If you ask me, one of the best parts about the Midwest is that there are hidden gems everywhere, literally and figuratively. It's easy to stumble upon cool shops, interesting people, and unique businesses in big cities, but there's nothing better than finding something or someone in a place you least expect to.
About two hours northwest from where I live in Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), lies a tiny town called Princeton. Driving there feels like you're driving to the middle of nowhere, but once you arrive, it feels like you've discovered a magical land. Princeton is known for its flea market and for its shops and restaurants downtown on Water Street. The first time I went to Princeton was to visit Tracy Porter's shop, but in my most recent visits, my number one stop is Teak & Soxy. It's the coolest shop you've ever seen, full of everything you never knew you needed for your home and life.
Even cooler than Teak & Soxy is the man behind the shop – Matt Trotter. He's so nice, super funny, and a total entrepreneurial genius. Check out my Q&A with Matt to learn more about him and his other amazing business ventures:
My Midwest Is Showing: Describe your business.
Matt Trotter: We’re a shop focused on well-considered gifts, home decor and fragrance. I love the feeling of “discovery” when I’m buying for the store, and I want my customers to have a similar feeling when they walk through the door. 80% of our lines are American-made, artist-made, or by independent designers, which is fun because nearly everything we stock has a story along with it.
MMWIS: What's the history of Teak & Soxy?
MT: I’m from Princeton originally, and when I was a teen there was a “rebirth” of Princeton – mainly stemming from Water Street (Princeton’s Historic Downtown). One of the instigators of this surge was someone you recently featured: Tracy Porter. Suddenly, following her presence in Princeton, came this wild mix of creative business-owners that one would never expect in a town our size. And it was right here where I was first exposed to great designers, photographers, chefs and shop-owners that, without a doubt, planted the seed for what I’m doing today. After going away for about 10 years for school, etc., I got the urge to have my own store and set up shop in a vacant storefront my family had owned. Originally, it was meant more as a hobby – I was still working during the week and then I would only do this on the weekend. But after 5 years, I’m now doing it full-time.
MMWIS: What's the meaning behind the name Teak & Soxy?
MT: The name comes from a pair of horses we had when I was a kid. We lived just a couple blocks from downtown, and I remember them escaping from their pen and going about town. So it’s kind of a metaphor – a pair of wandering horses who didn’t want to be caged up. Teak and Soxy were their names.
MMWIS: What kinds of things can people find at your store?
MT: We’ve become well-known for our candle selection and fragrances in general – we keep expanding our colognes and perfume assortment. We do a little selection of specialty foods...pillows, home decor, with a mix of some vintage/found objects mixed in. A lot of what’s become important to me about what we carry is the ritual of the item – whether it’s lighting the candle, putting on the t-shirt or covering up in a blanket. I hope those items kind-of transport you from wherever you are at that moment.
MMWIS: Tell me about Horseradish.
MT: My partner, Jeff, and I made the “mistake" of watching the movie, Chef, one winter and after watching, was convinced we could do a food truck. Next thing I know, he’s on Craigslist (he’s a pro!) and finds this beat-up school bus. The photos portrayed a dilapidated white bus sitting in the middle of a field with vines growing on/in it. The bus had last served as a concessions stand for a high school in Northern Wisconsin but had served its purpose and had to either be reinvented or left for scrap. After talking my mom and brother into being part of the business, he bought the thing and it showed up outside Teak & Soxy. With the help of my aunt and friend Lisa, both from the food industry, we developed a menu that was simple but different. I wanted it to be “healthy” but not health-food – just lots of fresh, flavorful ingredients. Meanwhile, we researched all we needed to know about licenses and inspections, etc. and discovered there was a “community kitchen” just 10 miles down the road in Green Lake. Finding that eliminated the need for lots of expensive equipment on the bus and also allowed us to become good friends with Town Square. With a few modifications to the bus (an awning, counter, and signage) Horseradish Food Truck started serving lunch in May 2015. The name Horseradish came from my friend and former employer, Victoria. I wanted a name that was something familiar but exotic, and she came up with that, and it played well with the unintended “horse” theme that started with Teak & Soxy.
I’m also excited to announce that we’re working on a permanent home for Horseradish, just a few stores down from Teak & Soxy, named: Horseradish Kitchen + Market. Along with my business partner, Alex Pearsall, we’re developing a cafe/market concept with a deck and an open-kitchen which doubles as an event space. We both love food and entertaining, so it’s really exciting for both us and we hope to open early this fall.
MMWIS: What's a normal day like for you?
