Not a single person was wearing a hairnet.
That was one of the first things Liz Mattern noticed when she walked into what was a factory she once worked in.
The other thing?
“It smells different,“ said Mattern. “Used to be we could smell crackers baking when we walked up.”
That was when the southeast Minneapolis building was home to RyKrisp.
For more than three decades, Mattern, of Shoreview, worked here, where the once-popular crackers were mixed, baked and packed.
Now, the same space where workers like Mattern once punched a clock is a hive of mostly millennial entrepreneurs hustling to build their brands. The rejiggered building, known as North Co., is an example of how work — and expectations for a middle-class livelihood — have changed in the past half-century.
“What you see in that building captures a broad transformation in the workforce,” said Prof. William Jones, a labor historian at the University of Minnesota. “It reflects the way the economy is structured, with the shift from manufacturing to the more high-paid information work.”
If Mattern, who wore a company-issued uniform, steel-toed boots and the omnipresent hairnet, is emblematic of the building’s first life, then Angela Sauro represents its second. Standing at a computer design station clad in running shoes, yoga pants and a hoodie, the 23-year-old designer works in e-commerce, customizing wooden products ordered over the internet.
“My title is ‘laser dragon,’ ” Sauro said. “We all have fun names for our jobs. A dragon throws fire and since I work with lasers, so do I.”
Sauro works for Woodchuck USA, a five-year-old Minneapolis startup and the largest tenant in the North Co. building on SE. 9th Street, taking up half of its 80,000 square feet. The company manufactures dozens of wooden products, including cellphone cases, journals, flasks and boxes.
Sauro, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota, came to Woodchuck because she wanted “a job where I could use my creativity,” she said. “I have independence; they trust me and I’m my own manager. I smile every day when I walk in the door.”
Even though the building no longer turns out crackers, its products are still American-made, said Ben VandenWymelenberg, 27, founder and CEO of Woodchuck USA and one of the co-developers of the building.
“That’s what we’re proud to be about with everything we’re making here.”
Keeping the ‘cool’
While it’s been heavily renovated, the building still pays homage to its origins.
The Woodchuck machines hum in the stretch of the building once known as the bake shop, where three 110-foot-long ovens cranked out the crackers that were shipped to stores around the world. The renovation preserved the original scarred wooden floors, vintage metal doors and explosion-proof factory lighting, while incorporating contemporary must-haves — including standing desks, pingpong tables and bins of free snacks.
Even some of the RyKrisp machinery remains. A hulking steel compressor the size of a golf cart sits like a piece of sculpture in the kitchen common area. Nearby, a cast-iron wheel as big as a round dinner table is laid flat and topped with tempered glass, turned into lobby furniture.
“We kept the cool elements, said VandenWymelenberg. “The building helps attract the kind of businesses we want.”
Across the country, it seems that rehabbed industrial space is a draw for millennial employees.
In Troy, N.Y., a branding firm is housed in a former collar factory. An ad agency converted a tobacco factory in Winston-Salem, N.C., into its workspace. And an abandoned cookie factory in Pittsburgh is now Bakery Square, with more than 200,000 square feet of green office space. Google is its largest tenant.
“Everyone wants to work in a place like this. It’s the headline on our job postings, ‘Come work in our renovated factory space,’ ” said Gerard Garramone, vice president of operations for Woodchuck USA. “Offices with drop ceilings and cubicles are awful. The energy is different here.”
Enter the entrepreneurs
In its first year, North Co. is at capacity with 22 businesses, mostly started by people in their 20s and 30s. They include apparel companies, a social media agency, a video production company, a custom drum manufacturer and a medical device startup. A salon is in the first-floor space that once housed the RyKrisp company vault.
That’s a good sign, according to Amy Lynch, president of Generational Edge, a research firm that consults with companies on generational differences.
“Millennials have a strong entrepreneurial bent,” she said. “They grew up in an era when the traditional relationship between employee and employer broke down and long-term employment didn’t pay off for a lot of people, including their parents.
“The success stories they admire and follow are people who created their own direction.”
Of course, that freedom comes with a risk.
“Entrepreneurs make a risk exchange,” said Jones, the U professor. “There isn’t security but there is opportunity and for some of them, that will pay off.”
The working world was different when Mattern arrived at RyKrisp in 1974. She joined the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International, which bargained for safe working conditions, seniority and benefits. But she had no expectations that her satisfaction would be part of the package.
“When you pack crackers all day, it’s a grind. Our bosses did not consider it their job to make us happy. It was their job to make sure the work got done and our job to take care of it,” she said. “We were well paid, but we certainly earned those wages.”
The RyKrisp factory opened in 1922, and it retained a loyal following with Nordic Americans for its crackers, a crunchy companion to herring and cheese.
“When I started in 1974, we had probably 90 people working there and we were going 24 hours a day,” said Mattern, who retired in 2008.
But over the decades, it was bought and sold several times as tastes changed and sales dwindled. The crackers went out of production in 2015.
Mattern said she’s pleased that the building where she spent so much of her working life has itself found new life. And she’s tickled that the new owners left the RyKrisp logo in place.
“A nod to our history,” she said. “That’s a nice touch.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.