Ladies and Gentlemen! Come one, come all! Gather ‘round!

Hey Mankato! Hey Winona! New Ulm, New Prague and New Richland! Northfield, Owatonna and Faribault! Red Wing! All of you, listen up!

You too, Rochester!

It’s time to declare The Best of SoMinn for 2016.

We want to thank all of you for participating again this year. We know that culling through more than 120 different categories can be a time-consuming endeavor, especially when we’re asking you to tell us where to get the best pizza, where to get the best coffee, who is the best actress and who is the best veterinarian. These are not easy decisions to make. It’s a great responsibility and a difficult task we give you, Southern Minnesota. But for the fourth year, you showed up and were ready to fulfill your duty.

More than 100,000 votes were cast over the summer. It’s taken the crack staff here at SouthernMinn Scene weeks to process the information, track down the winners and distill the best things about each one. But you did your duty, so we did ours.

Thanks again to so many of you for making your voices heard. Without further ado, please allow us to introduce you to the Best of SoMinn 2016:

MUSIC

Best Band – The 8th Street Band

Chad Johnson & Russell Franek like to play music. I mean, they've been playing music together since junior high, it's rare to see anyone stick together musically through high-school, let along college and so-on. Maybe it’s because they don't stick to one genre. From acoustic sets to full band set ups, 8th Street Band can do it all. Chad and Russell have re-named, re-banded, and took breaks throughout the years but the love and admiration of music is what keeps them together.

From Elvis to Led Zeppelin to Train to Zac Brown Band these guys cover it all, with their own personal twist to each cover. They've written and recorded multiple original songs too ( Fun fact: They laid down some tracks where Nirvana recorded their last album at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, MN, so out of association they are best friends with Dave Grohl.), so don't you dare just call them a cover band, okay? Their style is a super fun mix of country and rock, so make sure you have your dancing shoes on when you go check them out, which you should. Chad and Russell, keep on doing the thing, and say hi to Dave for me.

-Karlee Kanz

Best Music Festival – Mid West Music Festival

It’s a sprawling event held annually in late April. More than 100 bands play all over town in a dozen different venues over three days. It is the most eagerly anticipated music event of the year, taking a full twelve months to plan. Media descends on the town like a plague of locusts. If you are a part of the music scene, or just want to be, you have to be there.

No, I’m not talking about South by South West in Austin, Texas, I’m talking about the Mid West Music Fest in Winona.

In seven years MWMF has grown from Sam Brown’s “Hey, let’s see if we can do this” idea to an increasingly important summit for the Minnesota, and indeed the Midwest.

For local music fans, it’s nothing short of a bonanza. This is nowhere else in the state – not in the Twin Cities, not in Duluth, not in Lutsen – where, in one weekend, you can see Chastity Brown, Dessa, Nick David, Charlie Parr, Mark Mallman, Jillian Rae, Apollo Cobra, The Counterfactuals, Bad Bad Hats, Cloak Ox, Frogleg, PHO, The Lowest Pair, Jeremy Messersmith, Romantica, Dusty Heart, Dead Man Winter, Spider John Koerner and Kevin Bowe. On top of that, you get to see them in venues like Ed’s (no name) Bar, which has twice now been named the best place for live music in Southern Minnesota and Winona’s Masonic Temple, which is one of the quirkiest – and most comfortable – rooms in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to music.

In 2016, MWMF branched out to LaCrosse, Wisconsin for a one-day festival (which will become a two-day festival in 2017) and there is every reason to believe that even more growth is on the horizon. If you haven’t been, you’re going to want to check it out in 2017. Keep your eye on this thing. The SXSW comparisons aren’t that far off.

Mid West Music Fest is scheduled for April 14-15 in LaCrosse and April 28-29 in Winona for 2017.

-Rich Larson

Best Place for Live Music – Ed’s (no name) Bar, Winona

Best Bartender – Nate Gill, Ed’s (no name) Bar, Winona

Now you’re really starting to get it, SoMinn. We’ve been beating this drum for a couple years in this magazine, and finally you’re starting to listen. We’ve told you and told you – there is an unbelievably good music scene in Winona. A lot of that music can be heard at Ed’s (no name) Bar, which has now been voted the Best Music Venue in Southern Minnesota for two consecutive years.

So, what defines a great music venue? Well, first there has to be a commitment made by the management to keep a decent stage with a solid PA and an in-house tech who can present musicians in the best possible way. Secondly, there has to be a steady stream of great music coming through on a weekly, if not nightly basis. There should be a good mix of bigger names and local musicians, providing opportunities for local fans to hear what’s going on around the region and for local players to present their music in a respectable light. There also has to be an audience that wants to hear good music and trusts the booking agent to present top quality performers. There should be residencies available to the artists who seem to play their best in that room. There should be a good dance floor. There should be good lighting.

Also, there has to be a great beer selection and good servers and bartenders.

One need look no further than Ed’s to find the best example of all of this. The ambiance is perfect. There’s a long bar on one side of the main room, eclectic art hanging all over the walls, and a makeshift side-room with benches and tables suitable for resting a sweaty body tired from too much dancing. The stage is high enough so you can stand in the back of the room and still see who’s playing, but not so far from the crowd that there’s a separation between performer and audience. The names that come rolling through Ed’s are a who’s who of the Minnesota music scene – Charlie Parr, Chastity brown, The Ericksons, The Pines, Jillian Ray, Kevin Bowe, The 4onthefloor, Farewell Milwaukee, Chris Koza, Circle of Heat and Good Night, Gold Dust, just to name a few. They leave plenty of space for locals like Mike Munson, who plays the blues at Ed’s most Sunday Nights, Jake Ilika (and the 27 different bands he’s in), Jaybone Bell and General B and The Wiz.

Every April, Ed’s is one of the key venues for the Mid West Music fest. Every now and then you’ll look at the calendar and see that a guy like Jonathan Richman is playing there. If more people outside of Winona knew about the local music scene, Ed’s would be considered one of the essential Minnesota music venues.

And speaking of great bartenders, this year you recognized Nate Gill as the Best Bartender in Southern Minnesota as well. It takes a lot of work to even be a good bartender. Not everyone is cut out for that job. You have to be gregarious and outgoing at all times, even when you can’t hear yourself think due to the music being played three feet from the bar, or even when you’re dealing with a brand new 21 year old who has no idea what to order and there’s a five-deep line of people behind her. We congratulate Mr. Gill for excelling in a particularly difficult profession.

Ed’s (no name) Bar is located at 252 East 3rd Street in Winona

-Rich Larson

Best Radio Personality – Molly Penny, KOWZ and KRUE Radio, Owatonna

You’re not going to find a better Southern Minnesota success story than Molly Penny.

Five years ago, she was a single mom, just moved to Owatonna, trying to raise her kids, trying to finish school, trying to make ends meet and trying to get her life in order. She took a job at the local Papa Murphy’s because it was gainful employment.

“The only radio station we could pick up was the 100,000 watt KOWZ in Owatonna. One day I heard a promo they were running asking for women who thought they had what it took to host a morning show.”

With no radio experience but absolutely nothing to lose, Molly sent in a resume. She was one of three applicants picked for a live, on-air audition. And about two weeks later, the station called her and offered her the job.

These days, that shot-in-the-dark has turned into a full time job. Molly hosts the morning show Monday – Friday with Andy Gott from 6-9 a.m., then she carries on solo from 9-12 p.m., then she moves over to KRUE Country for her 2-6 afternoon shift.

She’s a true radio workhorse, but don’t tell her that.

“It’s funny,” she said, “Even though I’ve been at it for five years, and it’s my life, I still feel like kind of a newb.”

Did we mention that last year she was promoted to KOWZ Music Director, as well?

It’s clear that she has taken to her career in a big way.

“I love to talk and I love music, but more than anything I love interacting with listeners, meeting them, doing the various social media. I’m so fortunate to be able to do this job in the community where I grew up.”

And now she’s been voted the Best Radio Personality in Southern Minnesota.

“I’m so grateful to everyone who voted,” she said. “This is really an honor. I really do owe everything to the listeners. They’re the ones who keep me employed.”

-Rich Larson 

Best Radio Station – AM 1080, KYMN Northfield

Since 1968 KYMN Northfield residents have been tuning their dials to AM 1030. Wayne Eddy had previous radio and tv stints but he hit his personal jackpot when he started a 1,000-watt AM station in Northfield. His voice launched KYMN on September 27, 1968, and for the next 34 years he served as owner, manager, and morning host. He decided to hang up his mic and retire in 2002, but when you love something so much it’s hard to stop, ergo, you can still hear him weekend mornings on KYMN.

This station is as eclectic as the town is resides in, keeping you up to date on all things important, and adding in a classic Northfield feel to each program, whether it’s the ArtZany! broadcast, Fridays at 9am, or Raider Wrap highlighting high-school sports and their players broadcasting every Saturday morning at 10am. KYMN is your one stop shop for all things Northfield and beyond. So keep connected and don't stop listening to this year’s Best Radio Station.

-Karlee Kanz

Best Solo Act – Tim Howe

Tim Howe has been playing the bar/saloon/festival circuit of the Twin Cities and Southern Minnesota for years as a bit of an unsung hero. Despite his talent and loyal following, Howe has somehow evaded the media attention he so richly deserves.

That might sound like a strange thing to say about a man who has played had some high profile shows and venues, and there’s no question that Tim has a fiercely loyal, if compact, following. But the simple fact is that Tim is an enormous talent who should receive honors, accolades and praise at every turn.

A Tim Howe show is equal parts intimate performance and technical spectacle. He’s an accomplished guitar player, in the vein of Bob Dylan or James Taylor. Not necessarily a “shredder” as much as a songwriter who composes gorgeous, intricate music for his instrument to compliment his easy melodies and insightful lyrics. The songs, however, can sound deceivingly simple. There’s accessibility to his music that belies the proficiency. The music can suck you in with a sweet hook, and take you for a ride on a rhythmic guitar line. Like the very best songwriters, it’s tough to imagine anybody but Tim himself playing that music. The sound and the feel are truly unique to the player.

Tim has also been quick to embrace technology. As a solo performer presenting your songs with real depth can be difficult. Tim has become proficient, however, in the art of looping, recording and layering different parts of a song over each other until he has created a “full band sound” accompanying only himself. It’s not an easy skill to master, and an even more difficult thing to present gracefully, but Tim can do it with true patience, and always keeps things interesting. Each part becomes a reveal as he introduces another element to a song.

Here at the plush and secret headquarters of SouthernMinn Scene, we are truly thrilled to see that Tim is beginning to get some of the attention he deserves. He’s a hard working guy, who is always performing. You’re going to want to look him up and check him out the next time he plays near you.

-Rich Larson

ART

Best Art Center – Owatonna Art Center

We don’t play favorites around here at the plush and secret headquarter of SouthernMinn Scene, especially when it comes to art centers. Those local organizations dedicated to fostering local art, educating anyone who wants to learn and providing a forum and advocacy for the importance of culture and expression are invaluable, and we support every one we come in contact with.

But, I have to say, seeing the Owatonna Art Center named Best Art Center in Southern Minnesota made my smile a little wider.

It wasn’t that long ago that the OAC was mired in turmoil. The board of directors was in flux, more than one well qualified executive director came and went, events were canceled and fundraising was at a standstill.

Today the center is stable under the leadership of longtime OAC employee Silvan Durben. They’ve recently dedicated a beautiful new entrance to their building at West Hills in Owatonna, and are preparing a number of exciting exhibitions and events.

As Durben recently told SouthernMinn Scene, “For me, it’s not about where we have been, but where we are going that matters the most.” Indeed, he speaks the truth. The Owatonna Art Center is healthy and happy. It’s good news for Owatonna and good news for the rest of SoMinn as well.

-Rich Larson

Best Art Fair - Riverfront Fine Arts Festival

As a part of the annual Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, the Riverfront Fine Arts Festival takes place along the picturesque Cannon River and showcases the talent of many local and regional artists.

Since the 1970s, the Riverfront Fine Arts Festival has drawn crowds to explore the rich variety of art that is annually displayed and sold. Over 65 artists are featured during the two day festival, revealing a range of mediums and styles perfected for art lovers to enjoy.

This is the second year that Heather Lawrenz has coordinated the show, and it is her ninth year as participating artists.

“It’s one of my favorite festivals of the year,” she said.

Lawrenz noted a few quotes from some of her fellow artists after the show this year.

One said “This was the most support I have felt as an artist after 10 years of exhibiting - this was the best.”

Another said, “It is a well-attended event and the arts guild did a great job organizing the show.”

A third pointed out, “I felt well informed all along, and coordinators and volunteers always got right back to me if I had a question or needed anything.”

Applications for next year’s festival will go onto the Northfield Arts Guild website in March of 2017, with a deadline of May 31.

- Renee Brown

Best Art Gallery - The 410 Project, Mankato

In 2003, three students studying art at Minnesota State University, Mankato pooled their resources together to rent a space where they could exhibit their artwork.

Thirteen years later, the 410 Project has evolved into a space where the Mankato community can gather together to view art, make art and discuss art, all the while giving local artists the chance to display and grow in their craft.

The 410 Project is completely volunteer-managed. It is not technically a nonprofit, but it still stays open entirely through community donations and grants. Besides regular exhibits, the gallery also hosts guest lectures, workshops, live music events and more—and almost everything is free. At most, a class will cost $5 to cover supplies.

 “We never want money to be a barrier for anyone to come in here and participate in anything,” explained executive director Dana Sikkila. “One of our biggest missions is to make art accessible to everyone from every background.”

Along those same lines, the 410 Project doesn’t charge commission fees when it comes to exhibiting artists. While artists pay a one-time charge to use the space, any profits that come from sold artwork go straight back to the artists.

“Charging artists for their work goes against our mission,” Sikkila said. “We’re artists supporting artists.”

The 410 Project is located at 523 South Front Street in Mankato.

-Grace Webb

Best Museum – Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Going to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) a visit to an art gallery – it’s an experience that begins as you enter the parking lot.

The MMAM is surrounded by gardens of prairie grasses and flowers, and uses the Mississippi River as a backdrop. None of that is by accident.

Curator Jon Swanson, who has been with the museum for 10 years, said it’s meant to feel like your driving into a landscape painting which clears your mind for what’s inside.

And what’s inside is an impressive collection of marine art by artists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso, just to name a few.

“We have very strong historically significant permanent collection, but we also have a great travelling exhibitions,” Swanson said.

Currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, the MMAM has grown quickly since it opened its doors, expanded three times, and sees about 26,000 visitors a year.

In addition to the galleries, Swanson noted that the museum also provides educational opportunities for the community.

“We have a wide variety of educational programming from toddlers up through seniors,” he said.

Swanson attributes the success of the museum to not only the dedicated staff, but the strongly committed docents and volunteers.

“Its a community effort and a community museum,” he said.

The Minnesota Marine Art Mueseum is located at 800 Riverview Drive in Winona.

Visit www.mmam.org for hours and current exhibition.

-Megan Proft

Best Outdoor Art Installation - Mankato’s Walking Sculpture Tour

Art lovers have a unique way to explore local artwork through Mankato’s Walking Sculpture Tour.

The tour includes different pieces of art every year, spread along a two-mile loop across downtown Mankato and into North Mankato. This year, 27 sculptures are featured, including a giant blue moped and a life-sized bear made out of old Volkswagen parts. The sculpture walk’s selection committee tries to pick a little of everything: abstract pieces, representational pieces, human subjects, animal subjects, etc.

Every year, art walkers have the chance to vote on their favorite sculpture, and the winner is installed in Mankato permanently. The other pieces are available for purchase before moving on to other locations. Last year, about 1,000 votes came in, selecting a giant sculpture of Godzilla as the winner. He was installed in his permanent location in North Mankato shortly after.

The tour is organized through a collaboration between the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts and the City Center Partnership, with funds coming mostly through business sponsorships and also through support from the city.

Noelle Lawton, executive director of the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, said one of the goals is to feature as many Minnesota artists as possible. This year, more than half of the sculptures are from Minnesota artists, while other selections come from places as far away as Canada and Europe.

“We were excited about the work that came in,” Lawton said. “The tour really represents the state really well.”

The pieces are installed in mid-May and stay until the following April.

-Grace Webb

Best Visual Artist - Julie Fakler

Julie Fakler stands out as an artist who truly loves what she does. Her paintings draw the eye to the bold colors and soft brush strokes that are used to create realistic and beautifully rendered portraits of cats, dog and other domesticated animals.

“I’ve been making art my whole life and it's just something that's in my DNA, and I have an extreme love for animals and that's what I paint,” she said.

Fakler graduated from the Minnesota College of Arts and Design in 1996 and has been in Faribault for 20 years. She has been with the Paradise Center for the Arts for 5 years and is currently the Director of Operations.

“I’ve been fortunate to network with artists in southern Minnesota and in the metro,” she said.

Her work has been featured in galleries across Minnesota and at the state fair several times, and her studio has been a part of the annual Studio Artour since 2009.

“Lots of people come hang out and look at the artwork,” she said of the Artour, noting that the tour is the only time that people get to see where she works.

Fakler also creates handmade quilts and does commissions of pets for people who would like a memorable keepsake of their cherished animal companion.

For more information on Julie, go to www.jmfstudio.us/julie_fakler.htm

-Renee Brown

Best Actor – Nate Chesney as Stephen in The Merlin Players’ Farragut North

Nate Chesney isn’t used to playing the antagonist so taking on the role of Stephen in Merlin Player’s Farragut North was a new experience for him.

“I’ve never played a character that in some many ways was a good guy… but (was) to be looked at as a bad guy,” Chesney said. “It was a thrill to play a character that you wanted the audience to hate.”

Farragut North, a political drama based off real events, tracks the character of Stephen as he navigates his role of press secretary for a presidential candidate.

