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VET-PRENEURS: The Wheel Barrel & Matryoshka Tattoo

VET-PRENEURS: The Wheel Barrel & Matryoshka Tattoo

Rachel Lock | Photographer

Veterans are the perfect archetype for an entrepreneur. They are driven, resourceful, team oriented and know how to get things done. Building a business is a natural extension of the experience, training and civic identity that veterans all share.

One married couple. Two military veterans. Two entrepreneurs with individual businesses. Jon and Jennifer Bohlander, owners of The Wheel Barrel and Matryoshka Tattoo respectively, don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of military veterans. Soft spoken and insightful, Jon harbors a love for NOTO and a desire to facilitate change in the community. Creative and artistic, Jennifer feels at home in the art district as she creates her unique style of art. The Wheel Barrel is a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant and bar located in the heart of NOTO. Matryoshka Tattoo is not only dedicated to the craft of tattooing, but also offers gift items and a fine art gallery featuring local artists.

Jon and Jennifer had different reasons for joining the military. For Jon, who had grown up in extremely rural South Dakota, it was a chance to see the world. For Jennifer, who came from a military family, it was a way to prove to a world that mistakenly saw her as both quiet and frail that she could accomplish anything. They both completed the Army Foreign Language Program, learning Russian, but they didn’t know each other at the time.

The couple met at Fort Riley and were married three months later. Jon did not re-enlist when his service was up, deciding to complete machinist training instead—a career he has held for the past 21 years until he quit this summer to focus on the restaurant. Jennifer originally thought she would have a military career, but opted out after serving for four years. An artist at heart, she was looking for a way to earn a living while doing what she loved.

“I was told my whole life that I couldn’t make art a career,” Jennifer said.

While she was still in the Army, Jennifer began a three year apprenticeship as a tattoo artist. At first she says she was worried about what people would think because tattoos still had a stigma about them. And it wasn’t a career held by many women. After working in a tattoo shop for several years, Jennifer knew it was time to go out on her own.

“I knew it was one of those now or never moments,” Jennifer said.

Because she is an artist, she was immediately attracted to NOTO and began looking for a suitable location in the art district. Three and half years ago she opened her own tattoo studio—Matryoshka Tattoo—staying true to her Russian influence.

As if life wasn’t busy enough, they opened The Wheel Barrel a year and half ago after sampling gourmet grilled cheese from a food truck in Austin.

“I thought it would be easy,” Jon said. “I planned to be really small. Hire maybe two people.”

Yet, things didn’t quite go as planned. Business took off immediately after The Wheel Barrel opened its doors, and eventually Jon decided to make the restaurant a full-time endeavor. While it has been more work than he originally thought, Jon is already making plans for the future.

“I would like to do another business concept here in NOTO,” he said. “There is so much potential in this area.”

Both Jon and Jennifer attribute some of their success to things they learned while serving in the military. In the Army they learned that things don’t always happen quickly or efficiently. You often have to stand around and wait. The same can be true of getting building permits and facing cumbersome regulations.

They also adopted the mantra, “Stop talking. Start doing.” A philosophy they put into practice every day.


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