Months after a global pandemic shut down his business and days after arsonists set his warehouse ablaze, Chris Montana has one question: Is this all worth it? The fires, the flooding, the looting after George Floyd’s death?
“I don’t know if it is or not. But I think there is an opportunity for it to be. And when I think of it that way, I don’t know if I care if Du Nord burns down to the foundation.”
For Montana, founder of Du Nord Craft Spirits, the first black-owned distillery in the country, George Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots cut across many facets of his identity.
As a business owner, he was sad to watch his building, his neighborhood burn. “That hurts, it’s going to hurt. Anyone who says it doesn’t is lying.”
As a black man, he said he was immediately thrust back into a familiar state. “You remember all the other ones. I remember being a kid marching in a protest for Rodney King. And then here I am at another protest and the chant is exactly the same: No justice, no peace.”
And as a father to three young boys? “That’s the hardest to talk about,” he said.
Staying in the neighborhood
When 2020 began, Montana thought the biggest hurdle he would face was a cross-country move with his family. His wife Shanelle had accepted a job in renewable energy development in California. She would relocate to California with their three boys, ages 2, 4 and 6; Chris would keep his distillery in south Minneapolis and split time between an apartment on Lake Street and their new home in Lake Forest, California.
For 7 years, Du Nord Craft Spirits had produced award-winning L’Etoile Vodka and Fitzgerald Gin. Since its founding, Du Nord had grown to be a part of the neighborhood in south Minneapolis. Chris was raised here, went to high school four blocks away at South High School. He knew there were easier places to open a cocktail room, neighborhoods with more foot traffic and younger residents.
“But I know the people of south Minneapolis,” he said, “and all of my suspicions have been confirmed: They come out to support you.”
The new year brought the promise of more growth: a restaurant in partnership with local nonprofit Eat for Equity. From the commercial kitchen in an adjacent building, Eat for Equity would partner with community chefs to provide food for the cocktail room. They would recruit chefs who were underrepresented in the Twin Cities dining scene. The menus would change, reflecting a diverse cast of cooking talent.
By mid-March, these dreams and the rest of Montana’s plans for 2020 evaporated.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a state order shut down all nonessential businesses, including Du Nord’s cocktail room. The Eat for Equity restaurant was put on hold indefinitely. Losing the cocktail room wiped out the bulk of their revenue, so Montana shifted Du Nord’s focus to making hand sanitizer, suddenly in short supply across the country.
The business settled into a new role as “hand sanitizer factory,” and Chris prepared to rejoin his family in California.
“I thought that having switched to hand sanitizer we knew a little bit more about what we were doing and I wouldn’t have to be here as much,” said Chris. “But then this hit.”
From distillery to food bank
In the early morning hours of Friday, May 29, the Du Nord warehouse building was damaged in a rash of fires and looting that followed the killing of George Floyd. The sprinkler system came on in time to stop the flames from ripping through pallets full of apple liqueur and vodka. The water snuffed out the fire on a cloth rag that had been stuffed into the cap of a 265-gallon container of ethanol. But the warehouse building was flooded.
Earlier that evening, as protesters stormed and burned the Third Police Precinct and set several area businesses on fire, Maria Kustritz, production manager at Du Nord, and her partner Kiell, hopped on their bikes. They brought with them hurriedly made signs that read “Black Owned,” which they posted in every window of Du Nord’s cocktail room. Other businesses had pre-emptively boarded up their windows and doors with plywood; Du Nord had not. They hoped the signs, scrawled on cardboard boxes and loose paper, would be enough to discourage looters and rioters.
Though the Du Nord warehouse burned, the cocktail room, with “Black Owned” signs in its windows, was untouched.
By stroke of luck, much of the ethanol, a highly flammable alcohol used as the base of many hand sanitizers, had already been removed from the warehouse. Just weeks earlier, sensing they needed more space to mix and bottle the hand sanitizer, Montana had decided to move the entire operation to a rented space in St. Paul. Before the morning of the fires, Kustritz estimates the team had removed nearly 10,000 gallons of ethanol.
