The signs are hung, the bar is stocked and the meat is on the grill. The NE BBQ Smokehouse in downtown Cloquet is finally open and serving a variety of burgers, sandwiches and smoked meats to hungry patrons.
According to owner/operator Elise Hermann, they spent a lot of time to make sure the beer and wines pair well with the meals. Many of the beers are from Minnesota breweries such as Bent Paddle (black) in Duluth and Castle Danger (cream ale) in Two Harbors.
"Our wine list really complements our barbecue," said Hermann. "All taps are Minnesota breweries. I tried to go as local as I could."
Since the doors opened for business, the Smokehouse has stayed busy, while dealing with a few growing pains and challenges. The restaurant holds 136 people and all of the seats were filled for the soft opening. The following Monday, Hermann was surprised by a packed lunch crowd and not enough employees.
According to Hermann, the brisket is the most ordered meal on the menu. At 18 hours, it also takes the longest to make, so when they run out, they are out of it for the night. There is a veggie burger called "The Hangry Hippie" which consists of a black bean burger topped with spring mix, tomato, guacamole and cilantro-lime mayo. The ribs are made with a dry rub and not served in a sauce, although there are several sauces to choose from at the table.
"We make everything here," said Herman.
They offer side dishes such as macaroni and cheese made with gouda, and a pineapple and jalapeno slaw.
The Smokehouse — which employs 34 people — is the culmination of several years of research, planning and work.
Hermann and her best friend, Stephanie Hann, put their heads together and hatched a plan. With Hermann's many years of experience working in all aspects of catering and Hann's love of cooking, they decided Cloquet needed a new restaurant.
First, they researched. After discovering millennials are the largest demographic in the area, the duo ultimately decided on a barbecue joint.
"Our population is overwhelmingly young right now," said Hermann. "If Cloquet can find a way to hold onto those people, the attitude is changing and seems to be evolving a little bit."
She added the younger generation makes it fun for them because the millennials are willing to try new things and are not "anti-cilantro." Hermann and Hann plan on switching up the menu at the Smokehouse to keep it interesting. Hann loves to cook and her favorite is spaghetti with pork chops, which is not on the menu.
The building signage and billboards advertising the Smokehouse went up well in advance.
"Things just had to happen in a sequential order," said Hermann. "That was unknown to us at the time ... we got flack because I put the signs up early. It takes a long time to build a business, there's a lot to be done."
Hermann was pleased she kept within her projected budget by doing a lot of work in house.
"She did a wonderful job with the business plan and her projections," said her husband, Uriah Wilkinson, a bit proudly. "You have to set that budget and you have to do your best to try to stay within it because you know it's never going to be that."
The long road got quite bumpy at times. The bureaucracy was the biggest challenge.
"A lot of codes had changed about seven days after we purchased the building," said Hermann.
As usually happens with opening a new business, there was a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.
"It took two and a half years," said Hermann. "There are so many working parts, we just didn't know."
Then it was finally time to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Once the paperwork was in place Hermann, Hann and Wilkinson dug into cleaning the former Eagles/Cheers bar/Asylum Nightclub building.
"It looked like the apocalypse happened," said Hermann. "We took out 50 years worth of stuff. Between just Steph and I, we took out five 30-yard dumpsters. It was like every business that had been here one day just dropped everything they were holding and walked out the door."
The upstairs is a banquet hall, which they hope to remodel next summer.
"It's a one-stop shop here," said Hermann. "You don't have to bring catering in, you don't have to bring alcohol in, we have it all right here. We are not limited to barbecue, we can do whatever people want."
Another hurdle was the discovery of deteriorated plumbing in the almost 100-year-old building.
Sections of the floor from the front to the back of the building had to be cut out to replace the old sewer pipes.
Hermann was excited when she discovered a pile of pallets sitting at Marco Polo in Scanlon. Hermann and Hann spent several weeks disassembling the pallets and pulling nails out. When they finished, Wilkinson — who is also the unofficial handyman — laid the pieces out on the floor piece by piece until he was happy with the end result and cut and shellacked the wood to create the beautiful lower walls in the dining area.
"Uriah helped out a ton before we opened," said Hermann.
Wilkinson's family helped with finishing details. The unique custom bench in the front of the restaurant was made by his brother Isaiah and features a Ford pickup truck tailgate and a chrome bumper. He also located a piece of reclaimed wood, complete with the bark, from an old Duluth grain elevator built in 1880. That piece of wood is now the bar. A brother-in-law donated several old railroad spikes that have the dates stamped into the end of them. Look closely at the edge of the bar and the spikes are visible. Hermann and Hann love music and incorporated a custom stage framed by a giant backdrop of four iconic Minnesota musicians in the back dining room.
The first of two soft openings for family and friends was July 27.
"I had a good time and people were really happy," said Hermann.
There were a few other minor snags right up to opening day. A wiring issue caused a new walk-in cooler to malfunction, meaning they had to store the food in the keg cooler instead. On the morning of the official opening day, the power went out at eight properties in Cloquet ... including theirs.
"It took several hours to come back up and we were so behind on prep. Our coolers were down for that amount of time so we almost lost all of our food," Hermann said.
They pushed back opening time a few hours, the freezers held their cool and — to Hermann's relief — the Smokehouse was finally open.
Hermann has enjoyed the challenge of getting the restaurant up and running and is happy with the feedback from clients.
From the beginning there have been many large parties with 10 or more people.
"We have a lot of room so we can accommodate those large groups of people," said Hermann as she motioned around the large, open floor plan of the dining area.
Hermann and Hann have adjusted a few items on the menu already and plan to make seasonal changes.
Reservations are recommended for parties of 10 or more people. Hermann offers gift certificates for those looking for gift ideas.
The restaurant at the corner of Cloquet Avenue and Eighth Street is open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight.