The Amboy Cottage Cafe, Amboy, Minnesota (Photo from website)

The Amboy Cottage Cafe, Amboy, Minnesota (Photo from website)

So our family--or those of us still at home--just returned from our mid-summer vacation. We went a wandering to the north shore of Lake Superior and then on to Apostle Islands this time . . . and the experience was a good reminder of the value of family.

Later, I may tell you about the families that lived at the lighthouse for an entire season since the only way to access the spot was by boat, or of the Nebraska families that helped settle Madeline Island, or of going to school across the "ice road"--but today, I'll tell you about a part of our extended family and their business.

The historical stories of family and the time our "core family"  spent together were a good reminder of the value of the family--always easier to remember when away from the bustle of chores, work, and such--but an even more delightful reminder came when we visited relatives.

"Visiting relatives on vacation" always evokes a feeling of an ominous, discordant, chord in my head--I probably was too influenced by Disney as a kid. But the truth is, my family often visited extended family on vacation. Most of the time it was the vacation. So, I really only have good associations with the events . . . despite Walt's affects. This time would be no different . . . .

The last time we visited Lisa in Amboy, our cousin, on my wife's side of the family was on the roof. (After 36 year in the family, I claim them, and I guess, they claim me too), Why was Lisa on the roof? Because the roof needed shingles. So there was Lisa on the roof shingling this remodeled gas station in preparation for opening her own cafe. Now, many years later, the cafe is a full-fledged thriving operation and obviously, to an outsider's eye, a critical part of the community.

I'll spare you the details of setting up the visit but suffice it to say that both Lisa, and her mother, made concessions to allow the visit to occur--after much of the following: "exactly what day and time will you arrive?" And scheduling and rescheduling a round-trip drive to Amboy for our Aunt Maria who lives 45 minutes away but still bakes pies for the cafe.

The thing my "consulting mind" noticed right away--after our brief "hello" and settling into a table at the south end of the cafe while Lisa hurried back to the kitchen--was all the marks of a successful venture.

The Amboy Cottage Cafe us a very busy place for one thing. In a very, very small town. It was not early, most people would already be at work, yet there was a full house and a constant caravan on customers the entire time of our visit.

The customers going in and out of the cafe, I noticed, regularly go out of their way to connect with Lisa--sticking their heads through the swinging door into the kitchen, bantering about their last visit or preferences--lots of connecting and evidence of strong relationship-building in full view. This was verified by the rows and roes of special mugs (see photo) that line the wall--evidence of how many customers had taken advantage of, and paid the $100 fee, to join the life-time free first cup of coffee club. (I lost track somewhere around 125-ish)

Coffee club mugs. Each personally crafted for the customer. I think we we came away with 6 or 7 ourselves.

Coffee club mugs. Each personally crafted for the customer. I think we we came away with 6 or 7 ourselves.

I wasn't at all surprised to find evidence of success at "Lisa's shop"--despite the cafe being in a very tiny town (2010 census lists it at 525) with too few people to support a cafe. Lisa's family has always been high achievers with an amazing blend of intelligence, creativity, and insatiable curiousity--the kind that creates that feeling of  "they-can-do-everything-better-than-me" that would make you would want to avoid them just to protect your own sense of self-worth . . . if they weren't such great and personable people as well. (By the way, it's not just my assessment. Two of Lisa's brothers worked for NASA)

Finally, after waiting for Lisa to prepare breakfast for all her regulars and us as well, Lisa sat down to chat with us. Here are some of the things my consulting brain noticed:

1. This wasn't just a cafe . . . it was a community. The customers were there for the food and coffee no doubt. But they were really there because of Lisa. The plans of a recently result antique bridge were in display (Lisa headed up the push to get it restored). She was part of the fabric of the town and local area. (See a Star-Tribune article and picture of the bridge)

2. Lisa talked like a business owner. In our short visit she mentioned profit margin, her five year plan. Her eventual goals for the business and her life. She expressed a wish that my wife was closer so she could make use of her organic, sustainable produce and edible flowers.

3. She demonstrated that the business was about the people. Yes, it is great food. Yes, the decor is perfect. Yes the creativity is evident--where can you go that you can order your pancakes made into any shape you want? Or get Maria's homemade pies?

4. She works hard. i noticed the cafe is open seven days a week. Many days are long opening at 6 am and closing at 8. Lisa, of course, will be there earlier and later than the "official hours."

When we were done with our visit we drove out to see the reclaimed bridge. While we were there a car approached, stopped, and out jumped my wife's Aunt Maria. Had we forgotten something? No, She was bringing out the Fedora my 11 year old had admired in the local thrift shop. She thought he should have it, so . . . she bought it and set out to catch us before we left town.

I don't think Lisa's done. By that I mean that I don't think the cafe is her final goal. The cafe is a means to an end . . . to an independence to pursue her dreams. But in pursuing those dreams, she has created a successful family business

Hope you all enjoy your holiday . . . and the family.

Own or work for a family business? Check out our free eBook: Family Legacy: Protecting Family in Family Business.

Are you a social science professional? Are you interested in developing private contracts to provide services outside the insurance market? Dr. Miller has just formed a private Facebook group to provide a place for conversation and sharing our experiences and lessons learned. If you would like to be a part of this group, contact Bryan and he will send you an invitation to join. Limited to professionals or students in the social sciences only!