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The sandwich shop around the corner

Tom and Rachael Hagen, owners of the new Toasty's at East 9th Street and 11th Avenue. (Photo by Richard Thomas)

"We don't have enough enough restaurants like this in town," said Rachael Hagen, co-proprietor of Toasty's, a restaurant that opened last week at the corner of East 9th Street and 11th Avenue. While Duluth has no shortage of restaurants, not many specialize in one form of cuisine: grilled cheese sandwiches.

Toasty's uses all-natural, local organic ingredients. The cheese capital of the nation, Wisconsin, is just over the border, so the main component comes from regional dairy producers. The bread is from Third Street Bakery a few blocks down the hill.

There's much variety to be found in the universe of cheese sandwiches. Customer may order Swiss, pepper jack, gouda, provolone, gorgonzola, mozzarella, or sharp cheddar cheese. Other ingredients include turkey, bacon, ham, roasted mushrooms, steak, pineapple, avocado, caramelized onions, apple and scrambled egg.

For purists, the menu offers the "Guilty Pleasure" with plain American cheese. There's even basic peanut butter and jelly, and for the more adventurous child within, peanut butter and banana.

The building has no built-in grill or vent and installing one would have required much more of an investment. But the Hagens turned this disadvantage into an advantage: The sandwiches are made with a flat panini press, avoiding the usual grease and smoke.

"Toasty's" refers to toasted cheese, though technically the sandwiches are grilled. The name also refers to warm and toasty food and drink.

"Neighborhood places are doing well all over the country," said Tom Hagen, co-proprietor and husband to Rachael. A lack of parking is another problem with the location, but Tom hopes to attract customers within walking distance.

With success, Toasty's could represent a revival for businesses in Duluth's residential areas. But the East Hillside spot is a bit of a risk, having gone through several turnovers in recent years.

It was built in 1907 and known for many years as Chet's. It is best remembered, and beloved, as 8th Street Video, which ran in the space from the 1980s until 2011 and was known for ice cream as much as its eclectic film selection. Previously the video store was located on Eighth Street, but kept its name when it moved to Ninth.

8th Street Video's Ninth Street location closed in 2012. The building briefly existed as Mean Beans Espresso and Creams, followed by The Cup, which lasted only a month.

Tom grew up in the neighborhood and was a frequent customer at the video store. A 1999 graduate of Marshall School, he met Rachael, a '99 graduate of East High, when they both worked as teenagers at Taran's Market.

They believe they can make this latest incarnation work due to their combined 27 years of experience with restaurants. Tom also rides on a series of successes, as the restaurant manager for Burrito Union, Greysolon Ballroom, Blackwater Bar and Grill and Tycoons and its basement companion Rathskeller. He also manages the newly opened Endion Station.

Steve Lichterman, who founded 8th Street Video with his late father Phil, also ran the now-closed Second Street Video in Superior. Earl Sullivan has owned the building for nearly 20 years and still runs 8th Street Video in the Lakeside neighborhood, one of the last such shops in the city. The industry has fallen to competition from Netflix, Redbox and online streaming.

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