Family-owned and -operated since 1946, St. Louis Park’s Nordic Ware got its start with four simple, Norwegian-style products: the krumkake iron, rosette iron, ebelskiver pan and platte panne. In 2015—celebrating its 69th year in business—the company now sells more than 300 products, from stovetop and microwave cookware to kitchen accessories and professional-grade bakeware. Nordic Ware is perhaps best known for inventing the world-famous Bundt® pan, and the extensive catalog still includes whimsical variations on the Bundt, with a festive mold for every season and occasion, from pirate ships and Easter lambs to spherical piñata cakes.
Sold worldwide, from Australia and New Zealand to Japan, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates—just some of the more than 25 countries where Nordic Ware sells products—almost all of Nordic Ware’s products are made right here in St. Louis Park, at the factory campus that flanks the iconic concrete silo near the intersection of highways 7 and 100.
Jennifer Dalquist, the company’s sales and marketing director, is also the granddaughter of Nordic Ware’s founders, H. David (Dave) and Dotty Dalquist. Dave Dalquist, whom The New York Times dubbed “The Man Who Invented the Pan,” passed away in 2005. His son David, Jennifer’s father, succeeded him as the current CEO of Nordic Ware, and other siblings and family members are heavily involved in the biz. Co-founder Dotty still makes weekly trips to the company headquarters, playing an active role in Nordic Ware’s charitable campaigns. This month, the 89-year-old St. Louis Park resident was inducted into the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame.
Jennifer, (left) David, (right) and Dotty Dalquist
For three generations, the company has been defined by its unflagging drive to innovate. Jennifer Dalquist views this less as a business philosophy and more as a concrete necessity—it’s what keeps the Nordic Ware ship afloat in a cost-driven marketplace, where most of its competitors have taken their manufacturing operations overseas. “If we didn’t come up with new products every year, we would be out of business,” she says. “We can’t compete with China’s manufacturing prices; what we can do is out-innovate them … Consumers are willing to pay a little more for a new, innovative, American-made product.”
At a kick-off event each January, Nordic Ware reveals 50 or more new products, with about 30 designs coming from in-house teams and 20 more from collaborative projects with major retailers such as Williams-Sonoma and Target. It can be tricky to predict consumers’ tastes, Dalquist says, remembering a slightly avant-garde request from Williams-Sonoma for a skull-shaped pan. In the end, shoppers gave the spooky mold a hearty Halloween thumbs-up, and the haunted skull cake pan is now available in both full and “cakelet” sizes.
In order to maintain this rapid rate of innovation, Nordic Ware’s workers devote several months to conceptualizing new products. Every year, employees are grouped into squads of four or five; each squad is responsible for producing three new design concepts. “We have integrated teams of both engineers and salespeople. That way, you end up with cool ideas that are makeable and salable,” Dalquist says. After months of brainstorming, the teams spend six weeks or so preparing prototypes and presentations, which they reveal at an off-site pitch party. “That’s where the fun comes in,” Dalquist says. “They present their ideas in the form of skits, so they’re doing musical and television parodies that somehow [incorporate] the product. Sometimes there are food samples, too!”
A tour of the headquarters begins in the quiet office buildings. I spot a few mouth-watering macro photos of desserts, and in the place of a Christmas wreath someone has hung a trio of heritage Bundt pans. In the engineering department, the desktops are scattered with colorful plastic prototypes. On one desk, there’s a test-bake of the brand-new cookie shots pan, which produces six cookies in shot-glass shapes, to be filled with milk.
Shawn Krcma, director of product design and development, says a project can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on how complex the design is. “But the biggest variable is customer satisfaction,” he adds. Nick Williams, another industrial designer, displays a hand-drawn citrus loaf pan in its umpteenth revision.
Design, Build, Bake
All five members of the engineering team have a background in industrial design; their training in ceramics and sculpture is especially applicable to their use of free-form design software. “It’s literally like clay sculpting on a computer,” says Emily Pieper, senior industrial designer.
Digital sketching is what allows Nordic Ware’s creative team to produce something as ornate as the gingerbread house Bundt pan, with realistic touches like tiny roof tiles. Going from concept to a computer-aided design file is rarely a straightforward process. Producing something that looks great and bakes well requires ingenuity and persistence. Pieper recalls the team’s recent trouble with a gingerbread man design. “When we did the test bake, there was an air pocket around his smile, so he kept coming out with this sort of horrified scream face,” she says with a laugh.
