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Christopher James


“Well, my mom would say it started when I was 10 or 12 years old,” said Christopher James with a smile. “I made up little business cards and I’d offer to kill bees and wasps with my bare hands.”

Back then his clients were mostly his neighbors, and his job was a way to keep busy during the summer, but it was his start in the business world.

Christopher said he always liked working with his hands, he liked to think outside the box, surprise people and keep busy. Which is probably why he’s been able to keep the door to Porridge Papers open for the past 23 years.

Paper was never on his radar, but it was a hobby that turned into a business that turned into a career. And now, Christopher can’t imagine a day without it.

During college, he studied architecture. His father was an architect and the skill and precision of the craft came easily to Christopher. But what didn’t come easily to him was the rigidity of school.

To pay for college he worked at an art shop where one of the perks of his job was a discount. Christopher would load up on all sorts of art supplies and try them out after work. He tried his hand at painting and sketching, but wasn’t very good at any form of art…until it came to paper making. The process was long, but simple and it allowed him to add in his own creative spin once he mastered the basics.

Soak, blend, strain, press, dry and repeat. This is how paper was made and it didn’t take long before Christopher was hooked.

He started selling paper at the art shop, which led him to craft shows, which eventually led him to dropping out of school, phasing out of work and making paper full time.

A lot of people considered his paper making a hobby job, and Christopher admits that’s probably what it was. But as a single guy with minimal expenses, he could afford to make paper his full-time gig. He found a spot in the Haymarket where he could run a business and live in the same space. It was exactly what he needed, until he realized he was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week and was staring burnout in the face.

He wanted to quit and he needed a break.

It was around this same time that Christopher got married and he and his wife moved to New Mexico where his wife attended graduate school. The move gave Christopher some breathing room. He spent time trying to figure out his next step and he tried a few different jobs but nothing stuck. He eventually started working at a company that had its roots in paper making and he started to feel like himself again.

One day he received a call from a previous client who needed paper for a project. He took on the job and then slowly continued to build his business back up. Christopher said he didn’t realize how much he missed the paper making process and having it back in his life gave him all kinds of new ideas. And as his confidence grew, so did his business.

After nine years in New Mexico, Christopher and his wife decided to move back to Lincoln. They had family nearby, access to good schools and Christopher knew it would be a great community to replant his business.

With fingers crossed, Christopher moved his family to Lincoln. They lived with family, looked for a house and started renovating his new work space. Coming back to Lincoln was the right thing to do, for this family and his business, but it wasn’t without its own set of challenges.

He had to re-educate the community about what Porridge Papers was about, he had to redefine his business for himself and pivot as his business grew and changed.

Christopher said he’s gone from having as many as 12 employees to one or two. He’s had 2.5 million piece projects and others that require a single sheet of paper. He’s added letterpress printing and experimented with offering paper making classes and even selling retail goods, but Christopher said he always comes back to paper.

He likes that Porridge Papers is a custom paper mill, and that’s the way he wants to keep it. Christopher said he does his best work when he has the opportunity to be creative, to give his clients great ideas and really bring out their personality with paper. This means that he’s made paper out of blue jeans, phone books and beer hops, blueberry scented paper and glitter-infused invitations.

He loves getting calls that start with the phrase, ‘This might sound strange, but could you make…’ And his classic response is, ‘We can definitely try.’

While he has 23 years of paper making under his belt, Christopher said so much of his job is about solving problems, winging it, failing, learning from failure and trying something new again. He’s not perfect and he doesn’t claim to be, but he’s also fiercely determined and isn’t willing to give up.

“There are a lot of people who never thought this would go anywhere,” he said. “But I’m still here I’m still making a living, I’m still supporting my family and in my mind that counts a lot.”

Christopher’s story has been about letting his passion write his story. It wasn’t always practical or easy, but it’s what he loved. He figured out how to turn his hobby into a career and a life that he’s proud to call his own.

Brian Podwinski


Brian Podwinski pointed to an old stone wall in the basement of his brewery.

“That wall is probably about 116 years old,” he said, describing the history behind Robber’s Cave, the location of Blue Blood Brewing Company.

Five years ago, Brian could not have imagined standing in the basement of a historic brewery. After all, 10 years ago he was starting a government desk job and nearly 15 years ago he was putting on a Lincoln Police Department uniform for the first time.

“It’s been one crazy ride,” he said with a laugh, and you can tell by his face that he’s not kidding.

There’s a strong sense of pride and a fair share of exhaustion weaved in to Brian’s story. And while it’s not one he would have mapped out himself, it’s one he owns every day.

“Things happen for a reason, right?” he said with a shrug.

In college, Brian was on the path to medical school. He enrolled in biology and chemistry classes, but soon realized the medical field was not his calling. He took an interest in criminal justice and did an internship with the Lincoln Police Department before signing on as an officer in 2000.

Brian loved his job as a police officer. It was a great way to serve his community, and the camaraderie he built with his fellow officers was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. Sure, the job was tough, he said, but he was proud of the work he was doing and thankful for a job he loved.

After just a few years on the force, Brian was badly injured during a training exercise. Over the next year, he had three shoulder surgeries and underwent physical therapy before retiring from the Department.

“Now what?” he thought.

Brian had gone from having a job he loved to questioning his next steps. He was angry, frustrated and confused about what to do next. He ended up working a government desk job for the next few years, buying himself some time to establish a plan.

It was during this season that Brian started experimenting with home brewing. He jokes that his desk job increased his alcohol consumption, but the truth is he was just spending more time making beer than drinking the mainstream brews.

