Despite pandemic challenges, Duluth area sees new crop of restaurants and bars in 2020

Kai Soderberg stands outside the Jade Fountain in March, prior to remodeling the former Chinese restaurant and opening it as a tiki bar in August. (Photo by Mark Nicklawske)

A surprising number of intrepid entrepreneurs opened new restaurants and bars in the Duluth area in 2020, despite the global pandemic. One notable trend is the number of new Black-owned businesses.

Asked about this recent phenomenon, Solomon Witherspoon, owner of Spoon’s Bar and Grill, referenced the murder of George Floyd. “People are recognizing they may not see tomorrow and think ‘How can I literally follow my passion, my dreams for today?’” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but tragedy can bring out good passion and despite that, you get up and do what you’ve never done before.”

Jamar Kirk, a business consultant and owner of the new Stop and Go Pizza in Superior, emphasized the added significance of community support for these new businesses. “There are a lot of stereotypes about minority-owned businesses,” he said. “We have to identify and support each other. When our businesses take off, it starts to change the way society views people.”

Entrepreneurism always necessitates creativity. But for success in 2020, that might be particularly true. Many of the new establishments have atypical, bootstrap business models as well as menu offerings that are unique to the area. One thing is certain: the breadth of cuisine added this year suggests Twin Ports residents are eager to move beyond the bland and basic to embrace new flavors.

The outdoor seating at Boreal House in June. (Photo via Boreal House Facebook page)

Boreal House

This cozy West Duluth bar opened in February 2020 in a historic Duluth Water and Light Company building that had more recently been occupied by RJ’s Coffee Den, next to the Kom-on-Inn. Boreal House is going for the familiar, neighborhood bar vibe. It features a respectable list of tap craft beers, serves up craft cocktails and has bar food like nachos or chips with Top the Tater. During the pandemic shutdown, it has been selling Bloody Mary drink kits (minus the vodka).

seafood gumbo

Seafood gumbo from Gumbo Boi

Gumbo Boi
Since mid-October, Robert Lee has been cooking up Cajun cuisine through his Gumbo Boi pop up. Born and raised in the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana, Lee studied theater and worked restaurant jobs throughout college.

Lee said he’s always been interested in cooking but never had much time to explore that passion. Then he got furloughed from the Duluth Playhouse due to the pandemic. “I was stuck at home a lot so I started playing around with recipes,” he said.

After perfecting some of his favorites and sharing the food with friends, people suggested he open a restaurant. Lee decided to try a pop-up style model with curbside pickup. That’s been working so far. “I have a lot of regulars that keep coming back week after week and I’ve had praise from people online,” he said.

Lee sources all his seafood from Louisiana and uses authentic andouille sausage. There’s a rotating menu. “I make a pretty darn good gumbo and my jambalaya has been a hit,” he said, noting that he’s started making po’ boys with his own special twist lately, too.

The pop up is operating out of the temporarily closed Zeitgeist Arts Cafe kitchen. People order online and food is available for pickup on Fridays and Mondays. Lee expects to have use of the Zeitgeist kitchen through the spring. What happens to Gumbo Boi after that?

“I’ve worked in enough restaurants to know I don’t want one. It’s a hard business to be in,” Lee said. “I’m really enjoying having success with this model that is right for the time.”

Howard’s Q’ue

Howard Ross worked as a sous chef at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center until COVID-19 canceled events and closed down catering. Bored in his backyard during what was initially a temporary furlough, he started experimenting with barbecue recipes.

After impressing some friends with his food, he started selling to the public outside of the Shanty Bottle Shop in the East Hillside on weekends. “I decided to do a barbecue pop up and see what happens. It was going to be a hobby,” he said.

Then Ross got notice that he was permanently furloughed. So he found the pop up a more permanent home at Duluth’s All American Club, 1931 W. Michigan St., and kept cooking.

The full kitchen allows Howards Q’ue to expand its menu offerings. “The food is made from scratch, nothing is premade. I do all the cooking myself,” Ross said.

Besides the barbecue staples, Ross started with at the Shanty, like ribs and pulled pork, the menu includes items like burgers, wings and chili. It also features Italian dishes he enjoys cooking like chicken fettuccine alfredo.

“So far it’s been good,” he said. “It’s a little slow because of COVID.”

Howard’s Q’ue is open Fridays and Saturdays, 4 to 9 p.m. Ross is hoping to be open six days a week once COVID restrictions loosen.


Pierogis from Toasty’s to be offered at Jade Fountain

Jade Fountain

Kai Soderberg, owner of the Jade Fountain cocktail bar, admits that opening an establishment during the pandemic has been a considerable challenge. But he’s not ready to extinguish the tiki torch yet.

“Hospitality as a whole serves a very crucial purpose in human civilization. It always has and it always will,” he said, adding that he’s been “rolling with the punches” and making adjustments to his business plan as the situation evolves.