“If we hadn’t, we would have burned the block down,” said Montana. “There was so much. There was a mountain of it stacked four totes high. That’s 20 feet of alcohol.”
Later, Montana and staff learned of another narrowly avoided catastrophe. Two bakers from Shega Foods were preparing injera in a commercial kitchen attached to the Du Nord warehouse when the fires started.
Emily Torgrimson, executive director of Eat for Equity, spoke with the pair of bakers via a Spanish translator. They told her they tried to call for a cab but could not reach one. Eventually, one of the bakers reached her husband who came to pick them up. While they waited, frightened, the pair hid behind the walk-in proofer where the dough rises. They said they decided if the riots got worse, they would hide inside the proofer. If they had, and the fire had spread, they would have been trapped.
“It’s just a metal box,” said Montana. “They wouldn’t have walked out of there.”
The protest is the story
At 2 a.m. Saturday, just 24 hours after his business was set on fire, Montana woke up in his rented Lake Street apartment to the sound of a fire alarm. As he evacuated, he saw someone had set the bottom floor of the building on fire.
“There were fires across the street from us, but I thought we’d be OK,” Montana said. He spent the next four nights in a hotel in Bloomington.
By then, Montana had come to terms with the fact that “riots happen.”
“Yes, it hurts, when you come in and say ‘we’ve tried to do good here’ and you see that someone set your stuff on fire,” Montana said. “But the story here is the protest. The story is all the people who got together. The story is the latent anger that runs into the propellant of fatigue caused by watching this happen over and over again and the tactics have never worked.”
Still on his toes from the COVID-19 shut down, Montana pivoted once more. Several local grocery stores and essential businesses had been damaged in the riots. By Sunday, he and volunteers had converted his warehouse to a fully operational food bank.
Today, people stream in and out of the building at 32nd Street and Snelling, carrying bundles of necessities: milk, diapers, soap, water. Donors pull up and drop off carloads of bread, canned goods and feminine hygiene products.
The same day they started the food pantry, he and his wife Shanelle launched a fundraiser to support rebuilding brown- and black-owned businesses damaged in the riots. The Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund has so far raised nearly half a million dollars. As for Du Nord’s recovery, Montana hopes that their insurance coverage and the extra support they’ve received from the national distillery community will help them come back “better than ever.”
“We’re going to be OK. DuNord is the first black-owned distillery in America,” Montana said. “We need to keep this thing. We need to build it. And it needs to be something that sticks around that I can hand off to my kids.”
On Friday afternoon, the same day he would fly to California to see his family for the first time in two weeks, Montana stood at the center of it all, next to a truck loaded with donated goods, its driver side window still smashed from the night of the attack. He wore cargo shorts, a protective face mask made to look like a cheerful red bandanna and bright blue socks imprinted with the face of Bob Ross and the painter’s famous phrase: “Happy clouds.” For a moment, he dashed away to find a package of size 6 diapers for one of his volunteers.
Keeping up for now means that Du Nord will continue running its food bank and continue to produce hand sanitizer from their St. Paul facility. As soon as possible they want to get back into distilling, making the craft spirits their business is — was — built on. But it will take time. The space they would normally use for distilling is occupied by the food bank. Their bottling machine, destroyed in the fire and flooding, is now, as Montana described it, an “expensive paperweight.”
“What would make it all worth it is if this were a turning point,” Montana said. “If that’s what it took so that my kids would grow up and not have to have ‘the conversation’ with their kids, telling them about how things would be different for them because of the color of their skin? Then it would absolutely be worth it. I’d pay that price any day. I would pay it over and over again.”
Later, calling from the runway before his flight to see his family, Montana’s voice is softer, more tired. What had he told his boys about Minneapolis, about the business, about why he’d been away so long?
“Nothing,” he said. “They’re too young. They don’t know that the color of their skin matters yet. I’d like to keep it that way as long as I can.”
Hannah Sayle • @saylehan