With the arrival of each spring, the North Woods experiences an increase in tourist trade. The dam bursts, and erstwhile winter-bound patrons from the Land of Lincoln stream over the border seeking fresh air, fresh cheese curds and fresh fish. They bring their cash and take home our ticks.
In the summer of 2020, the only happy campers in the region were millennials living a stoic social-distanced life in their converted Sprinter vans, camping wherever and fishing from kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. My good friend Chuck Larson observed these folks and hit on a brilliant business idea—the sale of organic firewood. The Chuck’s Organic Wood setup was a self-service stand in the corner of the Lake View Inn parking lot. Rather than typical oak or maple, Chuck’s Organic Wood offered only white birch, which appears a little exotic and certainly fancier than common hardwood. At his wife’s suggestion, Chuck tied the bundles of split wood with jute twine rather than clear shrink-wrap because Martha Stewart would probably bundle her wood with twine. Chuck made a locking lid for a Torke Coffee can, and he was in business. And business was great, even with pricing at the organic premium of $15 a bundle.
Last summer, in 2021, Chuck expanded his product line. Right around Memorial Day, he ambled into the Lake View with a poster announcing the debut of Chuck’s Organic Night Crawlers, now available exclusively at the Lake View bait shop.
“Organic worms?” I said to bartender Wally, my eyebrows raised.
“I gave him some space in the cooler,” Wally said with a shrug. “He’s packing them in little brown paper cups that look biodegradable. Says his wife thinks Martha would approve. Is Martha her sister? He’s never mentioned a Martha before.”
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Chuck sat down at the bar and handed me a little container.
“Free sample,” he said. “Tell all your friends.”
The label on the lid was a drawing depicting a happy worm wrapped around a hook. The main slogan was “Chuck’s Organic Crawlers: Better-Tasting Worms Catch More Fish,” and fine print around the perimeter said: “Gluten-Free—Non-GMO—Pesticide- and Hormone-Free—Sugar-Free.”
“Sugar-free?” I asked.
“I needed something to fill the space,” Chuck said. “I think the container is a nice touch, kind of like the brown twine. They might be made of recycled material.”
“So, are you out in the yard at night with a flashlight gathering these worms?”
“Get serious,” Chuck said. “I buy them in bulk. One thousand worms for about 11 cents each, and these are your premium crawlers, 5 to 7 inches long and very active. I’ve got about 20 cents in packaging. So at $4 a dozen, I’m doing all right.”
“Who is going to pay $4 for a dozen crawlers?” asked Wally, thumbs hooked in the sides of his white apron.
“Cubs fans! The same people who paid $15 for a bundle of organic birch firewood, I hope,” Chuck said.
Wally stroked his chin, deep in thought. A little later, he was on the phone to his beer distributor, inquiring about organic brew. Can’t let Chuck ride that gravy train alone.