“The character was a little all over the place,” Chesney said. Stephen goes from high-high comedy moments to suddenly very emotional, he said.

To succeed in the role, Chesney said he looked to the cast and crew around him.

“I think you can only be as good as the people you surround yourself with. There were so many good people in that show with me,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about theater.”

Director Craig Berg said Chesney has a bright future in local community theater.

“Nate is a little new to theater. He is an amazing talent we will see for many years to come,” Berg said. “I’m very thrilled and happy he won this award.”

-Megan Proft

Best Actress – Bri Velzke as Sandy in The Little Theatre of Owatonna’s Grease

Portraying one of the most beloved ingénues in musical theater could be a daunting task, but for Bri Velzke stepping into the role of Sandy in Little Theatre of Owatonna’s (LTO) production of Grease was more of a dream come true.

Grease has been a favorite of mine since I was a little girl… hearing that LTO was going to perform Grease, I knew I had to be involved,” Velzke said.

Velzke, who has has been involved with LTO since 2004, said she avoided imitating the movie and instead channeled being a teenager like Sandy is in the show.

“I approached the character by trying to remember what I was like at that age,” she said. “Every kid goes through that stage where they feel they need to change themselves or their appearance to be liked by another person- I just tried to remember what that felt like.”

To be a good actress and put on a successful show, Velzke said it takes a special connection to the character you are playing as well as dedication and passion.

Those are qualities that Grease director Craig Berg saw in Velzke straight away.

“Bri’s voice is incredible and she worked so hard,” Berg said. “She is an amazing talent and I was so lucky to have her come and audition for Sandy.”

-Megan Proft

Best Director – Craig Berg, Grease for the Little Theatre of Owatonna

You’re only as good as the people around you. That is something Craig Berg believes strongly in.

Berg directed Grease for Little Theatre of Owatonna (LTO) this past summer and said to be a good director you have to start by filling your cast and crew with wonderful people.

That is especially key with a musical, Berg said.

“It’s a lot more work (to do a musical) but you also have a lot of support with musical directors and choreographers. For Grease, I had just wonderful support,” Berg said.

He also attributes a strong collective vision to the success of Grease.

“I let people know what I wanted… then I let them run with my vision,” Berg said. “If you pick the right people around you, they can use their talents to create the vision. It comes out very well.”

One of those talents in particular was Stage Manager Mary Butler-Fraser, Berg said, who was his right-hand woman.

Bri Velzke, who played Sandy in the show, grew up around LTO but has been away for a while said both Berg and Butler-Fraser made Grease a positive homecoming for her.

“(Craig) was so dedicated and passionate working on Grease. He had a true vision and it was fun to work with him,” Velzke said. “It was so fun to be a part of a LTO show again and it just felt like home to have him and Mary Butler-Fraser there. They are such a dynamic duo.”

-Megan Proft

Best Theater Production – The Best of Hank & Rita

The golden road of show business is strewn with heartbreak and tears. The demands of a successful career in entertainment are such that it can be nearly impossible to keep a marriage or any sort of meaningful romantic relationship together. From George Jones and Tammy Wynette to Sonny and Cher right up through Brad and Angelina, the tragic examples of failed Hollywood couples are everywhere.

Joe Tougas and Ann Rosenquist Fee are not married (at least not to each other). They have, however been performing as The Frye for more than a decade. The acoustic duo’s onstage chemistry is so good, however, that they are quite frequently mistaken for a married couple. A couple years ago, after someone had made that mistaken assumption yet again, the idea occurred to them that they could put that chemistry to use by presenting themselves as a husband and wife whose marriage was on the rocks.

Tougas began writing a song cycle to be performed by “Hank & Rita,” a husband and wife duo who had hit the top ten in the country charts in the mid-70’s, but slowly that success became cheaper shows in lower rent venues. By the time we catch up with them in 1986, Rita has had enough. She pens a letter to her husband telling him that she is leaving and sets it in the dressing room for Hank to find after what he doesn’t realize will be their final show.

That’s where the show starts. What follows is a funny, heart breaking, irritating and surprisingly emotional roller-coaster as the back-and-forth between the two of them calls Rita’s intentions into question.

The Best of Hank & Rita premiered in the summer of 2015, and since that time Tougas and Rosenquist Fee have performed dozens of shows in Mankato, New Ulm, Northfield, Madison, and the Twin Cities to overwhelming acclaim. I have called the show the most original piece of theater I’ve ever seen in Southern Minnesota, and, frankly, that’s starting to feel like an understatement. Tougas and Rosenquist Fee have created a show that that feels timeless (even with the “It’s 1986” gags) that reaches into the heart of a couple at the end of a road, even though they are no less in love than they’ve ever been.

And that doesn’t even touch on how good the music is.

They call The Best of Hank & Rita a “bar room operetta,” which is an apt description. It’s also must see theater for anyone who loves good music, good friends, and the delicious complications of love in the real world, or even the not-so-real worlds of Hollywood and Nashville. To paraphrase the show’s tagline, you really do want to see this show “before it all goes to hell.”

-Rich Larson

Best Theater – Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault

Behind the brick façade and lit marquee of the Paradise Center for the Arts lies much more than meets the eye.

Executive Director Kristen Twitchell said many people don’t realize what a gem the Paradise is until they get in the door. Even she was surprised the first time she entered the building.

“My reaction was wow,” she said. “I would love for folks to come in and just see it.”

Paradise has multiple galleries with rotating art, a gift shop filled with local treasures, an upper floor with classroom space, a sprawling basement, and of course, a theater space that is always buzzing with the next performance.

Director of Operations Julie Fakler said the theater provides a unique experience for those who attend performances.

“It is an intimate space… and there’s always a good seat in the house,” she said. 

Twitchell agreed that the performance hallis a focal point for the Paradise and they try to use it to its full potential.

“I love that idea of an intimate space. You can sit anywhere and enjoy,” she said. “We really want to take advantage of the space.”

The community is welcome to visit the Paradise anytime during operating hours to see the galleries, purchase tickets to a show or even get a mini-tour from staff. Hours and a calendar of events is available on their website.

The Paradise Center for the arts is located at 321 Central Ave in Faribault

-Megan Proft

Best Theater Troupe – The Little Theatre of Owatonna

Theater troupes can often act just like a family.

And that rings true of Little Theatre of Owatonna (LTO) according to Mike Jensen, president of the board.

“LTO is a well-organized community theatre with very committed volunteers that take their role in the organization seriously,” Jensen said. “In many ways LTO is a family, where each person connects on both a professional and personal level.

And it’s a family that has been together a long time - LTO just celebrated its 50th anniversary season.

Brenda Hager, vice president of the board, said that sets them apart.

“I think LTO stands out among other community theatres because of its longevity – fifty years and still going,” Brenda Hager said.

LTO’s role in the community since it’s inception in 1966 has been to provide arts and culture, Jensen said, and open up opportunities for artists to come together.

“Owatonna is extremely fortunate to have such a strong arts program. An organization like LTO helps to bring people together – not only the audience, but more so the cast and crew,” he said. “Many lifelong friendships are developed from spending concentrated time on an LTO production.”

Jensen and Hager encourage people to visit www.littletheatreofowatonna.org for information on upcoming events or to get involved.

Hager said that invitation comes with a playful warning.

“But beware once you get involved you will like most of us find that we are just like family and getting hooked is almost inevitable,” Hager said.

-Megan Proft

SPORTS/OUTDOORS

Best Ballpark – Tink Larson Field, Waseca

There’s probably more sentiment in this winner than in any other this year.

On April 6, the grandstand at Waseca’s Tink Larson field burned to the ground, a result, authorities say, of arson. As of this writing, they still do not have a suspect in custody.

The Waseca baseball team was forced to play all its games on the road this season until their final one on May 20th when the city was able to build some temporary bleachers and seating with help from local volunteers and the Minnesota Twins.

That grandstand that burned was built in 1939 and helped to foster one of the great baseball communities in Southern Minnesota. It was home to the Waseca High School team, the Waseca Braves townball club and the local VFW and American Legion teams. Generations of Waseca and, indeed, greater Minnesota ballplayers  have memories of playing on the field and spending time in the locker rooms which are now gone. The day after the fire, The Waseca County News called the grandstand a “Waseca Institution,” but that is understating things. Like the man for whom it was named in 1994, the ballpark made an enormous contribution to the health and well-being of baseball in Minnesota.

The ballpark itself, of course, is okay. It was fully playable this summer for Legion and Townball games. In July, the city released four different architectural concepts for a new grandstand. The city estimates that the cost to rebuild will cost between $1.5 and $2 million. About a third of that money will come from insurance on the old grandstand.

The biggest reason I live in s small town in Southern Minnesota is because I love community. On top of that, I’m a baseball fan. So when someone goes out of their way to destroy a landmark like Tink Larson Field, I take it personally. Yes, there will be a new grandstand, and life and baseball will go on in Waseca. But there is no reclaiming the memories lost in that fire. When authorities identify the arsonist, it is my hope that person will be charged to the full extent of the law.

I have made a contribution to the rebuilding of Tink Larson Field and I encourage you to do the same. Please visit http://ci.waseca.mn.us/tink-larson-field-grandstand-donations/ to help Waseca and the baseball community in Minnesota.

-Rich Larson

Best Bike Trail – Kaplan’s Woods Trail, Owatonna

In 2013, the Owatonna City Council approved construction of mountain bike trails in Kaplan’s Woods Park by unanimous vote. The construction of the trail was seen as a long overdue feature for one of the city’s most popular parks.

Since construction completed, the trails have been explored, traveled, maintained and praised by the ever-growing, ever-enthusiastic mountain biking community in Minnesota. The 4+ miles of trail, including a new third loop that opened this past June, are good for bikers of all skills and abilities. The first loop is good for beginners while the second and third loops increase in difficulties and challenges. While the elevation on the singletrack trail will only vary slightly (less than 100 feet from low to high points), there are enough challenges and obstacles on the course to give anybody a good workout.

Last winter, the Owatonna Parks and Rec department began occasional fat tire bike demos for people wanting to try out the bicycles that look more like military transports than the 10-speed bike you rode to school as a kid. The popularity of fat bikes has now led the OPR department to offer groomed trails in Kaplan’s Woods beginning this winter. This is Minnesota, after all. We don’t let something as negligible as winter come between us and our outdoor adventures do we?

Visit the Owatonna Trails Association page on Facebook for up-to-date information on the Kaplan’s Woods Trails.

-Rich Larson

Best Bowling Alley - Spare Time Entertainment

While everyone else is looking for ways to survive the frigid Minnesota winter, SoMinn is just hanging out, sipping on a brew, knocking some pins down and eating the beefy, cheesy, crunchy pile that is the loaded nachos at Spare Time Entertainment. You’re not impressed? Well allow me to retort.

This is a first-class bowling center providing the latest in entertainment. Since it’s reopening, the Owatonna business has added various updates and additions making it the undisputed champion of Best Bowling Alley. Virtual games added to the lanes and sleek seating makes it a comfortable and clean place to bowl. Volleyball is held outside in the sand courts specifically built for the occasion in the summer and both a laser tag area and game zone are set to open in the coming months.

One of their main attractions has been the cuisine provided by Gar Olson, a chef with 40 years of experience in catering events. The business has a full menu ranging from paninis and wraps to homemade pizza and Gar specialties.

Continually making improvements, those who have invested in the bowling alley have provided the community with an outlet. It is the perfect spot for a night out, a drink after work or your next big event.

Spare Time Entertainment is located at 333 18th Street SE in Owatonna

--Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Campground – Kiesler’s Campground & RV Resort, Waseca

For every true southern Minnesotan, the word “camping” evokes images of outdoor activities, roasting marshmallows around the campfire, and Citronella-scented candles to bat away the infamous state bird. But for the regulars at Kiesler’s Campground and RV Resort just along Clear Lake in Waseca, these are only a handful of images that come to mind.

Family-owned and operated for over four decades, Kiesler’s precedence is on making camping fun for the entire family. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5, 15, or 50 – they’ve got slip n’ slides as well as Bingo nights.

“We see generations come through. Some have been coming for over 30 years and there are some, who I grew up playing with, that are now bringing their own kids here,” says manager Kristi Corchran, granddaughter of founder Kal Kiesler.

From Mid-April to October you will find the 350 campsites packed with campers. Luckily, there is never a shortage of activities. On site they have a pool, two waterslides, basketball and volleyball courts, and an RC track. In the summer they rotate new activities every 30 minutes, from “Minute to Win It” games to big themed events such as “Kiesler’s Got Talent.” Nature lovers can get their fix through hiking, fishing, and boat rentals along Clear Lake.

“It’s truly a destination. People come as a family to stay and experience what we have to offer,” says Corchran. “We have clean facilities, professional attitudes, and we try to form relationships with all of our guests. Oftentimes our staff will remember our guests’ names.”

And for those who don’t truly want to unplug, there’s even the option of Wi-Fi.

-Meghan Rook

Best Golf Course – Brooktree Golf Course, Owatonna

Taking pride in the way their golf course looks and plays has paid off for the grounds crew and employees at Brooktree Golf Course in Owatonna.

Not only has the well-groomed, picturesque course remained busy with a lot of rounds being played by locals during the spring and summer and now into fall, the municipal golf course is considered a destination course by many outside the city limits.

Out of the many great courses dotting the Southern Minnesota countryside, Brooktree was voted the  “Best Golf Course” by the readers of SouthernMinn Scene in 2016 for the second consecutive year.

“Brooktree is a very well-manicured course, especially for a municipal course,” said Mary Jo Knudson, Recreation Superintendent for the city of Owatonna. “It is a very welcoming course to golfers of all skill levels. Some holes will be more challenging than others, but it really depends on how you hit the golf ball any given day. Our front and back nines are quite different, too.”

Knudson said the condition of the golf course itself is a big draw for locals and out-of-town visitors alike. And, she said the Clubhouse Grill offers quite a variety for a small kitchen.

And if you are lucky, she said coming across an array of wildlife is not out of the question.

“We are tucked away in a quiet area of town that has much wildlife,” she said. “While you’re out on the course, you may see deer, geese and quite a variety of birds among the brook and the trees. The course itself is very picturesque.”

Brooktree Golf Course is located at 1369 Cherry Street in Owatonna

-Jerry Smith

Best Kayak/Canoe Rental - Gear ReSource, Dundas

If you’re looking for a grand adventure on the beautiful Cannon River, look no further than Gear ReSource Outfitters in Dundas. Opened in 2012 and owned by Robert and Nicole Stai, Gear ReSource was nominated as the Best Kayak/Canoe Rental the area.

This knowledgeable organization will give thorough instruction and teach you the ways of the river. Be sure to schedule in advance, since this popular activity draws a lot of interested people to the area and spaces can fill up fast.

They have two routes set up for interested kayakers. The first is perfect for beginners, running from Wilderness Park to Dundas. The second runs from Faribault to Dundas, and is for more experienced kayakers. Along with this, they offer opportunities for adventure-goers to paddle board, snowshoe in the winter and rent a variety of camping gear.

So if you’re interested in the outdoors and have never enjoyed a relaxing, engaging trip down the Cannon River, head on over to the best Kayak/Canoe rental in Southern Minnesota for an unforgettable experience.

Gear Resource is located at 201 Railway Street North in Dundas.

-Renee Brown

Best Municipal Swimming Pool - River Springs Water Park

Living in the land of 10,000 lakes, one might be reserved on spending money to splash. But, if you’re like me and would trade sandy diapers for a pretzel with cheese every once in a while, River Springs Water Park will satisfy that desire.

An outing with the kids can often take a turn for the worse and become an Us vs. Them experience. But the amenities offered at this waterpark are designed so both the parent and child can have a fun day with few worries. Even if little Johnny’s only fear is he might have to wait to use the turtle slide, he will have a blast swimming around in the more than spacious entry pool.

A tube and body slide are the perfect combination of family-friendly and just-scary-enough. River Springs is also equipped with a lazy river that spans across the park, a large activity pool, climbing wall, lily pad walk and a sand volleyball court. Families can relax on the many lounging chairs while enjoying that salty pretzel or even a blue raspberry slushie from the concession stand. Guests also have access to showers and locker rooms.

Multiple experienced lifeguards are stationed from open until close and the water is checked every hour making it a clean and safe activity for all.

River Springs Water park is located at 3065 St Paul Road in Owatonna

--Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Ski Slope - Welch Village

Set in the picturesque Cannon Valley, Welch Village provides skiers with a feeling of skiing in the mountains while being in Southern Minnesota.

“We’re generally regarded as having some of the best terrain in the Minnesota,” Welch Village Vice President of Mountain Services said.

Welch Village features 60 runs, including four black diamonds along with some of the steepest front-face runs in the region.

Welch Village also has extensive snow making capabilities, which makes it one of the first ski resorts open each season in the area.

Welch Village caters to skiers of all skill levels and in fact is the only licensed Primary Movements Teaching System, which teaches direct parallel skiing. PMTS allows coaches to teach the same movements as world cup racers.

Welch Village is also in the beginning stages of creating a terrain park. Welch Village spent this summer grading the hill and finishing an erosion control program. The grading process added a 15 percent grade for the hill which will allow for free-style skiing in the future.

The ski resort also features live music on Saturday nights and offers discounts with its partners, Big Sky Montana, Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming and Lutsen Mountains.

Learn more at www.welchvillage.com

--Nick Gerhardt

RETAIL and SERVICES

Best Antique Store and Best Second Hand Store – Vintage Etc., Northfield

Even though Vintage, Etc. is not even a year old, with them being open for only 7 months, they settled in perfectly on the main drag in downtown Northfield, snagging their first (of probably many) Best Of wins. After walking through the doors of Vintage, Etc. your eyes are greeted with many vibrant colors, patterns, textures, and sizes. Its everything you want an antique store to be. It's filled a multitude of many rare and diverse treasures, without overwhelming to your senses. So you don't have to feel as if you need to dig through their selection of odds and ends to find something worth purchase, like with some antique stores. Everything seems organized, and with 10+ vendors they keep their pickings very fresh, unique, and special.

