Named after two neighboring towns in Northern Minnesota, Askov Finlayson is a highly regarded men’s store in Minneapolis that is owned and operated by brothers Eric and Andrew Dayton. The 1,000-sq.-foot (93-sq.-meter) space is stocked with numerous high-quality and traditional brands such as Barbour, Gant Rugger and Red Wing Shoes and a recently launched eponymous in-house line. The Daytons also operate a restaurant and a bar in the same building. Here, Eric discusses their store’s evolution and the challenges and joys of running three different businesses. Interview by Christopher Blomquist

What is the background and history of Askov Finlayson and your own retail background?
My brother and I opened Askov Finlayson in the fall of 2011 two months after opening a restaurant, The Bachelor Farmer, and cocktail bar, Marvel Bar, all in the same historic building. It was kind of crazy and I don’t think I’d try that again. Before starting our company together, I got my MBA and my brother went to law school. It helps to have complementary skill sets, but overlapping interests. I also learned a lot working for Target prior to business school.

The store's déco keeps the focus on the product
The store's déco keeps the focus on the product
Who is the “typical” customer who shops there?
I’m not sure that we have one, which is great. We’re located in a historically industrial neighborhood of Downtown Minneapolis called the North Loop. It’s filled with beautiful old warehouses that have been converted into lofts and they’re home to many young professionals but also empty-nesters. And a lot of creative agencies have their offices nearby. So we see a range of ages and tastes and we like it that way. We don’t want to be too conservative and traditional but we also don’t want to only be a young man’s shop. It’s the mix that’s interesting and the same is true in the bar and restaurant. One evening Marvel Bar was full of a relatively young crowd but there was a woman sitting at the bar celebrating her 102nd birthday with a martini. We could have shut down for good after that night and I would have been happy.

What are your bestselling brands and specific items at the moment?
Some of our strongest brands are the ones we’ve carried since we first opened; Norse Projects and Barbour both come to mind. But we’ve also seen some recently added brands like Schnayderman’s, a Stockholm-based shirting company, really take off. And in the past year, Askov Finlayson has actually become our top-selling brand, which is very encouraging. That’s been driven by our Explorer Pants and people also love the North hats we make.

How does the store stand out from others in the area?
I don’t like to make comparisons, so I’ll just say that we try to create a blend of classic and traditional menswear with forward-looking brands that really inspire us through design, and then also clothing that’s suitable for active outdoor use while still maintaining a sense of style. The one common thread throughout the store is quality. I think that combination differentiates us, or at least I hope it does.

What is the fashion scene like in Minneapolis?
I think of Minneapolis more as a style city than a fashion city. Guys here know what they like and stay true to that. They don’t go for a lot of the trends that come and go in other parts of the country, which is a good thing.

Askov Finlayson's own label, one of the store bestsellers
Askov Finlayson's own label, one of the store bestsellers

How has being a retailer helped you in launching your own line?
It’s a really helpful perspective to have. We waited for a couple of years and first focused on just trying to be a good store before starting to design and manufacture our own products. We learned a lot during that time and we’re still learning. One thing it has made us very aware of is how important it is for a brand to provide great customer service to its retailers. That’s why we haven’t launched wholesale yet; we really want to make sure we’re ready to do it well before we start.

What is your favorite part about running the store?
It’s such a diverse and interesting job. It ranges from the financial side of the business to marketing to design to spending time with customers. I love what we do and I never get bored, especially with the restaurant and bar next door.

What is the biggest challenge of being an independent retailer today?
Even as a small independent store in Minneapolis, we’re competing nationally. And so we try to hold everything we do, from customer service to store merchandising to our in-house photography, to a national standard. To hold our own against much larger stores, and to do so with fewer resources, that’s a challenge. But it’s one that we embrace.

How do you stay in touch with your customers?

It varies from customer to customer and depends on their preferences. Social media is a useful way to share information more broadly but it’s not relevant to everyone. Some customers want more direct and personalized communication.

What special customer services does the store offer?
We offer complimentary skate sharpening for customers. As far as I know, we’re the only men’s store in the country to do so.

Two tone explorer pants by Askov Finlayson
Two tone explorer pants by Askov Finlayson
Describe the store’s décor. How do you think that influences sales?
Of our three businesses, the interior of the store is probably the most humble. The truth is that we were so busy when the restaurant and bar opened that we didn’t have as much time to focus on the store’s build-out, so we kept it pretty simple. And I think people find that comfortable. It also keeps the focus on the product. We actually just announced that we’ll be moving our store to a space next door that’s about twice the size and then filling the current location with a coffee and sandwich shop run by our restaurant. It’ll be fun to take what we’ve learned from our current space and apply it to the design of the new store.

As you mentioned, you also run an onsite bar and restaurant. How does that differ from running a retail clothing business and how does that attract customers to the store?
I’d actually say that it’s more similar than different, which I didn’t expect. They’re all such service-focused businesses and at the end of the day, it’s about treating people well and really knowing the product you’re selling. It doesn’t matter if it’s an article of clothing or a bottle of wine, people want to know the story and understand the value. In terms of attracting customers to the store, I think all three businesses benefit one another but each has to succeed on its own merits.

The shop offers complimentary skate sharpening for customers
The shop offers complimentary skate sharpening for customers

What percentage of your total sales are done online and are you looking to increase that?
Our website is quite young and is still a relatively small part of our overall business, but we’ve seen it grow steadily since we launched it about a year ago. At first we only put our own products online, but now we’re starting to add a broader representation of what we carry in the store alongside our own brand.

What do you think will be the key fashion items for fall/winter?
In Minnesota, anything you’re buying for the colder part of the year has to really hold up in terms of quality and performance. So I think it’s the season to invest in pieces that will last and never go out of style. I have my eye on an unstructured Boglioli wool blazer that just came into the shop. It’s as warm and comfortable as a cardigan and I’ll be able to wear it for years to come.

How do you discover new brands?
We always have our eyes and ears open. Sometimes a new idea will come from a friend or a customer, while other times it’s through following publications we respect. And travel has been very important. We’re in New York and San Francisco regularly and our restaurant has also taken us to Scandinavia about once a year and we’ve discovered some great brands there in addition to experiencing some incredible meals.

What is a “golden rule” of retailing that every store owner needs to follow?
My grandfather spent his career in retail and is a role model to my brother and me. His saying is that “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.” I’m reminded how true that is every single day.

Askov Finlayson
200 North First Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401
+1 612 206 3925