“As for me, I am prepared to admit some merit in every alcoholic beverage ever devised… and drink them all when the occasions are suitable — wine with meat, the hard liquors when the soul languishes, beer on jolly evenings. In other words, I am omnibibulous, or, more simply, ombibulous.”
– H.L. Mencken, “The Smart Set,” 1920
Brandon Randolph and Ross Sandell have a vision: To collect the very best of Minnesota beer, wine, and spirits and place them together under one roof. To create a place where selections from Fair State, Ida Graves, and Chankaska Creek can be found side-by-side, quickly and easily. A place that gives local products the spotlight they deserve – a temple to the products of the Bold North.
It might sound like a modest vision. And perhaps it is. The craft brewing and distilling scene is booming in Minnesota after all, and it only makes sense that a store might bring it all together –
But while local shops might offer a “regional” section, or – at best – section Minnesota-made items together onto one shelf, macrobrews and national brands still dominate the bottom line. Simply put, there is nothing else quite like Ombibulous.
It is a liquor store, first and foremost. But too does it elevate the conversation surrounding the local and craft movement that has surrounded the world of beer, wine and spirits for over a decade. To understand the importance of supporting friends and neighbors from all walks of life in their endeavors, in a time when that support holds more weight than ever before. This, ultimately, is what Ombibulous hopes to achieve: It is a store that benefits both producer and consumer, a shop that allows visitors and locals alike to discover something new, and contribute something unique to the ever-changing, always-moving landscape of Northeast Minneapolis.
THE DAWN OF OMBIBULOUS
The store itself, located in a former gas station on Hennepin Avenue, isn’t new. It has been open for three years now – opened in February of 2018 – but under different ownership. There was no sign originally, and only a handful of offerings to start. Ross and Brandon took over January 1st of 2021 after much deliberation (and financial planning) but it is – quite literally – still a family affair: The store was previously owned and operated by Ross’s aunt and uncle, and he worked in the store before approaching them with an offer to take it over.
“This was always a passion project for them,” he says. “But they knew they didn’t have the time to grow it into something bigger or better than it was.”
The family connection to the neighborhood runs further still. Ross’s family has long been a staple of Northeast Minneapolis, famously filling nearby restaurants for dinner parties that have since become legendary. Brandon and Ross are both residents of the area themselves – they met while drinking beer and playing darts in the many dive bars of the neighborhood, which was also where the plan to take over Ombibulous was hatched.
The neighborhood connection runs deep – one they both hope will only grow from here, as the regulars who had come to know and love Ombibulous can expect the same quality of service and commitment to the store’s original mission.
“We aren’t getting rid of anything that the regulars have grown to love. We’re not changing the store so much as we’re helping it reach its full potential.”
A NEW ERA
Looking to build on what the store has established thus far – expanding options not only for local consumers to enjoy, but for local makers to gain some visibility as well – they have already added shelf space: Shelving lines two previously unused walls to ensure that none of the quality imbibements produced in Minnesota go unnoticed. A cooler to showcase specific items and staff favorites is on the way as well.
“But we’re mainly focused on outreach for now,” Ross says. “Not something that was a priority before. Letting people know that we’re open, and we’re here for them. Too many people even right here in the neighborhood still have no idea what we are, or what we are about.”
As Brandon says, “We still get quite a few people who say – wait, aren’t you that weird little gas station store?”
“Yes. Yes we are.”
Checking inventory before open
But even with plans to expand both their selections and their reputation, the focus remains on community, and helping those more skeptical about the idea of artisan and hyperlocal feel comfortable about broadening their horizons. As those buzzwords often signify a culture more inaccessible to the average consumer – or worse, something snobbish, elitist; something based on the whims of those who consider themselves gatekeepers of fine taste.
This, as Ombibulous hopes to prove, need not be the case –
“We’re going to stock the very best,” Brandon says, “absolutely. But it doesn’t mean you have to spend an arm and a leg. You can buy something high-end for your anniversary or celebration dinner, sure. Or you can buy a 1.75 of Lokal vodka, because you don’t need $40 on a bottle for a party or a hangover Bloody Mary. We make sure to cover the board – all tastes and price points are fully represented.”
