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  • Writer's pictureNielsen Studios Inc


American Faces No. 94


I know, I know. I chose what is likely the most overused title ever: “The Champion.” But I think there is no title more fitting for Kari Lazzarino. She is a loving mother to 4 kids, a barber-trained and self-proclaimed Man-ol-o-gist, and owner of the Bearded Viking barber shop in Monticello, Minnesota. Kari is only 5 foot (plus a few inches) tall, but she’s a fierce powerhouse of a woman who had to recreate herself and her family, moving away from her home state of California for a new start, and a new life.  Kari decided to go back to using her maiden name, not by her choosing, but because of the choices her ex-husband forced her into. Kari is a woman who will never let herself or her family be hurt again. She knew she needed to write new chapters in a story of restoration and wholeness, a story of a true champion. So, what does a true champion look like? (Here’s where the story gets good)


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THIS true champion is a woman who trims beards and hair like a wizard. Well, a wizard with clippers, scissors and a comb. She shapes the beards of the customers she calls “my guys” to a near magical quality. Ok, I might be embellishing, but it’s truly amazing to watch her sculpt the hair and Viking-like beards of the guys that frequent her shop just off Main Street in Monticello. I should also note that she works her hair-sculpting magic for quite a few women as well.


You may have noticed I’m not including the backstory of Kari’s life. There’s no need for me to do that. You can hear it on this podcast (go to about the 52:00 mark). I just want to showcase a woman’s story that, like the tattoo on her forearm, speaks of her faith – both in herself, and in God. Kari knew she had to focus on taking the next breath. She knew she had to be fierce. She had to wake up and start a new day, then another day, then another. She just knew she couldn’t stop, and she refused to be a victim. Her story was filled with unimaginable difficulty, but her kids, her family and “her guys” have helped her push on. They help her smile, to take on another day, and they help her be the true Champion she was made to be. Read that again: a true Champion!


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I always close my stories by encouraging you, the reader, to do something. Well here it is: Go get a haircut, and maybe a beard trim if you need it, at the Bearded Viking. Say “hi” to Kari. If that doesn't fit into your schedule, go help a struggling mom, a dad or a grandparent. Maybe buy groceries for someone who’s just having trouble making ends meet. You WILL change their lives. You might just help them become a Champion!


Go make a difference!



Photos and story by: Nielsen Studios

Editing by: Scott Whitman






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  • Writer's pictureNielsen Studios Inc


American Faces No. 93



“I know I’m here for a reason.”


Not many young professionals approach their jobs with such confidence in their position, or with such purpose. But Collin Bensen believes he has a calling.


The 21-year-old earned his badge as a Minnesota Metro Transit Police Officer in September of 2023. His mother was there to pin the badge on his crisp blue uniform. 


When Collin first told his mom he wanted to be a cop, she was worried for him, but she also believed he had an important role to play. “She told me I could be a light at the end of the tunnel for people who maybe hadn’t seen a light for a while,” says Collin.



Collin said growing up, many of his athletic coaches were police officers or first responders. They taught him a lot about what it meant to be a good man, to deal with challenges and to treat people with respect. He was inspired by their dedication to community, and by their brotherhood.   


Collin’s perspective on policing, and how he interacts with the people he encounters at the bus stops and on the train platforms every day, reflects the dedication and values – and the mission – he learned from those men, and from his own mom and dad. 


“It’s not just about enforcing the law, but about helping people,” Collin says, “You treat people like human beings, you have human conversations, so they know they’re not alone.” He wants to help people in crisis find a better path. “I want them to know that whatever the situation, it doesn't have to be the final destination,” says Collin.


Collin comes to that belief from personal experience. He was adopted as a baby, born to a young girl in a tough situation. 


“I was adopted by a loving family. These complete strangers chose to bring me into their family, and gave me a new life,” says Collin, “The man I am now, the kind of man my parents raised me to be, began with that decision to adopt me. I would want other people to feel valued in that same way, to know that kind of acceptance.”


That might seem wishful thinking, given the hard realities of the job. After all, policing comes down to enforcing laws, and dealing with situations where people won’t necessarily appreciate his role. 


But Collin says his extensive training – both in the classroom and on the street – and his mentors within the department, have prepared him for the job and reinforced the idea that good policing comes down to treating people as human beings.


“Probably every officer here has had moments where you’re face to face with a person in a tough situation, and it’s really about basic human empathy,” Collin  says, “You’re just trying to figure out how to care for that person in front of you.” 


Collin is also a realist. He knows it’s a hard job, and with the daily grind – seeing and experiencing some really hard stuff – a person can’t help but get a little calloused. But Collin falls back on a pretty solid foundation.


Collin credits his parents with giving him the opportunity to explore life’s options, and discover his own calling. “I thank my parents. First, for adopting me, and for helping me grow into the man I am today,” Collin says, “I thank them for all the opportunities – the family trips, the sports, the music. They supported everything I wanted to try.” 


