Area writer, businesswoman makes a connection with Molly Yeh

    My friend Angie and I were the first to arrive at the Kiehle Auditorium at the University of Minnesota Crookston campus. Coming from Bagley, 65 miles away in sub zero temps this past first day of February, and not being well acquainted with the campus, we wanted to be sure to give ourselves enough time to find our destination. We also planned to meet up with another friend, Carolyn.

    All three of us live in the country, have entrepreneurial interests, and we looked forward to a midwinter break by planning our own educational and fun Girls’ Day Out. We had come to hear food blogger and cookbook author Molly Yeh of rural East Grand Forks, Minn., brought to campus by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurial Studies.

    The second party to arrive was a gray haired couple whose priority was to find the restrooms on the ground level. I admired the octogenarian couple’s pluck at coming out, having navigating snow dusted icy patches with the help of a cane and each others’ arms.       

     Meanwhile, Angie and I ascended the elegant curved staircase where an empty amphitheatre of soft cushioned seats awaited us. Soon after, bustling in and bundled up like the rest of us, with a smile as brilliant in real life as in her photos, was Ms. Molly herself! Actually, not just herself, as stylish city-girl percussionist turned farmer’s wife was escorted by tall beet farmer-trombonist husband Nic. Yep, this was indeed “Molly on the Range”, as her first cookbook was titled, getting ready to share her entrepreneurial story with us.

    As classes let out, the auditorium started to fill up with a diverse range of students, along with the arrival of staff, and other people from the local community.   

     When she first stepped up to speak, a hint of nervousness revealed itself in a few “ums”, but before long, Molly found her rhythm and started talking to us like the group of friends and neighbors that we are. Despite her elegant poise and high-heeled boots, a little shyness was something most of us northerners could relate to. Too much overt confidence in oneself is subject to suspicion around here! In fact, I doubted if I was the only one in the room wondering just how authentic our speaker was going to be. Did she truly embrace our winters as much as she claimed?

How about that farm life?

    Molly’s first book entwines recipes with the story of how this Chicago born Chinese-Jewish girl came to live on the northern Minnesota/North Dakota border. It’s the story of starting a new life with the young man she had first met when both were studying music at the famous Juilliard School in New York City. And her presentation followed suit, mixing in personal anecdotes with professional advice. Only she didn’t share recipes for cakes, rather her recipe for her entrepreneurial endeavors.   

     It’s probably not the kind of recipe that you’ll find in textbooks, but it’s the recipe that has worked for her, and a recipe that rang true for my own experience. Most recipes are geared toward a specific, predictable outcome using known ingredients with measured quantities and a given timeline. But Molly’s recipe consists of principles that encourage the entrepreneur to experiment and innovate, to take a challenging situation (like northern winters!) and turn it into something productive, principles of flexibility, adjustment and adaptation, not to mention perseverance.

    Three of the principles that stood out the most to me were:

    Do what you’re passionate about.

    Make sure it’s meaningful.

    Don’t have a 5 year plan.

    For this last point, Molly shared that during her time in New York City, she started developing a passion for food, and just started blogging about her experiences for her family, never dreaming that one day her blog would become her business, that someday companies like King Arthur Flour would pay her to use and display their products in her photos. Instagram didn’t even exist when she first started posting pictures on the web, but when it really took off, she was ready for it. She had quit her bakery night shift, working hard to keep improving her photography and kitchen skills.

    She didn’t know she’d then be contracted to write a cookbook or that she’d be asked to appear on the Today Show. Or be asked to write a second cookbook, on yogurt of all things! How on earth would a person ever write those opportunities into a business plan? But there is one four letter ingredient that never changes, whether you write a business plan or not, and it starts with the letter “w”. Nevertheless, Molly affirmed the old adage, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

    At the end of the session, several people lined up to greet her, most with “Molly on the Range” cookbooks in hand for autographing. Molly seemed to have that ability to focus on each person directly as if they were the only people in the room, the same personable way she interacts with readers via her blog. The elderly couple who had arrived early hung back, politely waiting their turn until after the paying customers, some of whom seemed to take more time than necessary, got their books signed. They were obviously eager to personally greet the presenter, and the warm hugs exchanged indicated that they must have been friends or part of the extended family that Molly had married into.   

     Then I caught a few especially poignant Minnesota Nice phrases, considering how much effort it had taken for them to get there and to wait around that long, “We don’t want to take up any more of your time, it is so good to see you but there are others who want to talk to you.” Those others being myself and my friends.

    So yes, we did get to personally meet the local food celebrity. I handed her a purple gift bag and explained that my husband and I have a mail order nursery and U-Pick orchard towards Bemidji. Lifting up a jar of dark bluish-purple berry preserves, I told her that I brought her a sample. As if her bright smile was not enough, she instantly endeared herself to me by excitedly asking if they were saskatoons! How had she heard of saskatoons? Most Minnesotans call them juneberries, while the Canadian term is “saskatoon”. I actually didn’t get the answer to that question as I was busily explaining that while we do grow saskatoons, and cherries, and lots of other fruit, this jar contained honeyberries.   

     “What’s a honeyberry?” she sincerely wanted to know, so I replied, “It’s actually a honeysuckle with a berry you can eat. Tastes like a mystery berry – blueberry/raspberry/grape flavor.”

    I will be the first to confess that my own entrepreneurial marketing spirit was not going to let an opportunity slide by to introduce a Food Network star to my favorite berry and to our specialty cold hardy fruit operation.         

    But throughout the presentation I could tell that Molly and I had a lot in common in regards to our approach to our businesses. Life is much more meaningful when we approach people in whatever context primarily as friends who we haven’t met yet. We’re just ordinary, approachable people doing something we love to do, love sharing it with others, and thrilled and thankful to be able to make a living doing it. As we pursue our passions with profitability in mind, we seek to make wise business decisions. One of those decisions for her was to hire an agent to handle the “business-y” part of her business so that she could focus on being creative.

    At one point during her presentation, Molly had commented that she has left her blog at mynameisyeh.com because she wants to leave it open to writing about different experiences along the way. She confessed that someday her interests may change. But one thing I now believe is that Molly will stay Molly. Not a static, unchanging Molly, but the creative, artistic, deeply endearing sweet something that we’ve never encountered before. Someone who warmly hugs elderly strangers and likes learning local ethnic cooking skills from a lady named Miss Ethel. Someone we’re willing to try because she has shown herself willing to dive into our world. Someone who has embraced the challenges of living in a very different environment, not abandoning who she is, but combining our ways with hers, all with a beaming smile capable of disarming the most staunch Norwegian in the bunch. Just ask Nic!   

     And yes, Molly, we do trust that someday you will try eating lutefisk with your lefse, right alongside your pretzel challah bagel dogs!

    In addition to her own entrepreneurial ventures, Bernis Ingvaldson is a freelance reporter for the Farmer’s Independent in Bagley.