Out on the world’s largest freshwater sandbar—the point of demarcation between the greatest lake in the world, Superior, and the enormous St. Louis River estuary—resides one of the most fascinating families you could ever meet. Two boys, one 16 and the other 12, operate tremendously ambitious and entrepreneurial businesses that are inextricably tied to this land and the water that sustains it. Their dad is the inventor of the Bucket Boss tool organizer and also the founder of Duluth Trading Company. Might it be something in the water?
It’s remarkably fitting that the Fierek’s would live out here between great bodies of water. They live on the harbor side of Minnesota Point (aka Park Point), facing the largest inland harbor in the world. Located at the western terminus of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Seaway system, it’s also the furthest inland seaport in the entire world. With close proximity to abundant natural resources, the word “strategic” is an understatement. This is the sort of coveted land and water that wars are fought over.
Lying dormant within this soil are 3,000 cloves of garlic. Max Fierek placed them there this past Fall, as he has done each year since he was a mere eight years old. As kids are known to do at that age, he began clamoring for an allowance like his friends were getting. His dad declined, choosing to teach him how to make money through entrepreneurship instead.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Robert Fierek is unusually suited to provide these lessons to his two boys. He grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood of Duluth, originally formed as a company town by US Steel. His grandfather worked for the steel mill for 44 years, his father put in 33 for the company, and it was just assumed that young Bob would continue the tradition. The mill was larger than life in this neck of the woods throughout much of the 20th century. The steel from this mill, for example, was used in the production of 230 ships in local shipyards that were pressed into service during WWII. U.S. Steel, formed by the legendary J.P. Morgan, seemed as permanent as bedrock. And then it wasn’t.
Strong, burly men wept in public when the mill’s closure was announced. Bob recalls seeing one such man looking straight up into the air for answers,with tears in his eyes, dreading the reality of a move to Gary, Indiana, with his family so he could work the remaining years required to collect a pension. A skilled worker, perhaps a foreman, he would now be reduced to pushing a broom following his relocation. As much of Morgan Park packed up to leave, Bob realized a bit ahead of his time that a big company couldn’t be counted on for one’s sole livelihood. It was then and there that he determined to make a living by his own wits and the sweat of his brow.
While working as a carpenter he recognized an opportunity by observing that tools were being sold by people in suits who weren’t aware of the evolving landscape of tools and building techniques. Tool storage was based on dated concepts, such as tool belts for hammers and nails. Nail guns were just coming out, and carpenters were just laying these expensive tools on the ground with no place to put them.
He invented The Bucket Boss tool storage system, which is a canvas apron strapped to a five gallon bucket. Simple. Inexpensive. Easily reproduced. Brilliant…
From there a full array of products were developed and marketed through a company called Portable Products, which began as a simple eight-page catalog. Eventually he and his brother formed Duluth Trading Company, which specializes in workwear designed and tested by actual tradesmen. The company has thrived through one-of-a-kind design (such as the Longtail T shirt that covers the longstanding problem of plumber’s butt, “Ballroom Jeans,” etc.) and a humorous style of marketing that defies convention. Check out this hilarious television spot that pits their Firehose work jeans against an unruly bush as a case in point.
Duluth Trading recently went public through an IPO on Wall Street under the ticker symbol DLTH, and has a market capitalization of over $500 million. It’s one of the few bright spots on the stock exchange currently, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to retain their identity while facing the necessity of reporting to shareholders. For now, at least, the company continues to be infused with its original genetics, which can easily be seen in the strategies and methods being employed by the Fierek boys. A company of this size doesn’t interest Mr. Fierek so much. He sold his stake in Duluth Trading 20 years ago, because he wanted to be a dad rather than a CEO. He obviously has retained an interest in small, nimble entrepreneurial endeavors, however, and relishes his role in instilling these skills in his kids.
Max Fierek, now 16, is the owner and operator of Max Organics. The 3,000 heads of garlic won’t just be picked and sold as bulk garlic, but will be cleverly marketed and packaged. In addition to standard heads of garlic available seasonally at the Whole Foods Coop and Mt Royal Fine Foods, he also markets his hardy strain of garlic for gardeners. His seed stock has proven its resilience through some of the harshest winters found in the Lower 48 by thriving in the unique climate beside Lake Superior (practically in it). For Duluth gardeners and foodies, his high-quality garlic is as local as you can get.
The real money-maker, requiring tremendous effort, is in his hand-crafted-from-start-to-finish garlic salt. Grandma’s Sports Garden generously allows him use of their kitchen early in the morning for the herculean endeavor, which fills the restaurant and neighboring Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant with the pungent aroma. He sells it in a salt grinder, retailing at $7.99, and it’s worth every penny. There really is a difference between this potent product and the cheap stuff that sells for a fraction of the cost.
Max uses the money earned from Max Organics to pay for his mountain biking addiction. An accomplished rider, he travels a racing circuit and has even earned some sponsorships. Racing-quality, carbon fiber mountain bikes aren’t cheap, however, so garlic continues to pave his way for now….
I stumbled upon this video of him from back in 2014 riding crazy trails at our local ski hill, Spirit Mountain. It’s hard to believe this is such a young boy in the footage.
