Neal St. Anthony
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A few times over the last month, owner Darryl Weivoda of North End Hardware & Rental, has trucked the 1-mile jaunt to the new Thirsty Whale Bakery at 42nd and Fremont Avenue N. to buy a couple-dozen doughnuts to treat his crew.

"They go fast," said Weivoda, of the treats at Thirsty Whale, the only pastry and cake bakery on the commerce-hungry North Side. "They make really good doughnuts. I think they are going to do really well."

That may be an understatement from a business owner who appreciates pastry goods and a new small business.

Sisters Sarah and Megan Bignell and partner Kyle Baker, who opened Thirsty Whale in renovated retail space on Fremont and already are planning to double the space with a bakery cafe next door.

"We've invested close to $150,000 [in renovation and equipment] for this space," said Sarah Bignell, 27, the bakery's business manager. "A family member loaned us the money because we didn't qualify for a bank loan.

"We've already signed a lease for next door and we're going to add coffee and bread and a bathroom. The retail customers want it. There has been a lot of walk-in traffic. We think it will cost us less than $35,000 to renovate the space."

Weivoda can remember the previous bakery, when he was a teenager in the early 1970s, in the space that Thirsty Whale now occupies. The former baker pulled out at some point and the space stood vacant for years. Another baker, Butter Roll on W. Broadway Avenue, also closed years ago.

Baker, 29, and Megan Bignell, 24, quit working for somebody else in 2016 to start Thirsty Whale to bake for weddings and other events. They were joined by Sarah Bignell, 27, who quit her property-management job.

They were working out of their North Side home and also at a kitchen incubator when they decided they needed their own commercial space.

Thirsty Whale, which has drawn rave reviews in the food press, has grown to eight employees and is expecting to top $500,000 in revenue this year.

"That should be easy," Megan Bignell said last week. "We can't keep up with the demand. We've only been open for retail customers for a month, and we could support ourselves just off telephone and online orders.

"It's already too tight in here now. We need to separate doughnut production from cake production. We'll take on more employees. We're going to expand for additional production and because people want a cafe where they can sit and drink coffee. We're still playing with plans and permits with the city."

The Bignell sisters, who hail from Wabasha, Minn., brought fresh eyes and entrepreneurial enthusiasm to the North Side.

Sarah Bignell, chatting as she served retail customers one morning recently, said Thirsty Whale is enjoying business success, and the owners appreciate the support of grateful residents who invariably thank them for moving into the neighborhood.

The North Side now boasts a bakery that "can make your wildest cake dreams come true" one food critic wrote.

It's another small but significant step for a part of town disproportionately dogged by crime and too little commerce.

Megan Bignell attended Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris. Baker was her apprentice at a big bakery in Elk River, Minn., until they decided to start their own business. And Sarah Bignell, a business graduate of St. Mary's University of Minnesota, keeps the books and runs the growing operation.

Their custom-made cakes combine flavor and imagination. They've ranged from birthday cakes that resemble everything from a barbecue cooking burgers and brats or a camera, to some shaped like a favorite bottle of whiskey designed as tributes to Elk River Hockey, the Minnesota Wild or Star Wars.

"We're also interested in the neighborhood," Sarah Bignell said. "That's more the focus than getting rich."

Stephanie Gruver, a North Side resident and real estate agent who lives in north Minneapolis, said the bakery has been a welcome addition. In addition to the commercial and housing redevelopment along the Lowry Avenue corridor and new North Market grocery store on 44th Avenue N., it has sparked interest from home buyers in what is still the lowest-priced housing quadrant of the city.

Weivoda, who grew up walking distance from the former bakery, is encouraged. Over the last decade, he has expanded his North End Hardware store, built a neighboring restaurant at Lowry and Penn avenues, and has been a catalyst for other development, including an Aldi grocery store and other businesses at a reviving commercial hub.

"I remember the bakery from more than 40 years ago," Weivoda said. "It was a vibrant corner that went somewhat toward blight. What's happening with Thirsty Whale is good."

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