Gordy and Marilyn Lundquist celebrate 50 years of success at Gordy's Hi-Hat in CloquetGordy and Marilyn Lundquist celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this year while their Cloquet restaurant, Gordy’s Hi-Hat, recently opened the doors on its 50th year in business. And now, the popular restaurant has been selected for a feature spot on The Food Network’s wildly popular “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” with filming set for just a few weeks from now.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
To say this has been a benchmark year for Gordy and Marilyn Lundquist would be something of an understatement.
First, the two celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Then, their Cloquet restaurant, Gordy’s Hi-Hat, recently opened the doors on its 50th year in business. And now, the perennially popular local restaurant has been selected for a feature spot on The Food Network’s wildly popular “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” with filming set for just a few weeks from now.
“It’ll be interesting when this Guy [Fieri, the host of the show] comes in with his spiked hair,” commented Marilyn with a grin. “I’m guessing he will get on the grill alongside me, flip hamburgers and maybe help me do onion rings and fish. They ship his car up here [a classic red Camero], and I can just see him driving it up Highway 33!”
It seems that the world will soon discover, if it hasn’t already, what the people of the Midwest already know – that the Lundquists have something of a magic touch when it comes to operating a drive-in.
Both were born and raised in Duluth and met while attending Denfeld High School.
“Gordy was a big football star and I was a little sophomore,” Marilyn said.
The two began dating in high school and married in 1950.
After Gordy attended Hirsch Business College in Duluth, they purchased an A&W franchise in Eveleth in 1952.
“It was the first A&W drive-in – and in fact the first drive-in of any sort – on the Iron Range,” Marilyn explained.
Their season lasted only 100 days a year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“We had a huge business because it was so new on the Iron Range,” said Marilyn. “We actually had to hire a highway cop to direct traffic in order for our customers to get in and out on the highway! We had delicious hamburgers, and there was a local bakery where they made homemade buns for us.”
Marilyn did all of the cooking herself.
“We started doing prep work about seven in the morning,” said Gordy, “and we got out of there about 10 o’clock at night.”
They hired 10-15 carhops to deliver the food to eager customers, and part of the draw of the drive-in, especially to young people, was to “see and be seen” – especially all of the popular boys in town.
“Some of the girls would come in and say, ‘Oh, Trevor’s on the lot! Trevor’s on the lot!’” recalled Marilyn with a laugh.
Marilyn was only 21 at the time they started their first drive-in and Gordy was 23, and the two admit they didn’t know a great deal about what they were doing.
“We were so young and so naïve and didn’t really know much about business,” admitted Marilyn.
“Failure wasn’t even a word in our vocabulary,” added Gordy.
The two lived in whatever temporary housing they could find - a motel room, a lake cabin, and an apartment they sublet from a teacher who was vacationing in Europe for the summer with the understanding they’d water her violets for her.
“We’d come home at midnight or 1 a.m., practically crawl up the stairs and then fall into bed,” said Marilyn. “By the end of the summer, there wasn’t a one of those violets still alive!”
They operated the Eveleth restaurant for three seasons before selling the franchise and going back to Duluth in 1955 to open a drive-in called the London Inn.
“When Gordy tried to get financing, no one would even look at us – two 20-somethings who wanted to open a drive-in in Duluth,” related Marilyn.
“The banker said there was already one in town and wondered why there would be any need for another,” explained Gordy.
When they at last found someone who was willing to loan them the $5,000 they needed to get their drive-in started, they built a very small building wedged in between the Dairy Queen and what they refer to as a “haunted house” on the other side.
They operated the drive-in from early spring until right after the Denfeld-Central football game, serving hamburgers, hot dogs, onion rings, fries and milk shakes.
“At that time, there were no frozen French fries,” said Marilyn. “It was a little like KP duty – we would peel about 300 pounds of potatoes a day down in the basement of that spooky ‘haunted house.’ Then we would have to put them through the slicer, destarch them and blanch them.”
