From selling newspapers in the Bowery to selling designer coffee in upscale marketsFor Vlasie Solon, every day is an opportunity to succeed. Success has demanded hard work, but to judge by Solon’s enthusiasm, it has been a fun ride.
By: Patra Sevastiades, For the Budgeteer News
For Vlasie Solon, every day is an opportunity to succeed.
When Solon was 18, his mother asked her youngest child, “Why aren’t you in college?” There were five boys and one girl in the family. Solon answered that he didn’t have the $90 needed to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth. “Wait,” she said. She returned and handed him $90. He was surprised: his father was sick, his family was on welfare, and it had been tough going. His brothers had gone to college on the GI Bill.
Mrs. Solon’s investment, carefully saved over several years, was put to good use. Decades later, her son is co-owner of the Fitger’s complex downtown — a Duluth icon — and president of the Fitger’s Coffee Corporation.
Success has demanded hard work, but to judge by Solon’s enthusiasm, it has been a fun ride. “When I was five, I was in my first play, ‘The Cricket and the Ant.’ I was the ant.” He has applied the practical wisdom of Aesop’s fable his whole life. “I work seven days a week,” he said with evident pleasure.
The importance of working hard was instilled in Solon by his parents. He and his brothers sold newspapers in the Bowery and helped the family.
Solon’s brother Chris said, “Vlasie was always highly motivated. He always wanted to succeed, and he always did.”
At home, the family spoke Greek. His godfather taught Solon to box.
Solon attended UMD, but interrupted his studies during the Cold War to join the Army. Skill assessment tests landed him an assignment at 8th Army Headquarters in South Korea, where he worked in Special Services.
His background served him well. He was the interpreter for the Greek soldiers in Seoul, part of the United Nations forces stationed there. He helped organize celebrity visits and athletic events. He became boxing coach for the 8th Army and the All Korea Team. But Solon was restless to do more.
He graduated from UMD, earning the Bulldog Award, then sought work in the Twin Cities. When J. M. Dain hired him as a rookie stockbroker in the 1960s, they assigned him to the Duluth office.
He soon discovered that he liked the complexities of the stock market, and he challenged himself to outperform other brokers at his firm. It took time, energy, and persistence, but one by one, he met his goals. In time, he was promoted to manager of the Duluth branch of Dain Rauscher.
About seventeen years later, he was named Dain Rauscher’s top broker nationally. The Wharton School of Business invited him to be one of two speakers to address students on how to be successful. This was a crowning achievement.
In 1994, Solon joined eight other investors and purchased Fitger’s, originally an 1881 brewery and now a complex of hotel, restaurant, and retail shops. Today, Solon is one of the few original partners remaining.
Solon left his brokerage firm in 2008 and put his full effort into Fitger’s. At a board meeting, someone suggested launching a line of coffees.
They worked with Arco Coffee to develop exceptional flavors, testing them with informal focus groups, then sold the coffee at Fitger’s, Mt. Royal Fine Foods, and eventually Super One stores. Then they set their sights on the national market.
That’s when Solon’s son Jerry, an accomplished New York graphic designer, was brought in. Jerry created a sleek, sophisticated package, playing up the historical references to Fitger’s Brewery and Lake Superior. He also presented the coffee to wholesale buyers in the New York area, who saw the appeal and liked the product.
Fitger’s Coffee is now incrementally expanding into 200 outlets in the New York metro area. They are also making headway in Wisconsin and Minneapolis-St. Paul, as well as Florida.
“I love working with my son,” Solon said of Jerry. “That alone makes this investment worthwhile.”