Fire has severely charred a significant portion of a legendary fish smokehouse along the North Shore, and the third-generation owner is in "utter shock" as he frets over how to salvage the business in the short term and for his son in the years ahead.

Flames erupted sometime before 7:30 a.m. Sunday inside Russ Kendall's in the village of Knife River, a century-old shop along Scenic Hwy. 61 north of Duluth.

The processing and smokehouse portion of the business "is lost," but the familiar red storefront remains standing, owner Gordy Olson said Monday morning.

"I am in complete and utter shock at what happened," said Olson, whose wife, Kristi, is the granddaughter of founder W.T. Kendall and daughter of successor Russ Kendall.

Olson suspects that the propane-fueled water heater in the back had something to do with the blaze, but there has been no official determination yet. Although there are living quarters on the property, there was no one in the structure at the time of the fire, which was first detected by Two Harbors firefighters.

In the meantime, Olson said, he's getting help from several of his competitors in the area, who are letting him use their ovens, in hopes of "getting up and running as quickly as possible. We have lots of loyal customers."

Olson said the timing couldn't be worse, and not only because he has invested quite a bit in recent years to upgrade the business, which 27-year-old son Cody is in line to take over in the years ahead.

"It's just getting right into the time of year when we put the bread and butter on the table," he said. "For me to make any money, the tourism dollar is what I need."

In particular, Grandma's Marathon, which draws tens of thousands of visitors between Duluth and Two Harbors every mid-June, "would be a wonderful opportunity, if we could get up and running before that."

To accommodate demand from those who can't make the trek to the North Shore, Russ Kendall's has established a "shipping season" that runs from November through March and sends whitefish, herring, lake trout, salmon and other menu items around the Midwest and beyond.