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Free Range Exchange is nearing the anniversary of its first year in business on Wisconsin’s West Coast

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June 24, 2024

LA CROSSE – With a background in natural resource management, local entrepreneur Ben Horn said he never thought his career choice would end up like it did.

However, now as the owner of two Free Range Exchange locations (one in Wisconsin and the other in Minnesota), Horn said he’s happy with how everything turned out.

Horn opened the Free Range Exchange in 2019 in Hokah, Minnesota.

And nearly a year ago, the coffee shop proprietor opened a second location – this time in La Crosse (213 3rd St. N), which he said was inspired by customer demand.

The path to Free Range Exchange

Armed with his knowledge of natural resources, Horn said he started a garden – a project that quickly grew.

Before long, Horn said he started selling produce at the local farmers market in La Crescent, Minnesota – which is located across the Mississippi River from La Crosse.

“(The communities) look at each other’s bluffs,” he said.

After a few years of that, Horn said his now business partner and longtime college friend, Cambria (Cami) Kolstad-DeVaney, moved to the area and began working at a local bakery.

“She’s an avid gardener and also my foodie,” he said.

Horn said Kolstad-DeVaney had previous experience at the markets selling veggies and baked goods.

Eventually, Horn said he convinced Kolstad-DeVaney to open a stand at the market next to him – which he said was the first move of many of them working together.

After a handful of years manning their separate booths, Horn said they decided to join forces and combine skills.

Free Range Exchange offers various made-from-scratch bakery items, often featuring locally grown products. Submitted Photo

“She brought her bakery world to my veggie world,” he said. “We started tag-teaming it, and shortly thereafter, we had an opportunity.”

That opportunity, Horn said, was purchasing a building and making the leap to a storefront.

Though it was “definitely a fixer-upper,” he said it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

Finding a building

When the decision was made to expand to La Crosse, Horn said the building Free Range Exchange is located in “found us.”

“(The previous owners) wanted a coffee shop in the building they were renovating, and we made it on the list of potential businesses that would want to come in there,” he said. “So they reached out to us to come look.”

Horn said it took a couple of years to get everything in line for the location – however, with their familiarity with the La Crosse area, he and Kolstad-DeVaney said they felt confident about making the leap.

More than a coffee shop

The name Free Range Exchange, Horn said, was meant to be “intentionally vague.”

“It doesn’t limit us or define exactly what we are,” he said.

Though its original vision of being a veggie and baked goods shop has evolved over the years, Horn said he would now describe it as an everyday sort of farmers market.

Free Range Exchange, he said, offers its made-from-scratch goods featuring as many local products as possible – whether it’s him growing it himself or friends of his.

The years spent at the local farmers market, he said, helped connect him with small farmers and growers.

Horn said it helps that though the shops are located in different states – they are only about 10 miles apart. 

Free Range Exchange, he said, also carries products from more than 60 local vendors.

Sourcing products

Free Range Exchange, Horn said, works under a “three rings of sourcing” concept.

The first ring, he said, focuses on a consensus effort of sourcing products within 30 miles of each respective location.

Horn said the second ring encompasses a 300-mile radius – focusing on major markets, such as the Twin Cities, Madison, Green Bay and Chicago.

Then, he said, the third ring focuses on the Midwest as a whole – including Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Knowing where everything offered at the store comes from, Horn said, is important to him and helps Free Range Exchange stand out.

He said it’s also important to him to support local artisans, roasters and other businesses.

“That’s what makes Free Range Exchange special,” he said. “We want to feature as many (local businesses) as possible.”

For Free Range Exchange’s coffee offerings, Horn said he mixes and matches with three local coffee roasters.

“Instead of putting my label on their coffee, I proudly display theirs and send people their way,” he said. 

Embraced by La Crosse community

As the La Crosse store approaches its first anniversary, Horn said he’s been amazed at how quickly and genuinely the La Crosse community has embraced the new store.

Knowledge of Free Range Exchange’s Minnesota location, he said, contributed to the La Crosse location’s initial buzz.

“With people knowing about us, we had a lot of people come in,” he said. “We’re on a busy street, so that helps a lot.”

Horn said the La Crosse location’s proximity to three colleges – the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Western Technical College and Viterbo – also supports its customer base.

In addition to coffee and bakery items, Ben Horn said Free Range Exchange carries products from more than 60 local area vendors. Submitted Photo

“We are close enough to campus, and we have Wi-Fi – it’s a vibrant spot to hang out, and there is a nice patio,” he said.

The shop’s weekly Thursday open mic nights, Horn said, have also become popular with the community.

Customer service for the win

In addition to its locally sourced products, Horn said Free Range Exchange excels in customer service. 

“We are friendly faces,” he said. “We say hello with a chipper mood when you walk in. It’s about the community connection – we’re not just a cookie-cutter coffee shop.”

The positive feedback Free Range Exchange receives, whether in-person or online, Horn said confirms “we are doing something right.”

“It validates the fact you’re making someone’s day, especially when it’s early, it’s that much better,” he said.

Furthermore, Horn said the shop prides itself on having an abundance of community connection opportunities.

“We hold many community events we sponsor with organizations,” he said. “If there’s anything we can do to be a part of the community, we will.”

One of Free Range Exchange’s slogans, Horn said, is “Local Love” – which means everything available at the shop is made with love.

“There are no shortcuts to what we do and who we choose (to feature in the store),” he said. “It’s quality over cheap – and we don’t cut corners. That’s a big part of our business model – encouraging a thriving local business economy.”

Environmental advocacy

Horn said he believes everything happens for a reason, and though there isn’t a direct connection between his natural resources background and running a coffee shop, “having an environmental background helps in a roundabout way.”

“I’m involved in the business whether that’s helping customers, stocking, cleaning or being a barista – it all gives me a platform to share knowledge with people or be a good listener and learner,” he said.

Horn said he sees Free Range Exchange as an extension of his life and his community members’ lives.

“It’s the products we eat and the products we drink,” he said. 

This is where Horn said his natural resource background helps because he can provide background about products, create relationships with vendors and provide customers with value-added products.

“Our customers notice that,” he said.

Furthermore, Horn said Free Range Exchange’s cups are biodegradable and compostable.

“It’s a love for the environment, as much as it is the community,” he said. “I feel better knowing we use an environmentally friendly product. And I know our customers see and continue to support that advocacy.”

La Crosse Free Range Exchange is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

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