July 26, 2015
Duluth News Tribune
Gordy's Hi-Hat founders riding high
By Brady Slater
From their home tucked on a leafy hillside in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth, Gordy and Marilyn Lundquist braced for an interview the couple seems to grant every five years or so. This month marked the 55th anniversary of the famously seasonal restaurant to which they've given their lives: Gordy's Hi-Hat in Cloquet.
Its burgers-and-more offerings are revered by locals and adored by travelers who use the red-checkered-themed restaurant along Highway 33 as a pitstop as they head north to their cabins and the lakes in northern Minnesota and Canada.
Midsummer means the Lundquists are in the thick of it now.
Both of them have nudged past age 85, yet they come home smelling like burgers and weary from standing. Lunch and supper rushes can cram 75 guests into the Hi-Hat lobby. Marilyn works the kitchen and Gordy the counter, and together with other family members, loyal staff veterans and a rotating crop of young seasonal employees the couple sends customers away fed and satisfied with a complaint-free consistency that is their proud hallmark.
"Nobody works harder than they do, my mom and dad," said Dan Lundquist, now the owner of the restaurant. "They're pretty amazing. Part of the reason they're so healthy and active is they work, and they've got a schedule that keeps them physically healthy and mentally sharp. This is a very hectic business and you have to be focused."
Denfeld High School graduates, Gordy and Marilyn annually spend their winters on an island near Sarasota, Fla., called Siesta Key.
"Just to get away from the hamburgers, I guess," said Marilyn. "Nobody knows us down there. We're not famous fry cooks. We're just social."
The couple used to live in what is now Gordy's Warming House, a year-round coffee-and-ice cream shop adjacent to the Hi-Hat. When they moved back to Duluth, they took over the nearly 100-year-old home in which Marilyn grew up. Her parents raised seven kids in the home. When it was built, her dad and a brother dug out the hillside basement with shovels and a wheelbarrow. But it was needing repair before the couple moved back in several years ago.
"We tore it right down to the rafters," Gordy said, "and started all over again."
The home features rows of leaded and stained glass windows that Marilyn made herself — a hobby she picked up when she walked into a stained glass artist's studio and asked to get started. She recalled him being taken aback by her brash appeal to teach her the art form.
"'Would you teach someone who just walked into your kitchen?'" she recalled him saying. But he grew to like her and when she later showed him the stained glass peacock she has filtering sunlight in the couple's guestroom, the artist praised her form.
The Lundquists, it seems, do little that's not praiseworthy. Gordy was an acclaimed football player for Denfeld. He'll be attending his 70th class reunion later this summer — though he's rarely attended reunions in the past.
"It's going to be our last one," he said. "There's not many of us left."
Leaner and smaller now from age, he still carries the presence of the frame that once lifted a pestering landlord out of a previous restaurant venture. They decided early on in their entrepreneurial career together to never lease property again.
"That was lesson number one," Gordy said.
After a successful run with a car-hop drive-in along London Road in Duluth, the couple opened Gordy's Hi-Hat in 1960.
Marilyn still eats a bowl of chili every morning at the restaurant, she said, and "Oh, I love the bacon."
She devised the recipes, including the famous onion-ring batter, and has shown every incoming cook the way.
"You don't change anything," she tells them. "I'll show you."
Marilyn described the Hi-Hat kitchen like it were its own subculture. She knows her employees' breakups, successes and hardships. She admires them all for their abilities to set aside problems when it's time to work.
She and Gordy now work with young employees whose parents and even grandparents once worked alongside them.
"We've had three generations of customers now, too," said Dan Lundquist. "They (all) come in and expect it to be exactly the same."
If Marilyn manages behind the scenes, it's Gordy who remains the face of the restaurant. The employees at the counter lean to take an order in the same way Gordy leans in. They scribble orders on paper notepads the way Gordy's always done it.
"The customers are the boss," Gordy said. "They tell us what they want on the menu. They tell us what kind of service they want. They tell us, within reason, how much money they'll pay for the service and the product."
The Lundquists ceded control of their business to Dan a number of years ago — "Dan can handle anything," Gordy said. "He's got all the cards in his hand."
"But he's bald over it," quipped Marilyn.
They've granted other family property to their other son Rick, a successful animal nutritionist who works in large-scale farming. The row of carriage homes Marilyn plans to have built near the couple's current home in Lincoln Park will go to Rick, she said.
A third generation of Lundquists is emerging in the family business in Sever Lundquist. Like his dad, Dan, Sever is a college-educated businessman who dabbled in the metropolitan rat race.
"But he likes being a small-town boy," said Gordy, who brimmed with pride when talking about his two sons and seven grandchildren.
The interview drawing to a close, Gordy and Marilyn talked about how they once used to be avid downhill skiers and how they once dabbled with opening a burger joint in London, England.
They laughed about a headline in the local paper that corresponded with their entrepreneurial visit. They were dubbed as American experts under a headline that read, "What's so great about an American hamburger?" The bowler-hat crowd wasn't ready for the Lundquists back then.
"We looked like clowns," Marilyn said. "We were kids at that time — only in our 20s."
Secure now in their success and their routine of working hard followed by relaxing on the Gulf of Mexico, Gordy said he was given a voice recorder by a family member and asked to recite the couple's history in business — starting from the beginning. He's got very little recorded so far.
"It was so long ago," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I don't remember."