The foghorn sounds. Traffic stops. The lumbering sound of gears and pulleys ring out against the peaceful, warm sun and cool Lake Superior breeze. Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge begins to rise for yet another majestic ship to pass through the canal.
Patrons of Grandma’s Saloon & Grill witness this memorable experience each day, all while sitting on the restaurant's famous rooftop deck. Many come from all around the country, and even throughout the world. This year, big changes are occurring on the deck and in the restaurant, in order to accommodate more restaurant goers.
“We had 85,000 customers a year in the first days," said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurants. "Nowadays, we see half a million through the doors each year."
When Grandma’s first opened its doors to patrons in 1976, business was booming. Located inside a former bordello and bar, Grandma’s Restaurants soon expanded to add Mickey’s Grill, the Upbar, more kitchens, and a gift shop. Along with those changes came a larger deck.
“Where the solarium is today was the location of our first deck in 1976," Daugherty said. "That was the very first deck on that building. The larger deck was built in 1985 and has been remodeled and expanded several times since.”
This year’s biggest changes include a larger entrance and vestibule, new up-to-date bathrooms with hands-free technology, an expanded gift shop with a larger selection of merchandise, an extra addition to the private dining room, and a rooftop lounge.
“On the new deck expansion we put a lounge," Daugherty said. "We’re calling it the rooftop lounge. It is all low-profile lounge furniture and coffee tables.”
Many visitors of Grandma’s Saloon & Grill fear that a new deck outside the solarium would steal away from the view. Daugherty said he doesn’t believe there will be an issue of seeing the lake for those choosing to sit inside.
“You can still go up to the deck dining, as this will be attached to it, but if you turn the corner, you’ll be on the rooftop lounge,” Daugherty said. “The lounge floor is recessed from the solarium, so patrons in the solarium will be looking down at the lounge without hurting their view.”
The location of this lounge provides restaurant patrons with an opportunity to have the lakefront, hillside, lift bridge, and the canal all in one sight line. There is some rapid excitement spreading throughout the staff of deck servers about the new changes for the summer.
“I’m very excited. I can’t wait to start the deck season again,” said Crystal Echavarria, a deck server for Grandma’s entering her second summer. “There will be new tourists, new stories, new employees. It should be a really fun time.”
Daugherty said Grandma’s rooftop dining is a must for every tourist during the summertime, and this year, he doesn’t expect that to change.
“To me, we’re taking some of the very natural moves that we have to take, like expanding washrooms and hallways and adding a separate exit,” Daugherty said. “There have been a lot of natural expansions that had to happen.
“We’ve also taken some risks to try to understand where the casual dining market has gone," Daugherty added. "By taking what we had to and mixing it with what we think we’re doing for the future, it’ll be really fun to see."
This year’s grand opening of the new space is tentatively set for this years fishing opener, May 10. It will mark the 14th renovation to happen at Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, but Daugherty said none matter more than this one.
“It’s the most radical and substantial change we’ve done to date,” he said.
Editor's Note: Travis Lindberg was employed by Grandma's Restaurants until October 2012.