DULUTH – After an unforgiving fire destroyed Nathan and Sara Hingos' destination restaurant in Grand Marais last spring, the couple waited months to decide their next move. The 14-year-old Crooked Spoon Cafe had been wildly popular; food-lovers would drive hours for its elevated menu and sense of place. But it consumed so much of their lives that it was rare for the parents of two teenagers to catch a high school football game or spend a weekend camping.
Doing anything like that, Sara Hingos said, would mean temporarily closing the restaurant. Owners who cook and run the front of house don't get much time off, and the restaurant's existence spanned most of their son's and daughter's childhoods. With one off at college and the other soon entering her senior year of high school, rebuilding the Crooked Spoon didn't feel right. The life-altering fire and COVID-19 pandemic sent the family in another direction:
A food truck.
"We were feeling in general a freedom of movement," Hingos said.
The truck began operation this winter and will offer a more regular schedule this summer for its pork belly bowls, burgers, soups and sandwiches. It operates on the site of the former brick-and-mortar restaurant downtown and represents "a path forward," Hingos said.
What was special about the Crooked Spoon was the sense of community knit by the people who worked there and the people who dined there, she said, and that wasn't lost in the fire.
"It is so sad that [the restaurant] was lost," Hingos said, "but all that can still translate in this space."
The Crooked Spoon was shuttered last April, like all Minnesota restaurants at the start of the pandemic. The Hingoses had pivoted to meal kits, including Easter dinners for about 60. The day after the holiday, a fire ruled accidental by the state fire marshal destroyed it and two surrounding businesses, Picnic & Pine and White Pine North.
In the weeks that followed, when the devastation was so deep it was difficult "to walk from my kitchen to my bed," Hingos said, friends and area residents and businesses buoyed them with support, even those reeling from their own pandemic losses.
"They have done an amazing job soul searching and turning things around," said Lutsen resident Maureen Bazzett. She and her husband, Bob, were frequent diners of the cafe.
Seeing the food truck sit on its former site was hard at first, she said, "but now it makes me smile. It's a new chapter."
The former restaurant had always been a boon to the area that relies on tourist dollars, said Mary Somnis, director of the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority.
"People came to Grand Marais to eat at the Crooked Spoon," she said, and she's happy to see the Hingoses start anew. "It's a beautiful thing."
The restaurant-rich town serves as a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with the start of the Gunflint Trail highway there. But despite the popularity with tourists, the Crooked Spoon was loved by local residents for everyday meals and celebrations, Bazzett said.
The family doesn't rule out an eventual rebuild, but right now it's not in the cards, Hingos said. Operating a food truck untethers them from daily service, and the family was able to take those camping trips last summer.
The couple worked just as hard as its staff, said Tori Danielson, who was a baker, cook and lunch server at the cafe over nearly five years. They were workers more than they were managers, and the fire made them rethink their lives, she said.
"That the restaurant was taken away from them was horrible and sad, but it was also in some ways a relief in the sense that they had the opportunity to hit pause," Danielson said.
"The food truck offers them the flexibility they never had."
Plants and wooden tables with colorful umbrellas will set the scene and summer nights may include live folksy music, just as the former restaurant had. Updates on service are found on the Crooked Spoon Facebook page.
Right now they offer preorders for some restaurant menu items that can't be replicated in the truck, like their beloved puff pastry-topped French onion soup that diners prepare themselves at home.
The anniversary of the fire was in April, and the Hingoses honored those who aided them with a free lunch. More than $4,500 was raised for the four area fire departments that fought the blaze.
"As we operated this winter, seeing the people in line waiting, there was an energy," Hingos said.
"It is about the food, but it is also about community and being around others. That is a huge thing the pandemic has taken from people. That can be captured again."
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450