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North Bay Trading continues to grow in highly competitive food segment
Photo: North Bay Trading Co. is located in two warehouses on Highway 2 in Brule. The buildings are not labeled, but can be readily identified by the large number of shipping trucks coming and going, hauling their product from Brule to around the country. Photo by Beth Probst
If you’ve ever driven thru Brule on Highway 2, it would be hard to miss the two nondescript green warehouses that hug the highway. What might surprise you is that behind those doors is a national wholesale food and e-commerce business focusing on quality, organic dried fruits, vegetables, soup mixes and wild rice.
Gregor Isaksen founded North Bay Trading Co. in the mid 1980s as a wholesale Canadian organic wild rice business. Growing up, his son and current co-owner Borg Isaksen remembers his dad approaching resorts to sell his product while the family was vacationing. Often times, this approach worked. In fact, the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island still buys rice from North Bay Trading Co.
The company was initially founded in Poynette, Wis. But the family, which loves Nordic Skiing, often vacationed in Brule. In the mid-90s, it relocated to Brule while Borg Isaksen operated out of a remote office in Milwaukee. By the late 90s, he decided it was time to answer the call of the North.
“Brule was a better place for me and my family. We love outdoor activities and this is a great place to live,” he said. “It also made business sense. If we wanted to build this same size business in southern Wisconsin, it wouldn’t be cost effective.”
For years, the company focused on wholesale. But, as time went on, they discovered individual customers were interested too.
“Our type of products was being carried in places like Whole Foods Co-Op, which tended to be in larger and more affluent communities,” he explained. “So we added the e-commerce to offer wild rice and other products, which has turned into a nice niche market for us.”
This works because they still maintain a large number of wholesale clients. By doing so, they can drive down the overall price because they are ordering by the pallet versus the pound. Then they share those savings with consumers selling their products both via their online store and other websites such as Amazon.
Despite this effort to connect with the consumer, the company has been hesitant until now to share their story. In part, this segment is extremely competitive, so they keep much of what they are doing under wraps. In addition, space limitations prohibit them from having an on-site retail shop where locals and tourists can shop for items such as dried fruits and nuts or soup mixes.
The owners believe operating under the radar has been a wise business move. But it has also created a conundrum when it comes to finding qualified workers.
“It is challenging to find the advanced skill set and technical expertise we need,” Isaksen said. “But, we find if we can get them in the door, they are excited by what they see and want to work here.”
Sales and Marketing Associate Laura Rantala agrees. Rantala, who started working at North Bay Trading Co. two years ago, says people are surprised to see what goes on here.
“People don’t realize what’s here. It really is an eye opener for them to see how much goes on. It is different than what else is here locally.”
This was certainly what Port Wing resident Brittany Johnson experienced when she came in for a job interview in early 2011.
“I drove by those buildings all the time and wondered what was going on in them. When I saw they were hiring, I applied for a job and learned they were doing so much more than I expected,” she said.
Johnson, who started in the warehouse, is now the accounting and marketing coordinator. She loves working with the eight-person team because they are like family to her.
“Everyone works together and we all get along,” she said.
The business currently has eight employees but is actively seeking another four positions including a customer service coordinator, packaging and warehouse worker, part-time e-commerce web developer and accounting and product data coordinator. To help meet these needs and share a bit more with the community about what goes on at North Bay Trading Co., Isaksen said they have considered holding a job fair. For now, they tend to post their ads online and on a flat bed trailer outside of their shop, which has attracted some attention.
Hiring staff could be an ongoing issue given the company’s continuous growth. A few years back, a second warehouse was added to create space for the additional products they were adding to the line that now totals 1,500 stockkeeping units. This includes some soup mixes that they blend themselves, along with a variety of nuts, dried fruits, pre-packaged soup mixes, wild rice and beans. Many are organic.
The addition of new lines and more customers has maxed out their current space. They currently have off-site storage and are bringing in used shipping containers from Superior to hold inventory. Some of their vendors also hold inventory for them until it is sold. While this isn’t as efficient, Isaksen said the system works.
He credits the success of North Bay Trading to a number of factors including aggressive marketing tactics in both their paid and organic digital marketing efforts.
“We compete to gain customers on Google Adwords by outbidding our competitors,” he said. While this isn’t an uncommon digital strategy, he said a focus on search engine optimization has paid off in terms of their products coming up organically in a search.
The third leg of the e-commerce marketing stool is ensuring that existing customers come back for more.
They also invest in high quality packaging. This includes re-sealable foil pouches with moisture absorbers, and they submit to voluntary, unannounced audits from the American Institute of Bagging.
“This has actually helped with our wholesale business because our clients want to work with businesses that have their processes in order,” Isaksen said.
Looking ahead, he anticipates the business model for success to be a continued combination of e-commerce to individuals and wholesale customers. This, combined with an on-going effort to remain on-top of current digital trends while providing quality will be the recipe for success for this hidden food retailer in Northwestern Wisconsin.
Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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