Whenever I walk into an antique store I'm not usually looking for anything in particular, the part of the fun is the search, and with so many wondrous options it’s hard to leave that place empty handed. So if something calls out "Buy me, yeah me, right over here! Do it! You need me in your life! I'll look so cute on your coffee table!" I suggest you buy it, since most antiques are insanely unique and special, just like you (Awww).

Vintage Etc. is located at 411 Division Street South in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Auto Body Shop - Ellis Body Shop, Owatonna

You backed your car into a post in the damn parking lot, and now you have a broken tail light and the rear quarter panel is completely scratched up. It’s not a life-changing event to be sure, but man it sure as hell can be a drag.

You love your car and you want it to look good. How many of us have fathers who drilled into our heads how much you will be judged by the way your car looks? You want to take your car somewhere that you can feel is trustworthy, that will charge you a fair price and will do good work.

In Southern Minnesota, that means you take your car to Jack Ellis at the Ellis Body Shop in Owatonna.

Since December 1, 1977 Jack has been buffing away the stress and anxiety of those dents, cracks and worse. “When I started, there were probably 13 body shops here in town. Now we’re down to three, and I’m the only independent one right here in town,” Jack said proudly.

Today the Ellis Body shop sits on 9700 square feet on Brady Boulevard in Owatonna. Jack currently has two employees, and he’s starting to look for another.

He attributes his success to simple business practices. “I’ve never really been a good ‘business man.’ I’ve never done a lot of ambulance chasing,” he said. “I treat people fairly and charge them correctly.” When you operate like that, you get a lot of word-of-mouth business, and the bottom line tends to take care of itself.

So, after nearly 40 years in the business, Jack seems to be satisfied with his chosen profession.

“I just always loved cars,” he said.

“Mechanics work on their cars to make them fast. I don’t need to go fast. I just need to look good.”

Ellis Body Shop is located at 1231 Brady Boulevard in Owatonna

-Rich Larson

Best Auto Dealer - Apple Chevrolet, Northfield

Everyone knows that buying a car is supposed to be a stressful and time consuming task, right? That is, of course, unless you go to Apple Chevrolet, where the customer is always put first and is treated right every time.

This company stands out in that it is always dependable and willing to help find the perfect fit for each individual customer. Whether you’re looking to find great deals, getting the safest car for toting the kids around or searching for something flashy and fast, Apple Chevrolet in Northfield is the place to go.

Plus, they sell both new and used cars, so there really is something for everyone. And if car trouble strikes or you just have regular maintenance work that needs to be taken care of, Apple Autos in Northfield has a stellar certified shop to handle anything.

The staff is not paid on commission and they are honest and open to try to find the right fit for you. This family owned business has the right attitude and drive to make sure you drive something amazing.

Apple Chevrolet is located at 1600 Cannon Lane in Northfield.

- Renee Brown

Best Barber Shop - Johnson’s Barber Shop, Owatonna

This is a true barbershop—three chairs, 50-cent soda in the corner and no frills. No appointments, either.

“If someone’s sitting there, you know you’re next,” said a man sitting in the shop.

It was started in 1959 in the old Owatonna Hotel building. Current proprietor Gary Johnson was on hand when his father founded the business. Through all those years cutting hair, Gary said he has a lot of regulars.

It’s just how you would picture a classic barbershop. There’s one room with a TV in the corner, three old chairs lined up with three sinks behind and a nice-looking man with a comb in his breast pocket lines you up with a solid haircut.

Johnson’s Barber Shop is located at 316 N Cedar Ave in Owatonna

-Matt Hudson

Best Book Store New or Used – con•tent bookstore

One of the best smells in the world is a freshly printed and bound book. The second best smell is of course, an old book. With all of the technology now-a-days it’s easier to just press a button, and get a novel right at your fingertips. But there is nothing like gently thumbing through some real-life book paper. Content Books in Northfield is a treasure trove for all of you bibliophile's. It's small in size but the selection is unique and surprisingly vast. Can't find the one you're looking for? Come browse our new selections. As always, Content are more than happy to do special orders and can get most books in the store within a few days. How cool is that?

Content Books in Northfield Minnesota isn't just a book shop. They host a monthly poetry night highlighting a specific writer, with most of them coming in store for readings and Q&A, storytelling workshops which are held at the Northfield Public Library, most of them being free to the public, and meet and greets with some of your favorite local writers and authors! Like I said, Content is more than just a book shop. It's like my mother always says, never judge a book by its cover.

con•tent bookstore is located at 314 Division Street in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Boutique - The Rare Pair, Northfield

The Rare Pair in Northfield offers an array of stylish, comfortable clothing to meet anyone’s fashion criteria. The store has been around since 1977 and has become a staple for the town’s clothing and footwear needs.

To keep things fresh, the Rare Pair is displayed tastefully and seasonally, drawing customers in with cute sweater and handbag combinations or brightly colored scarves that can be spotted in the windows.

They specialize in shoes that are fashionable and of great quality. Popular brands that can be found there include Birkenstock, Dr. Martens and TOMS, among many others. Don’t forget to pick up a few pairs of Happy Socks as well.

Excellent customer service and a friendly smile will always be found upon entering the store, and customers will leave with the feeling that they’ve found the perfect place to maintain a casual, comfortable and, yet, completely adorable wardrobe.

The Rare Pair is located at 401 Division St. in Northfield

-Renee Brown

Best Chiropractor - Dr. David Dow with Dow Chiropractic, Owatonna

It’s a good thing Dr. David Dow had a change of heart 20 years ago.

Had he not, his chiropractic practice in Owatonna likely wouldn’t exist.

A Gustavus College graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and psychology, Dow decided to combine his love for sports and psychology and return to school in 1994.

“It turned out to be a perfect match,” he said.

And he’s been a fit for Owatonna, too.

In October 2000, Dow, along with his wife, Lezli, bought Dr. Falk’s practice on East Pearl Street.

Dow’s practice includes chiropractic adjustment, diagnostic lab testing, spinal decompression therapy, low-level laser therapy, massage therapy, custom foot orthotics, thermography, nutritional support and physicals and pre-employment drug screening.

He’s also a certified sports practitioner with credentials in rehabilitative therapy and exercise as well as a certified therapeutic lifestyle coach.

And Dow Chiropractic isn’t a high-volume practice, Lezli said.

“We wanted it that way,” she said. “That way each person looking for more time to get more information and lifestyle counseling can.”

With all those services and the relationships he builds with his patients, it’s no wonder he was voted as the Best Chiropractor in Southern Minnesota for the second consecutive year.

Dow said the majority of his business is referrals from Owatonna, Medford, Blooming Prairie and other surrounding communities.

And he said he’s “so grateful and appreciative” of their support.

“It’s very humbling to know our patients have trust and confidence in our care,” Dow said.

Dow Chiropractic is located at 152 E. Pearl St. in Owatonna.

-Ashley Stewart

Best Clinic – The Mayo Clinic, Rochester

Really? Um… yeah. Ya think?

We probably should just retire this category. It seems silly to pit anything else in Minnesota against Mayo. I mean, take a place like Winona Health, which is a fantastic hospital with great doctors and medical staff using cutting edge technology and the most up-to-date training.

Given the choice, would you go have yourself checked out at Winona Health or The Mayo Freaking Clinic?

U.S. News & World Report just ranked Mayo’s Rochester campus the #1 overall hospital in the nation. Not in Olmsted County, not in Southern Minnesota, not in the Upper Midwest.

In. The. Nation.

The Rochester campus also has the highest rated Diabetes & Endocrinology, Gastroenterology & GI Surgery, Geriatrics, Gynecology, Nephrology, Neurology & Neurosurgery, Pulmonology, and Urology departments in the country.

I don’t even know what Nephrology is, but I’m comforted to know that I live less than 60 miles away from the best place in the country to have mine treated.

Their Cardiology & Heart Surgery, Ear, Nose & Throat and Orthopedics departments are ranked second in the country. The Oncology Department is ranked third.

Yeah, we won’t offer this category again, or maybe we’ll take Mayo off the voting options and re-name it the Best Clinic (Besides Mayo) in Southern Minnesota. Offering anything else up looks really dumb.

-Rich Larson

Best Co-op - Just Food Co-op, Northfield

Since 2004 Just Food Co-op has been serving the Northfield community and surrounding area. Located in downtown Northfield, they offer high quality, fresh, local, organic food and produce, and a variety of natural household products. Their aisles are filled with unique and healthy items, including dietary sensitive baking supplies, gourmet oils, vinegar, soups and an area dedicated to buying bulk quinoa, rice, oatmeal, etc. Every time you visit, there's always something new and exciting to try, especially their meat and cheese department.

Are you on the go and hungry right now? Don't fret. Every day they have two hot bar items with your health and hunger in mind. They also have a full salad bar, with toppings galore. You also can't go wrong with their cold bar, including their Fog City salad, and Garlic Lovers salad (which everyone should try once in their life). Are you so busy between jobs, driving kids to practice, and running errands? Try out their multitude of pro-biotic, energy, cold pressed tea, coffee, chia-seed, and protein drinks. And if you feel a bit run down, their wellness section filled with vitamins, supplements, and oils will cure what ails ya.

Just Food Co-op is located at 516 Water Street, Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Dentist/Orthodontist - Prairie Ridge Orthodontics

So, you’ve been thinking about going to the orthodontist. Okay, maybe you haven’t. Either way, we all have that one friend whose impeccable smile has made us consider making some changes—as long as it isn’t flossing. Whether you are completely depressed over your teeth situation or looking to make a few improvements, Dr. Loveless at Prairie Ridge Orthodontics will likely have a solution for you.

Jeff Loveless DDS, MS has a Doctorate in Dental Surgery, Master of Science in Dentistry, Certificate of Orthodontics, is a Certified Invisalign Provider and a Diplomate for the American Board of Orthodontics. He is, should we say, a virtuoso. And with gleaming reviews, Prairie Ridge continues to exceed expectations.

“We have outstanding service here from our orthodontic assistants to our orthodontist,” says Sherry Rysavy, insurance coordinator at the office. “We have a fun atmosphere and we love to see the smiles that come from Dr. Loveless. We treat everyone like family. We aren’t just an orthodontic office.”

It can be pretty stressful for most kids to have work done on their teeth. The staff does what they can to comfort that fear, even offering a game room for the young ones. They also hold contests every six weeks for clients who can win anything from gift cards to trending movie items.

Treat yourself to a new smile and enjoy the friendly, clean atmosphere that is Prairie Ridge Orthodontics.

Prairie Ridge has offices in Faribault, Owatonna and Zumbrota.

-Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Event Center - The Grand Event Center, Northfield

In December 1899 the Grand Event Center (then called the The Ware Auditorium) first opened its doors, offering Opera and theater, many years later it transformed into a movie theater, and in 1985, 84 years later the Grand showed its last movie. But The Grand Event Center wasn't done entertaining. In 2001 it was reopened to host wedding receptions, reunions, parties, concerts, and special events. With its recent restoration, it now once again resembles the original swank auditorium that it was in the early 1900's. It's large stage equipt with a full sound system, is perfect for musical performances, especially since it was originally built as an opera house, the acoustics are still surprisingly on point.

This event center is a shining diamond, with cozy corners, and a magical feel. It doesn't only host weddings; it houses many fundraising events, including the most recent “Garrison Keillor Helps Save the Northfield Depot". You read that right, Even Garrison Keillor approves, and that is saying something. I've attended a wedding at The Grand once and I completely understand why this place is constantly booked. So whenever there's an open event at The Grand, make sure to check it out.

The Grand Event Center is located at 316 Washington Street, Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Furniture Store - Furniture Mart, Medford

Furniture Mart’s secret is out.

According to the Medford business’s website, it’s the best kept secret in furniture.

But with a service area from Rochester to Mankato and Elko to the Iowa-Minnesota border, it’s not hard to imagine how that could happen.

For more than two decades, the furniture store positioned south of the Medford Outlet Center has offered furnishings for every room in the house from dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms and offices as well as patios.

And Alan Bauer, general manager at Furniture Mart, said it’s the huge selection that brings people to the store, but it’s the “great service and excellent pricing” that keeps them coming back.

That’s earned them Best Furniture Store in southern Minnesota.

That doesn’t include the mattresses though, and Bauer said the store dedicates the most space to a variety of twin, twin XL, full, queen and king mattresses.

Those are quite popular.

“We have everything from spare beds to Tempur-Pedic,” he said.

Furniture Mart is located at 6500 W. Frontage Road in Medford.

-Ashley Stewart

Best Home Furnishing and Decorating Center – Nelson’s Decorating Center, Owatonna

Whether you are building a home, re-modeling or just updating the look, there are few things as much fun as buying new furniture.

It’s something most of us rarely do. I mean, if you spend $700 on a chair, you’re going to get every last cent out of the thing, and that means hanging on to it for a long, long, long time. Then you go sit in a new $700 chair and you realize that chair technology has come a long, long way in twenty years. It’s the same ideas with couches, desks, cabinets, and beds. Especially beds! You have no idea how poorly you’re sleeping until you trade in that mattress your parents bought during the first (Bill) Clinton administration and handed down to you seven years ago for a brand new one and a decent frame.

It could honestly change your life.

And then there’s the issue of updating. Hey, you may love to watch re-runs of Family Ties, but there is simply no reason why your living room has to look like 1985. They have these new cool things called window treatments that actually let in sunlight. I know you grew up with those big heavy drapes around all the windows, but you aren’t 16 anymore and you don’t live in your mom’s house. Time to join the 21st Century, Boo-Boo.

A place like Nelson’s Design Center can really open your eyes to the comforts of modern living. They have it all from furniture to flooring to accessories to those window treatment things. They’re talented and experienced staff is really good at helping you find the best items to suit your taste and showing you how a different look or a new couch can completely change your day-to-day attitude.

If you leave feeling a little bit giddy, don’t be embarrassed. It’s natural to get excited when you realize that you’re living in the future.

Nelson Decorating Center is located at 121 Oakdale Street in Owatonna.

-Rich Larson

Best Gift Shop - SWAG of Northfield

Swag in Northfield is the home to exciting, unique gifts and pieces of art that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. And with such an interesting and eye-catching array, it’s hard not to pass up the opportunity to take home that hand carved puzzle animal, gorgeous painted table topper or adorable watercolor animal print.

Originally owned by Maxine Closner for almost 10 years, the store was passed to her daughter, Mary, as they shared a taste for excellent art that is usable, lookable, touchable and more.

According to Mary, “I think the fact that we have stuff you you can't find just anywhere [makes it special], and I work hard to make it different every time someone comes in.”

All of the art in Swag is bought up front by Mary.

“We own everything in the store and don't do consignment, it’s our way of saying we believe in the artists and can sell their work,” she said.

With such a variety of art and objects in the store, Swag represents what the artsy people of Northfield crave, which is an appreciation for different forms of art and the knowledge that what is being purchased was made with love and is entirely unique.

SWAG of Northfield is located at 423 Division Street South.

- Renee Brown

Best Green House/Garden Center - Donahues Greenhouse

Our winters in Minnesota are long, dark and cold. We patiently wait for that last bit of snow to melt away so we can start digging in the dirt and planting gardens. As soon as we can we jump into our cars and head to our favorite greenhouse. Oh, we are so excited!

Donahues Greenhouse in Faribault, Minnesota is where thousands of visitors from near and, as far away as Oklahoma, venture as early as mid-April to get their green on. This exceptional garden center has been providing a wide variety of bedding flowers, perennials, vegetables, shrubs, trees, tropical plants, and those hard to find and out of the ordinary plants for 43 years. Walking through the doors you will find a sea of flowers and green vegetation that appears to go on forever. It’s without a doubt a sight to see and it is the garden center to go to for quality, selection and outstanding customer service.

The doors open for spring and summer planting season mid-April through the end of June and they reopen for the holiday season mid-November through December 23. So, when you’re feeling like winter may never end, just remember that soon you’ll be filling your garden with all the beauty that Donahues can offer.

Donahues Greenhouse is located at 420 10th Street SW in Faribault

-Julee Daniels

Best Grocery Store

Hy-Vee, Austin. Faribault, Mankato, Owatonna, Waseca

District Vice President, John Griesenbreck, has been spending his days in one Hy-Vee store or the other for twenty of the regional chain’s 86 years. To say he knows the way Hy-Vee operates and why they were our readers’ favorite would be quite the understatement. Only the back of his hand is more familiar! When I asked him to tell me what might be the number one reason, in his opinion, he immediately said “each store’s ability to run their store autonomously; according to what their individual customer wants.”

Each Hy-Vee carries some of the same merchandise (like the company brand items) but that is where the real similarities end. The Corporate office knows that the Community surrounding each store has its own personality and lifestyle. The Management in each store runs their operation as if it is their own; as if it belongs to their Community; because it does!

There is one thing that is exactly the same across all stores though: every employee keeps all their focus on their customer and the customer ‘experience’.

Hy-Vee has Southern Minnesota locations in Austin, Faribault, Mankato, Owatonna and Waseca

-Jill Mackey

Best Gym - Northfield Area YMCA

For those that enjoy doing a variety of workouts, the Northfield Area Family YMCA is the right place to go. Not only does it encourage joining youth, adults and families together to enhance the community, it offers many opportunities to develop a healthier lifestyle.

“The Y just celebrated its second anniversary this month and we couldn't be more happy with the level of involvement and participation already, said Virginia Kaczmarek, of the Northfield YMCA.

“We focus on programs that promote wellness, reduce the risk of disease and help people reclaim their health.”

