August 27, 2021

Recap 24: We reconnect with Scenic 61 from the New Scenic Cafe on the heels of their State Fair Foodtruck debut

15 miles up the North Shore from Canal Park is one of Duluth’s most celebrated restaurants rebranded as an Airstream food truck called Scenic 61 due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Chef/owner Scott Graden, has pivoted his Nordic cuisine multiple times to meet the changing restaurant landscape.

He is about to embark on the Minnesota State Fair with his Sashimi tuna tacos, a dream he has had for over 20 years. We catch up with Scott before his State Fair debut.

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Stephanie Hansen  00:00

Hello, I’m maker of Minnesota friends and fans. We have a very special event coming up. I am hosting a series of makers and Minnesota dinners at the Lexington in St. Paul and I’m so excited. Not only will you be front and center with some of the best makers in the Twin Cities, you’ll be treated to a three course dinner compliments of chef Antonio from the Lexington and he’ll be using the featured makers ingredients in all the courses that he’s making for this special event. Our September dinner is Tuesday, September 28. And tickets are $98. Our featured makers are the talented folks from LMR cheese, red table meats, Bakersfield flour and bread and tres lay chairs in the food building in Northeast Minneapolis. We will be the exclusive diners in the restaurant for the entire evening. And you will mingle with me and your favorite makers and taste their wonderful products and a special treat. You can even preorder the first ever makers and Minnesota holiday box filled with my favorite products from makers all around the Twin Cities will have a limited number of tickets for this special event. And when they’re gone, they’re gone. So go to the lex mn.com and sign up via Eventbrite for the first makers of Minnesota dinner, featuring the talented makers of the food building, including the delicious cheese from Alomar, cheese, breads from Bakersfield flour and bread meats from Red table meats and elixirs and tinctures from chase Lake Chase. Get your tickets now at the Lux mn.com. Hello, everybody, and welcome to the makers of Minnesota podcast where we talk to cool people doing cool things. And occasionally we get to catch up with folks. And this is a fun catch up for me because I’m here with Scott Graydon from the new scenic and new scenic 61 is a new iteration for him. And Scott and I last talked literally in March of 2019. Right as the pandemic was getting started, actually 2020 that would have been you were my last interview before everybody went into lockdown. And I remember we sat in your beautiful restaurant up in Duluth on highway 61 there and I bought some art off your wall that I still have a lot of fondness for. And then it was a couple weeks later that everything shut down. And it was just so crazy. How are you doing since the shutdown and like you’ve created a whole new concept a whole new restaurant, you’ve had like three new restaurants in the interim?

Scott Graydon  02:43

Yeah, it’s doing well. Thank you. Thanks for having me back. I’m doing all right. I we were joking about this, just recently that the term pivot comes up a lot for nearly everybody. And I think we’ve pivoted so much. It’s almost like we’ve created a new dance. So yeah, we’ve we’ve pivoted from a restaurant and catering business into meal kit business, which we talked about, we opened up a food trailer. And now we’re on food trailer number two going on from trailer number three, which will be not the state fair. Inside the restaurant for a plethora of reasons we were unable to open as we once were as a full service fine dining approach to food. So we retrofitted our entryway, which once had a small bar and a host space and turn it into a deli entry. So now people are coming in and placing an order in the deli, whether it’s grab and go or we’re doing some all aminute food and then they can sit outside or inside wherever they bike. And then we’re still servicing the food trailer, we have two food trailers down and canal Park. And like I mentioned, we’ve got another big effort for the State Fair. So that’s kind of what we’re doing right now.

Stephanie Hansen  03:54

How does that feel? You’ve been you’ve got the air streams and I’ve eaten out of your Airstream in your parking lot twice. It’s always really delicious. But you like I think what’s funny about it is obviously, you were known as like one of the finer dining restaurants in the state. And people would come from far around for special occasion dining. And you’ve now pivoted to being food truck, which I realized the food is still good. And it’s still high quality and all of that, but it is pretty different from a fine dining experience. So how have your chef stayed with you? And is it like allowing them to flex different muscles?

Scott Graydon  04:32

Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s it’s been difficult. There’s like a natural gravitational pull to do what we had designed our business to do. But one of the biggest factors there’s there’s many of them. One is obviously customer confidence. And with all of the mandates in the COVID elements, you know, being outside was about the only thing we could do last year. And then when we were given the opportunity to go back inside one of the factors that The equation was the sheer absence of staff, we went from 45 people, not all full time, of course, but 45 people on our roster all the way down to zero, and then built back up to eight. So we really just couldn’t even exercise that effort as we once had it. As it sits right now we’ve we’re in the 20s number, you know, 20 to 25 people. But that that also isn’t ample or substantial enough to reopen fully. So when we when we closed a lot of our staff as you know, we had to let go. So they could gain their unemployment benefits and what have you. Some staff have come back and some many have not, I think some people have moved I think some people found other work other industries. Some people have gone back to school, there’s lots of reasons why that’s not returned. We do have some new interests and people are some new people are interested in working with us, which is great. But it’s it’s an it’s kind of a new startup, if you will, we don’t have a lot of that culture, continuity, and just embedded quality of knowledge and understanding. So it really is starting from scratch right now. So my hope is to get past the state fair, which will be great. And make an assessment probably into September into October, about what we’re going to do. If I had a hunch, I would say that the trailer world is going to start to slow down because of weather. And now that we actually can be inside, I think we will, barring no other restrictions, I think we’ll probably end up trying to push back into full service. But that’s going to be staff dependent.

