Their Kind of Grandma: An Iconic Duluth Restaurant Turns 40

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Grandma's Saloon & Grill

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Their Kind of Grandma

The antique-packed décor of Grandma’s Saloon & Grill continues to add interest to your dining experience.

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Their Kind of Grandma

A new look was added recently to The Sports Garden.

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Their Kind of Grandma

Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar has earned Wine Spectator awards of excellence since 1999.

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Their Kind of Grandma

Grandma’s sells frozen versions of its famed wild rice (not swamp grass) soup.

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When Mick Paulucci and Andy Borg, both in their early 20s, opened the doors to their new Canal Park restaurant February 8, 1976, they had one main goal in mind: Meet girls.

That’s the story Andy is sticking to 40 years after launching a groundbreaking eatery at the foot of the Aerial Lift Bridge. Grandma’s Saloon & Deli, as it was called, would alter both the character of Canal Park and the city’s culinary landscape. “If we could have just opened up a successful bar and met our future wives, we would have counted that a complete success,” Andy muses. He and Mick would meet their wives at work, but also built a family of restaurants.

The adventure started by looking for a restaurant location. Back then, the only way to get a liquor license was to buy an existing one. They approached the owner of the Sand Bar, a colorful if questionable establishment across South Lake Avenue from the successful canned and frozen food production warehouse created by Mick’s father, Jeno (Chun King, Jeno’s Pizza and Michelina’s).

Their Kind of Grandma

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Their Kind of Grandma

The popular walleye sandwich.

Andy admits that they had a different locale in mind. “The Spirit Mountain area seemed to be where Duluth was growing. When we bought the liquor license from the Sand Bar, we began to see the potential of that building and its location at the base of the Aerial Lift Bridge. Sure, it was the warehouse district, but it was at the base of the bridge!”

Brian Daugherty, the current company president, who was hired as a busboy/dishwasher 15 days after it opened, emphasizes the potential folly of their choice. “The waterfront, as you well know, was not a hot spot at all. It was an industrial wasteland, the wasteland being junkyards and warehouses. Against the advice of many people, including Mick’s own father, they bought the liquor license and the building and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

This was not the first enterprise for Mick and Andy. “Both Mick and I went to college and had a lot of practical business experience for young men,” asserts Andy, who had worked in Superior bars and restaurants. “(Mick) was always passionate about food, even as a kid. I was very passionate about antique collecting. Mick and I became partners in the antique business at a young age before Grandma’s.”

With antiques, the two embraced their industrial, and historic, location. “I had been to a very simple and delicious deli in Des Moines, Iowa,” Andy recalls. “The owner was an antique collector himself and had really gone out of his way to create an authentic antique environment in his deli.”

The partners agreed on that concept, Andy adds. “The design worked with all the junkyards of Canal Park.”

The result was – and is – a comfortable restaurant jam-packed with real Twin Ports memorabilia, Brian points out. “The stained glass was the real deal, and the tin signs were actually salvaged. The neon was all original.”

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Andy Borg and Mick Paulucci today.

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And the duo in 1976.

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Another theme developed after discovery of antique peep-show postcards during the Sand Bar makeover.

Grandma Rosa Brochi, a real 1800s immigrant, became the legendary, generous “madam” of a brothel and inspiration for Grandma’s “overly doting” restaurant, thanks to the marketing of JFP & Associates, Jeno’s public relations firm. (Rosa’s “brothel” has since become a “boarding house,” and was she really Mick’s granny? We’re not telling.)

“Grandma’s will cater to all ages and social groups,” Mick said at the opening. “We want an 18-year-old to feel comfortable sitting next to an 80-year-old.”

By September 1976, Corporate Report called it “one of the most talked-about eateries north of the Twin Cities.” In that story, Mick noted his father’s influence. “I watched how he went about it and learned what I could. For a long time, though, I’ve had a hankering to try it myself, with my own ideas, and that’s pretty much what I’ve done.”

From the get-go, their success became their challenge.

“Something that I don’t share with anyone,” Andy says, “is that Grandma’s Saloon & Deli was a disaster after its first day. That’s right. The original concept was a self-serve counter where customers were expected to walk up and order. Well, they didn’t. … We’d walk from behind the bar and try to point them to the counter, but they would ask us to bring them the food! The next day, we were busy hiring future servers and hostesses to give the customers what they expected. We’ve learned through our mistakes time and time and time again. We continue to learn every day.”

It didn’t take long to attract customers. A cheeky menu featured the Mae West, two tuna-stuffed tomatoes, and sandwiches with names like Street Walker and Warsaw Whopper. Four of the original 13 items remain on the menu: Bicycle and Tricycle burgers, the Rosa ’N Reuben and the Godfather roast beef sandwich. The venue offered a nightclub with a dance floor and events like comedy nights.

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Their Kind of Grandma

Flashy marketing was as much a part of the Grandma’s strategy as good food, right from the start.

Within a year, Grandma’s became sponsor of a new marathon that took its name (see side story). Within a decade, the restaurant had more customers than it could handle. A reviewer quoted a guest who quipped, “I came for lunch, and when I got a table, it was time for dinner.”

So in 1987, Grandma’s added on the Sand Bar, a pub concept, and Mickey’s Grill, a seafood and steak joint. That added 240 seats, just about right. Brian recalls, “We turned away an average of 200 people on peak summer days.”