The Y is an active part in Northfield, providing scholarships, a Youth Initiative, a State Alliance, camps and special events. On top of all of that, it’s a place to engage the mind and body with its state of the art features.

The Northfield YMCA boasts a group fitness studio, full gym, indoor walking track, aquatics center and cardio and wellness floor. Members have access to free Child Watch for young children, open swim and gym, free group exercise, and reduced rates on camps, lessons and training, among many other things.

“Being selected as the Best Gym in Southern Minnesota is fantastic and is definitely a reflection of all the hard work of the YMCA staff team in support of our community,” Kaczmarek said.

The Northfield Area Family YMCA is an encouraging and friendly place to go for the perfect exercise experience. It also stands as a symbol for a community that works (and works out) together to create a more healthy, socially responsible lifestyle.

The Northfield YMCA is located at 1501 Honeylocust Drive.

-Renee Brown

Best Hair Salon – Studio 14, Faribault

It’s a three time celebration at Studio 14 Salon and Spa in Faribault. The Central Avenue shop has been named Best Hair Salon for the third time in the five year history of The Best of SoMinn.

“It’s our experience.Oour staff varies from new to having up to 30 years of experience,” said owner Cheryl Kleeberger said. Studio 14’s staff ranges in ages and backgrounds, too, making it easy for any client to walk in and find a stylist they can connect with.

“Our salon is colorful and full of personality,” Kleeberger said.

Visit Studio 14 for all and everything salon: haircuts, colors, styles; manicures, pedicures, skincare and waxes; makeup application, massages and facials.

Massages are a known way to ease muscle tension and improve mental clarity; with three massage therapists and two rooms dedicated to massage services, clients are surely in for a blissful and relaxing time. Plus, that room is easily morphed into one for couples’ massages. Studio 14 has recently debuted Farmhouse Fresh products, too. Farmhouse is 80-95 percent natural for the eco-friendly.

Kleeberger has been working her magic on tresses since 2001. She’s Faribault born and raised, but spent time working in salons in the Twin Cities before returning to town.

“I just love my clients,” she said.

People don’t just visit salons for cut, colors and waxes; they are often seeking the comradery and conversation. Kleeberger most certainly provides both.

“I get to make my clients feel better all day,” she said.

Kleeberger’s specialty: Updos, brides and bridal parties.

Studio 14 is located at 204 Central Ave N in Faribault

-Molly Larsen

Best Hairstylist - Bonnie Stowe , Nevaeh Salon, Northfield

Other than your personality, one of the biggest things that express who you are as a person is your hair. And for me at least, finding the right hair stylist takes patience and time. It took me years (and many botched self-inflicted hair dying and haircuts) to find the person that was right for me. You form a relationship and a bond with this person, I mean heck you are trusting a person with sharp objects to cut your hair and having faith that they know exactly what you want after explaining to them for 20 minutes what you imagine in your head for it to look like. I personally think hair stylists have to be part psychic, shaman, and Picasso.

You need to feel comfortable and welcome right when you walk through the door and that is exactly what you get when you walk into Nevaeh Salon. Everyone there has years of experience but Bonnie Stowe has been at it for 30 plus years and enjoys every minute of it. Bonnie has lived in Northfield, Minnesota all her life and is a true townie so you'll feel right at home with her as she uses her super hair stylist powers to create the perfect cut, color, and style that you've been dreaming about.

-Karlee Kanz

Best Hardware Store - Faribault Ace Hardware

It is certain you will find what you need, when you need it, at a price you’ll love and even a snack at Ace Hardware in Faribault. Stroll through this store with a free bag of popcorn and you are sure to find the supplies you need to get any job done.

Southern Minnesota says to visit Ace Hardware if you need absolutely anything that falls in to the following categories: tools, cleaning supplies, building hardware, outdoor living furniture, electrical supplies, lawn and garden supplies, plumbing, paint and even sporting goods. The store has been noted for their variety as well as their expert staff.

This hardware store has so much more to offer than simply what you can find on their shelves. Owners Kathryn and Joe Donahue have found a way to keep good employees around. As a way to say thank you for the commitment and hard work from their employees, the Donahue’s give their high school employees a little something when they head off to college. After four months of employment, the Donahue’s start tracking their employee’s hours, and after high school graduation, the funds are sent to the college of the student’s choice.

So if you’re in high school you better apply now. And if you’re looking to repair the toilet, build a deck, or throw around a football, head into Ace Hardware of Faribault.

Faribault Ace Hardware is located at 421 2nd Ave NW in Faribault

--Brad Phenow

Best Hotel - Archer House - Northfield, MN

Whether it's Defeat of Jesse James Days, Winter Walk, Crazy Daze, or just taking a nice weekend away from the cities or your town, THE place to stay is Northfield's Archer House. When you stay here, you're right in the thick of this whimsical town, you don't need to go far for anything. In the quarters of the Archer House there's the Bittersweet Cafe where you can find delicious baked treats, a juice bar, and a variety of coffee drinks. Feeling like more than a snack? Archer House has two restaurants, including a cozy scratch kitchen, The Tavern, and if you are thinking of something more daring, try out Chapati, known for its fantastic Indian fare. Within this vast building also has two very unique gift shops, Paper Petalum is known for its gift cards, assortment of candles and quirky and fun Scandinavian gifts. If you're more into super sparkly, colorful presents look no further than A Bag Lady. I dare you to go in there and not buy anything.

With the Archer Houses welcoming lobby and old Victorian feel you'll feel like you're in a period piece. It's no surprise since it was built in 1887. The rooms have the comfort of a home, with amazing views of the Cannon River. Staying at Archer House is in my humble opinion the best way to experience Northfield.

The Archer House is located at 212 Division Street South in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best HVAC Company – Owatonna Heating & Cooling

True story: a few years ago one July, we had been going through a stretch where the temperature was in the high 90’s every day and it wasn’t cooling off very much at all at night. One night at the tail end of that stretch, my air conditioner stopped working. It was a Sunday night and I remember that the sun was down, so it had to have been at least 9 p.m.

I’m a large man, and in the sweltering heat of July, there was just no way I was going to be able to get any sleep, nor were my kids. This had to be dealt with immediately.

I called one HVAC guy after another in the phone book and finally on my fourth phone call I was able to talk to a human being. He wasn’t going to come out and fix my air conditioner, but he did talk me through how to reset the thing so it would start working again. The house cooled off and everyone got a decent night’s sleep.

The guy I spoke with was not Wes Kain, but only because I live outside of his service area. Had I been within forty miles of Owatonna I could have called Owatonna Heating & Cooling. Wes would have sent out one of his guys, or maybe even come out himself and gotten everything taken care of for me.

Since 1996, Wes and his wife Amy have run Owatonna Heating & Cooling.

The company services both residential and commercial needs. They’ll handle anything from the unit in your back yard to the refrigeration needs of the Owatonna school district. As a certified Carrier dealer, they can install whatever you need be it a furnace or a humidifier for your ac unit, but they can service all brands and all makes. All of Wes’ technicians are NATE certified or equipment certified.

“Technology is ever evolving,” he said, “and we have to be able to handle whatever comes our way.”

And then of course, there’s the 24 hour emergency service. It’s not something that everyone can offer, he said, but he winds up getting a lot of weekend calls because of it.

Wes is proud to have served the Owatonna community as a tech and owner for over thirty years.

“I moved to town in 1984, and I purchased the company in 1996. It’s been a great partnership between us and the community.”

-Rich Larson

Best Jewelry Store - Kottke Jewelers, Owatonna

For Matt Kottke, a third-generation owner of Kottke Jewelers, receiving the recognition of Best Jewelry Store in southern Minnesota was quite an honor.

“It’s heartwarming knowing customers recognize the reputation we have and the products and services we provide,” he said.

And that’s something the business has been doing for local and area residents since 1919 — making it the oldest store in Owatonna still run by the same family in the same location.

“We have a very strong reputation and customer following here,” Kottke said.

Kottke’s grandfather, Carl, opened the store in 1919 on North Cedar Avenue in Owatonna, and then, Kottke’s father, Bill, ran the store until his death in September 2014, and with the business, Matt Kottke now carries the tradition they both had before him.

“I take a lot of pride in this business,” he said.

Kottke Jewelers offers a “wide variety of quality jewelry,” including a large bridal and engagement assortment from vintage to modern.

And Kottke said it’s the product and the services that have set the family jewelry store apart from others for decades as well as the staff and the customers, which including the surrounding area.

And although the store is almost 100 years old, Kottke said the business won’t show it.

“We’ve done a lot of updating of the store, but we maintain the same charm people know and admire about Kottkes,” he said. “We’re positioning ourselves to be here long into the future.”

Kottke Jewelers is located at 115 N. Cedar Ave. in Owatonna. Find them on Facebook.

-Ashley Stewart

Best Kennel/Pet Hotel/Doggy Daycare – Camp Canine Kennels, Faribault

There really are two kinds of dog owners: those who keep their dogs outside or in the garage and those whose dogs have their own spot on the couch.

I’m in the second category.

My dogs aren’t “pets.” They aren’t even “companion animals.” They’re part of the family. They may rank under the kids in terms of priority and favor, but just barely. A dog owner knows each dog has it’s own personality, knows what he/or she thinks and feels (yes, I said thinks and feels). In my family, dogs are a part of everything. They all have “family member” status.

We love our dogs, and although we want them around us all the time, that’s not always possible. It can be really painful to leave them at home; that look they give you as you walk out the door can be heartbreaking. And heaven forbid you take a vacation. How many of us have forgone a trip to the sun in the dead of winter because we don’t want to leave the dog? I went nearly twenty years without a proper vacation because my dogs couldn’t come to Mexico with me.

In recent years, however, doggy accommodations have really improved. No longer do you drop your dog off and they are led down a concrete walkway to a kennel that approximates a jail cell, where they’re given food and water and little else until you return for them. These days there are things like “Pet Hotels” and “Doggy Daycare Centers” where your furry family members are given plenty of attention and are able to play with other dogs. The stress of leaving Spot at the kennel while you take the rest of the family to Disney has been greatly alleviated.

Camp Canine Kennels in Faribault is a perfect example of the new age in pet care. Offering a full staff trained in the art of loving dogs, guests at Camp Canine are pampered, exercised, bathed and placed in special social groups, and are generally treated to their own doggy version of Disneyland. You can even buy special VIP packages for your dog, including things like bedtime stories (more like doggy turndown service), access to pool parties, nature hikes and a “nose work” scavenger hunt.

Look, it may sound silly to you, but to those of us who prefer the company of our dogs to most people, it makes perfect sense. Camp Canine Kennels is the kind of place that makes having dog-owner-peace-of-mind a lot easier to find.

Camp Kennels is located at 20225 Canby Ave in Faribault.

-Rich Larson

Best Kids Clothing Store – Completely Kids & Maternity

For eighteen years, Ruth Williams has run Completely Kids & Maternity, with a very simple philosophy.

“I want to offer my customers good quality at affordable prices.”

Completely Kids & Maternity is a resale shop, meaning that the majority of the inventory is used. However, Ruth does bring in some new items that are difficult to find in good, used condition.

“I bring in flower girl dresses, first communion dresses, baptismal gowns on special order, and we can also do tuxedos for boys,” she said.

She doesn’t do anything on consignment, preferring instead to buy from her customers outright. Her guidelines ask that things be clean and in recent style.

While she is able to offer quite a bit of brand name merchandise, that kind of inventory is not something she’ll go out of her way to find. “I don’t think one should turn their nose up at something because it isn’t Tommy Hilfiger. We look for top quality merchandise, not name brands.”

Right now Ruth is in one of her busiest buying seasons as she prepares for the coming of winter. But with Halloween coming, her major focus is on costumes.

“We have a huge Halloween department,” she said, adding that they can offer some truly unique concepts. “Last year we had a man-eating shark, but my favorite was a toilet – the bowl is where you put in the candy.”

Completely Kids also offers maternity clothes, toys and infant equipment, but Ruth is quick to point out that she is very cautious about safety and product recalls.

She also rents out a section of her store to Owatonna Vacuum Center, offering parts, repair and service. It kind of makes her store a one-stop shopping experience.

“Almost,” she said laughing. “We don’t do food.”

Completely Kids & Maternity is located at 312 N. Cedar Ave. in Owatonna

-Rich Larson

Best Liquor Store – Firehouse Liquor, Dundas

Immediately walking into Firehouse Liquors it feels like an adult Willy Wonka and the Liquor Factory, with 30 coolers dedicated to an overabundance of beers, and their craft beer selection growing tenfold within the last year. With every visit there's new and exciting beer choices, based on seasonal or new release. If you want something in particular, they will try their hardest to order it for you.

Their staff is very informative and friendly, given they don't have a professional sommelier on hand, but every time I bought a wine from there to pair with dinner I was never disappointing. They are also very handy when it comes to deciding on which beer you're craving. They are basically beer psychics, “beerchics” if you will (That isn't a word, sorry to the editor). Not a beer or wine person? Smack dab in the middle of this vast store is their selection of spirits, and with such great prices it'll be hard to just choose one thing when visiting Firehouse Liquors. But don't fret, I'm sure they'll always have your favorite in stock, and will be ready to see you again, with a smile, the next time you come in.

Firehouse Liquor is located at 607 North Stafford Road in Dundas

-Karlee Kanz

Best Liquor Store /Wine Selection - Haskell’s, Faribault

It’s not too often that you can walk into a liquor store and find whatever type of wine it is you’re looking for. Whether you’re on a college budget or looking to stock your wine holder, Haskell’s in Faribault can fill your glass.

But, that’s to be expected when they work to bring its customers the vineyards of the world. It all started in 1934, when the rest of the world was drinking gin, they say, but, Haskell’s was busy “championing fine wines.”

It’s clear that Southern Minnesota residents already know where to go to find the best wines, as Haskell’s once again took the best wine selection award. Whether it’s a bottle of wine or planning events, “that’s what we do,” said Mike Ferrise, store manager.

“Not only do we have a huge selection, we’re constantly updating and expanding,” he added.

And if those who voted weren’t up to speed with the type of wine they were buying, then we can bet it was the staff, which can match a bottle to your Saturday evening dinner. All of these highlights truly only accommodate the sales, that often times feel like a steal. Whatever it was that led to Southern Minnesota vote for Haskell’s, once again, here’s your toast.

Haskell’s is located at 2921 Lavender Pkwy in Faribault

Best Manicure - LA Nails

And here we have LA Nails getting ANOTHER Best Of win. It's hard to deny that LA Nails is the quintessential place to get a manicure. Right when you walk in you are greeted with some of the nicest employees that I have ever came across at any store, I'm not kidding. They get to know your name and actually want to TALK to you about your day, not trying to fill that awkward void of silence. The area is open and comforting, and Tu Quach and her husband Minh make sure their place looks sparkling clean from the tippy top to the bottom.

Along with the manicures they also have a wonderful set-up for pedicures, in which they have the most sterile and clean practices in town.  So if your feet need a soak and some extra loving and care make sure to set up an appointment soon. Each nail technician is well rounded when it comes to their skill set and just by being in there for a moment you can see how well they work together. It’s a cheerful and happy place to go and relax and pamper yourself. After working too many hours on your feet and using your hands get yourself a mani or pedi (Or both!) because you deserve it, and they deserve the business.

LA Nails is located at 1500 Clinton Lane East

-Karlee Kanz

Best Massage and Spa - Sisters Salon and Day Spa, Owatonna

If you’re looking for a salon or spa, you might as well end your search with Sisters Salon and Day Spa.

And why might that be?

“We do the whole shebang,” said Kelli Sackett, who has owned Sisters Salon and Day Spa since 2013.

Plus, the business has been recognized as the Best Massage/Spa in southern Minnesota.

“I love it,” Sackett said. “It’s rewarding.”

In 2013, Sackett relocated Sisters Salon and Day Spa from Oakdale Street to the strip mall on 21st Avenue in Owatonna, which provides a much bigger space.

But the business has had no problem filling the additional footage in the last couple years.

Sackett said the location provides a spot for large groups to come to the spa; something that’s been absent from the Owatonna area for years.

“We do a lot of spa parties,” she said.

Those include people from Owatonna, Rochester, Mankato and everywhere in between.

And in addition to the hair cutting, perming and coloring, makeup application, facials, manicures, spray tans and numerous other services, Sackett said the business “very much pushes customer service.”

“We want to make sure everyone has a good experience,” she said.

Sisters Salon and Day Spa is located at 1293 21st Ave. NW in Owatonna.

-Ashley Stewart

Best Meat Market - Schmidt’s Meat Market, Nicollet

Since 1947, Schmidt’s Meat Market has been a staple of Nicollet, Minnesota. Since Gerhard and Esther Schmidt opened their doors almost 80 years ago, a lot of things have changed—but the family-run business’s commitment to delicious, quality-processed meat has remained the same.

Now, Ryan Schmidt, the original owners’ grandson, runs the business. He said the business model has almost completely flipped from when his grandparents ran their shop. Back in the day, most business came from processing farmers’ meat orders. Now, with family farms shrinking, almost all the business comes from the retail side of things. And that means Schmidt’s has to come up with plenty of tasty options to keep customers coming back.

They’re having no trouble there, though. Schmidt’s sells nine flavors of summer sausage, 22 varieties of bratwurst, 15 flavors of marinated chicken breast, nine varieties of beef sticks and five flavors of jerky—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They’ve also managed to rack up dozens of awards for everything from their bacon to their bologna.

Coming up with all those flavors—ranging from “Raspberry Chipotle” bacon to “Dill Pickle” Bratwurst—keeps Schmidt and his 45 regular employees plenty busy, but he said it’s worth it.

“You’ve got to like it to want to do it each and every day,” he said. “It’s good to be busy. I wouldn’t be happy if I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs.”

