Landmark restaurants don’t just happen. They’re forged through perseverance, ingenuity, craft, passion and business acumen.
That’s certainly the trajectory of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth, which has spent 2019 celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Chef/owner Scott Graden grew up in the region and co-founded the business with his aunt, Rita Bergstedt.
After college in Montana (he studied chemistry), Graden spent time working in the Twin Cities food scene before returning home. “And I’ve basically been here ever since,” he said.
The restaurant’s rambling home is one of its many considerable charms, a vaguely Nordic appearing series of interconnected spaces built over the years, some of which originated as a very different kind of restaurant.
“It was called Johnson’s Drive-In,” said Graden. “My parents used to come here.”
Graden’s adventurous cooking is infused with eclectic, globe-trotting flavors, a reflection of his extensive travels. (Lately, he’s taken an introspective turn, inspired by his Swedish heritage.) Add a commitment to gracious service and a discerning wine list, and you understand why the New Scenic has long been a pinnacle dining experience.
In a recent conversation in one of the restaurant’s soothing, knotty pine-lined dining rooms, Graden discussed compliments, the business challenges of Minnesota winters and pie making.
Q: What is the New Scenic’s back story?
A: In 1998, when a friend of mine told me that this place was for sale, Rita and I came together on a previously shared dream of having a restaurant on the North Shore. On April 1, 1999, we took ownership, on a contract for deed. We were 50/50 partners. She retired in 2005, and I bought out her interest.
Q: How has the restaurant evolved?
A: It’s a bit like making a French sauce. You cook, you stir, you strain, you refine. It’s 20 years of that behavior. It’s learning what doesn’t work. It’s trial and error, and just trying not to fail. Rita and I, we wanted to be educators in this community, we wanted to take risks, and present new foods. We would get hate mail, things like, “Why are you charging five dollars for a plate of rabbit food?” and “What the hell is goat cheese?” Instead of head lettuce, it was mesclun greens, which was unheard of in Duluth in the late ’90s. We were getting it from the Cities, of course.
Q: Here’s an example of the glamorous world of restaurant ownership. At the beginning, didn’t you live in the restaurant’s garage?
A: For almost four years. It sucked. I used to shower in the lake.
Q: Where do your customers come from?
A: It’s probably 40 percent from around here, and 60 percent from everywhere else. The Twin Cities are a big part of that, absolutely.
Q: When I mention the restaurant to someone, they inevitably say that it’s a favorite. You must hear that, too. What is that like?
A: Clearly, it’s flattering, and it warms the heart, but what I really want to know is, “Why?” And that ruins it, because it turns it into something analytic. But I want to know, because I want to be able to replicate whatever it is that they liked. I want to know more, so I can do better.
Q: How do you view your role in the region’s food culture?
A: I feel like it’s too close in the recent past to analyze it. Maybe 50 years from now, someone will say to my kids, “Your dad really pushed the boundaries of food in this area, and I’m glad that he went out on a ledge and tried that, because I enjoyed it.”
Q: The restaurant has always had a remarkable affinity for vegetables. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
A: People think that this is a vegetarian restaurant, and why would I take that away from them and tell them the truth? The piece that we did differently back in the late ’90s and early 2000s is that we didn’t let the vegetarian-vegan diet be an afterthought. The intention was that vegetables deserved the same value as whatever effort you would put into a protein. People ask, “What kind of food do you have?” And we say, “Good food.” That’s what we strive for.
Q: How did you become such a superb pie-maker?
A: You really want to know? It’s not me, although when I was a kid, I hated cake, but I loved pie, and I still do. Rita is the pie-maker. She’s a fabulous baker, there’s really no other word to describe her pie-making other than “fabulous.” When I opened this place with Rita, I was 27 years old, and I weighed 145 pounds. I was a skinny, overworked chef. I ate two pieces of pie every day for probably five years, with what was probably a cup of whipped cream on each slice. The cheeks came back, the belly came in. It was really Rita’s expertise, which I picked up, and my love of pie. That whipped cream? It’s very Scandinavian. The way that bread is a reason to have butter, well, pie is the reason to have whipped cream. To this day, I will enjoy a glass of heavy whipped cream, like a beverage.
Q: Are there challenges to operating a restaurant that’s 15 miles up the shore from all the tourists in Duluth’s Canal Park?
A: People like to hunt. I think we’re just far enough outside that it’s worth getting here. The convenience factor would lessen the value, not increase it. I have friends who say, “If you were in Duluth, we’d come there all the time.” Really? People who are willing to come up here have a different experience than those who are looking for the convenience of Canal Park. The 15-mile hurdle ain’t bad. You’re not walking.
Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of running the restaurant?
A: Finding staff. It’s funny, because in 1999, we had an abundance of staff, and it was hard to find customers. Now it’s the opposite. With the advent of the internet, customers come in here with a little more information; goat cheese isn’t as strange as it once was. But the staff side of that is different. Their issue is that everything should be as fast as a click on the phone. They don’t realize that they have to practice for years to get this stuff right. Also, if I were in Minneapolis, where there’s a plethora of restaurants like mine, people could move from working for someone like Alex Roberts [chef/owner of Restaurant Alma] to working for me. But we don’t have that up here. I have to hire cooks from Outback or Olive Garden, and I have to untrain some of their beliefs and values.
Q: Does winter bring its own difficulties?
A: We should think of restaurants more like farming, when the seasons tell you how to work, and when. That would allow us to relax in the winter, and it would beg us to work twice as hard in the summer. It’s very difficult to get through the winter. If I could have 12 months of what we do in the summer, I’d be very wealthy. We work too much in the summer because we can’t work enough in the winter. Last year, we had 292 shifts in August, and 96 shifts in January. That’s with the same number of tables and the same number of hours that the restaurant is open.
Q: You have the livelihoods of many people on your shoulders. What is that like?
A: It’s a terrible responsibility, because they’re relying upon you to make the right decisions to make sure that their career paths are secure. It keeps you up at night. But I also love not having a boss. I love having the space to be creative, and to do what I want. I still love to cook.
Q: Where do you get your energy and drive?
A: My wife and I have a set of twins, and people always ask, “Twins, how do you do it?” But you get conditioned to what you know. It doesn’t mean that you don’t get tired, or that you don’t get mentally fatigued. You have to work with reality. Someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade.