Sister Bay’s Al Johnson

It seems almost every tourist who travels up the Door Peninsula on Highway 42 or 57 makes it a point to swing into Al Johnson‘s Swedish Restaurant for Swedish style pancakes and meatballs or fresh baked Limpa bread. More impressive than the sheer number of people who have actually visited Al Johnson’s over the years is the fact that people who have never stepped foot in Door County have heard of “the restaurant with the goats on the roof.”

That’s why when Al Johnson’s made the list of “Article Ideas Approved by My Editors,” a tattered piece of loose-leaf that has long since been buried in one of the eighty-four piles of paperwork on my desk, I was more than a little hesitant. How could I possibly find an angle that hadn’t been illuminated over the years? So, rather than giving in to the completely unrealistic and utterly unappealing notion of turning myself into a 60 Minutes-worthy investigative reporter overnight, I decided to do just the opposite of that. I deiced to start with something much simpler – finding out a little bit about the man behind “the restaurant with the goats on the roof,” Al Johnson.

On a rainy day this spring I sat down over a cup of coffee and chatted with Al. Throughout our conversation the topics ranged from light-hearted stories of Al driving goats around downtown Sister Bay in a station wagon to the more serious effects of how new immigration policies and rising health care costs have impacted his business. But with each question I asked, it became more apparent how hard-working, gracious, and humble Al truly is.

After growing up in Chicago and serving in World War II, Al Johnson had a two-fold vision for starting a business in Door County – grass on rooftops and goats weren’t either of them. In 1949, Al dropped out of Marquette University, although he would later return and finish his degree in criminology and sociology, with “restaurant on the brain” in hopes of putting Sister Bay on the map and accomplishing it with a Scandinavian theme.

The first goal was rather straightforward and from the desire to get people to talk about something other than Ephraim; however, the second desire stemmed from a much deeper place. After a tragic accident that took his father’s life when Al was just a child, Al and his sister were sent to live with their maternal grandparents in Sweden. Originally, the children thought they would spend just six months in the foreign land; however, after four years in Sweden, the memories from his childhood remain strong and the ties to his heritage became an integral aspect of who Al was and is to this day.

Al also knew if he wanted to succeed in the fast-paced tourist economy that Door County was becoming he would need something other than hope to become successful. Al decided to model his restaurant after one he had worked at while still in school in Milwaukee. The restaurant was located across the street from a large factory and the majority of the business occurred during the half hour lunch break the factory workers received. With no time to waste, needing to get a large number of customers in and out, the restaurant functioned on memory work and verbal orders to the kitchen. Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant continues to utilize verbal orders to this day and Al wouldn’t even consider adding any sort of technology to the system. Considering that on the restaurant’s biggest day in history they served 3,300 people in a setting that seats 150, I think they’ve got all the kinks worked out of their system.

Although Al is no longer behind the line cooking pancakes or at the sink washing the coffee cups, he is still a daily figure at the restaurant. Most days Al arrives at 7 am to start taking care of the bookwork, bill paying, and payroll. Occasionally Al will take a more hands-on approach. Like the time Dennis, one of Al’s sons, told me about not too long after Al’s hip replacement surgery. Dennis arrived to work and there was his dad atop a ladder on the front sidewalk, cleaning the gutters.

Although Al’s put a lot of effort into the restaurant over the years, he’s careful not too take too much credit. Al attributes a turn around in not only the restaurant but also his entire life to when he married his wife Ingert in 1960. After 45 years of marriage, he still has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about her and the impact she’s made around the restaurant. Perhaps the most noticeable change Ingert made was the addition of a Swedish Butik; however, I got the suspicion it was more her presence and the little touches she’s added that Al is thankful for.

Al also expressed gratefulness to his the staff over the years. He described the restaurant like a wheel on a bicycle. All of the employees, including himself and his wife, four of his five children, the cooks, the dishwashers, the hostesses, the servers, and the workers in the butik are spokes. Without the strength of each individual spoke, the wheel wouldn’t have enough strength to turn. Al hopes that each individual who works in the restaurant is proud of where they fit into the realm of things; this “full cooperation” is what he attributes much of the success of the restaurant to.

Al even spoke with praise about the goats, remembering their names and stories over the years. The first goat to graze the rooftop of Al Johnson’s restaurant was Oscar, a birthday gift from Wink Larson in the winter of 1962 and 1963. Or baby Lingonberry, the first goat born on the roof of Al Johnson’s. Then there was Wiley, a goat near the size of a deer, whose last day on the roof was the day he was spooked by a helicopter, jumped off the roof clearing three parked cars, and started to swim to Michigan. Al felt so bad about the entire incident that I suppose you could say he put Wiley into early retirement at the family farm.

Even after all the success Al Johnson has had, he remains very grounded. He was telling me about the cruises that Ingert and he take around Christmas time each year. They have visited artistic and historical meccas like Rome as well as every tropical island in the Caribbean, yet he continues to “love the feeling of crossing the bridge in Sturgeon Bay.” Getting back to Door County, a place where he raised his five children and made many friends remains close to his heart.

One of the last questions I asked Al Johnson perhaps provided the most depth into his character — what do you want to be remembered for? His simple response made me smile. For someone who had begun with a grand notion of putting Sister Bay on the map now said, “I don’t know if I want to be remembered for anything. That’s not important to me.” I know I’ll personally remember Al Johnson as one of the most diligent, gracious, and modest individuals I’ve ever met. Not only did he accomplish his goal of putting Sister Bay on the map, he put Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant on the map as well.