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Duluth's Northern Waters Smokehaus: "An island of food weirdos"

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The place came highly recommended by anyone who knew anything about north shore eating. You gotta go to Northern Waters. You just gotta. 

Eric Goerdt got the smoking bug while living in southeast Alaska in the Coast Guard. He also met his wife Lynn there, so this Coast Guard thing worked out very well for Eric. He's also got a passion for brewing beer, and thought about opening a pub, but his wife is in academia, and they wanted a family, and he didn't want to be getting home at 2a.m., because he's a classy guy like that. So instead, he started smoking fish, something besides beer that also gives "mouth joy." People started to buy this fish, "kissed" with salt and smoke, but not overpowered by it, and they kept coming back. For more, and then more. 

"There's always been this elegance to it, even though the technique is an ancient, rustic one, says Mary Tennis, general manager of the tiny Duluth deli folded neatly into the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace building in Canal Park. "I always see it on the faces of people who try us for the first time— it's elegant, even though it's just this silly little sandwich shop— because you know, sandwiches are kind of silly." 

But I disagree! Sandwiches are dignified, capable, noble things. Things that a real man's man can eat and never feel at all twee! Which is why, I'm convinced, this place has such a cult following. People snake around the building in queue for the smoked fish, the bison pastrami, the smoked turkey, the porketta, at all hours, especially at lunchtime. You can't preorder unless you're going to order at least eight sandwiches— they're just too busy. 

At first I'm confused as to why I'm interviewing Tennis, instead of owners Eric and Lynn. 

"We sort of act as a cooperative. We have profit sharing and everybody pitches in." Tennis has been with the business since just after they opened in 2001, when she found out that she could indulge her food passion, make a living wage, go back to school to get her college degree, receive benefits and paid time off, and have enough time to spend with her small child. All at the same time. 

Anyone who has ever worked in the food business knows how rare this is, about as rare as a pastrami sandwich that can stand up to any of the greats out of New York City— the thing that came to have me obsessing about Northern Waters in the first place. 

"I guess we have an ethos, without it really being spoken," says Tennis. 

The tiny shop is barely bigger than a Subway. But their business model, and their unspoken ethos, is way, way bigger than that. 

Tennis tells me they've got 45 employees, something of an eye-popping number for what seems like a little sandwich shop. 

"But what sets us apart is that we're doing our own producing. We have a whole crew that is just sourcing, and making all of these beautiful creations. So that's stage one, in the smokehouse." 

"Then stage two is menu developing and how to use all of the product. Then stage three is all of the people in the shop working their asses off. Then we have a whole catering as well as mail-order department, so that's stage four." 

And then, Northern Waters is on the brink of opening a full-service restaurant, so they'll be doubling their staff. But more on that later. 

They call the place "slow fast food," not only because you gotta wait in line for about 20 minutes, but because of how much time went into the product. "It's days, if not weeks or months of time and energy that went into that sandwich. Smoking is a long, painstaking process with a questionable outcome," says Tennis. "You can't fake that painstaking process, and through that, you can taste the culture of our business. 

The culture being such a part of the flavor of the place, she says the DFL has been "hanging out" with them quite a bit, for their simpatico party values. 

"Here you can think of food as a career, instead of just some racket, or trying to get through the night. To do it because you want to engage with your fellow human beings. We don't want to be firebrand weirdos, but we are kind of an island here. I'm looking out the window and I see Green Mill, Subway, Famous Dave's. We have to stick together up here. It hurts us when we see people walking through the building with Subway. We think, 'Why?! Why would you do that?!"

She says they've even been called a "cult" by other locals, for their sticking together, and their sticking steadfastly with those food values. 

I'll vouch, and have, for Northern Waters and their couple dozen or so rotating sandwiches as being worth the drive. To Duluth. No lie. And if you'd rather make a weekend out of it, wait until late fall, when Northern Waters the restaurant is due to open in the Woodland/ Hunter's Park neighborhood. They'll be serving all the composed dishes they've been dreaming about in the "rabbit warren" of their smokehouse basement for many years. 

Or if you're more of a stay in town sort, Northern Waters visits the Minneapolis Mill City and Kingfield Farmer's Markets. (Dates below). And, if you're more of a stay at home sort, don't forget the mail order business. Can't recommend the pastrami enough. Really. 

"There's a casual and balanced beauty to our product," says Tennis. 

Is there ever. 

Mill City Farmers Market:

August 22nd

September 12th

October 3rd

October 24th

Kingfield Farmers Market:

September 13th

October 4th

October 25th

Northern Waters Smokehaus

394 Lake Avenue South - Suite 106

Duluth, MN

218-724-7307 

northernwaterssmokehaus.com