The tiki bar opened Aug. 7 in West Duluth in a space formerly occupied by a Chinese restaurant of the same name. Soderberg is a Duluth native who has moved around and worked in hospitality throughout his life. He wants to share his passion and expertise by making Jade Fountain a cocktail bar unlike any Duluth has seen. It offers “a holistic experience with classic service, craft cocktails and a well-curated liquor selection,” according to Soderberg. “The ambiance is a little more escapist than a lot of bars. There are no windows and no TVs … We’re trying to establish more of a timeless place aesthetic.”

Soderberg said business has been decent when the Jade Fountain has been open, and he’s gained a loyal local following. But COVID-19 has kept the bar shuttered since November. Despite this, the new business hasn’t qualified for stimulus relief due to an eligibility requirement for businesses to have had $10,000 in taxable sales in 2019.

During the shutdown, Soderberg continues to put energy into developing the Jade Fountain’s offerings. He’s thinking of focusing more on non-alcoholic cocktails and food. Lately, he’s been working with Toasty’s restaurant on developing a Polish street food pop up with pierogies and kielbasa.

Left: Lobster pineapple bowl from Jamrock Cultural Restaurant. Right: Graphic art caricature of Jamrock owner Tony O’Neil. (Images via Jamrock Cultural Restaurant Facebook page)

Jamrock Cultural Restaurant

Tony O’Neil started attracting attention with his Caribbean-style cuisine in 2019 when he did some weekend pop ups at Spurs on First in Duluth. “I didn’t start out with a huge amount of capital. I started with a basic barbecue catering grill,” he said.

When the coronavirus shut down bars in early 2020, he started serving food out of his home in Superior. Unfortunately, these entrepreneurial efforts were met with an eviction from his landlord. “I wasn’t aware I was breaking rules,” O’Neil said.

Community support for Jamrock Cultural Restaurant helped O’Neil quickly secure a legitimate kitchen. For about six months he operated out of Average Joe’s bar, developing a fan following through his food (and blunt banter on Facebook) and fine-tuning a COVID-friendly business plan.

“What I realized in all of this on my own was that carryout would be the way to go. Keep the six-foot distance and do carryout to keep customers safe and keep myself safe,” he said.

In mid-December, Jamrock moved to the former Pak’s Green Corner location at 1901 Tower Ave. O’Neil said he’s purchasing the building and planning a grand opening for Jan. 6.

Jamrock’s menu takes inspiration from O’Neil’s grandmother and her recipe book. She owned a restaurant in Jamaica before moving to the states. “I grew up on her cooking, I was always in the kitchen helping,” he said, noting that he learned a lot from seeing how she cooked for a crowd.

O’Neil rotates the menu, borrowing from other West Indies food traditions and injecting his own creativity. One of the more popular menu items is the jerk chicken alfredo. “I want to have fun, I don’t want to get locked into a basic menu. Chefs love to get creative,” he said. “With me, I can change it weekly.”

Harvester Pizza from LuLu's

Harvester Pizza from LuLu’s

LuLu’s Pizza

Siblings Connor Riley and Lucy Stoyke-Riley opened LuLu’s Pizza in the old Pizza Man location at 420 W. Superior St. in late February. Soon after, the pandemic hit.

“It was pretty abrupt. We had been really successful with foot traffic. We were selling a lot of sandwiches and pizza by the slice,” Connor said. “And then everybody left downtown.”

To survive the quick drop in business, LuLu’s had to let staff go and whittle down its menu to some core offerings. The time the Rileys put into perfecting their recipes ended up paying off.

“We have a really solid following of people and we’ve gotten good reviews. I’m super proud of that,” Connor said.

Everything is made from scratch, including a house-made sausage. Connor said they spent a lot of time experimenting to get the crust right. LuLu’s pizza features a sourdough crust with starter taken from Amazing Grace Cafe, which he also owns.

“What I hear from customers is that the crust is really unique. It has a nice snap to it but it’s also gooey,” he said, attributing that characteristic to the sourdough.

Unlike traditional pizza, most of LuLu’s creations don’t have a red sauce. Their newest pizza called “The Harvester” is brushed with olive oil and then topped with roasted garlic, marinated mushrooms, squash, goat cheese, and more. Local foodies have praised LuLu’s banh mi pizza.

“People have been super supportive. It’s been really cool,” said Connor. “All things considered, if there was no pandemic it would have been really awesome. But we’re doing pretty good.”

Connor would like to grow the business post-pandemic and noted that the next logical step would be to add delivery as well as beer and wine sales for when people can dine in safely again.

Desiree Jenkins and Melanie Hallstein

Desiree Jenkins and Melanie Hallstein of Mama Roots

Mama Roots

Melanie Hallstein and Desiree Jenkins boldly launched Mama Roots, a vegan food truck, in late June in the midst of the pandemic. The big blue bus became a fast favorite, regularly selling out of its plant-based comfort food during the summer and fall.

