INSPIRED BY KINDNESS, LED BY GRATEFULNESS
If you’re from a small town, you’ve probably been to one. It has been organized by family, friends, co-workers and community members, and supported by area businesses, individuals who care and even strangers. People line up to fill their plates with mediocre spaghetti, or maybe pancakes and deer sausage. They open their wallets – and their hearts.
It’s the “benefit” of the Midwest tradition and definition. When one of their own falls down – be it from a life-altering accident, a devastating fire or a dreaded cancer diagnosis – North Dakotans have developed a reputation for helping neighbors get back on their feet.
After a mother-daughter-sister team experienced that giving spirit and North Dakota kindness firsthand through a family member’s illness, inspiration struck. In short order, their new business venture, Grateful Cratefulls, was launched.
Aimee Hanson sits at a table in the middle of the dual-purpose stockroom and workspace at Grateful Cratefulls in West Fargo. She is flanked by business partners Dori Walter, her sister, and Dori’s daughter, Dani Gilseth.
Hanson takes the lead explaining how the business idea arose. “Out of the blue” on Feb. 13, 2018, Hanson’s and Walter’s brother-in-law, Bob West, who is married to their sister, Deb, was diagnosed with brain cancer. It was terminal.
“We couldn’t change the diagnosis, but we helped the only way we knew how: through fundraising and emotional support,” Hanson says.
Family members organized a used purse auction, set up an online account for donations, pulled together a silent auction and, of course, held a Midwest-style benefit.
“When we were doing that, we were absolutely blown away by how much support there was,” Hanson says. “We could not believe how many people there were, strangers even, that wanted to help.”
The support was overwhelming, and the family was determined to pay that kindness forward.
“How can we do something to recognize these acts of kindness?” Gilseth recalls the family asking themselves in the spring of 2018. “We all felt this need to do something more, to give some of our gratefulness back to those who rallied around our family.”
Gilseth thought there was a need for a gifting business, where busy people could purchase well-thought gifts. Hanson and Walter agreed, and they ran with the idea. The research and testing phase began.
“It sounded like a simple process, putting together these little pieces of gratitude into one gift. But then we had the question, ‘What do we even put them in?’” Gilseth says. “We wanted the base of our gift to be unique, too, so we came up with this pine crate prototype.”
“It was a learning epic fail!” Walter remarks, met by a collective laugh.
The quality didn’t meet their standard, so they tried again. The business partners settled on a genuine cedar crate, hot branded with the Grateful Cratefulls logo. Plus, the women sought help from their supportive husbands, who handmake each crate for business use.
Now, to fill the crates. They set to work curating products around gifting themes, like North Dakota, the Midwest, new baby, housewarming, birthdays, employee appreciation, business and his and hers.
“If it comes into our store, it has to be something that we love,” Gilseth says. “We knew we wanted to keep North Dakota at the center of our business. We try to almost always include a piece of North Dakota in every Cratefull.”
With their gusto for all things North Dakota, they applied to become a Pride of Dakota member. Administered by the N.D. Department of Agriculture, Pride of Dakota offers business development resources and marketing opportunities to help North Dakota businesses, products and services. Grateful Cratefulls has Pride of Dakota membership as both a company, with its own line of products, and a retailer of Pride of Dakota products.
“Most of our items are made in the Midwest. Our vendors need to have fantastic products, with great quality and packaging. There are a lot of neat stories behind those people and businesses we support,” Hanson says.
Some of those North Dakota businesses and products include Dot’s Pretzels, The Smart Seed, Bubble Island Bath Treats, Ever Oh Handmade, Dakota Roasters Coffee Company, Colorado Jack Popcorn and Perfectly Nuts.
“Those relationships we have with the vendors we’re using … they’re a part of the growth of our business. We couldn’t do it without their great products,” Hanson says.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
By July 2018, Grateful Cratefulls was off the ground, a fast-tracked decision amidst a debilitating cancer diagnosis. The business opened its doors in a small 500-square-foot space in West Fargo. It picked up traction through Christmas, as calls for corporate orders started pouring in. Over 500 Cratefulls were sent to 32 different states during that first holiday season.
“At that time, we thought, ‘We might have something here.’ We were going to need more space,” Hanson says. A year after opening, Grateful Cratefulls relocated just down the road, a Pioneer Place inaugural tenant at 300 Sheyenne St. in West Fargo.
While the growth of the infant business provided a new hope for the family, they were hit hard by a one-two punch in January 2019. Bob passed away. Ten days before his funeral, Bob’s wife, Deb, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ten days after the funeral, Deb had a double mastectomy.
“Debbie always reminded us that there are so many people going through this who don’t have the friends and family we have,” Walter says.
Grateful Cratefulls became a sort of therapy for both the family and its customer base. The women have listened empathetically to many customers who walk through their doors.
“It’s therapeutic for us and them (customers) to help think through the things that might be good for this person. It’s about being there for those tough times, but also for the celebrations that come with life’s happy moments. There is still so much good to celebrate,” Gilseth says.
A “do good” philosophy became part of the business model, too.
“We wanted a business that could give back, like so many people gave back to us, while doing good at the same time,” Gilseth says.
Hanson had an idea for another logo and product line that highlighted North Dakota kindness. They trademarked “North Dakota KiND” to inspire and promote kindness across North Dakota and beyond. An outline of the state encompasses the “ND” portion of the North Dakota KiND™ logo.
Grateful Cratefulls partners with schools to create spiritwear utilizing the KiND brand. Ten percent of sales are returned to the school in the form of kind resources, including books for teachers and children.
In addition, the business donates Cratefulls to numerous medical benefits in the state.
“That’s the hardest part – deciding how much we can afford and where to lend the support we can,” Hanson says. “We want to give to everyone, but we focus on donations that align best with our mission.”
‘WE’RE SO BLESSED’
Hanging on a supplies station near the table is a picture printed onto a sheet of computer paper. Hanson, Walter and Gilseth are among a group of women smiling at the camera. It’s most of the women in their family, on a girls trip they took together in recent years. Walter points out the photo and explains its significance.
“Our sister, Debbie, is the kindest, most giving person you’ll ever meet. When Debbie was going through this, she would keep saying, ‘We’re so blessed,’” Walter says. “We keep our eye on that. That’s us. That’s why we’re in business. That’s our whole story.”
Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at email@example.com.