The entire country of Ireland, population 4.7 million, has fewer citizens than the state of Minnesota, which has 5.5 million.
And yet the island nation has played an outsized role on the world stage, contributing some of the planet’s highest achievements in drama and literature — not to mention humbler but truly beloved pleasures such as pints of Guinness and U2.
Here in Minnesota, we have our own living illustration of the way the Irish can make surprisingly large contributions to a community.
We have Kieran Folliard.
A born-and-bred resident of County Mayo, Ireland, Folliard has lived in the U.S. for 30 years.
A serial entrepreneur with a prescient ability to look ahead to what Minnesotans will want to be eating and drinking next, Folliard has put his fingers in pies all over the local food scene and has pulled out a plum just about every time.
And Folliard, whose lilting brogue and clever wit make him many Minnesotans’ favorite Irishman, shows no signs of stopping anytime soon at age 62.
“I’m a dreamer who gets himself in trouble by starting things and diving into them before I do enough planning,” he said with his characteristically self-deprecating humor and a smile in his Irish eyes. “I’ve learned lots of lessons, that’s for sure. And I get very passionate about new projects because I love ideas and learning the ‘why’ behind things.”
Coming to America
Folliard’s hometown is Ballyhaunis, Ireland.
“My father was 46 and my mother 43 when I was born,” he said. “It was just my older sister and myself, a small family.”
His sister, who remained in Ireland, recently died after a battle with ovarian cancer, a loss he deeply mourns. He continues to make regular visits back home.
“I still own the land that was the site of our family garden, where we grew all our own vegetables,” he said. “I always say if it all goes to hell in a handbasket, I’ll just pitch a tent and live there on that little plot.”
After graduating from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Folliard worked in the Middle East for Masstock, an Irish-Saudi dairy company.
“There I was, flogging milk to the Arabs, and then many years later I turned around and started flogging whiskey to the Yanks,” he said.
He came to Minnesota in 1987, working for Andcor Companies, Inc., where he was a consultant with startups such as Rollerblades and Select Comfort.
He eventually became president of the business.
Describing Minnesota as “the land of 10,000 opportunities,” Folliard said he appreciates the state’s “fantastic” combination of arts, sports, science and outdoor adventure.
“I like the seasons, too. I don’t mind how cold it is, as long as the sky is blue,” he said. “I grew up with grey skies, and that’s depressing.”
Family life — with pauses
Folliard is the father of four — Vienna, 37; Seamus, 35; Tyrone, 33; and India, 15 — and is a grandfather of three.
He lives near downtown Minneapolis in what he describes as a “wee house, my cabin in the city,” with wife, Lisa Kane, a dietician who works part-time at the VA hospital.
“Lisa has done a lot of creative work with me over the years,” he said. “She has scientifi c as well as creative talents.”
They were married in 1996, then divorced 18 years ago.
After a five-year break, they reunited.
“I told her, ‘That was a long time to go around the corner to the shop,’” he said.
They’ve been remarried for 13 years, for a total of 21 years together.
“I married the right side of her brain the first time and the left side the second,” he said, before confessing: “I was driving her crazy with starting businesses.”
A pub he wanted to visit
Folliard has become known as a guy who always has a million ideas for new ventures — and who turns many of them into profitable enterprises. First, he started with pubs, which might seem like an unusual business choice for someone with no background in food service or hospitality.
“The best entrepreneurial ideas come from solving your own problem,” Folliard said. “I wanted a community-focused Irish pub I could visit regularly, and there wasn’t an authentic one to be found in the Twin Cities. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
In 1992, he opened Molly Malone’s, followed in 1994 by Kieran’s Irish Pub, then The Local, The Liffey and Cooper. All except Molly Malone’s are still in business today.
It turns out Folliard was right to be confident in his ability to create not just one successful public house, but a mini-empire of them, known today as Cara Irish Pubs.
While some may attribute his golden touch to the luck of the Irish, it turns out Folliard had a talent for creating strong teams that worked hard at making people feel welcome and comfortable.
“Put the right people on the bus,” he said, “and you’re halfway there.”
A true friend and visionary
As he became a fixture in the food and drink scene, Folliard became something of a local legend for his captivating brogue, lively sense of humor and unfailing reserves of Gaelic charm.
“Everybody thinks they know him and everybody thinks they’re his friend,” said Jacquie Berglund, a former director of marketing at The Local and a co-founder (and CEO) of Finnegans Brew Co., the first beer company in the world to donate 100 percent of profits to charity. Finnegans will open a public brewery and taproom in downtown Minneapolis on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17).