Schmidt’s meat Market is located at 319 Pine Street in Nicollet

-Grace Webb

Best Men’s Store – Nutter Clothing Co., St. Peter

Like a lot of guys, I hate spending money on clothes (and, if you know me, it probably shows). I’m a huge man with a very long torso and shortish legs. Nothing fits me. If I want to buy something as simple as a hooded sweatshirt, I have to spend at least half-an-hour on the internet looking for the right size, and then when it shows up, it’s still not right. Forget buying something off the rack at Target. I have no chance.

So, if I’m going to go shopping for clothes, it has to be a good experience. The staff has to be friendly, patient and resourceful. I’m a challenge, I know this. But if you want repeat business from me, you have to be able to meet that.

Scott Dobie, the owner of Nutter Clothing Co. in St. Peter is up to that task. There’s a relaxed feel in his store that you don’t find in most men’s stores. This is not to say the staff doesn’t take their jobs seriously because they of course do, but it’s just somehow easier to shop there.

There’s a wide selection of shirts, pants, shoes, sportswear, suits, shoes and accessories. With brands like Columbia, Cutter Buck, Savane, John Randall and Florsheim, they can suit any need. They also offer tailoring embroidering and imprint services and even a pick-up/drop-off dry cleaning service.

Guys, I promise you, this is the most pain-free place to buy clothes that you’ll find. Go check them out.

Nutter Clothing Co. is located at 320 S. Minnesota Ave. in St. Peter

--Rich Larson

Best Music Store - Tune Town, Mankato

When Carl Nordmeier was growing up in Morristown, he had to drive all the way to Burnsville to buy his favorite records. It was difficult to drive so far to find good music, so, once he graduated high school and saved up enough money, he decided to start his own music store. He opened Tune Town in Faribault in 1993 and moved to Mankato in 1997.

“I was really surprised how fast it took off,” Nordmeier said. “There was a demand for it.”

Now, Tune Town is a staple of Mankato’s historic old downtown, carrying more than 20,000 titles on CD and vinyl. Nordmeier said sales are split pretty evenly between vinyl records and CDs, though cassette tapes are starting to make a comeback as well. Still, for him, records are always the way to go.

“There’s a lot more love involved in a record vs. just having something on your phone,” he explained. “A lot of people say that [a record] has a much deeper, warmer sound. It definitely sounds a lot better than a download.”

Besides music, Tune Town also stocks hundreds of DVDs, as well as some novelty collectibles and apparel. If the store doesn’t have a certain title on hand, Nordmeier can order it for no extra charge.

Tune Town is located at 630 N Riverfront Drive in Mankato

-Grace Webb

Best Outdoor/Athletic Store – Cabela’s, Owatonna

While it certainly enhances the experience, you don’t really even have to be an outdoors person to enjoy a visit to Cabela’s.

You don’t have to be a hunter, though the store has hunter’s covered from firearms and ammo to tree stands and decoys. You don’t have to be an angler, though Cabela’s offers everything the fishing enthusiast would ever want or need from rods & reels to waders, trolling motors and even boats themselves. You don’t even have to enjoy camping, although you’ll find everything in this superstore from tents and sleeping bags to hiking boots and camp stoves.

Walking into Cabela’s is an experience all by itself. The first thing you’ll notice is the big mountain built in the middle of the store, featuring stuffed moose, elk, rams, sheep, deer, even squirrels. There’s an aquarium off to one side featuring all sorts of local freshwater fish. There’s a deli, where you can get some surprisingly good food (try the Buffalo Chili). The store is as much spectacle as it is retail wonderland.

Cabela’s, of course, is a monster outfitter. One needn’t even go to the store to find those things you’re looking for. But then, why would you miss out on the opportunity to feed your senses aby making a stop at this gorgeous, opulent palace of outdoors outfitting.

Cabela’s is located at 3900 Cabela Drive in Owatonna.

-Rich Larson

Best Photographer – Laura Knopik, Images 4 Life Photography, Owatonna

One would think that, for as competitive as this category is, the Best Photographer in Southern Minnesota would have studied for years; that she would have known since childhood that she was going to be a professional photographer and would have trained for it all her life.

Not so much.

“It’s really just a fluke,” said Laura Knopik. “I just always really liked it. I started in film way back when in high school, and just sort of drifted to still photography. I started taking pictures of my friends and family, and over time more and more people started asking me to do it.

“Then one day I looked at my calendar and thought ‘Wow, I’m really booked.’"

And that was when she decided to become a full time photographer.  It’s been six years now, and she says it was a good decision.

“Things are really good. I just recently moved to a downtown (Owatonna) studio. It realy allows me to do different set-ups and more things that I’ve wanted to do.”

Knopik offers services in really every portrait category you can imagine from Maternity and Newborns to Engagement and Weddings. She says she doesn’t really have a favorite.

“I love ‘em all for different reasons. Weddings are so much fun. And newborns are exciting and fresh and funny. I love the variety.”

“At the end of the day, I want my clients to be happy with these pictures. I want them to love and cherish them for generations.”

Laura Knopik’s Images 4 Life Studio is located at 103 Rose Street in Owatonna.

-Rich Larson

Best Realtor - Tim Freeland

Tim Freeland has been nominated as the Best Realtor in Southern Minnesota. Freeland, of Edina Realty, has many years of experience and knows the greater Northfield area like the back of his hand.

He works closely with his clients to ensure they find property that they are truly comfortable and happy with. To add to his repertoire, Freeland has a great deal of knowledge for Northfield and the surrounding areas of Rice County.

“It's working in an area I know well with people that I usually know in some manner, he said. “I always try to deliver my services in a unique and effective way so that I can be different in some way.”

Freeland is also actively involved with events in the Northfield area, including the Defeat of Jesse James Days. On top of this, he hosts his own radio program on weekdays to discuss technology and mobile devices.

With a healthy appreciation for the town and the clients he serves, Freeland proves he is an all-around Northfield expert who loves every minute of his job.

“When it comes down to something as emotional and as personal as a home sale or purchase, it requires I be ready for everything so I can lead, advise and organize each transaction to success,” he added.

For more information on Tim, go to www.timfreeland.com

-Renee Brown

Best Remodeler - Capital Construction

Let's give a round of applause for Capital Construction for finally winning their first Best Of! Right now I'm currently tossing confetti and streamers up into the sky. And goodness, is it well worth it, with their top of the line service and the vast array of specialties they offer. You'll feel comforted, with their roofers being Cedar Shake and Shingle Bureau Approved Installers, and their contractors certified in CertainTeed Master Shingle Applicators and Owens Corning Preferred Contractors.

With multiple locations, Capital Construction services almost every corner of Minnesota, and with their quality work and affordable prices, it isn't a shocker that they won this category. They are the to-go for every service they offer. Minnesota is known for its inclement weather, so if your shingles get a good beating by some hail, or your roof doesn't agree with the straight-line winds, there's only one place you should call, Capital Construction. Their specialty is installing Cedar shakes and shingles. Never heard of those before? Well here's a little run down, if properly taken care of, cedar roofs can last any other types of roofs. You might think I'm pulling your leg, but if you install a cedar roof it might just be the last one you'd ever install on your house. So make sure to contact Capital Construction for more info!

-Karlee Kanz

Best Specialty Food Store - The Cheese Cave

“A gourmet destination” is more than just a slogan for The Cheese Cave of Faribault. In fact, it holds true for the majority of the year, as people from across the world come to visit, either in person or online, what started as The Caves of Faribault.

With such a destination business, it should come as no surprise that Southern Minnesota selected The Cheese Cave as the Best Cheese Selection.

What started as a simple retail store, the company has evolved to an online outlet for award winning cheeses across the United States. In 2014, The Cheese Cave continued its success with more accolades winning two 2014 Good Food Awards, which selected St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese and Jeff’s Select Gouda.

Owned by Swiss Valley Farm, the online shop offers also features gift baskets and merchandise, as well as its own brand of Swiss Valley’s award-winning cheeses.

And following a sales and marketing affiliation with a Connecticut-based cheese importer, Norseland Inc., the Caves’ Amablu and Grogonzola cheese now appears on grocers’, retailers’ and foodservice companies’ shelves across the nation.

Whether you grab it off the shelf, or get it in the mail, Southern Minnesota says it’s a must have.

The Cheese Cave is located at 318 Central Ave North in Faribault

--Brad Phenow

Best Store for Accessories - A Bag Lady - Northfield

If the phrase “one-of-a-kind” stands out to you regarding accessories and fashion, look no further than A Bag Lady in Northfield.

The store will be celebrating its 10th year here this fall under the ownership of Dani McNutt.

Susan Sinning, the manager, noted that she enjoys how interesting the store is because it is often full of things that do not have duplicates.

“We have a really wide array of things, most of its one of a kind of we'll just have one of something,” she said. “The clothing is usually one selection of sizes and there's new stuff coming in every week.”

The store features items that can’t be picked up commonly at chain retail stores, and seeks to keep things affordable for customers.

“When I wear something from there or have something on, I get a lot of questions because it's so unusual and unique and that's been fun, and I think that's why people keep coming back,” Sinning added.

So if hunting down that one special scarf necklace or purse makes your day, then A Bag Lady is the perfect treasure hunt waiting to happen.

A Bag Lady is located at 212 Division Street, Northfield, in the Archer House

-Renee Brown

Best Place for an Unexpected Find – Urban Finds & Bistro, Medford

True story: in my capacity as publisher of this fine publication, I have certain sales responsibilities.  I was out making sales calls with an employee who was new to APG of Southern Minnesota (the parent company of SouthernMinn Scene), and one of the places we stopped was Urban Finds and Bistro in the Medford Outlet Center.

The store offers an eclectic mix of items from clothes to art, and offers a fine little café as well. It’s not the kind of place where you can find anything, but it’s definitely the place where you can find that thing you had no idea you were looking for, which is why they were named Best Place for an Unexpected Find.

Back to the story. We were in there to talk to owner Nicole Winter about advertising. While Nicole was certainly receptive to our conversation, my compatriot was the one who dropped the most money when she found not one but two purses that she knew she absolutely had to have. For my own part, there was no way I was getting out of there without a s’mores latte from the coffee bar. That’s just the kind of place Urban Finds is.

“We just wanted to be a unique place to shop,” said Nicole when asked about the “concept” of her store. “So that’s where the idea of the bistro within the gift store came from. And then, I’ve just always loved antiques.”

It’s an idea that resonates with shoppers.

“I always stop in here when I’m in town,” said Nancy Crowson, who grew up in Owatonna but now lives in Idaho. “I love the eclectic mix of the old antiques and the re-purposed items along with all the kitschy, funky kitchen items and things.”

“And I always have to come in and have a wild rice pizza and a beer.”

Crowson still laments the day she found an old minnow tank that had been turned into a wine rack. She wasn’t sure if she had space for it at home, so she passed on it and then called the store when she returned home to see if they could ship it to her.

“I was a day late,” she said. “Someone else had already bought it. So now every time I’m in here I’m hoping they’ll have another one.”

It’s a lesson many visitors have learned.

“If you see something you like here, buy it. You’ll never know if you’ll see it again.”

Urban Finds & Bistro is located at 6750 W. Frontage Road, in the Medford Outlet Center.

-Rich Larson

Best Storefront – Bluebird Cakery, Faribault

You never get a second chance at a first impression, right? If you’re a retailer, that first impression can mean everything, which is why your storefront is so important. Your shop has to be inviting and attractive. It has to call to everyone who sees it. It needs to invite curiosity and be curiously inviting. But it also has to fit in with the neighborhood. It can’t be obnoxious, loud or crass. It has to strike the right balance of neighborly decorum and enticing appeal.

Bluebird Cakery has this figured out.

The Faribault bakery, renowned for its wedding cakes and baked goods (their cinnamon rolls are the stuff of dreams), offers a stately, almost regal look that certainly stands out among the restaurants, banks and art stores on Central Avenue.  Three neatly groomed potted pine trees framed by Corinthian columns lend a look of grace and dignity. The blue projecting sign above the sidewalk adds a needed splash of color and frivolity. It’s an eye catching motif that lends itself well to the Central Avenue business district while displaying enough whimsy to get people through the door.

As great as the storefront is, the really good stuff is on the inside. Go check it out for yourself.

Bluebird Cakery is located at 318 Central Avenue North in Faribault

-Rich Larson

Best Tanning Salon - Haute Skin Spa & Tanning

Taking the time to relax and restore our bodies is an indulgence most of us do not make the time for. We expend the slightest bit of effort only to inevitably return to our department store products we bought on clearance. Unknown to many, this is likely due to a lack of knowledge on where to start.

I walked out of Haute with five leaflets that only explain a small fraction of what this business has to offer. With locations in Owatonna and Faribault, Haute Skin Spa and Tanning provides superb customer service that can enlighten even the most inexperienced individual on beauty products, therapy and fundamentals.

Haute has some of the most elite tanning equipment in the area, but they also carry full product lines including Hempz, Pure by Katy Clayton and organic scents made by Owner and Creative Director, Cole Johnson who has put a lot of time and detail in to his business. His line of Haute & Company products introduced fragrances for him and her, organic Castile soaps and sugar scrubs.

He has brought eyelash extension services, an array of natural alternatives to tanning such as organic airbrushing, skin rejuvenating red light therapy and laser liposuction—a painless substitute that quite literally blasts apart your fat cells.

Promotions are continuously being launched, the most recent being a D-Feat Breast Cancer pledge, which will submit a donation to breast cancer research at the end of October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Haute Skin Spa & Tanning has two locations in Owatonna and one in Faribault

-Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Tattoo Artist – Megan Hoglund

Best Tattoo Parlor - Mecca Tattoo

Megan Hoogland didn’t know what she was getting into when she followed a friend’s advice and found an apprenticeship with a tattoo artist back in 1995.

Now, after winning countless awards and traveling across the world to participate in tattoo conventions, she is known as one of the best tattoo artists in the country and has so many customers at her own parlor, “Mecca Tattoo,” that she recently had to hire another artist to help with all her business.

Hoogland started tattooing in Owatonna before moving on to Northfield and finally Mankato in 1998. She started with a private studio but eventually moved to her current studio, located in an old Victorian house on Broad Street, in 2015. Four other tattoo artists also practice at her location.

Hoogland said when she first started tattooing, artists didn’t share their secrets with each other, so she learned more by visiting conventions and watching artists work. She has traveled to places as far flung as South Africa, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada to participate in conventions.

Hoogland said the nature of tattoos has changed since she began working in the industry. Before, tattoos were taboo and reserved for “rebels.” Now, her customers span all ages and backgrounds.

“It’s evolved really rapidly from something that was taboo into something that’s mainstream,” she said.

Mecca Tattoo is located at 115 S Broad Street in Mankato

-Grace Webb

Best Tech to Fix your Computer - Mr. JST Technology Consulting, Northfield

This is the fourth consecutive year that John Thomas has been awarded “Best Tech to Fix your Computer.”

Thomas is the owner of Mr. JST Technology Consulting in Northfield, servicing the Northfield, Faribault and Lonsdale area. He has the knowledge and expertise to provide technology solutions and personalized training for a variety of electronic devices.

Thomas pointed out that it is the relationships that he develops with his clients and their technology that keeps his business so successful.

“Being a small town business person, when they call they're talking to the same person every time, the owner,” he said. “People enjoy working with someone local that they can trust.”

Thomas goes out of his way to be sure that his clients are getting the best service. He has the know-how to give honest answers and works with individuals, small businesses and non-profits alike.

“I run my business based on relationships and trust, and I’m just blessed that my clients trust me to refer me to their neighbors and friends,” Thomas said.

“A referral or recommendation is the ultimate testimonial,” he added.

Find Mr. JST Technology Consulting at 301 Division St South in Northfield

-Renee Brown

Best Veterinarian - Dr. James Gute, Owatonna Veterinary Hospital

Listen, I’m not going to pretend I know why it’s so important to have a great large breed veterinarian in your community; I grew up in Edina, for God’s sake. However, I’m smart enough to do the math.

Being a vet in Owatonna means more than treating a dog for worms or spaying the family cat. Farmers depend on the skills of a great vet to protect their livestock. There are plenty of horse owners in Southern Minnesota as well, and they all need the best possible care.

Because of that, it’s no surprise that Dr. James Gute has been named the best veterinarian in Southern Minnesota.

For over forty years, Dr. Gute has served the community in and around Owatonna as an animal surgeon and a large breed specialist (Not only with horses and livestock, mind you. According to the Owatonna Veterinary Hospital website, he’s also quite good with elk and white tailed deer). His skills have no doubt eased the pain of countless animals and thereby eased the pain of countless families and animal owners in Steele County.

A doctor like James Gute is invaluable to a clinic like the Owatonna Veterinary Hospital, and thereby to the community. It allows the facility to offer specialized skills and keeps pet owners from having to seek that help a larger city like Rochester or Minneapolis. It’s because of people like Dr. Gute that the Owatona Veterinary Clinic takes such good care of the Owatonna pet community, which makes for a happier place over all.

The Owatonna Veterinary Hospital is located at 1930 S Cedar in Owatonna.

-Rich Larson.

Best Video Game/ Gaming Shop New or Used - Games N' Geek

Landon Young had a dream that one day he could finally own a gaming store, and this year his dream came true with Games N' Geek. Games N' Geek is nestled in Downtown Northfield and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended Friday evening hours until 10 p.m.. This place is filled with everything your little gaming heart desires, you guys (and gals!). You like Magic cards? They have probably a billion of them (overestimate, but you catch my drift) along with many other card games.

Besides the HUGE selection of Magic the gathering singles and sealed products, they also carry Video Games, Force of Will singles and sealed products, and Board Games along with TCG accessories. Games N' Geek also offers weekly tournaments for all of their supported games and have open tables for gaming, if you just want to swing by to hang out or play some games and have some fun with the locals who enjoy gaming just as much as you do. Congrats to Landon for setting goals and reaching them (like in a video game, but in real life!), and for his first Best Of win!

