In March, as Duluth’s New Scenic Cafe — a favorite dining destination with Twin Cities diners — was nearing its 21st anniversary, chef/owner Scott Graden was entering uncharted territory. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz closed the state’s restaurant dining rooms. Graden has kept the New Scenic shuttered, all summer, his peak season.
To keep the kitchen active, Graden has been turning out meal kits in a program he christened Mise en place Marketplace. Offerings include lobster rolls, Swedish meatballs, paella, miso-glazed sea bass, sashimi tuna tacos and curried mussels.
“The largest growth section in the industry in the past 10 years has been prepared meals, but a piece that’s missing is personality,” said Graden. “That’s a reason that people like going to restaurants, because they’re buying into a personality. If you can’t come here for full service, we can at least give you the food experience, as a way of staying connected. This is almost like ripping a recipe out of “The New Scenic Cafe Cookbook,” and you prepare the final stages of it at home.”
His next step is launching a mobile kitchen. Last year, Graden purchased a 1969 Airstream trailer, and he and a few friends have refurbished it. They’ve fabricated the interior into a stainless steel kitchen, added whitewall tires with baby moon hubcaps and devoted about 200 hours to restoring the aluminum exterior to a high gleam.
“It probably hasn’t been polished since 1969,” he said with a laugh. “Now it’s pretty slick. It’s cute, and it’s going to be really functional.”
The original plan was to haul the 26-foot trailer to the Twin Cities later this month, where it was scheduled to debut at the Minnesota State Fair.
“We’ve been petitioning for years to get into the State Fair with our sashimi tuna tacos,” said Graden. “They finally approached us, and we happily agreed. Then the COVID stuff shut it down.”
Instead, Graden will invoke the restaurant industry’s word of the year — pivot — and use the trailer, which he’s christened Scenic 61, to serve lunch on the attractive grounds of his slumbering restaurant.
“We’ll offer three to six items at a time, five days a week,” he said. “People will be able to get good food, sit at our picnic tables and enjoy a beer.”
Those items will include tacos (lamb barbacoa, pork belly confit with serrano peppers and yes, the sashimi tuna version with avocado, a Thai-style slaw and peanut dressing), sausages (potato sausages with rutabaga and lingonberries on a caraway rye bun, bratwurst smothered in sauerkraut, a hot dog topped with olive tapenade, artichoke hearts and mozzarella), sandwiches (a tempeh Reuben, a chicken pâté bánh mì, asparagus-egg on ciabatta) and a half-dozen burgers.
There’s more. In the evenings, Graden has plans for Scenic 61 to make appearances at area breweries, and he’s already booked several private events. He’s also using the New Scenic’s underused kitchen capacity to kick-start a bakery on wheels.
“We’re looking at taking the Airstream down to Canal Park in the mornings and doing the bakery/breakfast thing,” he said, offering pastries, brioche French toast, egg bakes and coffee from Duluth’s Alakef Coffee Roasters. “We haven’t committed to anything yet, but we want to do what we can do.”
Logistically, it’s a challenging summer. Bridge repair means that, until November, diners coming from Duluth can’t drive directly to the restaurant on the shore-hugging Old Scenic Highway; instead, they have to take Hwy. 61 further east and then double back on the old highway.
In this time of uncertainty, Graden said he is convinced about one outcome.
“I’m interested in buying more Airstreams,” he said. “If anybody out there has one, call me up.”