When Gordy’s Hi-Hat opened for its 60th season in April, customers remained in their cars as carhops took orders for burgers, onion rings, and shakes. It was anything but business as usual at the beloved Cloquet restaurant. Traditionally, the spot opens three weeks after the first day of spring. But the dining room was closed due to the governor’s executive order, and social distancing had halted the stream of visitors who make Gordy’s a stop on drives from the Twin Cities to northern Minnesota.
“Nothing—nothing—will compare to the shutdown of our whole wonderful country and the world,” says Marilyn Lundquist, who founded the restaurant with husband Gordy in 1960.
“This is the biggest challenge in 60 years by far,” agrees her grandson Sever Lundquist, who manages the day-to-day operations of the restaurant with his father, Dan Lundquist. “But in a way, this is back to the roots.”
Back then, the restaurant didn’t have a dining room. It was simply a kitchen with a walk-up service window, plus carhop service. Over the decades, the Lundquists added indoor and outdoor dining spaces, but the original kitchen remains. “I like to say it’s the world’s most efficient kitchen: It’s very small, every inch is accounted for, and we’ve had to be creative as far as the layout,” Sever explains. “The bones [of the restaurant] are the same, 60 years later.”
The menu is straightforward: hand-pattied burgers, fish and chips, cheese curds, chili, root beer floats, blackberry shakes, chocolate malts. “Everything we do, from the onion rings to the fish to the shakes, is made fresh,” Marilyn says. “We have not changed a thing in our 60 years of doing business at the Hi-Hat.”
“We’re not gourmet chefs by any means,” Sever says. “We’re grilling simple cheeseburgers and onion rings.”
But those simple cheeseburgers and onion rings keep customers coming back, season after season. Some are locals. Others stop by on trips to their cabins on Lake Vermilion. For everyone, Gordy’s Hi-Hat offers a comforting taste of nostalgia in increasingly uncertain times.
This year, 21 parking spots adjacent to the restaurant have been labeled with numbers. Carhops take orders with a pen and paper—while maintaining a 6-foot distance—and then deliver food to cars. Customers can either dine in the parking lot or drive to the nearby St. Louis River for a more scenic view.
“It’s working out really well; customers seem to like it,” Sever says. “We had to hire a few extra servers. It’s not as efficient as it used to be—those kids are running around, working hard.”
While carhop service might seem like a nostalgic, retro approach, it actually reflects modern precautions based upon restaurant associations’ and the CDC’s guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone from our servers to cooks has to be on the same page as far as maintaining a clean, sanitary working relationship between ourselves and others,” he explains. “We don’t want customers to be worried—we want them to be able to get out of the house and have a comfortable, safe dining experience.”
Old but New
From the beginning, Gordy Lundquist was the public face of the restaurant. It was his and Marilyn’s third business venture, after they started as restaurateurs with an A&W in 1951. They founded popular, now-closed Duluth burger joint the London Inn five years later. Then, when the couple decided to settle down and raise a family, they relocated to Cloquet and started Gordy’s Hi-Hat. Gordy took orders and greeted customers with a handshake and a smile. But Sever emphasizes that his grandmother Marilyn has been an integral part of the restaurant’s success, too.
“She’s done just as much work throughout the 60 years, behind the scenes running the grill,” he says. “She claims to be the fastest fry cook in the world and genuinely thinks it’s true. She’s the backbone of the place and always was. There’s never been a harder worker.”
While Gordy and Marilyn—both in their 90s—are still actively involved in the business, they’re currently quarantined in Florida to protect their health. In the meantime, their family is carrying on the couple’s work ethic and focus on customers.
“Our son Dan was raised in the business,” Marilyn says. “We taught him how to drink from a straw and dip his French fries in ketchup. [From the beginning, he could] see his mom and dad so dedicated to serving their customers.”
“The biggest thing we pour into the restaurant is the relationships we form with our customers,” Sever agrees. “Myself, my father, and my grandparents are always here. We’re open for six months, and we’re here from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day.”
“You have to be here forming relationships—those are the customers who keep your business going even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground or on a Wednesday when it’s 25 degrees. Those are the customers that keep you going even when the rest of the country has stopped traveling.”
In a more typical year, the restaurant’s biggest challenge is the weather: The majority of the tables are outdoors, and Minnesota springs aren’t necessarily conducive to patio dining. “Last year, on May 9 we got a foot of snow overnight,” Sever recalls.
While seasons and the state of public health are unpredictable, Gordy’s Hi-Hat is at least one constant. The restaurant will make the most of carhop, takeout, and outdoor options while indoor dining is limited.
“There are three generations of us working, and three generations of customers coming here,” Sever says. “There are grandparents bringing their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids. [Gordy’s Hi-Hat] allows our older customers to say, ‘This is exactly what it was 60 years ago,’ and now they’re sharing that experience with their grandkids 60 years later.
“I’m in my early 30s, and I would love to get the restaurant to 100 years,” he adds. “Sixty is a lot of fun, but 100 years is the goal for me. I’ll be in my 70s, but I think I’ve got it in me if my grandpa’s still working at 92.”
60 Years of Top-Notch Service
Keeping a restaurant going for 60 years is an impressive achievement. Here’s how the Lundquist family has helped Gordy’s Hi-Hat reach that milestone.
Focus on fresh ingredients. Since on-site storage is limited, ingredients are delivered daily. “That helps us maintain a high standard,” Sever says.
Handmade matters. Every morning, starting at 5 a.m, employees form each burger patty by hand. Onion rings are made in-house, and fish is hand-battered.
Don’t change what works. “Consistency is what our customers keep coming back for all these 60 great years,” Marilyn says. They still use the same recipes for onion rings, chili, and Coney dogs.
Accommodate new trends. While the majority of the menu is the same as it was in the 1960s, in recent years Gordy’s has added gluten-free buns and a vegetarian wild rice burger to cater to dietary needs and preferences.
Put in long hours. The Lundquists rack up a year’s worth of work in the six months that Gordy’s Hi-Hat is open; they’re at the restaurant from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day.
Build a loyal customer base. Sever notes that some customers predate the restaurant’s founding—they were patrons of the Lundquists’ earlier venture, the London Inn, 65 years ago. “They say, ‘We used to be customers in Duluth,’ and they had such a good experience that they came here to the Hi-Hat.”
Gordy’s Hi-Hat. 415 Sunnyside Dr., Cloquet. (218) 879-6125