Games N’ Geek is located at 306 Division St S in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Yoga Studio - Heartwork Yoga, Northfield

Each week, Heartwork Yoga Studio draws in people from around southern Minnesota with its excellent staff and class options.

The studio has been a part of the community for 16 years and continues to thrive. They offer classes ranging from the relaxing, slow moving yoga forms to the more intense heated power yoga. There are classes for beginners, experts and every level in between and there is even a Chair Yoga class offered for those who may have mobility issues.

Amy Machacek, the studio owner and director, is proud of the studio’s success.

“We love seeing people from not just the local area, but from up to 40 miles away, every week,” she said. “We believe that the most wonderful people come to learn and practice yoga here.”

She noted that the studio is unique because it cares so deeply for its students.

“Our teachers and fellow yogi's are so kind and welcoming to everyone who comes through the door.”

The prices for these classes are great too, with student specials, punch cards and options for unlimited classes. Certain classes are offered for $5 per session during the week, so keep an eye on the calendar for those days.

“Every day we hear our studio is a peaceful respite in a hectic world,” Machacek added. “Even our location, tucked down below our main street in town, has the perfect entrance for letting go of your stresses and slipping into a beautiful space of calm.”

Heartwork Yoga Studio is located at 101 5th St. W, Northfield.

-Renee Brown

RESTAURANTS

Best Mom & Pop Diner - The Kitchen, Owatonna

There really isn’t anything better than sitting on a diner stool and receiving a greeting stripped of all formalities. Whether you are a familiar face or not, you can always expect a friendly greeting from Linda Escobedo, owner of The Kitchen restaurant, located on the edge of downtown Owatonna.

The front of the diner is surrounded by windows and beneath the Mason jar lights is the lunch bar where you can sit on a stool and make conversation with whoever comes and sits down next. If you come in for dinner, you come through the back and are seated in a dimmed, decorated dining area. Linda, who has been at the restaurant since 1975, says “We love what we do, everyone that works here, and all of our customers.” She also notes their success stems from great home cooked food with a small town atmosphere. "My great grandparents came here every Friday. Everyone always joked with my grandpa, Red, that he was known for being the sweet man who carries his wife’s purse."

The Kitchen is located at 329 County Highway 1 in Owatonna

- Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best After Bar Food – Basil’s Pizza Palace, Northfield

Sometimes you and your friends like to hang out, head to the bar, and possibly consume a decent amount of drinky snacks. When you are in that state of mind, for me at least, only one thing comes to mind: Pizza. It's basically all the food groups, tomato is a fruit, add some meat for your protein, veggies for essential vitamins, cheese for calcium, and don't forget your delicious carb-loaded crust. Boom. And when you have that intense hunger pangs from some tasty 'za, who do you call? Basil's Pizza, of course.

Basil's Pizza has been serving sober and drunk Northfield residents for over 50 years, with no signs of stopping. Vasili "Bill" Pitsavas came to America from Greece with a dream, and in 1960 he opened up, called then Bills Pizza, in Northfield. Bill is no longer with us, but let me formally say a huge thank you for saving me from many possible terrible hang-overs in the most delicious way possible.

Basil’s Pizza is located at 301 Water Street South in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Appetizer, Best Fries, Best Wings and Best Sports Bar – American TapHouse & Grille, Waseca

For a business that has only been around for two years, The American Taphouse’s domination in four of our categories is no small feat: best appetizer, best fries, best wings, and best sports bar.

Longtime friends Troy Tuma and Mary Olson became business partners after Tuma heard Olson was looking into opening a restaurant. Together, they set to work completely gutting and renovating the old Chance Bar in downtown Waseca. The result was American Taphouse and Grille. Together they form a dynamic duo – Tuma with his experience in the nightlife industry, and Olson with her background in the culinary arts.

They source the highest quality ingredients available, and maybe that’s what helps them stand out from their competitors. Handcrafted burger patties, carefully planned menus, and of course, the winners of our “best of” categories.

If you’re searching for a perfect pairing to your Happy Hour pint, look no further than the Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss Beer Battered Onion Rings, hand cut and fried in their delectable homemade beer batter. Not frozen, always fresh. Mary serves them up with a delicious chipotle sauce.

Then there are the fries. Often overlooked by their beefier counterpart, fries can make or break you. Ever heard of the McDonald’s vs. Burger King debate? Thought so. Here, the fries are hand cut and rustic - the perfect accompaniment to their notorious “Cheese Curd Burger.” We’re definitely in southern Minnesota, folks.

On Wing Wednesdays, customers flock to chow down on half price wings in 14 different flavors, ranging from sweet to Inferno. If you’re more of a boneless person, not to worry because they serve up both. Tuma even argues the wings here are plumper and juicier than Buffalo Wild Wings – “the next size larger,” he confirms. His favorite sauce? Jack Daniels. And yes, it is made in house.

So what else does it take to run southern Minnesota’s best sports bar?

For Olson, it all comes down to experience. This is the sixth bar he’s owned. He’s learned what makes a repeat customer – and the food is only a part of it. You’ve got to know your market.

“This is a family atmosphere. We wanted a place where mom could come and get her wine, dad could get his beer, and they can bring the kids,” Olson said.

Vikings fans are highly favored. Wear your Vikings gear and get a free “Purple Pride Shot” any time they score. On game days the bartender dyes the beer slightly purple - enough to give it a festive flair, but not enough to stain your teeth. I confirmed.

Next on my list, the Bloody Mary.

The American TapHouse & Grille is located at 201 State Street in Waseca

-Meghan Rook

Best Asian Food – Mizuki Fusion, Owatonna and Faribault

The only place to get specialty Asian food in the middle of Steele or Rice County corn country is Mizuki Fusion, and they don’t skimp on selection.

With sushi entrees, kitchen items and lunch specials, Mizuki sees many repeat customers who have tastes for variety. There are the sushi standards, as well as noodle, teriyaki and tempura dishes. There’s also a long list of house rolls. A standout is the Black Dragon, which includes cheese, an eel topping and is quickly seared before serving.

Mizuki also boasts a variety of sashimi options, house specials like curry dishes and more hearty hibachi meals. And last in the prep process, though not least, is a nice presentation of the sushi. The stuff looks good on a plate.

Mizuki Fusion is located at 119 W Bridge St in Owatonna and 609 4th St NW in Faribault

-Matt Hudson

Best Bagels-Tandem Bagels, Mankato, Northfield,

Anne Srentz came to the United States from her homeland of Germany as a young woman to go to school for Interior Design and Construction Management. To make ends meet she worked as an Au pair. She fell in love and married. She was then Au pair of sorts to her own three children.

During that time her husband worked in Construction (coincidence?) and owned the Bagel Brothers stores in Mankato and Northfield. After their closing, friends encouraged them to reopen as an Independent; he knew the business! The kids were all in school so the proposal was made to his wife, Anne! When her close friend Lisa agreed to partner with her they opened the door to Tandem Bagels in Mankato in 2012. And business has been good enough that the Northfield store opened a year later!

They are at the Mankato store each day at 4:30 a.m. making fresh bagels the way New York Deli’s make bagels; boiled with all natural ingredients. They then transport Northfield’s portion to the Northfield store at the crack of dawn.

They attribute most of their success to the fact that they LOVE their customers and have built personal relationships with them! Both stores have become the ‘Cheers’ of the Bagel-world where everyone ‘knows your name’! And, take it from a ‘New England girl’; there is nothing like a New York Bagel!

Tandem Bagels is located at 317 Division Street South in Northfield and 200 East Walnut Street in Mankato.

-Jill Mackey

Best Bakery, Best Scone, Best Dessert, and Best Treats to Bring to the Office - Cakewalk Northfield

Do you like sweets? Possibly treats? Well come on down to the bakery who swept the board in their Best Of categories. Cakewalk Northfield is legit where it's at. You like scones? They have the best.  Or are you more of a cheesecake, eclairs, cream puffs, chocolate flourless torte, tarts, dessert bars or cannoli kind of person? They have ALL OF THOSE delectable delights and more.

Make sure to walk into Cakewalk with an empty stomach, open heart, clear mind, and leave as the best stuffed and sugar-filled version of yourself. Also, don't forget to bring some home or back to your office for everyone else (Or just eat the treats on the way home, they won't know. I know, because I've been there). All of their treats are hand crafted and expertly made with the highest quality ingredients, because they care about you and your taste-buds. And with each bite of anything off of their vast and growing menu, you'll know. It sure is nice to be treated that way, huh?  So do yourself a favor and make your way down to Cakewalk before or after Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner and treat yourself because you deserve a sweet treat any time of the day.

Cakewalk is located at 303 Division Street in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Barbecue Restaurant – Piggy Blues Bar-B-Que, Austin

The first thing you need to know about Piggy Blues is this: that cornbread is out of this world. It is the truth. It is amazing. Whatever you order, whatever you eat at Piggy Blues, make sure you save room for that cornbread.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way… it makes sense that the best barbecue in Southern Minnesota is in a town known for pork production, doesn’t it? I also like the idea that, if you want to get really good, I mean the very best barbecue in the state, you have to go to Austin, even if you’re in the state of Minnesota instead of Texas.

Located in a store front on Main Street, just down the street from the new SPAM Museum, Piggy Blues is an inviting, open space filled with great music, incredible aromas and quirky (sometimes even a little naughty) old advertisements and signs adorning the walls.

The best way to eat there for the first time, is to try one of the platters. Get a couple ribs, some pulled pork, maybe a little brisket or some chicken. Combine that with the sliced and fried pit potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw and the aforementioned (and mandatory) corn bread. You’ll never look at food quite the same way again.

If you go for lunch, just don’t plan on eating anything more than a banana for dinner. If you go for dinner, don’t plan on eating anything tomorrow.

Do you like barbecue? Then you have to go to Austin. And save room for the cornbread!

-Rich Larson

Best Breakfast - The Tavern

The Tavern of Northfield once again wins Best Breakfast, and rightfully so. They've been knocking breakfast out of the park since 1984, for over thirty years, with no plans of stopping. The menu is small, but it makes each dish prepared with accuracy and love. The Tavern special is your classic breakfast, eggs, meat, hash browns, served with Tavern toast, which I could eat a loaf of in one sitting and I'm not that big a fan of bread. Did I mention that it's baked fresh EVERY morning? With The Tavern being a true scratch kitchen, you can taste the home-cooked feel with every bite of every entree.

And how can you beat steak and eggs for under ten dollars? You can't. Each day they have a daily special for under five dollars, including their euphoria-inducing biscuits and gravy. When they realized just how popular their biscuits and gravy were, instead of it just being a special on Thursday and Sunday mornings, they now serve it EVERY DAY, #Blessed. This place listens to their customers, making every new menu item (including the new benedicts) that much more personal and delectable. The Tavern serves you home-style breakfast at an amazing price, in a comfortable atmosphere, how can it get any better than that?

The Tavern is located below the Archer House at 212 Division Street in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Brunch - The Ole Store, Northfield

If you are between the ages of 18-34, more so the latter of the two, you love two things; Craft beer, and brunch. Northfield, Minnesota houses two elite colleges, Carleton and Saint Olaf. If you've gone to college you know it’s hard to find time to get a good meal in, and its usually on the weekends. This is why brunch is some people’s saving grace. It's also totally acceptable to drink a mimosa for 5 during brunch since it’s the weekend and all, at least that’s what I tell myself.

We all know young adults in college love good food. The Ole Store, located conveniently close to Saint Olaf College, is the go-to spot for your brunch needs. They have the classics, along with Huevos Rancheros, Corned Beef Hash, and a Crab Cake Benedict, topped with their special from scratch hollandaise sauce that is to DIE for. Everything made from scratch, never frozen, or deep fried. Straight from the griddle, to your platter and into your hungry face.

Like most higher end restaurants, they only serve brunch on Saturday and Sunday, which makes the anticipation of their amazing breakfast food that much more amazing. The Ole Store has the feel of being in someone’s home, sitting with your friends and talking about your week. So take some time this weekend, gather your friends, and wind down with some brunch.

The Ole Store is located at 1011 St. Olaf Avenue in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Buffet – East Wind Buffet, Owatonna

In a former life (at least that’s how it feels) I was an over-the-road salesman, covering Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska (the Garden Spots of the Midwest). It was a lousy life that required a lot of time in my car, long, lonely hours and eating a lot of terrible food. However, when one spends that much time driving between Wausau and Rapid City, one becomes a top authority on the best friend of the travelling salesman. I speak of course of Asian Buffets.

They’re everything you need at a moment’s notice: hot food, lots of flavor, plenty of variety and an opportunity to turn your brain off for twenty-minutes to stare at something other than the snow blowing across I-90. And since they are buffets, you can walk right in, grab a plate and be eating your dinner in five minutes.  They are a miracle of modern dining and the great unsung heroes of American Commerce.

The East Wind Buffet in Owatonna stands out among the rest in Southern Minnesota for a number of reasons. First of all, the sheer size of the buffet is enough to bring the most road hardened roofing salesman to tears. The food is always fresh. The Beef and Broccoli is amazing (vegetables are never taken for granted when one lives life on the road). The Lo Mein is Asian comfort food, and of course, the egg rolls are to die for. They’re open every day, and they’re located right off of I-35 and Old Highway 14 in Owatonna, so you don’t have to drive out of your way to get there. And also, they’re pretty easy on the expense budget.

Sales people, mom and dad, college kid trying to live on $11.00 a day, this is the place for you. Frankly, you could be a wealthy Foodie who never has to travel for work, and this would still be the place for you. Go check out the East Wind Buffet. You will not be disappointed.

-Rich Larson

Best Burger – King’s Place Bar & Grill

The running joke in Miesville is that the population is 124 and growing. It’s found on T-shirts sold at King’s Bar & Grill, which has helped put the hamlet on the map.

King’s has nearly a burger for each resident of Miesville. It’s menu tops out at more than 70 varieties of burgers. When the Greenlee family bought the place in 1984 the menu featured just four burgers.

The menu features a tryout section where customers can sample a burger that might make its way to the menu.

A lot of the burger suggestions come straight from customers, said co-owner Terri Lawrence. Lawrence owns the bar and grill with her brother after they purchased it from their parents around 20 years ago.

“A 90-year old woman came up with the hot dog burger,” Lawrence said. “We’ll make five, six burgers and let them taste them.”

King’s uses fresh ground beef for the patties, which are handmade. King’s slices all the veggies daily as well. King’s uses a special seasoning for the burgers once they go on the grill as well. The bar and grill gets its fresh-baked buns from Hanisch Bakery in nearby Red Wing, which butters the buns and toasts them.

“We wanted to specialize in one thing so we decided let’s just do burgers,” Lawrence said.

The simple philosophy has paid off as many of King’s customers come from all over the state and sometimes all over the world. The Prairie Island Nuclear Plant brings people in from around the world and they tend to find their way to King’s for a burger, Lawrence said.

Kings Place Bar & Grill is located at 14460 240th Street East in Miesville

-Nick Gerhardt

Best Candy Store – Curly Girlz Candy, Medford

There is no happier place than a candy store.

I mean, seriously. It’s a cliché – the guy who owns the candy store in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory riding the sliding ladder in his store singing about sunshine, rainbows and miracles while eager kids sing along with him in eager anticipation of something gooey and wonderful. That’s what you kind of expect whenever you walk into a candy store isn’t it?

“Well, I’m stirring caramel,” said Paula Trend, the owner, founder and all-around boss of Curly Girlz Candy in Medford, “I have three burners going.”

Okay so she wasn’t singing and dancing, but she was doing equally important work.

Curly Girlz Candy, open since August of 2014, was voted Best Candy Store in Southern Minnesota precisely because of that work. A certified Chocolatier, Paula has created the recipes for all of the caramels, chocolate truffles, salted nut rolls, and other various items she sells both in her store and online.

“Our sea salt caramels are the best sellers. They’re honey butter sea salt, so they’re unlike anything else you’ve tried. And we really try to use local ingredients wherever we can,” she said. The butter, the honey, the apples she uses for caramel apples, even things like wine for the flavoring in some of her truffles are all local sourced.

But that doesn’t keep her from expanding the Curly Girlz Empire.

“We have select retailers that sell our candy in the Cities, South Dakota and Iowa,” she said. “Just this week, we started shipping to New Jersey, California and Texas.”

And she’s always trying new ideas. Most recently, Curly Girlz has introduced a line of sugar free candies, of which she is very proud.

“We worked on the recipes for about a year,” she said, “just to get the flavor right. There’s no nasty taste. People seem to really like them.”

And there it is, a hard working chocolatier trying to constantly find new, fresh ideas, just to make  your day a little better and take away any nasty taste. What more can you ask for?

Curly Girlz Candy is located at 6750 W. Frontage Road in the Medford Outlet Center.

-Rich Larson

Best Catering, Best Coffee House, Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Best Lunch, Best Vegetarian Friendly and Best Place for a Summer Job - The Hideaway Coffee Shop and Wine Bar, Northfield

As far as local eateries that win a lot of awards goes, The Hideaway Coffee Shop and Wine Bar takes the cake with six “Best of” wins this year.

This year they won “Best Catering”, “Best Coffee House”, “Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich”, “Best Lunch”, “Best Vegetarian Friendly” and “Best Place for a Summer Job.”

Joan Spaulding, the owner of the establishment, was thrilled to have won so many awards from Scene.

“The key is our staff - our staff rocks it!” she explained.

The Hideaway opened in 2006 and is family owned and operated by Joan and Jim Spaulding, along with their six kids. Along with hosting many fun events and gatherings, a stellar food and drink menu consistently calls people back to the Hideaway.