Hallstein said they were impressed by how supportive and excited everyone was for their new venture. During the off-season, she’s been in the kitchen experimenting with Indian food, sourdough breads and fermentation

“We are looking forward to sourcing even more locally next year, and growing even more of our own produce to supplement our menu,” she said. “We want to continue to feed as many people as we can, and we want to take sure, stable steps that can sustain us to be in this cooking business for a long time!”

Spoon’s Bar and Grill has taken over the former Mitch’s Bar & Grill in Duluth’s Lincoln Park Craft District. (Photo via Facebook)

Spoon’s Bar and Grill
Originally promoted as “Doc Witherspoon’s Soul Food Kitchen” this new venture recently secured a brick and mortar location and shortened its name to Spoon’s Bar and Grill. Owner Solomon Witherspoon said he wanted a name that easily rolls off the tongue.

The business started as a pop up at Peace United Church in October, but its roots date back much further. Witherspoon said his family cooks together every week — and they’ve been talking about opening a restaurant together for the past couple of decades or more.

Spoon’s serves up Southern-style staples like catfish, collard greens, fried chicken and mac ’n’ cheese. It takes inspiration from Witherspoon’s late father Sylvester who loved to gather community and feed people. He had a restaurant in West Duluth called Doc Witherspoon’s Chicken Shack from 1979 to 1982.

The new eatery found a home in the former Mitch’s Bar & Grill in Lincoln Park. Witherspoon hadn’t planned on buying a bar but points out that the building has a dining area for when it’s “COVID sensible” to eat indoors again.

Witherspoon said he’s thankful for all the community support. “This is not a job for us … We want to feed the people of this beautiful city some beautiful food,” he said. “When things come from the heart, the heart receives it. It’s been a true blessing.”

Stop and Go Pizza

A focus on good food and service is at the core of Stop and Go Pizza, according to owner Jamar Kirk. The new venture opened Nov. 20 at 1908 Tower Ave in Superior, where Sammy’s Pizza operated from 2016 until August.

Kirk is the former owner of 4th Street Market in Duluth. He also does business consulting through Cycles Broken, LLC. He met Keith White through one of his entrepreneurial workshops and they started talking about starting a business together.

“Keith is a cook. He’s been cooking most of his life,” said Kirk. “An opportunity came about with Sammy’s closing. The equipment was for sale. The location was there.”

The partners recognized the restaurant had the benefit of being set up well for takeout, an important consideration during the pandemic. Stop and Go offers curbside takeout as well as delivery through DoorDash.

Kirk credits White for developing the eatery’s signature sauces and emphasizes that they do most of their cooking from scratch. Two of their specialties are the Italian beef sub and Italian beef pizza. Another customer favorite has been the sweet chili pineapple sauce, which they make in-house and serve on wings and use on a sweet chili chicken pizza.

The sign went up outside Tipsy Beaver Bar in June. (Photo via Tipsy Beaver Bar Facebook page)

Tipsy Beaver Bar

The Allouez neighborhood of Superior has a newly branded drinking establishment at 3823 E. Second St. Tipsy Beaver Bar opened in June, though its first Facebook post appeared on March 23 asking, “Beaver shot, anyone?”

The location is the former Grumpy’s Tavern, which closed at the start of the pandemic. Prior to Grumpy’s, the space was the longtime home of Smithy’s Bar.

Not Necessarily New

Several establishments moved operations this year, opening a new location while closing the old one.

Duluth Kombucha moved into a brick and mortar location in the Endion neighborhood. The spot had previously been occupied by the Juice Pharm, and allows brewing, fermentation and distribution to happen under one roof. There’s also a cozy sitting area for post-pandemic life.

The Juice Pharm changed its name to the Pharm Juice Bar & Kitchen and moved into the former Red Herring Lounge space at 208 E. First St. in Downtown Duluth.

Valentini’s Vicino Lago on London Road closed its spot of 13 years on London Road and the new Valentini’s Bistro opened on Miller Trunk Highway.

McQuade’s Pub & Grill closed its downtown Two Harbors location in September and opened in the former Carmody 61 building in October.

Mike’s Western Cafe, a staple of Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood for 38 years, announced its closure in October. A few weeks later, owner Mike Pracher partnered with his daughter, Andrea King to open Mike’s Cafe and Pizzeria in Esko, leasing the building that had previously housed Eskomo Pizza Pies.

Oasis Del Norte food truck is operating a weekend pop up at the Miller Hill Mall in the former Bubble Tea Company of Duluth space.

For details on eating and drinking establishments that closed in 2020, read the companion piece to this story, “A look at Duluth-area food and drink spots we lost in 2020.”

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A look at Duluth-area food and drink spots we lost in 2020

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