A Black-Owned Distillery Was Set On Fire In Minneapolis. Here's How The Owner Responded.

Chris Montana, owner of the first Black-owned microdistillery in the U.S., shares his hopes for the future.

This Voices In Food story, as told to Garin Pirnia, is from the perspective of Chris Montana, co-owner of South Minneapolis’ Du Nord Craft Spirits. When Montana opened the distillery in 2013, in the neighborhood where he grew up, he became the first Black person to own a microdistillery in the U.S. Du Nord is located less than half a mile from Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct, the epicenter of much of last week’s conflict. On the morning of May 29, Du Nord, along with hundreds of businesses on or near Lake Street in South Minneapolis, was damaged: Someone set a fire inside. The sprinkler system dumped 40,000 gallons of water and doused the fire, but the distillery sustained minor damages.

Montana already knew about unexpected change. Two months before police killed George Floyd, the pandemic had forced Montana to close his distillery to the public. But he and two other local distilleries pivoted the businesses and founded All Hands Minnesota, using the facilities to manufacture hand sanitizer. Since last week, he has transformed the distillery into a community donation center and has raised more than $200,000 for local businesses. Montana spoke to HuffPost about community outreach, how Minneapolis (and the U.S.) can rebuild, and how the spirits industry needs more inclusiveness.

I see three needs. The short-term need is we have a food desert here now. And not just a food desert — an “everything else” desert. There used to be a Target, there used to be an Aldi, there used to be a Cub Foods. They’re all gone. The restaurants are all burnt. Now, how’s anyone going to get any of these supplies? If you already were food insecure, then this could be a death blow. The first thing we have to take [care] of is that immediate need.

The second part is these Black- and brown-owned businesses — they’re most likely to be undercapitalized. When you’re undercapitalized — and I know this because I’ve always been undercapitalized — you have to make some choices: Do you want to spend your money on insurance, or do you want to spend your money on inventory or rent?

“I think that this is going to be a like a stroke. You’re going to know how bad it was by what happens afterwards and what the lasting result is.”

- Chris Montana

We had an outpouring, and I mean an outpouring, of support. I feel so amazingly blessed, and I feel humbled by it. We started the Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund. The pledge is, we’re not going to take any of the money. We’re going to use that money to get it into existing business owners’ hands.

The third need: And then we have a long-term plan on how we rebuild. There’s a physical manifestation of the anger that has existed in communities of color for generations ― and that physical manifestation is a scar that runs straight through Minneapolis, and another one goes through St. Paul. And how that scar is healed can be part of the solution, or it can be business as usual. But if there’s some way to use the mechanisms of the state via zoning, via grant programs to seed and support businesses owned by persons of color, to intersperse them throughout majority-owned businesses, I think that is the recipe for success. Because what we really need is for those people to be together. We need those people to mix. We need those perspectives to mix.

The other protesters who did most of the damage in the early stages of this — I don’t demonize them at all. I would shake their hands. I didn’t want to see it happen, but I understand it.

The path forward is for those to talk without demonizing and dehumanizing each other. Just talk. The thing that gives me hope is I’ve had some of my conservative friends reach out. “You know what? I don’t agree with everything, but it’s helped me understand.” That’s literally all we need. Once we have a national consensus on this, we’ll fix this. But we don’t have a national consensus. There’s a significant amount of the population that really doesn’t see the systemic racism.

My guess is a few years from now, we’ll do it again if we don’t learn the lesson. But I think this is harder to ignore.

“I get it that it’s news. I hope it’s not just the flavor of the month.”

- Chris Montana

I hope that we get to a better place. Part of the way I found out that [I had the first Black-owned microdistillery] was I went to my first American Craft Spirits convention in 2015. I walked in and I was the person of color. I asked some people if they thought about the lack of diversity, and the answer was, “No, we haven’t.” And I suppose why would you?

For me, obviously, it’s inescapable. Everyone is staring at you. I’m somewhat used to it. I grew up in Minnesota, but I’m not going to say I’m comfortable with it. I ran for a spot on the board and then ran for president and served as president [of the American Craft Spirits Association] for the past two years. I just gave it up. When I was there, one of the things that I pushed, from beginning to end, was an internship program to get persons of color in and working at distilleries, such as they would be marketable and then get picked up by other companies. Because that’s how you build the bench of people who will eventually become master distillers and eventually will open their own distilleries.

I think it’s getting better. There’s Uncle Nearest. [Note: Another Black-owned distillery, Brough Brothers Bourbon, opened this year in Kentucky.] But there’s 2,000-plus microdistilleries. That’s not good. There’s plenty of Black-owned brands, but the actual facilities that are making things? Not enough. I don’t want it to stay that way. That should be an insult to our industry. It should be a wake-up call.”

“There’s a physical manifestation of the anger that has existed in communities of color for generations ... How that scar is healed can be part of the solution, or it can be business as usual.”

- Chris Montana

I will tell you this: Since these recent events, some of the larger microdistilleries in the country have reached out, and now I think that program that I’ve been pushing for three years, I think it probably has its best shot in becoming a reality. I’m happy it’s happening. I get it that it’s news. I hope it’s not just the flavor of the month. You gotta take what you got. There’s the world as it is, and the world as you want it to be, and I got to live in this one. If this is how we get attention on these issues? Fine, I’ll take it. I don’t think you can look at people who are trying to do something helpful and throw it back in their face and say, “Why weren’t you doing it before?” If you’re trying to help, you’re trying to help. Period.

There’s going to be some good to come from this. I think there could be a lot of good. I think that this is going to be like a stroke. You’re going to know how bad it was by what happens afterwards and what the lasting result is. Whether or not any of this has been effective, I don’t know that we will know for some time. If we go back to business as usual, then no. I hope that we don’t. Time is going to have to tell on that one.

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