Two Mavs, two careers, 4,000 0ptions

A robust, promising start. Fresh and light but anchored with substance.

The 2020 marriage of alums Neah Helget ’16 and Carter Person ’14 has with it a new kind of partnership for the two: a wine and spirits business that takes a cue from the vibe of destination-restaurants rather than big liquor stores.

“I really wanted to bring in restaurant hospitality to a store like this,” Carter said inside of Cork & Key, a spacious, browsing-oriented store the couple has opened near Mankato’s Madison Avenue.

Maverick alums Carter Person and Neah (Helget) Person operate the Cork & Key, a new wine and spirits shop aiming to provide personalized attention to customers.

“Because there’s something to be said about the hospitality that you see in a restaurant,” he added. “People love that, they go there for that experience.”

The idea at Cork & Key is to make the personal touch available to anyone walking in the door looking for guidance or advice on wines, etc.

“We want to be able to form relationships with our customers,” Neah said, “instead of just checking them out and letting them go home.”

And Carter knows restaurant service. His family operates several independent restaurants in the Mankato area, including Tav on the Ave, Dino’s Pizzeria and Number 4—each carving out a distinct niche rather than repeating a theme. He’s worked in several of the family’s businesses; it was actually at Number 4 where he made the connection to Neah by way of her sister, Nevada Helget.

After graduating with a psychology degree, Carter tended bar in the Twin Cities and worked for an Uptown Minneapolis restaurant that opened with great promise only to close after six months. It was a brutal lesson to behold on the fickle nature of the restaurant game.

“They had all the right ingredients, it just never meshed,” he said. “That’s probably where I learned the most about the restaurant industry too. I always thought my dad and uncle had great restaurants but … they’re in Mankato. But you go up to Minneapolis and you realize

‘They’ve got it going on back home. They do know what they’re doing.’”

Carter has since taken co-ownership of two bar/restaurants in the family, the Third Street Tavern in St. Peter and Flask in Mankato, a corner bar near downtown.

As they work to establish Cork & Key, Neah continues her pursuit of a master’s degree in early childhood special education. While doing so, she’s teaching in the Mankato school district to kids from birth to 3 years old.

“It’s a lot of working with the parents and families,” she said. “Coaching and giving them strategies to use.”

As such, she’s a weekend and evening presence at the store, a project she’s passionate about and eager to turn into a fun experience for customers. While the Persons work with large-scale distributors, they’re also keen on those that can bring a more specialized feel to the place.

“We had to seek out a lot of different reps and distributors who weren’t represented here in Mankato or the southern Minnesota area,” Neah said. “Because what we’re looking for is that more unique, smaller production.”

As classical music plays softly overhead and customers—including a recently retired art professor from Carter and Neah’s alma mater—peruse the walls of wine, the owners are seeing a long-talked-about dream merge into their reality.

“This has been something Neah and I have always talked about,” Carter said, “but never had the time to put pen to paper.”

And the bar/restaurant education continues for him as well.

“Even just bartending, you’re constantly learning about the products behind the bar,” he said. “Now, though, instead of the 300 products, it’s 4,000.”