In the days leading up to Christmas, Ingebretsen’s can sell a literal ton of Swedish sausage and meatball mix a day.
“Yea the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is pretty whacky!” says Julie Ingebretsen, shop owner. Julie Ingebretsen’s grandfather founded the store in the 20s. “You hear a lot of Scandinavian – Swedish, Danish, even Finnish, being spoken. Last year, there was a guy outside in the line leading Christmas carols. It’s kind of an event.”
Today in the shop, there’s a steady stream of customers coming in and out.
“Well, I had to get my Swedish Sausage,” says longtime customer Nora Bengston.
Thirty years, that’s about how long Karen Haynes has been working at Ingebretsen’s. She’s in her 80s, but she keeps coming to work because she says it’s just a happy place for her. People come in with tears in their eyes, she says, recounting recent trips to their homelands in Scandinavia, or memories from growing up in the neighborhood.
“This is people’s history and they’re, you know, they come back to Minneapolis, and the school they went to has been torn down, the house they lived in is now a parking lot. You know. And then they come in here and they go – you don’t change, you’re still here, how wonderful.”
For much of Ingebretsen’s history, it was just a meat market, not a gift shop. In the early years, this Lake Street corridor, stretching into the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was a hub for new Scandinavian immigrants. There were Swedish and Norwegian churches, groceries, bars, and taverns.
Julie Ingebretsen says part of the shop’s draw, over the years, has simply been that it’s stuck around.
“When we started this gift shop in the 70s there were I bet 15, 20 Scandinavian gift shops in town. I mean, they were everywhere. And they’ve gradually over the years closed. Now there’s hardly any.”
Standing in the same location for 100 years means Ingebretsen’s has weathered the waves of history. The great depression and the second world war. The booms and busts of the 70s and 80s.
When the major highways came through Minneapolis, Julie says what was once a bustling corridor turned desolate. “Because people just wanted to hop on the freeway and go out to the suburbs. That started a marked decline.”
She credits new immigrants with turning things around. In the same way that Scandinavians congregated here around the turn of the century, Latino and Somali families moved in, opening up restaurants and shops.
And yet, like for so many small businesses up and down lake street, 2020 brought Ingebretsen’s perhaps the steepest challenges yet. First, the pandemic arrived in Minnesota. Then George Floyd was murdered less than two miles away.
As unrest grew in the streets, Julie watched security camera footage from the home of looters walking through Ingebretsen’s smashed windows. On the news, you could see entire buildings nearby going up in flames. When it felt safe, in the early hours of the morning, she returned to the store to see the damage for herself.
“I see a lot of smoke still in the east. The fires are still burning down there.”
It was in those first few hours that Julie was interviewed live on MPR’s All Things Considered.
“Mostly it’s just destruction and it just makes me so sad I can hardly stand it.”
Across the street from Ingebretsen’s Nur Ahmed had been back at the shop he manages, a Somali bakery and grocery, since about 2:30 that morning. That’s after a neighbor called and told him people were trying to break in. Luckily, he says, his store didn’t sustain much damage but he saw what had happened at Ingebretsen’s and went over to check in with Julie.
“Like any business owner around, she was just terrified. All the other business owners – whoever I see, she was acting the same thing, I don’t know what happened. We don’t know what we did wrong. We’re not police officers, we’re not the law enforcement. There was nothing to say, just out of shock. “
Julie Ingebretsen’ remembers that moment too.
“My gosh, yea, that was just horrifying. Seeing all the broken glass. It was like – oh my god why. You know, why why. It just didn’t make any sense. But it didn’t take long before getting over that initial shock. And I mean like kind of right away there was a construction project happening in the next block and right away the construction guys came by and asked if they could help. And did that all through the neighborhood. I mean it was just like… cool. And then neighbors started coming. People started coming from all over town and it was just the most amazing thing. I will never forget that. Like, this really bad thing happened and then this even better good thing happened. And the balance was a positive experience somehow.”
The Lake Street Council … an organization Julie has been involved with for years… decided to open up a fundraiser after the unrest. Julie remembers they were aiming for a few thousand dollars. They received $12 million in donations.
It’s hard to recognize Ingebretsen’s 100th anniversary this year without thinking back to that experience because it was such a reminder of what’s allowed the shop to stand strong for so many years. It’s not just their wide selection of Scandinavian foods and gifts. Not just the secret meatball mix recipe.
Nur Ahmed says he believes he understands why Ingebretsen’s has rebounded, “They were resilient. They never moved out. Ingebretsen’s are tough.”
To Nur Ahmed, Ingebretsen’s is a model for Immigrant businesses like his serving as a pillar for the community for generations.
Support for MinneCulture comes from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.