“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”
If Lu and Damon Holter were to sum up their entrepreneurial journey in a single sentence, their favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw says it best: “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” The husband and wife team behind Croix Valley Foods share a love for one another and family first. But food takes a close second. It’s a big part of what keeps them moving forward through the twists and turns of owning a small business.
The pair have always had a deep appreciation for nature and cooking outdoors. Damon’s passion became his profession when he opened a restaurant with his parents in Northern Wisconsin called TimberRidge Roadhouse in 1996. It was known for its chargrilled meats. Even more so, customers would rave about the house-made steak sauce that was served with it. They urged Damon to bottle and sell it. Damon took note of the suggestion, but running a restaurant required a lot of hard work and long hours. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to bottle the sauce.
But the idea tugged at Damon. And Lu—a paralegal at the time—was excited by it as well. She encouraged Damon and offered to support the venture any way she could. They decided to license the restaurant’s kitchen for food production. Soon, demand for the bottled sauces was so great that Damon stepped away from the restaurant to pursue a new kind of entrepreneurship. That’s when Croix Valley Foods was born.
For several years, Damon traveled two-and-a-half hours each way to make and bottle sauces in the restaurant’s kitchen. They’d sell it from a small retail space inside a specialty meat market in Hudson, Wisconsin. As the business grew, the couple considered ways to promote it. They entered a local rib competition and were hooked from the very first contest. In 2013, Lu left her legal job to join the business full time and Croix Valley Foods moved to a larger manufacturing facility.
Food competitions have proven to be a great way to market Croix Valley Foods, and the Holters have a blast every time they compete. They became members of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, an organization that celebrates, teaches, preserves and promotes barbecue as a culinary technique. They’ve gone on to earn pit master status and have participated in several competitions including the World Food Championships. They were a runner-up in the Culinary Fight Club Steak Cook-off. Damon has appeared on TV. And most recently, Lu took second place in the Sutter Homes Wine Build a Better Burger Competition. The prize was a trip to Napa Valley where they were treated like royalty.
Last year, the Holters were invited to join a new retail venture in St. Paul, Minnesota, called Keg & Case, a marketplace in a renovated brewery space that’s dedicated to showcasing products from local food and beverage makers. Croix Valley Foods was the first interior retail vendor to sign on. They offer a variety of their award-winning sauces, dry rubs and Bloody Mary seasonings. While the growth of the business is exciting, Lu says it has also challenged them in new ways—hiring and managing more people, juggling multiple schedules, and connecting with a broader audience. But they wouldn’t trade it for anything.
A key to making their new retail venture successful has been Croix Valley’s partnership with their local bank. Lu and Damon started working with BankCherokee when they opened their location at Keg & Case. They had done their homework, because they were committed to working with a smaller community bank. “As a business owner, you feel that your business is special and important,” Lu explains. “Your bank should feel you’re special and important, too.” She says that’s precisely how BankCherokee treats its small business banking customers.
BankCherokee Universal Banker Alicia Cramer couldn’t agree more. After more than two decades at the bank, customers like Croix Valley Foods are the reason she loves coming to work each day. She was mentored by a bank manager at the Randolph Avenue location who’d invite her to stroll the avenue with him. They’d pop into neighborhood businesses to say hello and to let the business owners know their importance in the community. Her mentor’s legacy lives on through Alicia. She makes it her mission to let business owners know how important they are whenever they visit the bank. She greets them by name and makes their business transactions as seamless as possible.
Alicia also believes it’s important to promote the businesses BankCherokee works with. She often tells others about her favorite pit masters and encourages them to head over to Keg & Case for a sample. “We have a stake in each other’s success,” Alicia notes.
“Whether it’s me or a member of my team walking into the bank, Alicia and the staff know who we are, they treat us like we’re part of the family,” Lu says. “Our business is just as important to them as it is to us.”
Croix Valley Foods continues to grow. Last month, the Holters moved the company headquarters and manufacturing to a larger location in Hudson, Wisconsin. They’re gearing up for a busy summer of local and national competitions and continue to be driven by their love of food.