Home brewing involved creativity and a certain amount of science, he said. The process fascinated him and the end result of his work was 110 percent worth the effort. He started to wonder if just maybe brewing beer could be his full-time gig.

After working a desk job, Brian said he loved the thought of running his own business. He also loved the idea of brewing beer every day… for a living. So, over the next year or so he spent his free time working up a business plan and perfecting his brewing methods.

And in December 2011 he opened Blue Blood Brewing Company.

From the start there was a lot of momentum behind the brewery. It had been a while since a local brewing company had opened in Lincoln, and people were anxious to see what Blue Blood had to offer.

His goal was two-fold  – start his own business and keep the ingredients and talent local. He wanted to give back to the community, which sounds cliche, he said, but it was true. Brian said he was tired of hearing the big players in the beer market boast about their local ties, but their actual community impact was minimal.

“I wanted the money to stay in town, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

Currently, Blue Blood employs 70 full-time and part-time employees. That number has jumped significantly over the past few years as Brian has grown his operation and moved to a new taproom and brewing facility located above Lincoln’s historic Robber’s Cave.

It’s a big responsibility to employ that many people, he said, and it’s an even bigger job to serve his employees well. He wants to run Blue Blood with the same kind of camaraderie that he felt when he was part of the police force. Sure, the experiences are vastly different, but at the end of the day, he does his best to make his employees feel like family.

Opening a local brewery seemed like a no-brainer for Brian. It merged his passion and his talent, but it was also risky. He’d never run a business, let alone a brewery, and figuring out how to brew larger batches and manage distribution methods were entirely new territory, but he was convinced he could make it work – and he has.

What’s interesting about Brian’s story is that he used his whole story, not just the good parts, to shape his future. He could have avoided his past as an officer and stayed angry about his injury, but he didn’t. He combined his love of brewing with his devotion to the police force and found a new story, maybe even a better one.

If Brian hadn’t been injured, he’d probably still be a police officer, but he also wouldn’t own and run a brewery. The fact is, there’s no way to judge which path is better, which one would have been easier or which one would have made Brian happier.

It’s just like he said, “Everything happens for a reason, right?”

Dan Nelson


We’ll cut to the chase and let you know that you’ve probably never met Dan Nelson or heard his story.

But, you may have tasted his kettle corn.

If you’ve ever had kettle corn at the Lincoln Farmers’ Market, there’s a good chance it was made by Dan.

He’s the guy in the tent meticulously watching and stirring the big, metal pot with bubbling sugar and freshly popped corn. His wife and sons often help him sell bags of the still warm kettle corn or give out the coveted sample cups to anxious market browsers.

But this is just Dan’s summer/weekend job. During the week, Dan is the owner and founder of Vahallan, a hand-painted wallpaper company.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Dan said. “I’m a professional finger painter.”

The lead-up to Dan’s “finger painting” career was about as nontraditional as his job. He graduated from the University of Kearney with a degree in business administration, considered going back to work on his family’s ranch in Alliance, Neb., and then decided ranch life wasn’t for him.

He moved to Omaha and worked as the manager at Blockbuster Video before trying out the insurance world for a few years. Eventually Dan moved to Lincoln, took a few more college classes, got a job in the medical field and then worked as a manager at Applebee’s.

Then, his brother told him about some hand-painted wallpaper he’d seen and was making, so Dan thought he’d try to make it too. Dan worked 60 hours a week and painted paper for another 40 hours, finding time before and after his day job.

He tested his designs in his sister’s garage and hung the papers over the fence in the backyard to dry.

Yes, that’s really how it all started. No art degree, no risk assessment, no second thought, just jumping in full speed.

Dan said that’s pretty typical for him. He sees something he wants to try and he goes whole hog.

That’s how he got into the popcorn business too. He saw kettle corn at an event, bought a kit to try it out and then started selling at the farmers market. His methods often cue an eye roll from his wife, but she’s always been extremely supportive of his ideas, Dan said. 

But just because Dan quickly got into the paper and popcorn business, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Most of the time it’s borderline crazy, Dan said. Starting a company comes with a host of demands that require Dan’s full attention at all hours of the day. And while his natural creativity propels a large part of his business, the technical elements of managing people, developing a workflow and coming up with ideas to help his company grow are all daily challenges.

It’s stressful too. Creating and selling hand-painted wallpaper is a delicate process. It takes creativity, design know-how, patience and physical strength. The hand-painted look is intricate and freestyle, but it also needs to be uniform and consistent enough to fit seamlessly into homes, offices, hotels and restaurants.

And while Dan doesn’t have any direct competitors in Lincoln, he does have competitors, big ones.

At times, Dan feels like a little fish in a big pond, and other days he gets a call from BCBG, Saks Fifth Avenue, one of his international suppliers or a famous baseball player who wants Vahallan paper in their space.

It’s a constant up and down, and as he gets older, it’s harder for him to handle.

Dan isn’t a peppy guy with a flashy smile. He’s simple and to the point. In true Nebraska form, he says what he means and works until the job is done.

He has a seemingly endless stream of ideas for designs, many of which use natural elements like pine needles and twine to give his paper a unique look and feel. But Dan is more than a finger painter, what he’s creating is art.

His story is about laying his chips on the table, going all in, because he’s proud to stand behind two businesses that he’s grateful to call his own.

He’s a fighter and a risk taker, and Dan wouldn’t have it any other way.

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