Along with sand-casting and test baking, prototyping is a crucial design step. Two on-site 3D printers are indispensable: A Makerbot printer whirs over a panhandle, dimensionally identical to the one displayed on industrial designer Makai Catudio’s computer screen.
In the next phase of production, the engineers’ designs are stamped, spun, coated, polished and packaged en masse. A gleaming 12-foot stack of original Bundt pans greets me as I enter the factory floor. I watch as an employee inserts a blank—an aluminized steel disk about the size of a large pizza—into a spinner. In seconds, the disk has taken on a familiar dome shape: a wok. The employee hole-punches the new wok and sends it down a conveyor belt, to be sprayed with a water-based non-stick coating. In the adjoining room, the wok receives handles, a label and packaging.
Nearby is an enormous plastic injection molding machine. Dalquist scoops up a handful of the raw material: translucent whitish pebbles. “When my grandfather started Nordic Ware, everything [we made] was metal. In the mid-1980s, when microwaves were all the rage, he realized we needed to innovate, fast,” says Dalquist. “He was a chemical engineer, so he was able to come up with this microwave-safe plastic.” The plastic morsels are liquefied and pumped at high speed into a mold. For a few moments, a string of numbers flashes on a small screen. At just the right second, Dalquist points to the machine, which reveals a freshly formed splatter cover.
Leaving behind the stuffy smell of hot plastic, Dalquist dons safety glasses before entering the clamor of the “metal fab” division. An imposing pile of what look like giant duct tape rolls greets those who enter. “That’s several million dollars’ worth of metal coil,” Dalquist explains. Several heavy-duty presses are in operation, with an employee at each station. As the coiled metal passes beneath the first several-hundred-ton press, it takes on a three-dimensional rectangular form. A second machine trims the excess metal from the edges and a final press curls and crimps them under. “One advantage of working with aluminum is that it’s highly recyclable,” Dalquist says, pointing out the scrap metal. “That can be melted down and re-used.” An employee removes the fresh-pressed baking pans. At a later point, each piece will run through a dishwasher the size of a school bus.
Product turnover at the main warehouse’s loading dock is rapid, Dalquist says. “By the end of the day, this area will be emptied, refilled and emptied again.” Dozens of trucks pass through the campus on any given day.
On the day of the tour, one week before Christmas, there is a buzz of excitement around the Nordic Ware headquarters. Dalquist reminds the employees to bring their coats to the holiday party later that afternoon. “We have a surprise planned,” she tells them; an appearance by live reindeer has been booked. Nordic Ware’s workforce includes 200 to 300 factory employees, and an additional 70 people in the office.
“[We are] actually not highly automated,” Dalquist says. “Of course, we could make that one-time investment, but you have to ask, do we want to lose the employees? If we were a public-owned company [listed on a stock exchange, with shareholders], I’m sure the answer would be different. But being family-owned, we can do things for the right reasons, the ethical reasons.”
Nordic Ware’s long-standing commitment to environmentally and ethically sound business practices exemplifies that stance. It has been designated a Green Business for consistently meeting national, state and local environmental standards. Nordic Ware powers its factory with natural gas and uses energy-efficient lighting and heating systems. It donates many second-quality products to local charities and uses materials that are free of the hazardous chemicals BPA and melamine.
In keeping with Nordic Ware’s green tradition, the company began a community garden initiative, installing 28 garden plots along the factory’s south-facing wall. The popular program is free and open to all employees. growers receive materials, and advice from a master gardener, who coaches them in organic farming practices. Participants must promise to donate 10 percent of their yield to the St. Louis Park Emergency Program’s food shelf, and most find that they can grow plenty to consume and give away.
Next month, these plots will be uncovered and tilled in preparation for the growing season. They will remain active through October, with several different seasonal crop rotations. “It’s a great excuse to get some exercise and sunshine after work,” Dalquist says. “But the most fulfilling thing is hearing the reactions from joggers and cyclists [passing by] on Cedar Lake Trail.”
A sample of newcomers to Nordic Ware’s 2015 catalog.
Baby bunny cakes pan
Cinnamon pull-apart pan
Stainless steel taco grilling rack
Natural Prism line of baking pans
Single-serve microwave popcorn maker
An array of cheery oven-to-table pans
Nordic Ware is the focus of a current exhibit, Nordic Inspired, American Made, at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. The display, which showcases historical examples of the company’s products, will be on view until April 26.
American Swedish Institute
2600 Park Ave. S., Mpls.