Stephanie Hansen  06:41

Well, you you are in an area of town that the North East and northwest, the mask situation has been different the vaccination situation is ramping up, but it’s been slower. I’ve been I’ve spent most of the summer in Ely, Minnesota and people are starting to get more vaccinated up there. They were maybe a little hesitant at first, when you bring people into your restaurant, do you believe in having like, show your vaccine or a negative test? Or will you just open like a traditional restaurant? Well,

Scott Graydon  07:21

that’s tough. So playing on the two polarities there on one path, you know, we want to create a safe environment for everybody. And on the other half, we want to make sure that that there’s an acceptance of different views, as well. So that’s whether it’s political views or religious views. In this case, there’s kind of the argument or the struggle is do you want to take your risks with the vaccine, or you want to take your risks with the virus and trying to be accepting of both is kind of that middle zone. What we’ve done on the internal side is that the staff piece, you know, they have their discretion to be masked or vaccinated. If they’re not, we ask that they are sensitive to those that are. And then on the customer front, we have, we’ve chosen not to push on mandating any of it other than just asking people for sensitivity, I think that that is starting to show through in just a personal effort. on an individual basis, you see a full spectrum of people with or without masks, you see people comfortably sitting inside, and you see other people sitting outside. So I think we’ve got a full spectrum. And that is a really delicate balance there. So I think, I don’t know how to approach that conclusively as a business owner, other than we do want to be accepting of everything. And that’s proving to be difficult.

Stephanie Hansen  08:51

I totally understand that. And I talked with another gentleman, Brad, from lift bridge, who they have taprooms in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, and we talked about that, and he expressed a really similar feeling to you that, you know, they want everybody to be safe, certainly their employers and their customers are a priority. But that he also personally believed that choice was important still, and he wasn’t feeling like he could mandate what people would do there other than asking them like you to be sensitive, and to try to do the right thing for your neighbor and yourself. But it is it is challenging, and it’s so weird to be a business that’s having to make these decisions on the fly. Right that you know, in in other situations where we’ve been talking about public health. There’s been a little more guidance and a little more surety when you mentioned you’re taking the risk either on the vaccine or taking the risk on the virus. It’s still risky their way.

Scott Graydon  09:51

Oh, yeah, I think vaccine is not the vaccine is an assistant effort, but I don’t think it’s foolproof and I think that’s where some of those hits Didn’t cease, with that side of the equation come from, you know, I have a couple points on that. When we roll the clock back, there was a lot of pressure. And I’ll even say desire to reopen the restaurant as it once was. And I think I probably would have had more former staff come back and join, have they done that. But Incidentally, we also had quite a few people that said, I’ll come back, but I want no customer facing interaction. So if you want me to do dishes, or cook, I will, but I’m not going to be a server anymore. So you get that mix as well. So when we made the decision to not open, even though we had like a 50% occupancy issue, or whatever, in the mass, by being outside, there was a large number or a large percentage of comfort there, because you’re outside the hyperventilation because the wind is blowing around the Lake Superior and all that. And we did get some pressure primarily from customers that they wanted us to reopen. And quite frankly, that’s still there, there’s still the desire of, you know, what’s this, we want you to be open? Well, you know, it’s a hard thing. This is we’re doing the best with the resources, we’ve got. The other topic that is coming to mind about the vaccination versus not my sister works in a medical facility in Vermont. And what that with that institution does is it’s not mandatory, but if you’re on if you do not get vaccinated, you have to have weekly testing. And a lot of people have that belief and say, Fine, I guess I’ll get weekly testing, I’d rather be tested than vaccinated. And I think that’s giving some latitude there. But it’s, it’s just such a sensitive topic for everybody. And I get that there’s a life quality to it, or life threatening quality to it. And I think that’s where the balance is. And I think everybody is looking for some governance to mandate or support, whatever their view is, whether it’s political, or business owners, or whatever.

Stephanie Hansen  11:56

And I think, you know, we’re still, we’re not a great society for patients. And we want everything when we want it. And we want everything to be resolute. The other part of this that is, viruses are change, you know, they’re evolving. They’re a living organism that is constantly evolving based on the host that it’s experiencing. And so when we think we have some magic answer, you can equally be as wrong as you are right. And I think we are seeing that with some of the vaccine breakthroughs, not understanding how long these vaccines last, understand, there might be limitations to them. So it’s all pretty interesting. You’re coming up on your big event, which is the state fair. And you guys were going to be at the State Fair last year and weren’t able to because the fair didn’t happen. And here we are kind of marching up again to the fair, and everybody’s trying to figure out well, what’s the fair gonna do? And if the fair does this, then maybe we should do that. And I don’t know I I just I’m very curious to see that bear is two weeks out, how it’s gonna unfold, whether it’s gonna be like, it’s never Corona what or whether it will feel because I went to a concert, I saw the Jayhawks at Lake Harriet the other day. Awesome. And I really thought when I went, I had my mask in my hand, and I am vaccinated. So I thought, well, I’ll bring it just to see. And when I got there, there were 5000 people I very rarely saw him ask. And I thought, Okay, well, maybe this is what the fair will be like, is this is all a lot of noise. And people aren’t really that concerned. I don’t know.