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“No matter what you’re looking for,” he says, “we will at the very least have a local option that is comparable, and perhaps something you’ll like even more.”
But this remains the greatest challenge: Catering to the diverse tastes of a diverse – and changing – neighborhood; keeping a well-curated stock of options available in a small space to ensure that this mission remains both true, and viable. This means constant attention to the items in demand that become staples of the store, supplemented by a constantly-rotating array of new products – and keeping their fingers on the pulse of what people are looking for. The store is also expanding its Non-Alcoholic offerings, so that this ever-growing section of society feels welcome as well.
“That’s why we’re always on hand to chat and discuss what it is you want,” Ross says. “No one who comes through the door should ever feel as though they’re at a loss on what to buy.”
“One guy came in,” he says laughingly. “He was new to the Twin Cities, new to Minnesota. He thought he had entered the Twilight Zone. He asked, Where am I? having never heard of any of our local products, not recognizing anything on the shelves…”
“But he ended up leaving with some really nice stuff.”
So while the store could certainly be classified as niche, no casual buyer will have trouble finding something they like. Conversely, those looking for specific items and brands, those hard-to-find liquors and small-batch brews that often struggle to make it onto the shelves of larger, more-established chain liquor stores, will be excited as well.
“We get people who come in asking us what’s new, what’s the latest, what’s coming up,” Ross says. “And on the flip side, we have people waiting in line every Wednesday for new and seasonal releases they already know they love.”
“We’re not Surdyk’s.” Brandon says. “We won’t have everything, as that is not our goal…
“But we certainly will have something for everyone.”
THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND
Brandon, a longtime and lauded chef in the Twin Cities – whose resume includes stints at the Bachelor Farmer, as head chef of the Governor’s Mansion, at the fondly-remembered Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul under Lenny Russo, and, most recently, running The Pearl and the Thief with friend and collaborator Justin Sutherland – hung up his chef’s whites after COVID-19 left him with a diminishing number of opportunities.
And, with very little – and very sporadic – support for restaurants and their employees coming from the powers-that-be, and a future thus increasingly uncertain, the change was not only important, but necessary.
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Ross felt the same tug toward change – though his background is a bit different than Brandon’s: He has a Master’s degree in Hispanic Literature, and worked previously in the corporate offices of BiteSquad before his enthusiasm for artisan food and drink convinced him it was time to move on –
“I was traveling around the world, trying different local beers and spirits – I enjoyed it so much that trying and tasting new things became my primary reason for traveling.”
This also offered a new perspective on the food and drink being made in Minnesota – a compare and contrast that proved this was the right place to be.
“So many of the country’s most-exciting beers and spirits are being made right here,” he says. “I knew it was time to become a part of it.”
Brandon agrees. “Especially right now – the collaboration and creativity we’re seeing from our local makers is unprecedented. The Ida Graves gin made with roots and fruits from [Forager Chef] Alan Bergo, for example, is just incredible.”
Those same bar and restaurant closures mentioned above – coupled with the high number of people stuck at home – have led to a business boom liquor stores haven’t seen a since the repeal of Prohibition.
And too is the time just right to help people discover what they’ve been missing: There has been increased emphasis placed on what we’re putting in our bodies, and why. And after being quarantined for months on end, it should come as no surprise that people are craving a break in their routine; a change in their usual purchases and the items filling their refrigerators.
Every item in the store is a thoughtful addition. There is no wasted space. This gives people an opportunity to try something new, but also reevaluate who/what is getting their support – we all vote with their pocketbooks after all, and in a world where those dollars are squeezed (and mental health is as well, as a result) – being discerning about the things we’re buying, the activities we’re engaging in, and whether to support shops, businesses, and organizations that are either helping, or hurting, the average person, has necessarily been pushed to the forefront.
One thing remains clear then in an increasingly unclear world: When you stock your refrigerator or liquor cabinet with something from Ombibulous, you’ll know exactly from where it came, and why you brought it home.
🏠 949 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55414