“Our whole idea here is to create a place that is like our home where everyone feels welcome, and everything we serve when we bring it out is something we would want to eat or drink,” Spaulding continued.

Their menu offers a variety of sandwiches (both panini and signature styles), salads, appetizers, breakfast items, kids items and delicious desserts. For drinks, there is a local craft beer list, rotating wine lists and, of course, coffee.

One of their menu items, the “Best Grilled Cheese” isn’t listed on the menu. People simply know it’s the best and order it. And enjoyed with a bowl of hot soup, this sandwich will change your life for the better.

The Hideaway also hosts many events, including the Wine and Art Night on the first Tuesday of each month, Trivia Night on the second Monday of each month and movie night on Fridays for the kids.

Specials are offered on Wednesdays and Thursdays to get a half priced bottle of wine all day, and don’t forget to stop in on Saturday for half priced appetizers from 5-9 p.m. And on your birthday, stop in for a free lunch or dinner up to a $10 value. You read that right.

To top it all off, The Hideaway does catering now, with a large selection of entrees, sides, appetizers and desserts and even the option for a buffet lunch. Customers can choose to have The Hideaway bring food to their event or, for smaller groups, to rent out the back room of the shop.

“I’m very proud of what we produce, the customers that we come in contact with every day, the people we get to meet and the staff that we work with,” Spaulding said. “It's a fun, happy environment and the loyal customers that come in all the time are wonderful.“

The Hideaway always offers great deals on food and drink, the service is excellent and the atmosphere is friendly. It’s no wonder that they won six “Best of” awards.

Spaulding summed up her feelings for The Hideaway with genuine honesty.

“I believe in this, I’m thrilled that people are recognizing what we're trying to accomplish here - it's a feel-good place.”

The Hideaway Coffee Shop and Wine Bar is located at 421 S Division St., Northfield.

-Renee Brown

Best Date Night Restaurant and Best Pizza - The Red Barn Farm

What isn't there to like about The Red Barn Farm? With its natural beauty surrounding it, farm animals, local and organic ingredients, and homemade pizza crust (which is vegan friendly) you'll feel like you were put in the middle of a quirky romance movie. The Red Barn Farm is the perfect place for a date, with its picnic style dining, you can bring your own liquor, appetizers, cutlery, and seating (blankets shall suffice, but you can bring chairs too if you aren't a fan of floor eating). Make sure to get there early because this place isn't such a secret place anymore, with people all around Minnesota and surrounding states traveling to experience what The Red Barn has to offer.

And if your date goes over well, they also offer renting their place out for weddings and special events. The farm is only open May- October, Wednesdays from 4:30-8:30 pm. No reservations needed and you can just walk up, order and wait for your number to be up on the board, it's that easy. During peak seasons you might be waiting for an hour for your pizza but my goodness, is it ever worth it. You don't pay attention to how long you're waiting with the wonderful views surrounding you.

The Red Barn Farm is located at 10063 110th St E in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Donuts – Bloedow’s Bakery, Winona

A dear friend of mine recently purchased a house in Cold Spring, New York, about 60 miles up the Hudson from New York City, just on the other side of the river from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

When he bought the house, he called me to tell me how excited he was about living in the quaint little river town.

“Honestly, when I’m there,” he said, “it feels like I’m in Winona. Now if only I can somehow get Bloedow’s to open a shop here.”

And there you have it folks. The identity of Winona is not in the Mississippi River, the thriving arts scene or in either of the two colleges that call Winona home. Nope. Winona’s identity is in the small little bakery on Broadway with the best donuts in Southern Minnesota.

Bloedow’s Little Bake Shop on Broadway has been in Winona for 93 years. For everyone who lives there, Bloedow’s has been as constant and ubiquitous as the Mississippi River. Their donuts, from the raised glazed to the fried cinnamon rolls to the Bavarian cream filled to the cake donuts that are their very foundation, are an institution. After three generations of family ownership and the assumed stewardship by a longtime employee and lifelong Winonan, it’s good to see this place get a little respect from the rest of Southern Minnesota. And Upstate New York.

Bloedow’s Bakery is located at 451 East Broadway Street in Winona.

-Rich Larson

Best Fine Dining and Best Wine List – The Hubbell House, Mantorville

Behold a delicious, wonderful gem in southern Minnesota.

The Hubbell House, a historical treasure, in Mantorville has provided elegant meals with family-like service, real china, linen napkins and a 1800s atmosphere to presidents, senators, professional athletes, actors among the hundreds of area residents and visitors each day.

According to the restaurant’s website, early-American hospitality is still available right here in Minnesota.

Since 1946, when Paul Pappas purchased the Hubbell House and set the precedent to provide customers of the house with nothing less than excellent food and service.

And little has changed today under the ownership of Pappas’ son, Don.

That could be because he follows the Pappas’ family motto, “Put a good meal on the plate, charge a fair price, offer a pleasant atmosphere and treat your customers and employees right. If you do, people will come back.”

It’s evident that’s the case.

The Hubbell House’s diverse menu for lunch, dinner and events speak for themselves featuring an assortment of fresh appetizers, hearty entrees and homemade desserts.

And to complement the menus, the restaurant offers red and white wines, as well as domestic, imported and tap beers.

With a lineup like that, it’s no surprise it received the  Best Fine Dining and Best Wine List recognitions this year.

The Hubbell House is located at 502 N. Main St. in Mantorville.

-Ashley Stewart 

Best Food Truck – Uncle B’s Last Chance BBQ Shack

The best food truck in Southern Minnesota is not aptly named. Uncle B’s Last Chance BBQ Shack is not a a “shack.”

It’s a palace.

Brian Freed creates some of the best BBQ in Southern Minnesota and then, benevolently, seeks to bring the food right to you by setting up in some opportune locations. The “Shack” is a sweet little, tricked out, smokin’ kitchen on wheels. Quite often you’ll find him in the shared parking lot that belongs to ACE Hardware and the VFW on the corner of 4th St and 2nd Ave in Faribault. Other times you’ll find him in the parking lot at Firehouse Liquors on Highway 3 in Dundas. He’s also staked out a pretty good space over by the F-Town Brewery in Faribault. He can be kind of a moving target.

Trust us when we tell you that he’s worth finding.

The brisket is tender, with a good peppery flavor. The pulled pork is juicy, and not greasy. The Barbecue Baked Potatoes are huge. He offers deep fried hot dogs, something called a WOW Burger (we haven’t tried it yet, but we’re intrigued), and seems to be particularly proud of his Garlic Fries.

Ribs day is on Friday, so find him early.

It is our opinion that the true secret to his success, aside from his ridiculously friendly demeanor, is his sauce. He offers two kinds, one for beginners and one with the absolute perfect amount of kick. The sauce is so good in fact, that he recently began bottling it and selling it in Faribault grocery stores (as well as the aforementioned ACE Hardware).

The best way to track his whereabouts is to find him on Facebook. Wherever he is, just get there. The food is that good.

-Rich Larson

Best Ice Cream – Blast Soft Serve, Owatonna

Unbelievable proportions, or should I say portions. It is every child’s nightmare to have their ice cream fall to the pavement, but at Blast Soft Serve there is plenty to spare. In fact, it would be unusual for ice cream not to be making a trail back to the car because the serving of a small size is enough to make adults’ eyes gleam.

A bare cone isn’t even a complete disappointment as the Blast makes their waffle cones on site, something new this year added by owners Zach Von Ruden and Tyler Morgan. This is the third year the Blast has taken home Best Ice Cream of SoMinn.

“Jamie Evans, the previous owner, did a great job at building up the Blast. We are just glad we have been able to carry on the tradition,” said Von Ruden. He and Morgan took over the business last August.

“We were a little surprise—there are some pretty good ice cream shops around,” he said.

The Blast offers nearly every flavor imaginable and extends its service to those who maybe aren’t catered to very often, like the ill-fated lactose intolerants. With ice cream, frozen yogurt, lactose-free options, toppings galore and Dole pineapple whip, a discovery from a visit to Hawaii by his mother, there is something for everyone.

Blast Soft Serve is located at 206 West Rose Street in Owatonna. Find them on Facebook.

-Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Indian Food - Chapati

Norman Butler hails from England, and we all know there are two things the Brits love: Pubs and Pakora. So naturally after opening up The Contented Cow he proceeded to make himself feel more at home in this small town and opened up Chapati, located on the first floor of the Archer House hotel in downtown Northfield. Chapati does the classics of Northern Indian food very well -- malai kofta, channa masala, tikka masala are all satisfying. And from the tender lamb to their spicy (but not overwhelming, I'm assuming to comply with Minnesotan's gentle palates) tandoori, they got it all. Did I mention they have a daily lunch buffet? Because they do.

If you plan on coming, make sure to bring friends because you get what you pay for; with huge portions its almost family-style. The ambiance and feel inside of Chapati makes you feel like you're in a different country, which makes the experience that much better. If you are hesitant on eating Indian (which apparently is a thing) trying the buffet will open your mind, and taste-buds, to so many new and different flavors without having to commit to just one plate.

Chapati is located in the Archer House at 212 Division Street South in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Italian FoodBuca di Beppo

Alright, first of all, to the three of you jokers who wrote in “Olive Garden,” … I mean, please. If you were joking it’s a terrible joke. If you weren’t, dear lord, you need to take a trip outside of Olmsted County very, very soon. There’s a great airport in Rochester. Book yourself a flight to New York City, or Florence. We’ll still be here when you get back. SoMinn is the best place in the world to live, but sometimes, if you just aren’t trying, you can miss what qualifies as true, great cuisine.

Now that might be an unfair lead in for Buca di Beppo, because, let’s be up front and honest about this: Buca is a national chain, too. But in a land where there are 1000 Norwegians for every one Italian, we are fortunate to have restaurants like Buca. Buca di Beppo offers a full Italian dining experience – great atmosphere, great food, great wine list, and great service.

For those of you who have not made the trip to Burnsville (the only Buca location in SoMinn), the restaurant is done up like a classic New York City basement Italian café. Pictures of famous Italians and Catholics adorn the walls. The food is served family style, meaning the portions of any one dish will feed at least two and generally many more than that. It’s the perfect place for family get-togethers or going out with a big group of friends. And it’s the closest we’re going to get to authentic Italian Food around these here parts.

Go, eat and have a ball.

-Rich Larson

Best Mexican Food and Best Margarita – El Tequila, Faribault, Northfield, Owatonna, Waseca, New Prague, MN

No matter who is in the kitchen you can be sure to get the same great Mexican meal or Margarita at any of the five El Tequila locations. They pride themselves on everything being made in-house (including the chips!) and from the same recipe. Everything served is consistent and authentic. And Erica Manuel and her family have been doing this for twenty years!

The first location was the Faribault location but Minnesotans couldn’t get enough! Over the years they had to expand to meet the demand until they grew to five stores! Who knows how far this can go?!

The Faribault Assistant Manager, Alejandro (Alex) Lara has been with the family for 8-10 years and is always amazed how popular their house-made chips and salsa remains. He attributes not only the house-made everything but the friendly and consistent staff treat all of their customers like part of the family!

El Tequila has locations in Faribault, New Prague, Northfield, Owatonna and Waseca

-Jill Mackey

Best Pancakes – The Kernel Restaurant, Owatonna

A hidden gem of Owatonna hides between a Ford dealership and the Budget Host Inn. The sheer number of cars parked in the lot is often mistaken for being part of the dealership it sits so closely to. Those who have been acquainted know that it is simply the usual crowd that swarms into The Kernel for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is definitely one of the places where you say to your meal date, “We need to go, it’s going to be packed!” Even if you do arrive a bit behind schedule, the staff will you get you the seat of your preference within minutes.

The Kernel has been in business since 1981, offering home cooked favorites and legendary desserts. They serve breakfast any time of day which means you can eat their celebrated pancakes whenever you please. It is difficult to leave without bumping in to someone you know, and given the family friendly atmosphere, the people in the next booth over are likely to join in your conversation. It is a gathering place for many age groups who look to sit with their friends and chat about news, gossip, family, and how old shoes make your feet hurt.

The Kernel Restaurant is located at 1011 Hoffman Dr NW in Owatonna

- Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Place for a Steak – Porterhouse Steaks & Seafood

If you’re in the mood for thick, juicy and tasty steak, SouthernMinn says your best bet is to stop in at Porterhouse Steaks & Seafood in Lakeville.

And you can bet when you pull in off I-35, that when you enter the door you’ll have options. New York Strip, Ribeye, Top Sirloin and a Porterhouse are just a few choices of the melt-in-your-mouth steaks you can get. Their signature steaks are as “tender as your mother’s love,” they say, with options such as the Filet Mignon and Black & Bleu Ribeye.

And if you can’t decide, they put together a combination menu. A nine-ounce Filet Mignon and a lobster tail? Consider it done. How about a sixteen ounce New York Strip with two crab cakes? Mmhmm.

And if those aren’t hitting the spot, go ahead, build your own combination, because at Porterhouse, all you have is options.

Porterhouse Steaks and Seafood is located at 11211 205th Street West in Lakeville

-Brad Phenow

Best Server – Riley Reser

Serving is a tough, tough job. It’s long hours on your feet. It demands the ability to keep a lot of balls in the air at once, absorb the blame for mistakes you have nothing to do with and always keep a smile on your face. You have to know your menu and the offerings at the bar. You have to develop an inner clock and a keen sense of timing. It’s really not as easy as it looks.

And some people just make it look easy.

Riley Reser has been a server at the Timber Lodge Steakhouse in Owatonna for nearly two years. In that time she has impressed enough people and gained enough support in her community that she has now been named the Best Server in Southern Minnesota.

“She’s so good at her job,” said Timber Lodge General Manager Darlene Federly. “Riley is full of energy and always has a positive attitude.”

Federly noted that the restaurant puts their servers through a disciplined training program and she believes her servers are all of the highest quality.

“But,” she admitted, “it’s really great to have a server like Riley on the floor.”

The Timber Lodge Steakhouse is located at 4455 West Frontage Road in Owatonna

-Rich Larson

Best Sub or Sandwich – Hogan Brothers, Northfield

I might sound like a broken record, but Hogan Brother's has the best hoagies. The best, ever. If you disagree I'll be in the parking lot of Econo Foods in Northfield every day from 2-3pm if you want to fight me. All joking aside, Hogan Brother's has been wonderfully serving the Northfield community since 1991. With their secret sauce and freshly baked bread, it's hard to beat.

Along with the hoagies, they also offer freshly baked cookies and muffins daily, and if you're feeling the summer time has got you down, and insanely hot, try out any of their 12 flavors of ice cream. With its relaxed atmosphere, every college student flocks to this place. Not only for their always delicious hoagies, but the fact that you get a lot of bang out of your buck, with their half a hoagie (which is the size of a subway, I kid you not) and soup special being under seven dollars. I never dared to get the whole hoagie, since it’s the size of my arm. But for college kids it'll crave their insatiable hunger after writing a thesis a million times longer than this review. So eat up, kids.

Hogan Brothers is located at 415 Division Street in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Supper Club - Ranchero Supper Club, Webster

If there was one complaint to come from the Ranchero Supper Club in Webster, it would be that it is just too hard to pick one item from their delicious menu.

The supper club has been home to many regulars for 42 years and has recently been passed on to the next generation. Heidi Elwood, owner and operator of Ranchero, believes it’s the tradition at Ranchero’s that got them to the top of Best Supper Club. “We’re more of a home-style, from scratch, local place where people can come in and find good food and a great beer assortment,” she said. The three-page menu filled with everything under the sun is only one of the many attractions. They also offer Friday fish fry, daily specials and their hit item, Rudy’s Signature Steak. The steak is named after owner Heidi Elwood’s father.

Although Ranchero has continually focused on truly figuring out the business all these years, Elwood said the title of Best Supper Club in Southern Minnesota confirms it, “This makes us feel like we’re doing it right,” she said.

The Ranchero Supper Club is located at 4452 40th St Win Webster

--Brad Phenow

BARS

Best Beer Selection - Fielder's Choice Tap and Table

You like beer? Of course you do, I've never met one person who doesn't dabble into beer every now and then. You like a vast selection of beer, that isn't riddled with Budweiser, Coors Light, and MGD? Look no further and make a stop at Fielder’s Choice Tap and Table. After learning Northfield was getting a restaurant with more than 10 taps (whoaaaaa) I immediately had a panic attack. Not one of those bad ones, but the kind where you imagine all the possibilities of beers you can have in one place and you start to shake and forget how to breathe. Yeah, one of those. Those are the best kind.

With 36 taps, it can be a bit overwhelming (like that panic attack kind of feel) but their selection is ever changing. Did I mention EVERY. SINGLE. BEER. IS. LOCAL?! It's like going to every single tap house in Minnesota, without all of that silly traffic, driving, and parking. You don't like beer? They always have a few ciders ready for your consumption. Most bars are very IPA heavy, but don't you worry, their selection is evenly weighed out. With west coast pale ales, wheat, stouts, porters, maibocks, imperial lagers, amber ales, and brown ales, you'll be able to find the right beer fit for you.

Fielder’s Choice is located at 2300 Gleason Court in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Patio and Best Bloody Mary – Froggy Bottoms River Pub, Northfield

Let us take a moment to celebrate the fact that, by and large, the danger of flooding has passed for the season and that Froggy Bottoms River Pub and Lily PADio is still there. After being declared a total loss and the Northield tavern changed ownership and was forced to rebuild after a 100 year flood in 2010. The Cannon River, upon which Froggy’s sits, came dangerously close to performing an encore in September.

Thankfully, Frggy Bottoms was spared, meaning the Best Patio and Best Bloody Mary in Southern Minnesota remain available to all.

When Froggy’s expanded its outdoor seating in 2014 it became a top destination for outdoor drinks and dining along the river.

