Classic retreats along the North Shore of Lake Superior are in various stages of changing hands, and a spirit of revitalization in the region’s hospitality sector is breathing new life into old favorites.
“Living to work instead of working to live.” That’s how Kjersti Vick, marketing manager for Visit Cook County, characterizes the trend for out-of-area residents falling in love with “up north” and choosing to make a life there.
“Being able to live in a beautiful place while making a living is part of the trend recently for resorts changing hands,” said Vick.
During the last three years, a number of resorts on the Gunflint Trail have been turned over to new owners, including the Gunflint Lodge after being in the Kerfoot family for more than 80 years.
Renamed the Poplar Haus, the former Windigo Lodge north of Grand Marais on the Gunflint Trail just reopened for business with two couple-owners: Stacy and Bryan Gerrad, and Kippy Kuboy and Lynse McDonough.
The Gerrad’s journey to resort ownership also came from a personal dream, but with more happy serendipity than calculating. In search of a bottle of wine on one of their annual camping trips, they happened upon Windigo Lodge and it’s ‘For Sale’ sign.
“This opportunity found us, and I called our partner and said ‘Do you feel like making a crazy move?’,” Bryan Gerrad said, adding that he was ready to move on from the overly saturated Twin Cities market.
Preserving the historic nature of the location is important to this set of new owners, with some renovation already completed in the cabins and off-sale liquor store. However, the full-service restaurant is still a work in progress, with an expected opening mid-summer.
Gerrad said the ownership group is putting some love back into the property, with the express desire of bringing it back to something like its glory days.
“This was the place to be back in the day. We want to make it be that again,” Gerrad said.
Improving the workflow and quality of food top his list for changes, however. The foursome brings a strong combined background in the Minneapolis restaurant world.
Lodging and retail is new to the team, but Gerrad said he wanted a challenge, and the time was right.
“You have to write your own ticket up here (northern Minnesota); maybe fail a little and maybe win a little bit,” Gerrad stated.
While ‘freezer to fryer’ is definitely not going to be on the menu at Poplar Haus, it will include approachable food with a focus on fresh and thoughtful. Gerrad said they will be encouraging diners to step a little out of their comfort zone with flavors and techniques, and will be adding a craft beer selection from a new distributor that is expanding to the northern reaches of Minnesota.
“We’re not trying to come in hot, but I do want to add some fabric to the tapestry up here,” Gerrad said.
Along the shore, change is also afoot. With little fanfare, Cascade Lodge announced in May that the hotel, cabins restaurant had been sold.
An award-winning hospitality career duo, Thom and Jelena McAleer, had been scouring the country for the right resort to match their skills, and to raise a young family. With 36 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, they looked at many resorts for sale in Montana, Alaska, Washington and Minnesota before finding the one that they knew would turn their dream into a reality.
“We were searching for an iconic location with perennial demand,” said Thom McAleer. To him, that means a strong emotional connection to a recognizable place like Cascade with returning or replacement guests.
A strong growth trend in Minnesota’s lodging industry reassured them that they have made the right choice. McAleer said that any improvements they make will rely utterly on the hard work of previous owners.
“Our plans honor the history and 90-year tradition of this property. That means making sure guests feel welcome from the minute they arrive,” he said. Future plans include room makeovers, streamlining restaurant service and expanding the menu.
Vick sees the trend as a revitalization of tourism lodging in the area, brought on by return guests who have fallen in love with the area.
“New owners are bringing real energy to beloved places that have been in generational ownership, or when owners are reaching retirement age,” Vick said.
After 29 years at the helm of Lutsen Resort, Scott Harrison and Nancy Burns are looking for the right buyer. Listed at $9.95 million, the resort holds the title as the longest continuously running resort in Minnesota with a 132-year history.
Now in their 70s, Harrison and Burns are ready to move into retirement, though they plan to remain residents of the area.
“We want to leave this in good, capable hands that have more vigor,” Harrison said.
Lying 80 miles north of Duluth, Harrison says he and his wife are holding out for the right buyers. They are looking for buyers who will respect employees, guests, vendors and protect the environment.
Running the resort with a family-feel, Harrison said they have put in long hours side-by-side with those they hire.
“We’ve tried to have an inclusive attitude, with shared information and decision-making,” Harrison said.
Digging in for the long haul, he acknowledge that finding a good match may take time.
“We’ve had nibbles of interest, but we aren’t entertaining options that don’t fit. This could take years,” Harrison said.