A larger-than-life heifer wearing a red handkerchief tied around her ears, tongue in mid-lick, is stamped on the vehicles parked across from Sunshine & Whiskey Filling Station. It’s hard to miss the promotion for Salty Heifer’s Off Sale, attached to the filling station. Autumn Lee owns both businesses, and she’s a standout in her own right.
“Autumn has been a community role model for years even before becoming a multi-business owner,” said Tesa Siverhus-Maus, acting director for the Montevideo Area Chamber of Commerce. “With being heavily involved in various youth activities, clubs and committees that support our communities, she not only creates lifelong connections but also forms lifetime relationships. She does not see roadblocks on her path of creating a successful business, if a plan doesn’t pan out, she takes it as a challenge and finds a way to make it successful.”
Autumn’s entrepreneurship story has a few chapters. She and her husband, Jason, raise soybeans, corn and cattle on Jason’s fourth-generation family farm north of Watson along with their blended family that includes three daughters. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they spent a lot of time in close quarters on the farm, and Autumn started looking for ways to branch out. She has an ag business degree and experience as an office manager, and she decided to buy the local liquor store and gas station in October 2020. Her goal was to use the prime location to grow, not only as a business strategy but also to give back to the community.
Watson, population 182, is near Lac qui Parle Lake on the Minnesota River. The town’s claim to fame is the Goose Capital of the U.S.A. Tourism doesn’t bring in the money it used to, still Autumn loves how neighbors look out for each other here, and she sees opportunity.
“We’re right by the lake, on a state highway. There’s no reason this place shouldn’t work,” Autumn said. “Local people said please keep the groceries and the gas; it’s so much more convenient than driving to Montevideo when you need milk or bread. So, I redid some shelving within the gas station side, and we actually didn’t lose any products.”
Filling the need for food and fuel was just the beginning. With help from Southwest Initiative Foundation’s (SWIF) loan programs, Autumn squared off the building and replaced an old garage with an addition. SWIF works in partnership with banks and credit unions, economic development organizations, nonprofit lenders and private investors to create and retain quality jobs, foster entrepreneurship and help communities – large and small – compete in a global marketplace.
“Especially in some of our smallest towns, entrepreneurs like Autumn are the heartbeat of these places. They create jobs, invest in local economies and make our communities vibrant and unique,” said Southwest Initiative Foundation Business Finance Director Amy Woitalewicz.
SWIF’s loan helped fund an additional 490 square feet, which gave Autumn an office and allowed her to rent out space and create a new business in town – Studio 59 hair salon. The stylist has been so busy she had to give up her other part-time job, Autumn said. But there were even bigger changes in store thanks to Autumn. She applied for a Minnesota Department of Agriculture AGRI Biofuels Infrastructure Grant to add ethanol products, and a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program to bring in biodiesel, with room for tractors and semis to fuel up. The upgrades meant installing all new tanks, lines and dispensers, replacing what had been there since 1994.
From two part-time employees at the start, Autumn has grown to employ up to seven part-time workers. Sunshine & Whiskey Filling Station is also an Amazon Hub Delivery location, receiving a van of 50 packages every day that are delivered by local drivers.
“Growth comes with challenges, but we’re figuring it out as we go. We’re not done growing.”Autumn Lee
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