Prairie Air: Young entrepreneur

A photocopy of a Mickey Mouse check hangs on the wall of a Green Bay, WI, businessman.

The check is from Detroit Lakes, MN, entrepreneur Katriana Mehlhaff, who was 7 years old when she wrote it.

Today, three years and plenty of hard work later, Mehlhaff’s vending machine business is thriving at The Lodge on Lake Detroit. The two vending machines – Katriana’s Kans and Katriana’s Kandy – are located just around the corner from the hotel’s front desk.

The project began as the brainstorm of John Holland, Katriana’s grandfather, a second generation hotelier. He has owned and operated the Holland House Best Western in Detroit Lakes and the Best Western in Grand Marias, MN.

The Lodge is owned by Mehlhaff’s parents, Chris and Scott Mehlhaff. So it is only natural that Katriana is forging her own future in the hotel business, with the help of her parents and grandparents.

“She was always interested in the hotels and enjoyed being around them,” Holland said. “One day I got this idea of her having the vending machines at The Lodge. I just thought this would be a good experience for her and it was something we needed.”

What did Katriana think?

“I thought it sounded like fun and wanted to do it with Grandpa,” she said.

What else was needed to help turn a good idea into reality? Money. “We have been doing business with Bremer Bank in Detroit Lakes as long as I can remember,” Holland said. “Katriana and I went to see Jeff Grabow (Bremer’s local bank president). I told him we needed to borrow some money so she could buy vending machines.”

With Holland ready to co-sign the $7,000 loan in March 2006, Katriana was soon in business. Being the youngest person ever to obtain a loan at Bremer’s Detroit Lakes bank, Katriana needed to first open a checking account.

For her check design, Katriana chose Disney imprints. At 7 years old, she had not yet learned cursive, so her grandmother, Kathy Holland, set out to teach her how to write her name in cursive so she could sign her checks.

The major soft drink companies declined to sell her vending machines, but her grandfather found out about a Green Bay businessman who might be interested in doing business with her.

John Holland made the call. He had to do a little talking to explain the situation. The next day, he received a call back and heard that a state-of-the-art vending machine was available. Katriana Mehlhaff was officially in business.

“I had to tell him to be sure not to throw the Mickey Mouse check away when it arrived – it was real,” Holland said, laughing at the memory.

When the check landed in Green Bay, Holland received a phone call from a man on the other side of the business transaction.

“He told me they had never received a check like this – they made a copy of it and have it hanging on the wall in the office,” Holland said. “He also wrote Katriana a nice note wishing her luck.”

And, as people in business know, the harder you work, the luckier you become. By December 2008, Katriana had paid back the bank loan in full. “She made all the deposits, made the monthly loan payments and took care of her business,” said Bremer’s Grabow. “This was a tremendous object lesson for her. It’s not often someone this age has a chance to learn practical lessons on how to manage money. She has already learned some practical life skills and the basics of handling money.”

Holland offers another perspective.

“This is really a grandpa thing,” he said. “We are very close and are fortunate to live in the same town, so we can be together and work on this project with each other.”

While her grandfather is her hands on helper, her grandmother, Kathy Holland, is her accountant. Katriana is learning to watch sales of candy and soda, so items can be restocked to maximize profits.

The Central Market grocery store in Detroit Lakes is one of the pair’s favorite shopping stops.

“We have to be careful and pick a check out person who knows us so Katriana can pay for the items with a check,” John Holland said with a chuckle, “She doesn’t have a driver’s license yet.”

Not many fourth graders at Holy Rosary School in Detroit Lakes have driver’s licenses. But then again, not many fourth graders anywhere have their own successful business ventures, either.

“My friends think it’s pretty cool,” Katriana said. “Sometimes I get them to help me stock the machines – it is fun.”

It is also a lot of work. But more help may be on the way. Katriana’s 2-year-old brother, Hans, may soon want a piece of the action. “We’ll have to wait and see when he gets to be that age,” Holland said.

Even though Katriana works hard on her business, she still has plenty of time to play.

Like her parents, who are both former music majors and graduates of Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, Katriana is an accomplished musician, loves acting and theater, is a good student and is active at school and church.

By the time John Holland was 10, he had already spent much of his life at the Holland House Motel in Detroit Lakes. Holland and his mother ran the motel his father built on a small piece of land in Detroit Lakes.

Katriana is now 10 years old. Like her grandfather, the hotel business is in her blood. She is a fourth generation hospitality industry worker.

She takes her job very seriously.

There is nothing Mickey Mouse about her business – except her checks.

About Holland Lodging

The Lodge on Lake Detroit is independently owned & operated by Holland Motel, Inc., now in its third generation of providing excellence in hospitality. Husband and wife owners Scott Mehlhaff & Chris Holland-Mehlhaff also own & operate Best Western Plus Holland House in Detroit Lakes, MN and Best Western Superior Inn & Suites in Grand Marais, MN.