as you navigate this ever-changing landscape? Let’s connect on your plans for 2021.

Food Connections Spotlight: Shelagh Mullen

No one embodies the phrase “Food Connections” quite like Shelagh Mullen. Not only is she an accomplished designer, she’s also a talented chef who’s blended her career and her love of food in all kinds of interesting ways. Read on to learn how Shelagh got her start, how she’s found success in food marketing, and how a one-of-a-kind culinary experience of hers had a twist ending.

Let’s start with the big one: Can you tell us about your recent culinary school experience in Ireland?

I’ll never forget the moment when I found out that going to cooking school (or cookery school, as they call it) in Ireland was an actual thing. That Ireland—a place I have such an innate connection to, like a bungee cord pulling on my heart—could be home for a short time, while doing what I love so much, cooking. I mean, come on, right?! That dream turned into a reality, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Cut short by Covid-19, but that’s water under the bridge and another story altogether. With the support of my wonderful husband and daughters, I set off on the experience of a lifetime. The twelve-week certificate course at The Dublin Cookery School was perfect for what I wanted to accomplish.

In the small, quiet, exclusive seaside town of Blackrock, Dublin, the school was situated in an old industrial area, now with lots of cool, re-furbished condos. I’d walk to (and from) school every day, uphill and into the wind (I’ve never experienced wind like the wind of January in Ireland). The welcome I received the first day of school, with 14 of my new Irish friends, was pure Irish hospitality. It was pissing (as they say) rain, and I was soaked through my every inch of clothing, but I knew the minute we sat down for our first meet and greet that I was in the right place.

The first day was like two full days to get on track. We started with a demo from our first tutor. We then proceeded into the kitchen with our daily partner to recreate the dishes that we had just learned. We sat down and ate the dish (Poached Pear, Walnut & Crozier Blue Cheese Salad, Pasta with Parma Ham and Pistachios, Apple Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream), then back to the demo kitchen for the next day’s tutorial (Lynda’s Brown Bread, Chicken Stock, Butternut Squash Soup with Lemongrass, Timbales of Provencale Vegetables with Goats Cheese). Repeat. Every day when we arrived, we paired up with our partner, divided and conquered the day before tutor demo, then got to work. Let me tell you, we ate like kings and queens. Good thing I had a two-plus mile walk to and from school every day!

I was robbed of the last four weeks of my time in Ireland (the school shut down 2 weeks early due to Covid), and my husband was coming after school to celebrate our 30th anniversary. Of course, that didn’t happen either. But I will be back, I will.

Have you always enjoyed cooking?

Growing up, I was an extremely picky eater. Not a vegetable crossed my lips until after college. I became obsessed with cooking shows on PBS and wanted to try making some of the recipes. So until my schooling in Ireland (and a short course at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute about 24 years ago), I’m self-taught. Lots of trial and error, and I still love to watch cooking shows on public television.

When did you realize you wanted to be a designer?

I’ve always loved art and I had a ‘Commercial Art’ class in high school, and absolutely loved it. I certainly didn’t know it was something I could do for a living. In college, I started in Early Childhood Education then switched to Interior Design. I took my first Graphic Design class, and the light bulb went off. Everything clicked into place from there.

Are there any creative similarities between cooking and design?

Absolutely. When I started in Graphic Design, we were still working with keylines, press-type, and rubber cement! The job was very hands-on. When design transitioned to the computer, I felt I’d lost the “hands on” and “get dirty” part of creativity. Cooking brings that back for me. Having my hands in bread dough or tossing around a bunch of veggies with olive oil—that feeds my soul.

When did food become a part of your design career?

I started making pancake mixes for family and friends. One day my brother said, “Shelagh, you should market these, they are amazing!” I have a bit of entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, so I took the challenge, and SheCooks was started. I had a line of whole-grain baking mixes and sold them at the Mill City Farmers Market. Then I migrated to some co-ops, gift shops, and small grocery stores in the region. But I realized all the sudden that I was a food producer, and the exciting part for me was the startup phase of being a food entrepreneur. So now I find great pleasure in working with new food makers, helping them grow. Plus, I have lots of mistakes I can share with them, so they can learn from me. A been there, done that sort of thing.

Where do you find your design inspiration?

My inspiration comes in very random ways. It could be the color of someone’s ski jacket that might inspire a color for some packaging, or a shape I see that would work for a background. I try and keep my eyes wide open when starting a project and see where things land.

What’s your “recipe for success” when it comes to good design?

I may work for a few days on some packaging ideas, but I know to leave it and come back after a few days. Things always look different after some time away.

Now let’s talk real recipes. What have you been cooking lately?

There’s nothing like a good sourdough starter story! Even before I left for my trip to Ireland, I was becoming obsessed with sourdough. I named my starter Sonny (named after my gifted starter from my client, Sunrise Flour Mill, of which had been alive for over 9 years). I even dehydrated Sonny and brought her with me. I reconstituted her so she could get some amazing Irish soul into her. Because I had to leave so abruptly due to Covid, I didn’t have time to dehydrate her for the trip back, so I took a chance and smuggled her back to the states—and renamed her O’Sonny. I feed her every week and try to bake (and share) a few loaves a week. I’m utterly obsessed with it. Sourdough is the most satisfying bread I make in my kitchen, and I make a lot of breads! If I’m not baking bread, I’m testing recipes for clients and my own website.

What’s been your go-to takeout meal?

I can honestly say, none, as much as we love to go out to eat! And because I love to cook so much, going out is more about the experience, a lovely glass of wine, quiet conversation, and no dishes.

How long have you been participating in Food Connections?

I’ve been coming to Food Connections for about two and a half years. One of my favorite networking groups. Great people, and I’ve made some great friendships all because of FC!

If someone wants to partner with you, how can they reach you?

I’m just a Zoom call away if anyone needs help with food packaging or recipe development. And I teach cooking classes (I start teaching at Cooks of Crocus Hill in October)! They can take a look at my websites SheCooks.Design and or They can also reach me at 651.271.6919.

IN Food Takeout Roundup

Even though we can’t spend hours chatting at our favorite table, we’re still supporting the Twin Cities food scene by ordering our favorite meals to-go. Plenty of IN Fooders go by the “phones eat first” policy, so we’ve got a whole bunch of tasty meal snapshots from the past few weeks. Check out some of our favorites:

World Street Kitchen:

Since 2012, WSK has been serving up global flavors in street-food form. And their masterpiece is the Yum Yum Rice Bowl—available in gluten-free and vegan options! Another must-have is their Turk Hummus (will you ever eat hummus without roasted chickpeas again?).

2743 Lyndale Avenue S


Before the sushi burrito entered our lives, we thought there was no way to improve the California Roll. But if you want to enjoy all that sushi goodness while walking around a lake, the burrito version from SotaRol might just be your perfect food.

50th & France: 5005 Ewing Ave S

Uptown: 2935 Girard Ave S

Eagan: 2000 Rahncliff Court

French Meadow Bakery & Café:

Picture this, you have to order food for an eclectic room full of eaters—the plant-based buddy; the burger aficionado; the picky one who only wants to eat pancakes. Where do you order takeout? The answer is French Meadow. Their sprawling menu has you covered from breakfast through that after-dinner dessert treat.

Uptown | St. Paul

Crisp & Green:

With one located just a few short steps from the office, Crisp & Green is a go-to lunch spot for just about everyone at IN Food. If your social distancing diet has featured a few too many frozen pizzas, a salad from C&G will fix you right up.

Isles Bun & Coffee:

Never been to Isles of Bun? Walk in and say these three words: Puppy Dog Tails. Thank us later.

P.S. – If you go on a weekend morning, bring your Nintendo Switch—you’re gonna be in line awhile.

1424 West 28th Street

Need a few other recommendations? Here’s a short list of other favorites. Which of your Twin Cities spots should we add?

How Your Workspace Can Promote Creativity

“Sometimes a creative environment affects what happens within it.”

-Peter Gabriel

If being creative is in your job description, you owe it to yourself to have a workspace that inspires you. This is especially true for advertising and marketing pros. Whether you’re a designer, account manager or HR coordinator, each role has to hatch creative solutions to unique problems. That’s why you need to surround yourself with images, sounds and even smells that inspire the creativity within you.

How Your Environment Can Boost Creativity

Studies show that around 70dB of ambient noise can distract the mind enough to make way for more creative thoughts. Which means, if you’re in need of some big ideas, a coffee-shop approach (light music, conversation) is better than library-like silence.

What about what you see around the office? Can certain objects inspire creative ideas? One psychological study revealed that the physical embodiment of metaphors can boost creativity. It’s all because of a concept called “embodied cognition.” Seriously. In one of the experiments, participants who did a creative task in close proximity to a box (“think outside the box” *wink*) performed better than those inside a box, or a plain room. Science rules, huh?

Whatever Works

Some creatives, naturally, have unusual spaces where they get work done. Stephen King wrote his first novel at a makeshift desk nestled between a washer and dryer. Maybe bouncing back and forth during a spin cycle jostled a few brilliant ideas loose.

Creative Spaces at IN

At IN, we’ve worked hard to create an inspiring space for everyone at the office. And we’re always looking for ways to freshen things up.

The photo wall in our designer/writer room changes at least once a season. We always encourage our team think of new ways we can update it with food-related images. Throughout late August and September, we filled it with Minnesota State Fair food pics. I seem to recall working corn dogs into copy a lot for some reason. Not sure why.

Sometimes a slight change in perspective can help. Our sit/stand desks aren’t just a great way to add a little bit of healthy standing to our routines—they’re a great way to break up the monotony of sitting in the same position all day.

There are so many good ideas at IN, you’d think something was in the air—and you’d be right! We’ve got essential oil diffusers around the office to help add some inspirational aromas. And all winter long we’ve got our humidifiers cranked to help keep that cold, dry air from making a dent.

Last but not least, our kitchen is a major source of inspiration. We are a food agency, after all. From Monday status meeting to Friday Happy Hour, the kitchen is our favorite place to gather, strategize and concept. Within the drawers and cabinets there are plenty of great ingredients and tools at our disposal, but also glass cups and stainless steel utensils that make us feel at home. You can call it a kitchen—or you can think of it as a big oven where we bake our big ideas. Up to you!

Do What Works

At the end of the day, follow your creative gut. If a space filled with blaring music, beautiful posters and knick-knacks from your last seven vacations is what inspires you, keep it up. If you do your best work between the washer and dryer, don’t stop now! Like the creative work you do every day, there are endless ways to create your ideal environment.

What’s unique about your creative space? Do you light it with seven lamps? Blare math metal through oversized headphones? Leave a comment below to let us know.