Vanilla Bean Cafe in Two Harbors has new owner
For the first time in many years, Jan Bergman walked through the door of the Vanilla Bean Cafe in Two Harbors recently with a set of freshly manicured fingernails.
It’s a sign that she’s moving on after 16 years of ownership.
“I promised them I wouldn’t put my hands into any bleach water,” she said with a laugh.
Now that she has officially sold the restaurant, she’ll no longer be busing tables, running the dishwasher and wiping down counters. She and Jason Vincent, the new owner, have announced the deal — a sale nearly eight months in the making.
“It’s like raising a child,” she said of growing the restaurant that she and her husband, Paul, opened 16 years ago. “You send a kid off to college and it’s heartbreaking but you’re so happy for them. It’s a crazy juxtaposition of emotions.”
The Bergmans bought the building along Seventh Avenue in Two Harbors and opened the Vanilla Bean Cafe in 1998. Neither had owned a business before.
Jan Bergman said she remembers making phone calls to restaurateur acquaintances back then, asking for advice.
“I would call them and say, ‘Paul and I are going to open this restaurant. What’s the first thing I need to know?’ and they would say, ‘Don’t do it,’ “ she said.
But they did it, and the small cafe thrived. Five years ago, nearing retirement age and seeking to take a step back, the Bergmans decided to look into selling their business. They contacted Realtors and brokers, looking for the perfect fit.
“Our goal was to relieve ourselves of the responsibility, but we didn’t want to just sell it to anybody,” Jan Bergman said.
“We were very concerned about employees. Just putting it on sale like a garage sale or a piece of furniture,” she said. “That’s not what we were doing.”
But the perfect buyer never came along. Then, about two years ago, Paul Bergman’s health started worsening. He had scleroderma, a skin-hardening disease.
Jan and Paul, who was also a county commissioner, ran the restaurant from a distance while Paul received treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a hospital in Pittsburgh.
“The Vanilla Bean had remained open because of this strong core of dedicated, loyal employees when, for Paul’s health reasons, we were forced to be away,” Jan Bergman said.
Last summer, Paul lost his battle and died. Without her husband and business partner, Jan renewed her focus on selling the restaurant. When brokers and Realtors still came up empty-handed, her kids suggested a different path — posting the restaurant she had known and loved for much of her life on Craigslist.
Jason Vincent saw the posting and gave Jan Bergman a call around Thanksgiving last year.
“We hit it off that very first phone call,” Bergman said.
The former Duluth Fox 21 KQDS-TV news director and Twin Cities native had been working in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, since 2012, but was itching to get back north. He worked in the restaurant business for eight years before he made the switch to news, and said he had been planning a return to the food industry for about a year and a half.
He said he originally wanted to open a new restaurant in Duluth, but then the Vanilla Bean opportunity came up.
“It just fit. It just worked,” Vincent said.
All the staff members will remain, including many cooks and servers who have been at the restaurant for a decade or more. Breakfast and lunch will see some updates, but will remain largely unchanged.
Vincent’s big plan is to expand dinner, adding a full bar, extending hours to year-round and refreshing the menu. He also hopes to expand “the Bean’s” catering business.
“It’s just taking what the Vanilla Bean has always been and growing it and taking it to the next level,” he said.
Bergman said she knew Vincent was the best person to take the reins when he started talking about his plans for the Bean. She said many of his ideas — like expanding catering — were improvements she and Paul had wanted to tackle, but put on the backburner when they decided to sell.
“What I was able to say to Jason is … the potential for him to take it further was unlimited,” Bergman said.
Vincent said he is inspired by all of the entrepreneurs setting up shop in Two Harbors, like the Seventh and Stone jewelry store just across the street from the Vanilla Bean and the Castle Danger Brewery expansion in progress downtown. He said he is hoping it’s a sign of revitalization; that Two Harbors is becoming more than just a drive-through summer town.
“We can’t just survive as a part-time town … just a summer destination. We have to survive year round,” he said of Two Harbors. “You have to be optimistic.”
As for Bergman, she said she isn’t sure what’s next. She might take a week off and visit all the tourist spots she’s recommended to visitors but never had time to see. She said she will spend more time with her family, too. But she said still will stop by the Bean to cheer on Vincent and her former employees.
“It’s a nice feeling to know that the restaurant’s in good hands,” she said.