My visit with the Fierek’s churned up significant turmoil within me. Max and his brother Ben, who we’ll turn to in a moment, receive their education at home. The flexibility afforded by homeschooling has enabled them the time to pursue their passions at a higher level than they’d attain after arriving home from school exhausted and spent each day. Max Organics, in and of itself, has taught him more life skills than just about any organized class could ever hope to. Add in his experience traveling the country with his dad in a Volkswagen camper van on tour with his mountain bike, and you catch a glimpse of a most uncommon childhood that should benefit him for life. Currently he’s also branching out into cinematography, for which he recently received his first paying gig by doing some filming for Spirit Mountain.
All this opportunity, excitement, and business acumen, is rooted within a supportive home and family life. Frankly, this is a lifestyle I’d like to embrace within my own family, but we’re not able to homeschool at this time. Alas, there must be transferable lessons here for equipping kids more adequately within traditional school settings and supplementally at home.
Ben Fierek is 12 years old, and has already logged significant business experience. He is the owner and operator of Ben’s Blooms, which is far more involved than what you might expect from a kid selling flowers.
He does sell fresh blooms seasonally at the Whole Foods Coop, of which gladiolus are the best sellers, but he was an absolute force to be reckoned with down there over the holidays. Pardon the poor photography, but I was so stunned by his presence in the store that I had to capture it here. Unfortunately I snapped this photo after Christmas, so you’re only seeing the few items left over. Prior to the holiday both these prominent shelves near the front of the store were loaded with some of the most unique, homespun gifts I’ve ever seen, and they were priced incredibly reasonably in the $9.99 – $12.99 price range. It’s astonishing that a 12-year-old boy captured the most coveted gift display space in a store that grosses over $16 million dollars annually at the height of the Christmas retail season! Here were seed bomb kits, marimo ball kits, homemade ornaments, various flower bulbs beautifully packaged in large vases atop Lake Superior rocks, and more.
On this particular day I snatched up one of the bulb kits for my mother-in-law. The gift was a big hit, is blooming right now in the dead of winter, and only set me back $11.99. I commented on the attractive price points with Ben’s mother, Maria, and asked how much he could possibly be earning per unit. After she hemmed and hawed a bit, I asked, “A dollar?” She chuckled and said, “Sometimes, but often not even that.” The point isn’t the money, but in the real life lessons learned through marketing, merchandising, packing, invoicing, bookkeeping, and everything else that goes into running a business. Ben uses the money he earns to buy Legos primarily, which of course affords further tactile, hands-on learning.
Ben shares garden space with his older brother, Max, and they work hard to amend the soil through composting, rotate crops for long-term viability, etc…
Here are the items I currently have in my possession from both Max Organics and Ben’s Blooms. They merely scratch the surface of this dynamic duo’s offerings, but you can catch a glimpse of their clever marketing and packaging prowess. The Vampire Garlic was left over from the Halloween season, and I’ve cherished the garlic salt in just about every dish of late….
I reckon there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of a “Marimo Ball Pet” or “Seed Bombs.” While neither is essential to basic living, they each proved to brighten the day of my children. Marimo balls are essentially algae balls. They love to be held or rolled between the hands, and have been known to live for up to 200 years! Our kit came with a baby Marimo, a container to raise it in, and some decorative items. I laughed hysterically when Ben and Maria carried over a container filled with 15-year-old specimens for me to handle, each of which were just under the size of a tennis ball. So bizarre. And yet, beautiful. They’re a bigger deal in Japan apparently.
My son gravitated to the seed bomb kit, which includes a slingshot. From the clever notes on the package:
Seed bombs are magical little nuggets of clay, compost and native seeds used to surreptitiously improve areas you’re unable to reach. Seed bombs are the staple of the guerrilla gardener’s arsenal. Seed bombs are the basic weapon of choice for guerrilla gardeners who want to transform a disused, neglected area of land into a colorful oasis……Just add water and Kabloom!
There is so much more to this unique family, which could easily fill the contents of an entire book. I’m still learning how to instill greater responsibility and self-sufficiency in my kids, and often it feels like my parenting skills are lacking. My encounter with the Fierek’s was profoundly challenging in multiple areas, and also has provoked me to think creatively while considering how I may best earn a livelihood with and for my family.
Look for Max Organics and Ben’s Blooms at the Coop this upcoming growing season, and remember these remarkable kids as you enjoy their products. Wherever you live, buy local whenever possible. By doing so, you not only support unique families and individuals like this, but you also promote a further depth of creativity and culture within your own community.
Finally, I hope to get out to another farm soon. Josey Weik is a pig-farming, professional mountain biker, who was also homeschooled. He details his own experience of unschooling right here on his website. Riding bike and growing food are things I’m super passionate about. For some reason I’m drawn to these crazy homeschoolers as well. Since we’ll probably never pull the plug on traditional schooling over here, this interest of mine might just be self-destructive. My hope, however, is that I’ll be challenged to not rest on my laurels and leave all of my kids’ education to the professionals. Yes, this is a point of contention in our home. That being said, we can all agree that learning is a lifelong endeavor that doesn’t begin and end only on certain days and times of the week. Rather, it should be holistically applied to all of life: mind, body, and soul. My goodness, this provokes such wrestling! Due to my own odd past, which continues to manifest residual consequences despite the rebirth and transformation I speak of so freely in my book, I feel hobbled in many ways. I’m forever groping forward it seems, but the adventure of discovery continues unabated and sometimes even joyfully….