He also credits his parents for raising him in the church, and helping him discover and grow in his own foundational faith.   


“I love this saying that says God gives his toughest warriors the toughest battles,” says Collin, “Whatever the job calls for, whatever happens, I know I have a family. I know I’m eternally loved. And I know I’m here for a reason.”


If you see Collin, or another law enforcement officer, say hello and give them a smile. And though you might feel a little anxious, simply say, “thank you” or “stay safe out there.” You’ll probably make their day. And you may just be the encouragement that helps them shine a little more light into their world.


Thank you Chief Ernest Morales III, Captain Erin Dietz and Nikki Muehlhausen for the opportunity to tell this story.



Photos by: Nielsen Studios

Story and BTS photos by: Scott Whitman






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  • Writer's pictureNielsen Studios Inc

American Faces No. 92


On this chilly mid-winter day Shawn is like a kid in a candy store, almost literally. 

 

Admittedly, most of his American Faces story shoots are like that. Any time he’s with new people and in new places, he gets a little giddy. Call it a creative adrenaline rush. But this was different. We’re at the Northern Soda Company in New Brighton, Minnesota, and Shawn is bellied up to the bar in their newly-christened soda fountain tap room, shot glass in hand, doing tasting flights of craft root beer and soda. He’s a big kid in soda fountain heaven. 

We’re visiting Northern Soda Company Co-CEO and co-founder, Davod Zarghami, for a personal tour of their brand new 10,000-square-foot canning facility and Minnesota’s very first soda tap room, and as Shawn freely admits, to conduct research in his lifelong pursuit of the perfect root beer. 

Did he find it? More on that in a bit.

 

 

As with all his American Faces stories, Shawn is drawn to “makers” of all kinds, whether solo artists, entrepreneurs and start-ups, or generations-old legacy business owners. He has a fascination for what inspires people, and a passionate curiosity to get under the surface to see what makes each person unique. In Shawn’s world, everyone has a story worth telling.

 

Of course, if that story involves making craft sodas and rootbeer, that’s a huge bonus. Seeing behind the scenes at Northern Soda Company, and talking with Davod, was a particular treat. 

 

The people behind Northern Soda Company, and the story of how it all started, is not unlike their line of quirky flavors – delightfully unexpected, and a little unorthodox. 

 

It began with a band of friends, all teachers and educators, who thought it would be fun to make their own soda. Davod, with his Co-CEO, Jesse Hopkins, and a few other friends began mixing their own pop flavors. They shared with friends, who wanted more. And those friends shared it with more friends. The group (not a business major among them) said, “Hey, we should start a soda company.” And the rest, as they might say, is Minne-soda history.

 

Northern Soda Company launched about five years ago in Arden Hills, offering only curbside pick-up and delivery. According to Davod, their first sale was just one case of soda, of assorted flavors, that he hand-carried to a local neighborhood chocolate shop owner who agreed to give them a try. With persistent hustle, a devotion to a singular vision, and a growing group of passionate fans asking for more products in more places, Northern Soda’s star rose rapidly. They quickly outgrew their Arden Hills space as they expanded their product line and their rapidly-growing sales demanded more production capacity and warehouse space. Northern Soda now distributes their craft sodas throughout the North Star state, upper Midwest and to a growing fan base in places far beyond the Northland.


Davod and Jesse describe their formula for success as creating “soda the way it used to be,” with simple ingredients, natural (mostly cane, sometimes beet) sugar, and offering nostalgic artisan flavors reminiscent of those found in the soda shops of the 1950’s. 

 

Northern Soda Company’s most popular flavors are the traditional favorites: root beer, cream soda, and black cherry. Their regular lineup includes 15-20 flavors, including Minnesota monikers like Sunday Purple, Pontoon Punch, Minnesota Apple and Due North (Lemon Lime). The offering varies throughout the year, with seasonal specials like the new Cranberry Lime Pop-Tail, canned especially for this year’s Saint Paul Winter Carnival. 

In case you’re still wondering, Shawn’s favorite sample from the (many) flights he tasted was the traditional cane sugar root beer. But the bigger question: How did Northern Soda Company’s offering rank in Shawn’s vast root beer experience? 


He said it was “honestly, the very best” he’s tasted (so far), and that’s saying a lot.


With all the American Faces stories, we like to offer a few words of encouragement – from our perspective, and from our new friends.’


We asked Davod what he would say to other aspiring entrepreneurs with a sweet idea. 


Davod says, “Just do it. But know you’re in for a fight. It takes more than a vision. It takes passion and a willingness to drive hard.” Davod also says family support is crucial. “Don’t think you can bootstrap it by yourself,” he says, “Know that you’ll need the support of friends and family – everyone has to be all-in.” 


Finally, a word from Shawn: Visit the Northern Soda Company tap room soon, bring a friend, or your whole family. Say hi to Davod and Jesse. And be sure to try the root beer.

Photos by: Nielsen Studios

Story and BTS photos by: Scott Whitman






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