In 1981, a second Grandma’s opened on Seven Corners in Minneapolis. “This was three-floor Taj Mahal mansion, taking our concept and really making it look polished and cosmopolitan,” Brian says. “It let us know that we could compete extremely well in the demanding Twin Cities market. I am happy to say our reputation preceded us. Grandma’s was embraced in Minneapolis!”

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Their Kind of Grandma

Before Grandma’s was the Sand Bar.

Back in Duluth, in June 1989 came Grandma’s Sports Garden. Spread across three buildings and under 50-foot ceilings, this indoor playground had a five-day grand opening that featured Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal giving basketball clinics and world champion pool player Steve “the Miz” Mizerak teaching pool shots.

The opening, four days late, was a minor miracle after an arson fire did $100,000 in damage just days before. The company let willing employees work, trading table-waiting for cleanup, and opened in time for Grandma’s Marathon.

The company’s family of restaurants continued to grow. In 1990, it opened a Grandma’s by Miller Hill Mall in a former Mr. Steak. Also that year came Grandma’s Goodies, a gift shop operated by Lisa Paulucci, Mick’s wife. The Canal Park restaurant still has a packed gift shop at its entrance.

By 1994, the company employed 450 people in Duluth and had invested $15 million in Canal Park, including the southwestern cuisine at Little Angie’s Cantina, named for Mick’s 11-year-old daughter. In 1995, the original restaurant became “Grandma’s Saloon & Grill;” by then it had been enlarged 11 times. In 1998, Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar opened in Canal Park.

The family of restaurants continued expanding. Grandma’s opened in Virginia, Minneapolis, Plymouth and Bloomington, Minnesota. But their “unbelievably beautiful restaurants” in Myrtle Beach and Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, proved disastrous. Brian saw fatal flaws opening day, 1996, in Greenville. “The first people in said, ‘You’re a meat-and-three?’” Meat-and-three is a Southern concept, where guests choose a main meat and three sides. Brian realized that they expected a different Grandma. “We’re not the kind of grandma who pinches your cheek and gives you three vegetables.”

Then another customer viewed the wild rice specialties on the Minnesota-grown menu and declared to Brian, “Is this swamp grass? Why are you serving swamp grass?”

“People get Grandma’s in Minnesota,” Brian says, “but in the Carolinas, they did not get us, and we did not have the resources to turn that boat.”

Those “boats” sank by 2000, but the debt kept floating. Selling the profitable Bloomington site covered costs. Then Plymouth was sold. The popular Minneapolis location continued until collapse of the I-35 bridge rerouted traffic for a year. It, too, was sold.

Other challenges have arisen. A 2012 flood shuttered the Miller Hill Grandma’s, but the company again paid employees for cleanup. Stripped floor to ceiling, the eatery reopened within two months.

A recent experiment is working better. Grandma’s took over Adventure Zone, an indoor center with laser tag, batting cages, mini golf, an arcade and climbing walls. It struggled under previous owners, but after being redesigned and rebranded, Brain says, “it now posts double-digit growth. Having a family fun center in Canal Park has just added that much more energy to our entertainment district.”

Catering, with fajita bars to white-tablecloth dinners, has done well. “What’s really grown for us has been Bellisio’s catering,” Brian says. “Last year we bought a van and hired an executive chef. We did my daughter’s wedding over at The Depot, and it was a showstopper, I’m happy to say.”

Despite missteps, Grandma’s has been good to its visionaries. Two years ago, Andy bought Mick’s shares in the company. Future options on Canal Park properties may see mixed-use housing and expanded parking, retail and waterfront attractions.

“As far as the path that Grandma’s has taken us down, I am surprised by the number of operations that we have built over the years,” Andy points out. “We built a great organization with over 7,000 employees contributing to our success. And those employees have gone on to become community leaders, established businesspeople, lawyers, teachers, judges and leaders in our company. It makes you realize how important that first job can be.”

Brian – busboy-slash-dishwasher in 1976 and company president in 2005, can testify to the importance of first jobs. “A lot of young people get their break in the hospitality business. Some stay, some don’t. Everybody learns something.”

All can certainly agree: There’s so much that a good Grandma can teach you.

Side Dishes

Their Kind of Grandma

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Their Kind of Grandma

Grandma's Marathon

The Marathon – Grandma’s Marathon had its first running, Two Harbors to Duluth, in 1977 with 150 participants and a handful of organizers. The newly opened Grandma’s Saloon & Deli was the only local business up for sponsoring the fledgling race. So for $600 and supportive intentions, what would become the region’s largest marathon took Grandma’s name. Now each June three races draw 18,000 runners and thousands of supporters from 44 countries and all 50 states. The Marathon Hall of Fame hangs along the stairs leading to the pub, deck and rooftop lounge of Grandma’s in Canal Park.

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Their Kind of Grandma

The original building.

The Original – The 1881 building that became the focal point for Grandma’s today has had an intriguing history, according to a walking tour compiled by Zenith Press for The Duluth Experience. It has been the St. Nicolas Hotel (1881-1908), the Blanchet Hotel (1909-1918), an emergency hospital during an outbreak of flu and diphtheria (1919), sat vacant (1920-1935), the Aerial Bridge Inn restaurant (1935-60), the Sand Bar (1963-1975) and Grandma’s Saloon (1976-present).

Grandma’s Family Today – Grandma’s Saloon & Grill in Canal Park, Miller Hill and Virginia • Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar • Little Angie’s Cantina & Grill • The Sports Garden • Adventure Zone.

Learn More – Hear Brian Daugherty talk about the company and his journey from dishwasher to company president.