For anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Kieran Folliard, his observation was a glaring understatement.

“I just like starting stuff,” he said.

No kidding. His ascent into boldface-name territory began more than 15 years ago, with the creation of a lively string of restaurants and bars — Kieran’s Irish Pub, the Local, the Liffey and the Cooper — that redefined the Twin Cities’ Irish pub scene.

In 2011, Folliard sold this mini food-and-drink empire and launched an Irish whiskey he dubbed 2 Gingers, named in honor of his redheaded mother and aunt. A year later, the company was snapped up by Beam, the distilled spirits giant.

The Irish-born Folliard — whose very DNA seems to be composed of an infectious and effortless affability — remains an ambassador for that fast-growing brand, shopping it to retailers, barkeepers and drinkers from coast to coast.

But in his spare time — and presumably armed with the proceeds from his shrewd start-ups — Folliard was thinking big, envisioning a quality- and innovation-obsessed facility that could nurture a collection of personality-driven artisanal food producers. He did it with whiskey, why not with cured meats? Or cheese?

That dream is now a reality, and it’s a game-changer. Over the past two years, Folliard and a small crew have achieved a Willy Wonka-like remake of 26,000 square feet of aging industrial real estate in northeast Minneapolis — it’s a stone’s throw from the former Grain Belt brewery — into a facility that they’ve labeled, simply, the Food Building, although that’s not the moniker printed on his business card.

The non-brick-and-mortar aspect of this landscape-altering enterprise — namely, financial and nontechnical support — is a venture Folliard has dubbed the Digging.

The name is a whimsical but meaningful nod to — what else? — an Irish poet. Specifically, Seamus Heaney, and the way he forged a life by taking hold of his “squat pen.” Heaney likened taking up his writing instrument to the way his farmer father and grandfather wielded shovels, digging into the soil and drawing out its fruits.

“I wanted to create an urban environment where I could make a place for talented people and ask them, ‘What is your squat pen?’ ” said Folliard.

A cheese curd revolution

For Rueben Nilsson, the unequivocal answer was “cheese.”

Armed with a food-science degree from the University of Minnesota, the Wadena, Minn., native continued his education with seven years of hands-on experience at Caves of Faribault before striking out on his own.

He began producing cheese last month in the impressive Food Building facility he designed to his own specifications. From the start, locally sourced, grass-fed milk was the foundation of his Lone Grazer Creamery.

“I love the color and the flavor of it, and I love how those qualities come through in the cheese,” he said.

Nilsson now receives the cheesemaker’s version of liquid gold on a three-times-per-week basis from a pair of Minnesota family dairy farms — one in exurban Wright County, the other near Park Rapids — converting it in 400-gallon batches into fresh Cheddar curds and a low-moisture mozzarella string cheese. Coming soon: A hand-ladled, whole-milk ricotta. His first round of washed-rind cheeses should begin to materialize from the plant’s aging room in three to four months.

Linda Hultquist, cheese coordinator for the Eastside Food Co-op in northeast Minneapolis, was an early and ardent customer. The Lone Grazer’s curds — produced 2 miles from the store, “which is pretty low mileage, for people who care about food miles,” she said — are priced slightly higher than the other curds in her inventory.

“But the quality is so much higher than anything else that I can get,” she said. “I just can’t get curds made the day before, anywhere else, and that’s the whole point of curds. Rueben’s curds are squeaky, and buttery and pleasantly salty. You can really taste the quality of the milk, which makes such a difference. People find them very addictive.”

Cheesemaking is traditionally a rural occupation. But instead of being close to the source of milk, Nilsson enjoys a proximity to his urban customer base. His career goals reflect those of many in his growing generation of small-scale food producers.

“I didn’t want to be a lab tech at a Cargill or a General Mills,” he said. “I wanted, at the end of the day, to create something tangible, something physical, that I could share.”

Pigging out

Folliard noted that what is now the Red Table Meat Co. germinated back during the early years of the Local, when he and then-chef Steven Brown kicked around the idea of starting a sausage company to supply the restaurant.

“A few years ago, we were having a pint, Steven and I, and he said, ‘Do you ever think about that sausage business?’ ” said Folliard. “He told me, ‘You should talk to my buddy, Mike Phillips.’ ”

Phillips, of course, is the local kingpin of dry-cured meats. His fascination with the magical intersection of time, air and pork began nearly a decade ago, during his tenure at the Craftsman restaurant. It took several stop-and-start years to get the business off the ground, but now Red Table occupies roughly a fourth of the Food Building.

The place is a rapidly escalating beehive of activity. Every three or four days finds Phillips and his crew of five butchering 15 whole pigs. The animals, raised with care on five Midwestern family farms, represent a handful of breeds — some with a propensity toward fat, others lean — are generally 9 months old and are ideally tipping the scales somewhere around 240 pounds.

Phillips designed his fragrant, eye-grabbing facility to meticulously re-create the conditions associated with the craft’s ages-old Italian traditions, yet condensing the customary timetable through the use of modern (and Italian-made, naturally) equipment.

The results? Sixteen dry-cured products, from zesty fennel-garlic Finocchiona-style salami, aged about four weeks, to a three-month-aged pork-shoulder ham that can only be described as glorious. Right off the bat, the company’s premium output has no local peer, and it stands up to anything I’ve tasted elsewhere in the United States.

Don’t take my word for it. J.D. Fratzke, chef/co-owner of the Strip Club and the soon-to-open Saint Dinette, both in St. Paul, is an immediate and enthusiastic Red Table fan.

“I’m fiercely devoted to finding the best things available from the people who live close to me and treat their animals well,” he said. “When Mike was starting on this endeavor, I was calling him every month and saying, ‘Are you ready yet? Are you ready yet?’ ”

In February, the answer was finally “yes.”

“I tried eight salamis, and then he brought out this ham, and put it on our slicer, and it was spectacular,” said Fratzke with a sigh. “It tastes like Mike’s skill set, and it has an obvious and tremendous amount of gentle care in it. It has such a country ham quality to it while still being very tender. The smoke on it is superb. I started serving it right away.”

After quietly debuting at a few farmers markets last summer, Red Table products are now being snapped up by chefs and retailers around the region. Earlier this month, Phillips & Co. scored a sales coup, shipping a 500-pound cured-pork cache off to the nation’s Mount Olympus of specialty food retailers, Murray’s in New York City.

“That’s huge for us,” said Red Table’s Peter Ireland. “We haven’t really started to understand the enormous potential of this facility.”

Remarkable resource

Although the tenants have no ownership overlap — other than Folliard’s equity stakes — they share meaningful connections. The Lone Grazer’s whey byproducts are funneled into pig feed at the farms that supply Red Table, and both companies distribute across a similar network of local supermarkets, natural foods co-ops and restaurants.

In addition, Red Table is diverting the unused animal parts to local practitioners, including chefs John Ng at Zen Box Izakaya in Minneapolis and Hai Truong at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro in St. Paul.

Meanwhile, the Digging team is scouting other like-minded tenants to fill the Food Building’s remaining production space, and a northeast Minneapolis restaurant is close to inking a deal to operate a deli/cafe, one that will of course showcase products produced on the premises. Folliard designed the facility to attract the curious, and self-guided tours will begin later this year.

“We’re not a museum, but in a fun, informative way, we want to pull back the curtain and give people a window, literally, into food production,” he said.

Hultquist thinks it will be a draw.

“I’m excited about having that educational tool in the neighborhood,” she said. “Lots of people have never seen cheese being made, and they have no concept about how it goes from milk to package. People want to know where their food comes from.”

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib