South Minneapolis distillery gets deal with Delta Airlines — but isn’t forgetting its roots

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There’s a new chapter for Du Nord Social Spirits.

The south Minneapolis distillery was looted and burned during the riots after the murder of George Floyd.

But now the company has a deal with Delta Airlines, involving millions of little bottles, and there are plans in the works to continue giving back to the community.

“They’re 50-milliliter bottles of our foundation vodka,” explains Christine Smalley, Du Nord’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “I think Delta was looking to do something different with their menus. They were interested in getting on board with the craft spirits movement, and interest in smaller brands, local brands.”

The Delta-Du Nord plan is a big deal for owner Chris Montana.

"We’ll be counting those little bottles in the millions,” he says. “It’s massive — you can’t really overstate that.”

The agreement means Montana and his nine-person team will supply bottles of Du Nord’s Foundation vodka on 4,200 domestic flights every day.

The arrangement began this past October.

"Delta is one of the largest companies on the planet, and we’re one of the smallest,” Montana says. “So it’s a huge opportunity for us to get our product in front of millions of people, and we couldn’t pass by that kind of exposure.”

But how did Delta connect with Du Nord?

It turns out the airline has an in-flight products and services team… like a group of aerial detectives.

“So our teams are constantly scurrying for new products,” says Sam Sibble, Delta’s supply team director. “Whether it’s local brands or diverse vendors, we’re constantly looking for new things.”

Sibble says the airline began contacting Montana in the summer of 2020.

It didn’t hurt that he and his distillery were getting noticed by national publications like Wine Enthusiast and Cosmopolitan.

“They had heard about Chris through an article in Cosmopolitan magazine that touted our gin as one of the top ones in the country,” Smalley explains. “They had also heard about (him) on a ’40 under 40′ list.”

"Lo and behold they see that, as they’re searching around they see that, and that becomes a reason why they reach out to us in the first place,” Montana adds.

But also in 2020 was the unrest — after Floyd’s murder.

Someone broke into the Du Nord distillery, set several fires and looted the inventory.

“In the midst of chaos, I feel like it was like, what just happened?” asks Angelica Evens, the interim director of the Du Nord Foundation. “It was like, we have to do something to help, right?”

“We were realizing that, hey, we have insurance, we were going to be okay,” Montana adds. “All these other entrepreneurs who had their dreams poured into some little brick and mortar that then was looted and burned, and we have a duty to do something about that, full stop.”

With many nearby grocery stores closed or damaged, Montana and his team opened an emergency food bank.

“Because of the food desert that was left with the grocery stores gone, it felt very natural,” Evens recalls.

The idea evolved into a community market, providing free food to this day for those in need.

Funding comes from the distillery, city and county grants, and private funding.

Organizers say they are taking care to operate a "barrier-free service” — one that doesn’t require proof that a family or individual is dealing with economic hardship.

“People don’t have to show proof of low income. They don’t have to show proof of being in a difficult situation,” Evens says. “Nobody that is facing hardship wants to show that type of thing.”

Staffers here say they are also supporting diversity in culturally specific foods, and avoiding pre-packed meals.

Part of the outreach is to connect with the city’s growing Latino population.

“We really wanted to be a part of the community and the community to be part of what we do here,” says Trica Trowbridge, the market’s director. “On average, we’re serving about 500 families, 500 households each month, so that equates to about 130-150 households each week, that are coming here.”

Montana and his wife Shanelle also launched the Du Nord Foundation, to help Black, Indigenous, and people of color rebuild their businesses damaged by the unrest, or impacted by the pandemic.

Seventy-five business owners were awarded grants ranging from $500 to $15,000…. A total of $500,000.

“There’s a list of over 12,000 who donated to the foundation,” Montana notes. “That wasn’t our money. It was all those people who supported us.”

That recovery fund ended in December 2020.

But Du Nord says it’s now working on a new program that will help, Black, Indigenous, and people of color build and rebuild their businesses.

“The idea right now is to reconnect with them,” Evens says. “See how they’re doing with their recovery, and also provide networking and resources that small businesses need.”

Montana says at least some of the money from sales of all those little bottles will be folded back into the foundation.

Smalley says even now, about 100,000 bottles are stored in a warehouse in St. Paul.

“And we bring them in here after they are bottled,” Smalley says. “We keep them in here until they are needed at the caterers that supply the Delta flights. We are also planning ahead… (Delta) is still trying to figure out how much product they’re going to need, so we always want to be ready with the product… and never end up short.”

She says that yes, the supply chain is having an impact, from getting bottles, to labels, and even packing boxes.

“As much as six months in advance we’re buying some of the parts right now,” Smalley says. “We’re paying more for everything, everything from the alcohol itself to the packaging, to the transportation. Everyone’s dealing with that.”

Still — amid supply chain shortages and other issues — Delta says Montana’s determination to support the community, helping those in need was a big factor in putting together this deal.

"Their mission and values really aligned with what Delta believes in supporting,” Sibble declares. “The local community and promoting diversity and inclusion, we just knew it was a great fit."

For his part, after everything that’s happened, Montana says he hopes the idea of giving back will spread to others.

"Wouldn’t it be great if a business, the third leg of democracy, right — government, people, the business community — if that business community could be those good neighbors,” he says. “I hope our lasting impact might be that there are other entrepreneurs who see that and think you know, that can be a model for us too."