MT: I’m usually up by 7, check my emails with coffee, take the dogs out and then make lists. I live by my lists – I create a master list every week by category: one for Teak & Soxy, one for Horseradish, and then one for each other project. During the week, it’s a lot of running errands for supplies (checking off my lists!), ordering product, following-up with customers on orders, and whatever projects I have going on at the time. Then on the weekends, I usually start to get the shop and food truck ready – whether that’s putting product out and tidying up or setting the cafe up and making sure we have all the last-minute items for lunch service. Then around 3, we do the reverse: the truck gets shut down and all the furniture gets put away, re-inventory for the next day, and then a little bit later the store closes down and then re-stock and/or clean up. Almost everyday is different, which can be challenging, but very rewarding.
MMWIS: How did you gain the knowledge you needed to open your store and to continue to run it successfully?
MT: I’m fortunate to have a lot of entrepreneurs in my family, so I think that “bug” to have your own business just sticks with you but also provided some self-assurance. Most of my jobs during college and after were for small businesses, so I think you get exposed to little bits and pieces all the time until you feel like you can put those pieces of the puzzle together on your own. But even then, I don’t think there’s ever a certain point where you’re ready – just a willingness to jump in and staying true to it. I’m also grateful to have had so many of Princeton’s shop-owners as mentors as a teen. Though many have moved on, many have become life-long friends and huge supporters.
MMWIS: Tell me about Wisconsin Vagabond.
MT: I started hosting with Airbnb about 5 years ago and have since worked on handful of properties with Jeff. I wanted to create an entity where we could showcase the properties but also act as a portfolio. So that became Wisconsin Vagabond. The Deer Stand, located in Menasha, is home to our good friend Debra’s’ vast collection of Native American, Americana, and vintage camp paraphernalia. The other properties are an apartment in Shebogyan across from Lake Michigan and a retreat in the woods of Crivitz.
MMWIS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
MT: If you have the passion for it, DO IT. If you believe it, others will too! Never take your business too seriously, but be serious about how you do it. And be nice: to your vendors, your neighbors, your competitors – no matter how small a part of your business they may be, they’re all part of it.
MMWIS: Greatest business accomplishment so far?
MT: For something tangible, it would be Horseradish. I never would have believed how well-received it would be or the amount of support we’ve received or that I’d be making food on a food truck. It blows my mind, really, that we can serve a beet sandwich and people like it. I feel really lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. But in addition to that, I’m proudest and most appreciative of all the great friendships I’ve made over the years. It’s almost like an extended family, and I know that those relationships will be with me long after any business.
MMWIS: Describe the perfect day in Princeton.
MT: So, I’ll pretend like it’s a Saturday, and I have the day off: I’d actually start the morning in Montello (15 minutes west) at my favorite place for breakfast: More Healthy Foods. I’d sit out back on the river and drink a lot of coffee and order too much food because I have the day off and I’m spoiling myself. Then I’d head back to Princeton to see what I can find at the Flea Market: mini donuts (cause its my day off), baked goods, thrifting, people watching and whatever else jumps out. While I’m there, I always like to pass through the antique malls and antique stores and look at everything. Then, of course, hit downtown for the shopping and eating on Water Street (The Shops of Water Street). Aside from that, I like to fit in all my favorite stops in the surrounding communities (Green Lake Country). A lot of my friends have businesses nearby, which makes it fun!
MMWIS: What are you currently reading? Watching? Listening to?
MT: I just discovered Gwyneth Paltrow’s book, It’s All Good, at the library and we’ve been reading the recipes at the food truck in-between orders. I was expecting more fluff, but I really love her approach to cooking and preparing food. Of course, any goop fan knows the presentation and style is just gorgeous. I’ve been playing a lot of stations on both iTunes and Play Music. My go-to’s right now are: Roots of the Beatles (Play Music), Grandpa’s Naptime (Play Music), The Drifters Radio (iTunes), As if by Design Radio (iTunes), Lush Life, (Play Music). And I did see a couple episodes of the latest season of Orange is the New Black. :)
MMWIS: If someone was visiting Wisconsin for the first time, what would you tell them to do first?
MT: Umm, that’s so tough. I would probably take them somewhere far north, where the trees are dense and big and the smell of the forest is strong.
MMWIS: Favorite thing about the Midwest?
MT: I definitely love the seasons. That constant change.
MMWIS: How does your Midwest show through your personality and/or what you do?
MT: I think we’re known to be hard-working, friendly, and genuine, and those are all things I aspire to be.