'Local love' helps small town cafe thrive in its first year open
Free Range Exchange is anchored by Ben Horn's market growing experience and Cambria Kolstad-DeVaney's knack for hand-crafted foods.
HOKAH, Minn. — There is such thing as a free (range) lunch.
Last November, Ava and Ben Horn and their longtime friends Cambria Kolstad-DeVaney and Dan DeVaney opened Free Range Exchange, a farm-to-table cafe on Main Street in downtown Hokah, at the confluence of the Root and Mississippi rivers in southeast Minnesota.
Both part of what he calls the "food movement," Ben Horn said he and Kolstad-DeVaney have been friends for about 20 years. She's been selling her homemade products at farmers markets for over a decade and Horn has been growing produce for seven years.
"When they moved to the area we kind of combined forces, where I continued to garden and she continued the baking," said Ben Horn. "And we started selling at farmers markets together."
Since the beginning of their professional partnership, the two dreamed of having their own space to sell out of, said Horn. When the Main Street location in Hokah opened up, they swooped in and quickly started renovating it.
"We both have a passion for local food and what's in our area, so that's what we specialize in," said Horn. "It's the old 'who you know' concept, and we're proud to feature any item we know where it came from."
On top of working full-time at the cafe, managing the La Crescent farmers market and being a dad to three kids under the age of 5, Horn helps operate their family farm in La Crescent, Minn., which supplies the cafe with all of its greens.
Happy Horns Farm and Orchard is a market garden production that raises a lot of lettuce and salad mixes and fresh greens. Horn said they also grow the staples like tomatoes, peppers, radishes and do their own processing for salsas and sauces.
The first thing people notice walking into Free Range Exchange is the variety of pristine-looking baked goods that line the front display case. Cambria Kolstad-DeVaney makes all of those products (pretzels, muffins, breads, scones and more) daily at the cafe.
"Cami's arsenal is impressive, and her reputation for the variety she makes on a daily basis is pretty incredible," said Horn. "There's local love for things that are handmade and produced on-site, and it's definitely gained steam for us."
Kolstad-DeVaney, whose baking skills were self-taught, said her signature item is probably her pretzels. She said her inspiration for making pretzels came from her craving one from Auntie Anne's while growing up in rural Minnesota, and unable to get to the nearest mall food.
The cafe also serves foods made from locally sourced products, and on the menu are sandwiches, salads, soups, quiche, burritos and more. There's a chalkboard by the register that lists most of the farms where the cafe gets its ingredients.
Mariama Dryak, who grew up on an organic farm in Wisconsin, is a barista at Free Range Exchange. She discovered the cafe with her sister after going on a hike one day.
"I walked in here and thought it was really warm and welcoming, and really rad that all the food is locally sourced," said Dryak.
Dryak said they have plenty of regulars already at Free Range Exchange, some who stop in for coffee — which comes from local roasters — and others who prefer the chorizo breakfast burrito — which is made with locally sourced pork. Other favorites are the lunch BLT made with tomato schmutz, and the soup of the day which comes with a pretzel.
The space where Free Range Exchange operates was originally a bank before it turned into a number of restaurants that eventually went out of business.
"From the community, I've heard a lot of comments about it being really wonderful that this space has life again," she said. "And it's taken on a life of its own."
Hokah Police Chief Bob Schuldt is one of the community members glad to have a farm-to-table cafe in town.
"We really love having them there," he said.
Schuldt said it became a routine to have lunch with his predecessor at the restaurant that filled the space before Free Range Exchange. Now it's a daily routine for him to stop by the cafe, where he usually grabs something to go or a scone for his wife.
"It's great to have a place there to be open again," said Schuldt. "And they bring a lot of people from around the area here."
He said Free Range Exchange recently got approval from the city of Hokah to sell alcohol, meaning they'll be serving local wine and beer in the future.
For what Kolstad-DeVaney calls their "first trial year," Free Range Exchange is doing great business, especially when you consider the circumstances.
"We definitely opened at an interesting time," said Horn.
All restaurants face challenges but not many can say they endured a pandemic a few months after they opened doors for business.
"I think it's a testament to us being diversified and local," Horn said. "Our customers are resilient and people in general are spreading the love, which is working well for us."