Neal St. Anthony
See more of the story

Nearly three years ago, ConAgra shuttered the Ry-Krisp cracker production in an antiquated factory in southeast Minneapolis, idling 15 workers.

It was the end of an era.

And a new beginning.

The switch is back on at the refurbished “North Co.” building on SE. 9th Street that now houses more than 20 small businesses and 75 employees.

The anchor tenant, five-year-old Woodchuck USA, is a fast-growing designer and manufacturer of wood-encased gifts such as high-end bottle openers, notebooks, flasks and decorative boxes that this year expects to post revenue of about $5 million from the efforts of 40-plus employees.

Woodchuck, which expects to double sales to $10 million next year, was conceived in 2012 by a University of Minnesota architecture graduate who passed on graduate school to raise $60,000 from family and friends to launch the company with what he thought was a surefire product he had designed after-hours at a firm where he worked as an intern.

“It was an abject failure,” recalled Woodchuck CEO Ben VandenWymelenberg, who started the inaugural effort with a college buddy who has since become a yoga teacher. “We should have gone bankrupt but we didn’t know what that was.”

VandenWymelenberg, 27, had cracked the back of his iPhone. He used a laser cutter to cut out a piece of sticky wood veneer that he attached to the back, reinforcing it. He liked the look and feel of it. Friends wanted them.

So did a buyer at Target, which offered to buy thousands for $6 apiece from Woodchuck to sell at $19 retail.

VandenWymelenberg scrambled to borrow $60,000 from family and friends to fill the Target order.

That product failed. But Woodchuck already was at work on other products that worked as corporate gifts. And VandenWymelenberg quickly paid back his lenders with interest.

About 75 percent of Woodchuck’s sales are corporate gifts, sold to the likes of clients Google, Facebook, Red Bull, Cambria, Sun Country, Sport Engine, Polaris and the NBA. The rest are sold online and at specialty retailers. Products range to $100 apiece.

“The people who get our gifts are not going to throw them in the trash,” VandenWymelenberg said. “And we have a positive cash-flowing growth business.”

Woodchuck, which also just started filling an order for 800,000 bottle openers made of American steel and wood, stores about 10,000 units of 10 of its most popular products.

And the company is getting traction in a business that largely had been outsourced to low-cost Asian manufacturers.

Woodchuck has a made-in-America theme, as well as an environmental twist.

Since 2015, Woodchuck has planted a tree through a partner global-reforestation program for every product it sells.

Last week, the company planted its ceremonial 1 millionth tree. In Minneapolis.

The idea came to VandenWymelenberg one day when he was jogging in the woods.

“Buy one, plant one,” VandenWymelenberg, said of the company slogan that he trademarked. “That goes on a card with every gift, including the coordinates of where your tree is planted.

“For a marketing plan to be good, it has to be simple enough for a fifth-grader or your drunk buddy to understand. And we have a ‘why’ for why we are doing this. We’re bringing nature back to people, jobs back to America and quality back to products.”

VandenWymelenberg also is a minority partner with a group of investors who bought and renovated the old Ry-Krisp building. They bought the 41,200-square foot structure in 2015 for $1.185 million, according to Hennepin County property records. They invested an unspecified amount to renovate it into a stylish, functional space for designers, makers and office workers.

VandenWymelenberg was leasing a much smaller space in the same neighborhood and was cut into the deal by his former landlord, also one of the investors in North Co. Woodchuck wanted a larger space and to be part of a shared-space building that functioned as a business accelerator for fledgling enterprises.

VandenWymelenberg is the energetic son of an electrician dad and mom who had a dog-grooming business on a hobby farm near Green Bay, Wis.

A driven high school wrestler, VandenWymelenberg lost 27 pounds to wrestle at 112 pounds his senior year: “It’s what the team needed.”

He earned an architecture degree at the U in four years and also was a cheerleader.

VandenWymelenberg debated whether to accept a graduate scholarship to M.I.T. or start a business while interning his senior year at Cuningham Group, the Minneapolis architectural firm.

“He was a fine young architect but if you heard him talk about his business aspirations … it was a no-brainer,” said founder John Cuningham. “Why go to graduate school. And, so far, that business has been a whirlwind. And he’s had the time of his life.”

The aspiration continues.

“We want to be the world’s largest sustainable wood-products manufacturer,” VandenWymelenberg asserted. “And we want to plant more trees than Teddy Roosevelt.”

Roosevelt, a conservationist, was the founder of the national park system. That’s a lot of trees.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.