Beer does good for the needy

Raise a pint to social entrepreneur Jacquie Berglund, whose Finnegans beer label combined a strong business model with an equally strong heart.

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Jacquie Berglund of Finnegans: “Turn beer into food. That’s what we do.”

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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When Jacquie Berglund sees a problem, she pours beer on it.

Berglund sells her beer brand, Finnegans, to bars and liquor stores throughout Minnesota, with 100 percent of the profits going to food shelves located in the sellers' towns or neighborhoods. The extra foam on top: Some of the money is used to buy fresh produce -- the healthy, more expensive stuff most food shelves don't get enough of -- from local farmers.

"Talk about a win-win-win-win!" Berglund says, beaming as brightly as the noonday rays of sun streaming into her homey office in Minneapolis' Elliot Park neighborhood.

Her enthusiasm is so infectious that you don't mind that she tacked an extra "win" on the end. But no, it's not extra, she says: In addition to the needy, the farmers and the beer sellers, the beer drinkers also win.

"It's a great middle-of-the-road, gateway beer," she said of Finnegans, a medium-bodied amber ale that has yielded more than $220,000 in total donations to charities since the label was first brewed in 2000. "It's got some weight, but not too many hops for the person used to drinking lighter beers."

In the Twin Cities, Berglund is a standout -- a rambunctious standout, to use a favorite adjective of hers -- in the growing field of social enterprise, businesses driven not by turning a profit, but by giving back.

Since she founded the company 11 years ago in her sister's basement, it has averaged 30 percent growth each year -- despite the extent of her business training being a Marketing 101 undergrad class. Although she does have a few employees, much of the company's work is done by the large, committed phalanx of volunteers and board members she has recruited. The beer itself is produced at the Summit brewery in St. Paul.

In the past, Finnegans profits went to multiple Minnesota charities. But she found through research that she wasn't having the kind of concentrated impact she wanted, nor was the public clear on her message, so she decided to tighten the focus.

"Hunger statistics are going the wrong direction in a big way, and there isn't a need more basic than food," she said. "Now, our mission is simple. Turn beer into food. That's what we do."

Next step, forming a partnership with the New Hope-based Emergency Foodshelf Network, (EFSN) which has facilities in 26 counties across Minnesota. Three years ago EFSN began the locally farmed produce program called Harvest for the Hungry. With help from Finnegans, the program has expanded the number of particpating farms from one to seven.

"Her mind goes 90 miles a minute," said EFSN director Lori Kratchmer. "I've never met anybody so interested in finding out how you operate so she can figure out the best way to help."

From $1 to community riches

Berglund grew up in Mahtomedi, then studied political science and communcations at Augsburg College. She worked for a few years at the personnel search firm Andcor Corp., where she befriended co-worker Kieran Folliard, now a well-known restaurateur turned whiskeymaker. She moved to France in 1990 to earn a master's degree in international relations. From a base in Paris, she worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, helping northern regions in Russia to set up market economies.

Upon returning to Minneapolis seven years later, she found that her old friend Folliard was about to open what would become a very popular downtown gathering spot, the Local. She did some marketing for him, and when she told him it wasn't the job for her, but that she'd like to try launching a charity beer, he sold her the Finnegans label and recipe that he had earlier commissioned. The price? One dollar.

"I still have the check," Folliard said. "Jacquie didn't have the full picture in her mind of what she wanted to do, but she knew she didn't want an also-ran kind of life. So she latched right onto it and said, 'I'm going to do this.' How can you not support something like that?"

Caring, then sharing

Berglund, 46, gives off an aura that is at once buoyant and grounded. Her lively voice always sounds a bit hoarse, like a cheerleader who went a bit overboard on the team spirit. Her face bears the remnants of a tan acquired on a recent trip to Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, where she was asked to share her business model with the government.

Among the many things she loves to do -- go to happy hour, hang out in the woods, figure out ways to create community wealth -- one of her favorites is advising wannabe do-gooders on how to become social entrepreneurs themselves. Her No. 1 tip: "Just because you're doing good doesn't mean you don't need a sound business plan. Everything that you do has to be more efficient and profitable than what's in place now. It has to be sustainable."

Berglund is an exemplar of the growing social-enterprise sector, said Ann Johnson, director of nonprofit management at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business.

"We don't really have firm numbers on how many there are, because the definition of the term is still a moving target," she said. "But we do know that in the past several years, there's been a 400 percent increase across the country in academic courses being offered in this field, and that's been generated primarily by student interest."

In fact, the restored mansion now home to Finnegans headquarters also houses four other small socially minded organizations, recruited as tenants by Berglund.

"She possesses a fierce resolve," said Johnson, who is familiar with Berglund's track record of going for it. "This is not a commitment to her. This is work she cannot not do."

While achieving her professional goals, Berglund has also reached a personal one -- to own a cabin on a lake. A few years ago, she built a small place on Gibson Lake in Wisconsin, where she spends her weekends. In the city, she stays with her sister, Tracy Berglund, who is director of housing at Catholic Charities. Tracy, in turn, has her own room at the cabin.

Berglund's current long-term project is to expand EFSN's Harvest for the Hungry concept into Wisconsin and the Dakotas, where Finnegans is also sold. In the short term, she's working on a recipe for a new blond ale to be released in March.

She's being fussy about it, because she knows that "if you're trying to save the world and your beer is crap, it's not going to work."

  • BUY BEER; FEED THOSE IN NEED

    Throughout December, beer distributors will give donations that match sales of Finnegans beer, doubling the money going to food shelves. To find where it's sold near you: finnegans.org.

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