Couple makes hay with barn-turned-hostel

The big world of Airbnb is bringing people to a tiny place on the edge of the far-reaches of proper Minnesota wilderness.

That tiny place is an old horse barn on the edge of a field, high on the crest of the ridge with a sweeping view of Lake Superior seven miles below. Made over into a quintessential definition of quaint lodging, said horse barn is now the Hungry Hippie Hostel.

Kate and Jeremy Keeble, along with their two young children, live on an old homestead outside of Grand Marais. When they first moved there, they envisioned farming on a small scale, but the reality of working full-time jobs put that on the back burner.

Growing out of Jeremy’s extensive experience in making long backpacking trips, the Keebles thought the old barn would be ideal for providing economical housing for hikers.

The first floor has a shared room with a coffee maker, fridge and microwave, along with two full bathrooms and two private rooms. Jeremy has refurbished the hayloft into rows of bunk beds, and a half-bath.

He has elevated repurposing to a new level, leaving the (freshly painted) sliding horse stall doors as doors for the private rooms, making fabulous wall coverings from refinished pallet wood, and finding endless ways to incorporate previously used materials in the Keeble’s one-of-a-kind hostel.

Owning one of only a few hostels in Minnesota, and the only year-round hostel on the North Shore, the couple was a little nervous at the outset of their new venture a year ago. So far, explaining to customers the etiquette of sharing a bathroom has been the biggest hurdle.

“It’s been well received, and people like the camaraderie,” Keeble stated.

It was really the advent of the Airbnb trend that made the Keebles realize their little hostel could be a viable business. Recently a couple visiting from Paris told them the Boundary Waters and Great Lakes are growing in popularity for vacationing Europeans.

Airbnb, the worldwide Internet connection between hosts and travelers, was started in 2007 as a creative solution to finding short-term lodging in saturated markets. Since then, it has grown to include shared spaces like hostels and rooms in private homes, to entire houses, and even boats, igloos and castles.

“Airbnb is the coolest thing, and it’s been humbling and amazing. People see a hostel on Airbnb and they book immediately,” Keeble said, a trend that is allowing them to operate comfortably throughout the winter months despite the region’s common struggle with tourism numbers falling in the off-season.

Back when they were in the business planning phase, Keeble says that their market research came up short with information or demographics on hostels. While they were convinced that a budget-friendly place to stay overnight was a niche whose time had come on the North Shore, the response they have received is not at all what they expected. It’s exponentially broader and better.

Expecting to be catering primarily to a younger set coming off of the Superior Hiking Trail, with a spur trail just a mile from the farm, their clientele is made up of a much wider demographic than they assumed.

“A lot of folks are coming up for outdoor adventures, like kayaking and hiking, but they are not just coming off the Superior Hiking Trail,” Kate Keeble said.

There are two kinds of people staying at the Hungry Hippie: those who need to be educated on what a hostel is, and international travelers who are specifically looking for a hostel.

Outside of those two distinctions, Kate Keeble said their clientele defies categorization.

“Families with little kids, folks over 50, younger people, but a lot of people over 60, even 70. People from other parts of Minnesota, people from all over the country, people from all over the world are staying here We’ve had to start a world map with pins to keep track of where they are coming from,” she said.

Greg Wright at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais observed that the addition of alternative lodging has already proven to be a positive for his students.

“It’s great to have another provider of quality lodging that our students can take advantage of,” Wright said.

Adult learners travel from all over to take courses like blacksmithing or woodcarving at North House, and finding agreeable temporary lodging is a high need, especially during winter months.

“Having them (Hungry Hippie) lead the charge creates an additional dimension to lodging, and their success underscores that we need options like this,” he said.

A solar expansion project currently underway will bring sun-powered electricity to the Keeble’s home and business, and a 10-site campground, bath house and parking lot will accommodate overflow guests starting next year.

What’s next at the Happy Hippie? Keeble has a running list of ideas, ranging from bringing back the heirloom apples in the old homestead’s apple orchard, starting an apiary for honey bees and growing their own food.

Meanwhile, the hostel business has been so good that Kate had to quit her job in town, but Jeremy continues in his construction management job for now. Only time will tell what this high-energy couple will accomplish.