Inefficient, crazy and utterly delicious
If Tom Hanson, owner of the Duluth Grill, were the CEO of a large corporation, he'd get fired. His chief failure to the suits would be his indifference to the goal of extracting and concentrating wealth at the top.
"I prefer to do things the hard way," Hanson said. This was his response to my quizzical look upon hearing that he is doing his own demolition work inside the building that will become his next restaurant in Lincoln Park: OMC Smokehouse. That's short for Oink, Moo, Cluck.
His path to success wasn't easy. With no college education, he cut his teeth by working for the Ground Round prior to launching out on his own with very little cash and lots of debt. He remains approachable and down-to-earth, the opposite of what one might expect of the owner of a business grossing over $100K in sales per week.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Hanson exemplifies what Mayor Don Ness was quoted as saying in Bicycling Magazine at the end of last year: "Most cities put a premium on making life easy; cities like Duluth put a premium on making life interesting. It's not for everyone; it will never be an American standard. But I think a lot of people are looking for that."
Hanson's own profits seem to be an afterthought, almost accidental. He chooses to keep things interesting, sustainable, local and community-based.
This average-size diner employs a whopping 120 people. Hanson could easily heap more work on his employees, increase stress and turnover and keep more of the profits for himself. Worker pay is well above average in the industry. Twelve managers earn healthy salaries while working reasonable hours and having actual lives, and this includes a farm manager. This is unheard of for a restaurant of this size.
Having done time in food service, I spot unhappiness and stress immediately. The atmosphere at the Grill is the complete opposite. Workers are fulfilled and proud to work there. During a busy lunch rush I encountered employees across the hierarchy. Even the dishwasher had an immense smile. At other establishments they tend to feel overworked, unappreciated and underpaid.
Meanwhile, Hanson lives in a small home in Lincoln Park. He could be living high off the hog if he chose to.
His yard, a bonafide urban farm, is ridiculous for the unbelievable productivity coming out of a small city lot and, paradoxically, for how little financial sense it makes. Not only did he blast his driveway to smithereens to create space for gardens and a walking path, he has employed multiple gardeners. Indulging and delighting in the obsessions of his extremely talented crew can't be cheap.
A commercial-sized aquaponics system, perhaps 25 feet long, graces the inside of the greenhouse. A solar array outside passively heats the water within a complicated circulation system. Soon it will be filled with hundreds of growing pacu fish, which may make it onto the menu eventually.
The remaining space outside is maximized with lush beds of vegetables and even a rabbit hutch. Vegetable scraps from the restaurant and gardens are fed to the bunnies, which convert feed into meat very efficiently. Rabbits, which are expected to be on the menu later this year, reproduce so rapidly that a single pair can produce 50 percent more meat in a year than an average-sized year-old beef steer.
Some customers have raised concerns about serving rabbit, to which the Grill has responded on its website: "If it troubles your conscience, we're happy to serve you another meat or a vegetarian option instead. But we're going to do our best to keep things local and we want to serve quality, clean meat from animals that are treated well."
Having dreams larger than available space, Hanson purchased the neighboring home. The prized lawn space is being overhauled for the sake of more crops, which will be cultivated within innovative hugelkultur beds.
Most surprising, considering the relatively steep hill, is that it will be handicapped-accessible. The Duluth Grill employs a botanist who works from a wheelchair.
Due to Hanson and company's passion for fresh and local, they have created a logistical challenge by having over 100 vendors. While we spoke, Hanson personally signed a check paying the local farmer that produces their pickles. One delivery from a semi-truck would be so much more efficient.
This is a small array of examples that would serve as an indictment for larger businesses obsessed with efficiency. Not only does he make a profit, these projects inspire an entire city. Mixed lovingly, these ingredients create utter deliciousness.
Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is the author of a newly released book, “The Emancipation of a Buried Man.” Discover more at www.eddygilmore.com.