The patio area tripled and now features around 15 tables after previously having just seven tables on the pub side in the past. Froggy Bottoms now hosts musical acts on the patio all summer long to enhance the experience for customers.

Owner Laurie Hoheisel felt the addition would go well because “it’s Minnesota and we like to be outside as much as possible.”

Whether it’s enjoying the weather or enjoying time while visiting with friends and family, Froggy Bottoms’ Lily PADio gives people a chance to be outside while overlooking the Cannon River.

Froggy Bottoms Lilly Padio is located at 307 Water Street South in Northfield

-Nick Gerhardt

Best Brew Pub and Best Local Brewery – F-Town Brewing Company, Faribault

It feels like a new thing. A few years ago, the Minnesota legislature made a couple changes in the laws to allow for small breweries to pop up and sell their product right on site. The advent of the brew pub and the tap room in Minnesota has re-invigorated the brewing industry in this state and has established us as a true rival to our neighbors on the Eastern border for the creation of quality brew.

But it’s not necessarily a new thing. 150 (or so) years ago when our German and Scandinavian ancestors were settling this region, a lot of towns were established around breweries. They were common houses, meeting places and community centers. The same thing is happening now, as all these local breweries are now once again uniting communities and bringing people together.

The Best Brew Pub category has become one of the most competitive of them all in the Best of SoMinn, but this year the blue ribbon goes to F-Town Brewing Company in Faribault.

Opened in 2015, F-Town’s leadership trifecta of Travis Temke, Noah Strouth and Chris Vogel have quickly established their company as a purveyor of fine beer. From the American Red Ale to the newly released seasonal Maple Stout to the absolutely flawless Faribo Lager, F-Town has combined science with art to offer exceptionally good beer. The taproom, which sits just adjacent to the criminally (until now) underused Peterson Furniture warehouse is a cozy space filled with long tables that promote neighborly conversation whether you’re there with a large group of people or just stopped in on your own for a pint.

F-Town Brewery is located at 22 Fourth Street Northeast in Faribault.

-Rich Larson

Best Happy Hour – Reggie’s Brewhouse, Owatonna

A perennial candidate for flat-out best bar in SoMinn, Reggies has once again taken home the prize for Best Happy Hour.

Happy hour at Reggie’s happens between 3 and 7 p.m. That is significantly longer, and more logical, than most that end right when you get off work. Monday and Wednesday are late night happy hour, $2 tap Coors on Tuesday, 2-for-1’s on Thursday, $2 domestic beer and either $3 Caption, Windsor or Bacardi—one every week—on Friday.

And a fun twist to the swear jar is the F-Bomb Happy Hour. A glass jar sits on the counter between regular happy hour, 3-7 p.m., and anyone who throws an F-bomb is obligated to toss a quarter in it. The money is collected throughout the month and on the first Friday of each month the staff makes burgers, brats or any other universally enjoyed, feel-good food. The jar collects roughly $120 a month.

“People who know about it just start swearing it out. But, if you put $5 in, you can cuss as much as you want. It gets you through the whole happy hour,” says Bryce.

-Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Martini - Torey’s Restaurant and Martini Bar

David Connelly, the house manager at Torey’s, said that the quality of their martinis starts with well-trained bartenders.

“We pride ourselves on the way we make them and being able to give people plenty of options,” he said.

The martini comes in many flavors at Torey’s. The current list of about 25 variations starts with the dirty martini and branches out into versions like espresso and lemon drop. Connelly said that his favorites to make are different takes on the Cosmopolitan.

It’s the little things that go into preparing the drink, Connelly said, that brings out the quality—like how bartenders filter the olive juice to make a dirty martini.

The restaurant is always trying to keep things fresh, so even if you’ve had a martini or two at Torey’s, keep going back. New ideas and new martinis are always popping up on the menu.

Tory’s is located at 685 W Bridge St #5 in Owatonna

-Matt Hudson

Best Specialty Cocktail – The Strawberry Pineapple Gin Fizz, Loon Liquors, Northfield

Craft cocktails are all the rage now-a-days with people my age (Millennials), most places having drinks with ingredients that twist your tongue from distant far away countries (I'm currently having a martini with crème de Violette in it. So I'm 100% in this group of people). But what can you do, as a bar or cocktail room, to make yourself stand out from the crowd? Loon Liquors did just that with all of their drinks, but the go-to, most popular, must try drink is the Strawberry Pineapple Gin Fizz. Every single ingredient is made in house, including their tonic, bitters, flavored simple syrups, and ginger ale. How about that, eh? A drink that is truly home-made, Minnesotan, and full of flavor.

If you're feeling thirsty right now, head over to their web page, they are kind enough to even give you the ingredients to this crisp, fruity, and flavorful drink. But make sure you use their Metropoligin (trade mark, because that name is THE BEST NAME EVER, you guys) when making it, if not, then you'll just be making the cousin twice removed who moved to the mountains to find herself version of the drink. Good, but not what you hoped for. So take some time out of your busy life and head on over to Loon Liquors, tell Simeon and Mark that Karlee sent ya.

Loon Liquors is located at 1325 Armstrong Road, #165 in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

MISCELANEOUS

Best Bed & Breakfast - The Magic Door - Northfield

Northfield is known for its quaintness, and The Magic Door has that and then some. With it being only a few blocks from downtown Northfield it still has that coziness of being in a small town, but close enough to all of the shops and attractions. You'll love this three story Victorian house, built in 1899 on a spacious corner lot. The surrounding area also offers many recreational opportunities such as biking, canoeing, golfing, and hiking in the nearby Big Woods State Park if you're into being adventurous and a busy body.  If you are a more rest and relaxation type, you can plan on relaxing on The Magic Door’s glorious porch, or take a small stroll down to the river walk to watch the sunset.

If you plan on staying in Northfield, you might as well do it right, in this cozy Bed & Breakfast. If the bottomless cookie-jar and complimentary Wine, beer, sherry, and soda doesn't fully sell you (cookies and wine are my two passions in life), the stylish and comfortable bedrooms and delicious home cooked breakfast will. So next time you feel like you need a mini get away, opt for a stay-cation and spend a night at The Magic Door.

The Magic Door is located at 818 Division Street South in Northfield

-Karlee Kanz

Best Casino – Treasure Island Resort and Casino, Red Wing

It’s a small thing, but it shows what sets Treasure Island apart from a lot of other casinos around here: Treasure Island doesn’t lie to you.

Nowhere in their marketing do they say anything about the odds being in your favor, or having the best returning slots. They don’t try to suck you in by making you think you’re going to get rich playing Pai-Gow at one of their tables. You’re a grown-up. If you want to sit down and play some black jack for a while, then you should do that without having some carnie try to reel you in with the promise of a “hot table.” We all know what the end result of most of these things is going to be. Treasure Island actually respects you enough to not treat you like a rube.

They also have some killer entertainment. Just in 2016 their showroom has seen, or will host,  the likes of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Boston and The Moody Blues.

Sometimes you just want to get away and go play with the other adults. Treasure Island allows you to do that without giving up any of your dignity.

Visit www.ticasino.com for more details.

--Rich Larson

Best Community Event - Defeat of Jesse James Days, Northfield

The annual Defeat of Jesse James Days (DJJD) was nominated as the “Best Community Event” in southern Minnesota, and for good reason. Spanning several days starting on the anniversary of the famed attempted bank robbery by the James-Younger gang, the DJJD brings thousands of people to Northfield to experience a variety of entertaining events.

T.J. Heinricy, coordinator for the DJJD events, noted that this is the third largest celebration in Minnesota, and they are dedicated to providing the best entertainment possible.

“This is the only totally volunteer celebration in all of Minnesota and the history goes way back, everybody celebrates since we celebrate the town's people, not the outlaws,” he said.

For four days, the downtown area of Northfield becomes a hotspot of history and entertainment, made easier due to the central location for nearly every activity.

“We couldn't do it without volunteers and community members,” he added.

So, if you like fair food, drinking, live music, watching kids compete against each other on little blown up horseys, watching actual live reenactments of the raid, rodeos, parades, carnivals, craft shows and a multitude of other engaging activities, then you best not miss next year's Defeat of Jesse James Days.

The Defeat of Jesse James Days is held annually in Northfield the weekend after Labor Day.

-Renee Brown

Best Downtown - Northfield

Northfield is known as a hub for arts and culture. This town has a historic, famous and endearing feel, complete with easy access to shops, restaurants and parks. Downtown Northfield has a uniquely peaceful vibe - its leisurely atmosphere makes visitors want to linger and causes residents to continue calling it home.

Bridge Square is almost something that would be seen in a movie, and Division Street hosts multiple unique shops and restaurants. Parking, which is normally an issue in small towns, is easy to find.

But it’s the friendly residents that make this place interesting. Frequent events are held downtown, boasting happy people with a genuine interest in supporting the town’s wellbeing. The Arts Guild shows off its gallery and hosts frequent performances. The Riverwalk Market Fair, held each Saturday through the summer, brings out the best in local products, and those who enjoy biking will love the bike-friendly roads.

The environment is clean and landscaped, and the convenient location of the restaurants and music venues is perfect for a night out on the town. There is always something for everyone to find and love about downtown Northfield.

-Renee Brown

Best Farmers Market - Owatonna Farmers Market

Although the hours specified are 7 a.m. till noon, vendors at the Owatonna Farmers Market begin rolling in much earlier than that. According to the market veterans, it’s all about getting your spot. I won’t let all of their secrets of success out, but many of them have been setting up shop at the Saturday morning market for well over a decade.

There is no charge to set up your stand at the Owatonna Farmers Market; you just need to find a spot. The last couple years have brought homemade cheeses, locally raised honey, heirloom tomatoes, a cotton candy spinner, and several gluten free options. Melissa Anderson is one of the long-time market goers whose jams, jellies, and baked goods in particular have created many regular customers. She has been in the same spot for basically the last ten years, give or take a few inches. The locals around the area know their canned goods and there are some exceptionally talented wood carvers. It is a very diverse market. You never know what you might happen upon so try not to come in a hurry, you might miss something special.

The Owatonna Farmers Market is held in Central Park every Saturday morning from 7am-Noon, May through October.

- Autumn Van Ravenhorst

Best Holiday Event - Northfield Winter Walk

The Northfield Winter Walk, sponsored by the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce, sets the bar high as the “Best Holiday Event” again for 2016.

The picturesque Northfield downtown area is transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with cozy shops and fun activities for the whole family.

T.J. Heinricy, who works with the city for these events, noted that this brings a lot of people to the town.

“It’s been warm enough the past few years for people to enjoy it,” he said. “So many people gravitate to it.”

Sleigh rides travel up and down Division Street while shops offer discounts and welcome visitors with warm drinks and a cheery atmosphere. The town it lit by candles and bonfires, and carolers serenade folks as they tour the area. Santa and his elves will even makes an appearance, despite their busy schedule so close to Christmas. Members of the James-Younger Gang will also be available for photo opportunities.

“It’s fun to be able to meet all of the town people and hear caroling and to be able to take it all in,” Heinricy added.

Fresh food is available in a variety of restaurants, perfect for a full meal or a sugary snack. Visitors can stay at the beautiful historic Archer House, which overlooks the frozen Cannon River. Crafts, wreaths and other objects will be for sale for that perfect Christmas gift. Even the grinchiest of souls will have a heart full of cheer after enjoying Northfield’s Winter Walk.

The Northfield Winter Walk takes place in downtown Northfield each year. This year, it will be held from 5-9 p.m. on Dec. 8.

-Renee Brown

Best Kept Secret – The National Eagle Center, Wabasha

It kind of boggles my mind that we don’t hear more about The National Eagle Center.

A non-profit organization dedicated to the study sustaining of the Upper Midwest Eagle population, the NEC sits in a beautiful facility right on the banks of the Mississippi River in Wabasha.

The Upper Mississippi is home to hundreds of both bald and golden eagles, and that population swells in the winter months because the river does not freeze over, allowing for an easy food source during the toughest time of the year for the majestic birds.

Visitors to the National Eagle Center can observe the birds in their natural habitat from the observation platform at the facility or take a guided field trip through the river bluff area. They can attend one of three daily programs featuring one of the eight “Eagle Ambassadors” who are permanent residents of the NEC (each has a medical condition that will not allow them to live in the wild). You can learn about eagles survival and hunting skills; their nesting behaviors and their biology; the connections of eagles and people through history. Or you can just pick up a few fun facts about them.

Why we don’t hear more about the NEC, and why it isn’t far more top-of-mind to all Minnesotans is a real mystery to me. Perhaps it’s because the best time to observe eagles is during the winter. Perhaps its location in Wabasha is too far off the beaten path for most people (I don’t buy that idea for a second, by the way). Maybe as a society we’re still getting used to the idea that we can even see an eagle. As a kid, I never saw eagles in the wild, and now I’ll see one on a weekly basis at least. They’re off the endangered species list and are thriving in Southern Minnesota.

You need to check this place out. Eagles are more than just a symbol of our country. They are top-of-the-food-chain animals, from whom we can learn much about, strength, grace and survival. Frankly, the National Eagle Center is more than a SoMinn gem, it’s a national treasure. Go check it out.

-Rich Larson

Best Local Politician – Steele County Commissioner James “Corky” Ebeling

Politicians are far from the most popular people in our society, particularly at the end of a presidential election cycle. By the end of October, we’ll have spent 17 months listening to, or rather being inundated by, signs, commercials, news reports, debates and social media posts. I consider myself to be a political junkie, and even I am so sick of it that I don’t want to leave the house, turn on my TV or check Twitter until the election is over.

But some politicians, like Steele County Commissioner James “Corky” Ebeling, have the ability to rise above all that distasteful campaign propaganda and show that they are most concerned about the health and well-being of their constituents and the area they represent.  Ebeling has now been named Best Local Politician in the Best of SoMinn poll for two years in a row, and it’s an accomplishment he’s proud of.

“I’m honored and excited,” he said. “Anytime you’re recognized by your peers and the people you represent, it’s humbling.”

Along with his duties representing the 4th District of Steele County, Ebeling also serves as the Director of Parks, Recreation and Government Buildings for the City of Owatonna. He credits his experience in both roles as a key reason for his success as a commissioner.

“My community involvement works. I see a perspective from the city side and from the county side. It allows me to build some bridges and get to the heart of a lot of issues.”

Ebeling is currently running for a third term as commissioner. If all goes according to plan, he will retire from the Parks and Rec department in 2017 to focus full time on Steele County.

“I’ve been with parks and Rec for 39 years, he said. I think at this point, I can offer more as a Steele County Commissioner,” he said.

“I just have to win this election first.”

After the number of votes he received in the Best of SoMinn poll, we’re guessing that won’t be a problem.

-Rich Larson

Best Movie Theater – Northwoods Cinema 10, Owatonna

I love movies, but in this day and age the only thing that will pull me into a movie theater is the special effects laden blockbuster. If I’m actually going to see a movie in the theater, that movie needs to have giant dinosaurs, evil robots fighting Norwegian Gods of Thunder or adventurous tales of heroes and villains set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I can watch a character study or a romantic comedy in glorious high definition at home on my couch. But the big movies require the classic movie theater experience.

For my money – and I mean that literally, because going to the movies ain’t cheap (especially on a journalist’s salary) – there is no better place in SoMinn to get that experience than Northwoods Cinema 10 in Owatonna.

As much as we love to be transported away to worlds of fantasy and wild imagination, the real secret of Northwoods Cinema’s  success is the staff. The people selling tickets and popcorn, cleaning the theaters and helping you find your movie aren’t just polite; they’re personable and helpful. They smile. They make a joke or two. When you order a large popcorn with “butter,” they stop filling the bucket halfway to put a little extra in there.

And, by the way, the popcorn is outstanding, too.

Northwoods Cinema 10 is located at 300 Allan Ave. in Owatonna

--Rich Larson 

Best Place to Spend New Year’s Eve – At Home

In 2015, rapper Earl Sweatshirt released an album entitled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Aside from being an incredible and stark declaration, it’s also a philosophy that I personally identify with—which is one of the reasons that I was approached by the Scene’s editor-in-chief to write something about how ‘staying at home’ won the distinction of ‘Best Place to Spend New Year’s Eve.’

Also, I’m the most agoraphobic among the writing staff.

Why would you even want to go out late at night in the dead of winter? It’s going to be cold. You’re going to be out late and you’ll be tired. The roads won’t be safe because there will be drunk drivers careening all over the place. More than likely you won’t even have fun at the party or wherever you were planning on going, and the people you were going to see at this event are probably all awful anyway.

So just stay at home with your family—your wife and companion rabbit (if you’re me.) Don’t try to stay up until midnight. Call it a night at, like, 10:45, because really, December 31st is just another day that, like nearly every day, is void of meaning.

-Kevin Krein

Best Public Restroom – Jaycee Park, Owatonna

If you were confused by this category, or if you wondered what there is to celebrate about a public restroom, then it’s a good bet you don’t have kids.

Moms and dads have all been there: you’re at the park pushing the kids on a swing, or watching them play on the equipment, when suddenly they come running up to you with a panicked look.

“I have to go potty!”

This is serious. This has to happen now.

RIGHT NOW!

Or maybe you’re in that park with your baby and suddenly that giggling, gurgling bundle of joy smells of something so terrible you think that a sulfur hole may have opened up behind you.

That is when you really appreciate a nice, clean public restroom. Something convenient, with a nice changing table and plenty of stalls so you don’t have to wait around.

The City of Owatonna built and opened a lovely new pavilion at Jaycee Park this year. Along with the updated concession stand and expanded picnic area are the nicest public restrooms in Southern Minnesota. Nothing overly fancy, mind you, just great, clean places you can take your kids to avert disaster and give them the relief they need.

On behalf of parents everywhere, I would personally like to offer my thanks to the City of Owatonna.

-Rich Larson

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