Scott Graydon  13:34

Yeah. Yeah. I think well, for us as a business, you know, in the restaurant, we we feel and believe that we need to follow the the governed mandates by the state and Feds. And with the State Fair, it’s a small body of enforcement in and of itself. So we will follow whichever is the structure of those mandates, whether it’s the state fair guidelines or the state itself. But you’re right. I mean, there’s the there’s the whole mentality around herd immunity, and this idea of the vaccine, but then there’s also that whole idea of, of almost like groupthink or the herd itself. And I think the state fair, might hate to be predictive, because I don’t know, but I think there’s an exceptional amount of COVID fatigue. And I also think there’s a large level of belief that the vaccine is given them enough immunity. And I also think people are on the idea of a case by case basis, if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask if you don’t want to go if you don’t want to be around it don’t come to the state fair because you know, it’s going to be a crowd, right? So and it’s an eating and drinking experience too. So it’s likely even if you have a mask, most of the time you’re going to have it off anyways because you’re munching on, you know, sashimi tuna time. Hopefully,

Stephanie Hansen  15:00

yeah. So, where are you guys gonna be located?

Scott Graydon  15:05

We are underneath. Let me just pull up so I have some accurate descriptors We are underneath and that are the north end of the fairgrounds south of the little farmhands corner of Underwood and Randall. So it’s we will be directly underneath the tram or whatever you call it. That’s going over there.

Stephanie Hansen  15:26

You’re super close to the my talk 1071 radio booth. And we’re doing a live broadcast a couple of days. So awesome. It’ll be fun. Yeah, yeah, that’s to us. We’ll bring you what’s on your menu. I know you’re going to do this to the sashimi tacos.

Scott Graydon  15:42

Yep, that’s kind of our flagship item right now is the sashimi tuna tacos we’re going to have and then three basic beverages, we’re going to have water and then a green tea and a half lemonade, kind of a lemonade iced tea thing. So when we were originally invited in with the State Fair, it was because we had submitted those tacos, I’ve been interested in attempting to be in the state fair for coming up on two decades now. Sure, pleasing, and you know, we’ve had a lot of experience, if you will call it that with those tacos. And we’re kind of geared for it. So that’s what we’re doing. We don’t have a large variety. You know, if you think about the cookies, you know, it’s chocolate chip cookies, or the milk, it’s just whole milk or whatever it is. So we’re not having a large variety. But there’ll be the tacos, which is a one time shell, tuna, avocado, and it’s gonna have a Thai peanut slot on the side of little wasabi and pickled ginger. So kind of what we’ve been doing for years.

Stephanie Hansen  16:41

They’re delicious. I love them. And I think it’s kind of different. It gives something a little bit different than some of the just sort of greasy, you know, it feels a little fresher. I don’t know, a lot of time is still fried, but it does still feel fresher for whatever reason. Yeah, I agree. Are you a big state fair person? You mentioned for 20 years, you’ve been trying to get into the fair, do you go every year? And does it have heritage for you?

Scott Graydon  17:09

I’ve not gone every year. And obviously, as a restaurant up here in Duluth, the end of August and September, it’s always been busy. And then Incidentally, it’s also a pivot time for college students, and just teachers and families. So we have always had a kind of a interesting mix of employees so that that time of the year is a lot of flux. We’re hiring new people. So people are leaving schedules are tightening because the school whether they’re teaching or attending as a student, so I’ve not been able to go every year but in years past, I was always part of Minnesota cooks and I’d come down and give a conversation or a cooking demonstration and, and those types of efforts over the years and then wander about and have a beer with a friend and have some fried cheese curds or whatever. So yeah, I’m, I’m, I’m a Minnesota person. So yeah, we go.

Stephanie Hansen  17:57

Yeah, we’re hosting, or I’m emceeing the Minnesota cooks. A couple shows the one o’clock show and the four o’clock show. So if you get a chance swing by, we’ll be it’s the first weekend. It’s that first Sunday of the fair that Minnesota cooks will be out. So I’m happy to talk to you I’m happy to come by the trailer and the airstream. I know it’s beautiful. You always have a good job of the restoration. Yeah.

Scott Graydon  18:23

Your second one on this on this size right now since it’s all shiny and spanking new.

Stephanie Hansen  18:30

Well, I can’t wait to see it. And we’ll talk when we see what the fares got. It sounds great. Thank you absolutely will. Bye bye