Nearly two decades in, Rhombus Guys co-founders Matt Winjum and Arron Hendricks have created an iconic regional brand. Learn how they became synonomous with the best, and, what’s next.
If you’ve lived in the Grand cities long enough, you probably remember the first time you ate at Rhombus Guys Pizza. If you are new to the area or just visiting, chances are, you’ll be making a Rhombus memory soon. The regionally iconic brand name has become a leading word in our lexicon of what’s cool, fresh, unique and worthy of our time when it’s time to eat, drink or just hang-out. When you think of Rhombus, you think of gourmet pizza served to you on a rooftop, or now days, a fresh pint of beer, cold and direct from a still positioned in the corner of a massive, undeniably beautiful former opera house that doubles as a brewery and restaurant. Rhombus is the type of place that reminds us that life can be great and simple at the same time. With the sun setting and the daily grind of the city winding down, we can sit on a shiny silver outdoor chair situated on an open air rooftop and dangle the tip of a fresh slice of T-Rex pizza above our mouths and narrow down all of our worldly concerns until all we care about is one thing: how big of a bite should we take. These days few places can do that for us. Few places can somehow move our eyes from a screen or our thoughts from somewhere else to our immediate surroundings. When we are at the house of pizza or the brewery, it is nearly impossible not to look around and notice the uniqueness of the setting or the food. At a Rhombus location, it is hard not to simply feel cool sitting on the roof, unique for patronizing at a local brewery or above all else, happy with how you chose to spend your precious time.
More than a decade after Matt Winjum and Arron Hendricks brought the Rhombus brand to downtown Grand Forks, much has changed, in their offerings, their perspective and their impact on the region. The story of Winjum and Hendricks—a well-known tale of young entrepreneurs eager to plow their own future without a fear of failing and a gift for making great pizza—has also evolved. As we found out, Rhombus is on the cusp of a memorable new era.
The Guys On Then, Now and In The Future
Winjum has spent 18 years (half of his life) working and building out the Rhombus brand. “This is who I am,” he says.
After starting a smoothie-making business with Hendricks out of a used snowmobile trailer in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Winjum has evolved from a 19-year old kid that thought owning more than one smoothie trailer would be a big deal, to a proven entrepreneur that now gets asked to speak or teach on the secrets of business. Hendricks is Winjum’s best friend. They’ve hung-out and schemed together since the seventh grade. According to Hendricks, Winjum is the big thinker, always looking for newness. He is the king of hype. As we sat in the brewery on a summer afternoon, his eyes kept checking on customers and at least once, he paused in his commentary to ask if a customer walking by was doing alright.
Hendricks once considered a career as a lawyer and also as an iron worker. The freedom to build his own business and the flexibility to fail without answering to a boss was too much to ignore for Hendricks, however. His main job title has always been co-founder of Rhombus. Winjum says Hendricks is great with details and figuring out the answers to problems. His eyes, during our talk, drifted toward the small things good restaurateurs notice. As we spoke at either the rooftop or in the brewery, he swiped single crumbs off of tables or attempted to clean a surface that was already shining.
In the early days of Rhombus, neither proprietor had kids. A typical day at their smoothie stand, café in Thief River, house of pizza in Mentor, Minnesota, or restaurant in Grand Forks, involved a 16-hour day that ended after midnight, at which time, a few hours of downtime, light partying or more, typically happened. The next day, it was just about getting up and repeating. “For the first few years everything happened so fast,” Hendricks says. “During the first few years in Grand Forks, things were moving so quickly it was hard to slow down or plan ahead.”
They played foosball, experimented with pizza and food and nutured existing relationships or grew new ones. Hendricks met his wife at the foosball table in Grand Forks. (Winjum met his wife at the Thief River location). Because they always chose to buy their store locations, money was tight early on. Hendricks remembers a trip to Kmart for black Velcro shoes. With money still tight and a friend’s wedding to buy clothes for, it was all he could afford. Winjum recounts sitting with Hendricks and trying to calculate how much they were making per hour. By his estimates, sometimes they made $.35 cents per hour and at others, $.50 cents per hr.
“Everyone told us this all would be risky,” Hendricks says, “but I wouldn’t have changed anything we did in those early years. You can’t be afraid to fail.”
In 2018, both say the main clothes they wear on a daily basis—whether they are at work or not—still have a Rhombus logo on them. Their passion for solving problems and growing hasn’t changed, but other things have.