“He’s great fun and he’s always got a happy-go-lucky attitude,” Berglund said, adding, however, that there’s more to the charming Irish lad than meets the eye: “He’s the guy who always comes to the funeral. If your world is falling apart, he’s the one who calls to see how you’re doing. He’s one of my best friends, and he’s never not been there for me.”
“He’s a true visionary, the kind of person who runs from idea to idea to idea,” Brown said. “Sometimes those people fail, but they always have courage and confidence.”
Little known Folliard fact?
“He never goes to the same hairdresser twice,” Brown said. “He just walks by a barbershop, decides he needs a haircut, and comes out looking handsome every time.”
The pub business led Folliard to yet another entrepreneurial venture that solved a problem.
“Our pubs had the single largest Jameson Irish Whiskey account in the world,” he said. “The price of the whiskey kept going up, so we hit upon the idea of creating our own brand.”
It was an ambitious concept: Transform whiskey from a male-oriented, wintertime beverage into a year-round, gender-neutral one.
“We were aiming to convert vodka and beer drinkers,” Folliard said.
Named for Kieran’s redheaded mother and aunt, Mary and Delia, 2 Gingers was an instant hit, helped along by the creation of cocktails such as the trademarked Big Ginger.
The four-year-aged blend — distilled at the Kilbeggan Distillery in Ireland and distributed in the U.S. — is described as smooth, malty and slightly sweet to start, with notes of honey and citrus.
With the pubs doing well, Folliard decided he was ready for his next adventure, so he sold his shares to those who had sweat equity in each of the locations.
“I took to the road and built the 2 Gingers brand,” he said.
Five years ago, 2 Gingers was acquired by what is now Beam Suntory, the world’s third-largest premium spirits company.
Folliard has stayed on as a Global Irish Whiskey Ambassador, perhaps one of the most enviable job titles imaginable.
The Food Building
Three years ago, Folliard took on his most ambitious project to date: He bought and renovated a dilapidated warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis, brought in artisan food producers and launched The Food Building, a food-production hub and event space.
Why such a massive undertaking?
“It’s a bit of the Irish in me that I have such an affinity for the underdog,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in food, and as I began to meet more farmers and makers, I saw their passion and dedication for the art and science of food production. I liked the idea of trying another scrappy startup and making it work.”
Next door is the farm-to-table restaurant, The Draft Horse, which serves Food Building products.
“There’s a tremendous pool of talent here in the Twin Cities,” Folliard said. “We have iconic food brands that attract plenty of talent, and we have a strong entrepreneurial culture to inspire them in new ventures.”
What he’s hoping for now is greater recognition and support of the products his makers are creating.
“When I go to places like Austin, Texas, or Boulder, Colorado, I see more support from the local community and more willingness to fight for their local food startups,” he said. “I wish there were a bit more of that attitude in the water here.”
Folliard has faced some headwinds in getting brands up and running, as evidenced by the recent shuttering of one of the building’s tenants, cheese producer The Lone Grazer.
“We just could not get our distribution and sales up to the level we needed,” he said. “I say, only half-jokingly, that The Lone Grazer will ride again.”
To Ireland and integrity
So how does Minnesota’s most famous Mayoman plan to spend March 17 this year?
“I make sure that I go all around town to our 2 Gingers customers to thank them for their business, shake hands and buy drinks,” he said.
He confesses that his real celebration usually comes on March 18: “That’s when I have a chance to sit down by the fire, open a bottle of 2 Gingers and raise a glass to Ireland.”
As he looks to the year ahead, Folliard is hoping to push the Food Building brands to profitability.
“We have to do it in a way that retains our integrity and purpose,” he said.
Folliard couldn’t quite say what keeps him going and creating.
“I do know that I’ve never been motivated by money, prestige or power, or my life would have turned out quite differently,” he said. “I know that what I’ve always valued is to be curious and to have a point of view. And I think I’ve accomplished that.”
This iconic cocktail, which turned Irish whiskey into a year-round drink in Minnesota, combines the refreshing bite of ginger ale with the caramel, vanilla and citrus undertones of 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey.
- 2 oz. of 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey
- Ginger ale
- Lemon wedge
- Lime wedge
Pour whiskey into a pint or Collins glass with ice. Top with ginger ale (or diet ginger ale), followed by wedges of lemon and lime.
Find more recipes for 2 Gingers at 2gingerswhiskey.com.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.