They had about 25 people on their staff and stayed open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In the wintertime, they used to take off and go south, usually to Florida. One winter, however, was different.
In 1960, they were asked by a group of investors to go along with them to try to start up a series of drive-ins in Europe.
“It was way before MacDonald’s or any of those chains, and we went along as what they called the American ‘experts’ to help open up the European market,” said Marilyn. “We started in London and actually made the headlines of the London Times, which read, ‘What is so great about an American hamburger?’ That was us!”
Due to dramatic differences in culture and food, however, the concept never really took hold in England, so after a couple of months the Lundquists came home to Duluth and went back to running the London Inn.
“A lot of the Duluth East students
had cars, and they’d come and sit on the hoods and blast their Everly Brothers and Elvis,” said Marilyn.
“I remember when Elvis Presley was just getting started,” recalled Gordy. “Everybody was playing him all over the lot, and I couldn’t stand him. I’d come inside and say, ‘Marilyn, that guy will never last!’”
At that time, they sold a hamburger, French fries and a malt for 57 cents.
“Hamburger was only 19 cents a pound back then!” said Gordy.
“Plus we got S&H Green Stamps when we bought it from the store!” added Marilyn.
The Lundquists operated the London Inn for four years before selling it to the Andresen family and, then turning their sights toward opening another drive-in in Cloquet.
“My whole family was born and raised in Cloquet,” Gordy explained. “My dad went to high school here, and my grandparents had the only laundry in town until they got burned out in the Fire of 1918.”
Gordy originally bought two lots with about 250 feet of frontage on Highway 33 and the original restaurant they built was quite small – 24 x 24 – and it’s still standing right in the middle of today’s existing restaurant. The family moved into a house next door to the restaurant (now the site of The Warming House).
The Lundquists hired some 20 people to work for them when they first started up, and the hamburgers were all made from fresh hamburger every day, as they are yet today.
“We patty out about 300 pounds of hamburger a day,” said Gordy, “as well as going through a couple of hundred pounds of fish.”
The Alaskan Pollack they use for their fish dinners and sandwiches features Marilyn’s original batter recipe, and their onion rings have become nothing short of legendary.
“The girls come in at 5:30 a.m., depending on how busy we think we’re going to be, and stand there for two or three hours and do nothing but onion rings,” explained Marilyn.
“We normally peel and process 300 pounds of onions a day,” said Gordy.
The Lundquists have hired literally thousands of young people over the years they’ve been in business and are now hiring kids who are grandchildren of the people they originally hired.
“That’s the best part,” said Marilyn, “ – the people we work with. As old as we are, we come here and work with these young kids and they energize us and keep us young!”
“Many of them, after they grow up, come back here from out of town and show the place off to their kids,” added Gordy.
One of the women who are helping to take over some of Marilyn’s responsibilities in the kitchen has been with them for 30 years and another has been there since the time she was 15.
“I’ve gone through their love affairs with them, all their heartaches, all their pregnancies – pretty much everything,” attested Marilyn.
Gordy and son Dan supervise the front end of the business, manning the counter alongside some 67 employees.
The Lundquists give a lot of credit to Dan, who chose to continue the business as the two of them began to “taper off” a few years ago (though Marilyn still works 40 hours a week and Gordy comes in every day).
Son Rick, an animal nutritionist, owns the two Coldstone Creamery operations in Duluth and is planning to eventually turn one of them into the London Inn, similar to the original family business in Duluth.
The Lundquists are currently in “dress rehearsal” for their upcoming appearance on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” the end result of three or four years of nominations by satisfied diners.
“We do give the customer what they want,” reflected Marilyn. “I think after 50 years, a lot of the people like the fact Gordy’s is still here because so many other things have changed so much. Fast food chains are big and they do a great business, but they’re all the same.
“I think it’s interesting when people come in here and say they consider us to be a stop on their vacation!” she added.