Denfeld News

May 9, 2010
Duluth News Tribune

Gordy’s fame spreads
By Wendy Johnson

To say this has been a benchmark year for Gordy and Marilyn Lundquist would be an understatement.

First, the two celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Then their Cloquet restaurant, Gordy’s Hi-Hat, recently opened the doors on its 50th year in business. And now, the perennially popular local restaurant has been selected for a feature spot on the Food Network’s wildly popular “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” with filming set for this week.

“It’ll be interesting when this Guy (Fieri, the host of the show) comes in with his spiked hair,” Marilyn said. “I’m guessing he will get on the grill alongside me, flip hamburgers and maybe help me do onion rings and fish. They ship his car up here (a classic red Camaro), and I can just see him driving it up Highway 33.”

It seems that the world soon will discover, if it hasn’t already, what the people of the Midwest already know: The Lundquists have something of a magic touch when it comes to operating a drive-in.

Both were born and raised in Duluth and met while attending Denfeld High School.

“Gordy was a big football star, and I was a little sophomore,” Marilyn said.

The two began dating in high school and married in 1950.

After Gordy attended Hirsch Business College in Duluth, they purchased an A&W franchise in Eveleth in 1952. Marilyn did all the cooking herself.

“It was the first A&W drive-in — and in fact the first drive-in of any sort — on the Iron Range,” Marilyn said.

Their season lasted only 100 days a year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“We had a huge business because it was so new on the Iron Range,” Marilyn said. “We actually had to hire a highway cop to direct traffic in order for our customers to get in and out on the highway.”

“We started doing prep work about 7 in the morning,” said Gordy, “and we got out of there about 10 o’clock at night.”

They hired 10 to 15 carhops to deliver the food to eager customers, and part of the draw of the drive-in, especially to young people, was to “see and be seen” — especially by all of the popular boys in town.

Marilyn was 21 and Gordy was 23, and the two admit they didn’t know a great deal about what they were doing.

“Failure wasn’t even a word in our vocabulary,” Gordy said.

“We’d come home at midnight or 1 a.m., practically crawl up the stairs and then fall into bed,” Marilyn said.

They operated the Eveleth restaurant for three seasons before selling the franchise and going back to Duluth in 1955 to open a drive-in called the London Inn.

“When Gordy tried to get financing, no one would even look at us, two 20-somethings who wanted to open a drive-in in Duluth,” Marilyn said.
“The banker said there was already one in town and wondered why there would be any need for another,” Gordy said.

When at last they found someone who was willing to loan them the $5,000 they needed to get their drive-in started, they wedged a small building between the Dairy Queen on London Road and what they refer to as a “haunted house” on the other side.

They operated the drive-in from early spring until right after the Denfeld-Central football game, serving hamburgers, hot dogs, onion rings, fries and milkshakes.

“At that time, there were no frozen french fries,” Marilyn said. “It was a little like KP duty — we would peel about 300 pounds of potatoes a day down in the basement of that spooky ‘haunted house.’ Then we would have to put them through the slicer, destarch them and blanch them.”

They had about 25 people on staff and stayed open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In the wintertime, they used to go south, usually to Florida.

“A lot of the Duluth East students had cars, and they’d come and sit on the hoods and blast their Everly Brothers and Elvis,” Marilyn said.

“I remember when Elvis Presley was just getting started,” Gordy recalled. “Everybody was playing him all over the lot, and I couldn’t stand him. I’d come inside and say, ‘Marilyn, that guy will never last.’ ”

At that time, they sold a hamburger, french fries and a malt for 57 cents.
“Hamburger was only 19 cents a pound back then,” Gordy said.

The Lundquists operated the London Inn for four years before selling it to the Andresen family and turning their sights toward a drive-in in Cloquet.

“My whole family was born and raised in Cloquet,” Gordy said. “My dad went to high school here, and my grandparents had the only laundry in town until they got burned out in the Fire of 1918.”

Gordy originally bought two lots with about 250 feet of frontage on Highway 33. The original restaurant they built was quite small — 24-by-24 feet — and it’s still standing right in the middle of today’s existing restaurant. The family moved into a house next door to the restaurant, now the site of the Warming House.

The Lundquists hired about 20 people to work for them, and the hamburgers were made from fresh hamburger, as they still are today.

The Alaskan pollock they use for their fish dinners and sandwiches features Marilyn’s original batter recipe, and their onion rings have become legendary.

“The girls come in at 5:30 a.m., depending on how busy we think we’re going to be, and stand there for two or three hours and do nothing but onion rings,” Marilyn said.

“We normally peel and process 300 pounds of onions a day,” Gordy said.

The Lundquists have hired thousands of young people over the years, and are now hiring kids who are grandchildren of the people they originally hired.

One of the women helping to take over some of Marilyn’s responsibilities in the kitchen has been with them for 30 years, and another has been there since she was 15.

“I’ve gone through their love affairs with them, all their heartaches, all their pregnancies — pretty much everything,” Marilyn said.

Gordy and son Dan supervise the front end of the business, manning the counter alongside some 67 employees.

The Lundquists give a lot of credit to Dan, who chose to continue the business as the two of them began to “taper off” a few years ago — though Marilyn still works 40 hours a week and Gordy comes in every day.

Son Rick, an animal nutritionist, owns the two Coldstone Creamery operations in Duluth and is planning eventually to turn one of them into the London Inn, similar to the original family business in Duluth.

The Lundquists are in “dress rehearsal” for their upcoming appearance on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” the end result of three or four years of nominations by satisfied diners.

“We do give the customer what they want,” Marilyn said. “I think after 50 years, a lot of the people like the fact Gordy’s is still here, because so many other things have changed so much. Fast food chains are big and they do a great business, but they’re all the same.”

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