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Birding Business

birding business

This month’s bird

The Hairy Woodpecker

Outside the Box...Way Outside

One store’s quest to impact customers the old fashioned way

BY MICHAEL ANDERSON | Contributing Author


Let us begin with a wild bird store within a zip code population of 750. Now visualize this store a mile and a half outside of town on a gravel road named “Grit”, part of which is only one-lane as it rounds a bluff overlooking the river. As you turn into the driveway and enter the parking lot, you are greeted with the sweet sounds of birds singing. You look around and gaze upon a quaint farmhouse and then the store itself—a lofty two-story remodeled barn with a spacious rocking chair front porch. Slowly exiting your vehicle, you sense that this is a special place and you’re in for a birder’s treat. You have arrived at Avian Acres Wild Bird Supply where they are breaking all the “location” rules.

“We’re a true destination, but so is everything else in Lanesboro, Minnesota,” says Bob Thomas, owner. “One doesn’t usually stop in by accident.”

Thanks in part to the active Chamber of Commerce (www. Lanesboro.com), both locals and visitors know about Avian Acres. Shoppers of various backgrounds come from miles away to visit this unique store and area. “It’s a three-season tourism area,” says Bob. “But in the winter most of my business shifts to seed sales and deliveries. The Lanesboro region is like a slice of Americana.”

Bob and his wife Rachel were married in 1984 and lived near Minneapolis/St. Paul. Rachel had (and still has) a full-time job near the twin cities and fully supports Bob’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“She’s the one who encouraged me to go for it almost 20 years ago,” recalls Bob. “I had been working at a bird store in Rochester about 40 miles from here. On weekends Rachel and I would travel and stay in bed & breakfasts all around the upper Midwest. It was our dream to one day own a B&B. We looked for property and eventually found a place for sale. We prayed about it, gathered our life savings, and in July of ’89, we purchased 20 acres complete with farmhouse and barn.”

However, renovations required for lodging and land improvements became costly, so the B&B inspiration shifted toward creating a birding and nature store. Three and a half years later, they opened Avian Acres, a full-service retail enterprise and gathering place for birders.

“For the first 12 years it was called Avian Acres Wild Bird Supply and Petting Zoo,” says Bob. “We operated a real petting zoo with farm animals and deer, but the zoo attracted a different clientele than the bird store. Eventually, increased government regulations forced us to close the zoo portion. We had to sell the animal stock. (Did you ever try to sell a white tailed deer in Minnesota?)”

With a focus now on only the wild bird/nature store, Bob worked on converting the barn into retail space, while Rachel continued working full time in Minneapolis. Did I mention Bob and Rachel still live in the twin cities? That’s right. Bob commutes to the Lanesboro store weekly. He stays in their adjacent farmhouse next to the store.

With one loyal part-time store helper, Bob leaves after the store closes on Saturday and drives the 132 miles home. Sunday is his day of rest, but in the evening, he prepares and calls in his seed order to his supplier so they can get it ready for him next morning. On Monday afternoon, Bob picks up a truck full of birdseed for his Tuesday morning commute. He makes about four deliveries on his drive to the store. Then he unloads and is open for business by noon for his loyal customers. This is a routine that he’s followed for 19 years.

“Those deliveries help pay for my commuting gas,” adds Thomas. His delivery route can sometimes cover up to 17 counties in Minnesota, even a few in Wisconsin and Iowa, too.

AA’s seed is blended fresh weekly, purchased from reliable sources, and sealed in both 30 lb. and 50 lb. paper bags. Customers may view, hand-examine, and appreciate the various blends as samples are displayed in old washtubs and whisky barrels throughout the store. AA will break bags into smaller quantities at the customer’s request.

Besides Avian Acres offering several “straight” types of seed, Bob also blends according to specific bird preferences and specific purposes. He offers his customers 13 original recipe blends with names like Carrlton Cardinal, Root River Trail Mix, and Exit Starling. If a customer wants to come up with his or her own recipe, Bob obliges, gives it a name like Tammy’s Woodpecker Treat” and keeps the recipe on file for future purchases.

Speaking of purchases, AA has a customer loyalty program that rewards several hundred customers throughout the year with discounts on qualifying purchases. Including frequent and infrequent shoppers, AA’s database exceeds 13,000 customers. 

Currently Avian Acres has several departments including Seed, Feeders, Gifts, Houses & Hardware, and Books. Their merchandise selection is remarkable, current, and merchandised well with the charm of a country general store.

“We try to stay bird-related in all departments,” says Bob. “We stay away from gardening, pets, etc. But, if a towel has a bird on it, we probably will carry it. If it doesn’t, we won’t.”

With a work ethic that could put many of us to shame, Bob shares, “We’re told we are to go to work to make a living, when we really should be working for a giving by serving others. We don’t need to have seed to eat, but rather to sow.” It doesn’t take long talking with Bob and Rachel to know their faith is a driving force in their lives.

“The enjoyment of the store comes from God,” adds Bob. “Any gifts and vision I might have comes from God too. It’s not about the birds or the business. It’s about the people. Birds are put here for our benefit. We need them more than they need us. We benefit from their beauty. They are like flying flowers.”

When you cross the threshold of the store, you’ll see these words on the doormat, “I am blessed coming in.” Not limiting the thought to only those arriving, the doormat declares these words upon leaving, “I am blessed going out.” From my view on the side of the gravel road, the customers at Avian Acres Wild Bird Supply are blessed indeed.