“A day now is nothing like it used to be,” Winjum says. Now they work normal (er) hours. Winjum has a one-year old, Hendricks has three children. With multiple locations spread throughout Fargo, Grand Forks and Mentor, the duo meets up less frequently. When they do, conversations partially include serving strategies, pricing, accounting and staffing.
As restaurant and brewery owners, they still exude an air of coolness when they are in their settings. They joke with employees as they walk by or ask them how their night was. They still cook, tend bar, clean tables and bottle beer when needed. When they talk about their past, they laugh at how different times were and show no remorse about failed ventures.
The pair takes great pride in their ability to bring new ideas to the region and execute them well. Rhombus was the first—and still is—restaurant with a roof top in the city. They toured more than 15 similar sites in other cities to learn how to pull it off. They also taught themselves how roof infrastructure and building codes work. They are well versed with banking terms and how to navigate the financing process. After a decade of operating in a space they demo'ed then rebuilt with their own skill-set, they recently renovated their pizza space with a new bar, painted brick walls and seating and performed a general slimming down of the décor. The feel of the place, they both agree, is a bit different but in a good way. The type of way that could be duplicated elsewhere. With the brewery in the historic opera house, they were the first to bring the craft brewery wave splashing into the region. Winjum remembers pushing local bars to have a fresh beer tap with at least ten taps. They thought he was crazy, he says. Now, most bars would think ten taps is far too few.
“What we are always trying to do is stay in front of trends. It is on our minds constantly. We are looking for the new,” Winjum says.
They find inspiration from traveling or attending major restaurant trade shows from Vegas to New York City. The pressure of family life has made its natural creep into their day-to-day, but as for their vision of the future, it seems as if they are still running a smoothie stand with no fear of sweltering heat, bugs swarming in the trailer or customers that don’t come.
The brewery has no doubt reshaped their outlook. When they started the brewery, it did force them to relive the challenges of starting a new venture that they hadn’t experienced since the early days of Rhombus. At one point, wanting to get the brewery menu executed so perfectly, Hendricks recalls a night when he broke down on his couch to his wife after a hard day of mishaps in the kitchen. Those tough times related to starting a new venture in Grand Forks, have given way to success though. Hendricks' main focus now is on the brewery and his success in building that part of the Rhombus brand gives him a new motivation. “This year we’ve seen great growth,” he says. Although he isn’t in charge of the brewing process, he’s found a new passion in the process and helps however he can. “I enjoy the labor of it all and talking about the process.”
The power of the new motivates them and keeps their spirit as fresh as it was in the early days, Winjum says. “People ask us to open a new location in a new city about every week,” he says. That comment affects each of them in multiple ways. They both know the attention and focus required to maintain the Rhombus legacy at its current scope is a lot of work, and, times are different now. Growing is not easy, even for Hendricks and Winjum. They have mortgages, kids and know what the daily grind is like after 18 years of being the boss. When they talk about their Rhombus empire, they admit it is not always a dream job free of stress. But there is also something else to it all. Despite the long-hours and long-list of responsibilities that come with owning and operating a memorable set of locations, the longtime friends seem to be in a transitional, yet familiar, stage. When asked what their best Rhombus moments entailed, they each got animated, sat-up and looked past me like they were reliving something magical in a place they wanted to go find again.
Winjum remembered the nights, one in particular in fact, when the major dinner rush was kicking their butts, and everything was hectic in the type of way you hope for as a restaurant owner. Eventually the rush slowed and almost everyone went home. The floor was wet after a cleaning and they sat down at a table with a cold beer. As they sat together in that moment, Winjum says, they both knew--without saying it--that what they had just done was worth doing forever. “It’s hard to imagine ever having a beer that would taste that good,” he says of that late-night-dinner-rush-celebration-drink he shared with Hendricks, laughing in disbelief as he says it.
When I asked them what the future holds, they were just finished detailing the difficulties of operating, managing and owning a business. Times have changed they said. But, when thoughts of the future crept into their brains, there was a clear change in their posture and demeanor. They each sat a little differently in their chairs and you could see a physical pep refill their bodies. They each started to smile and looked around as if they were staring at everything, and, it was almost as if they were about to talk about drinking a beer after a late-night rush or about some other magical moment that they knew would happen in the future of Rhombus. G
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PHOTOS BY: SHAWNA NOEL SCHILL PHOTOGRAPHY