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After it was damaged in a January fire, Wendy’s is back on Miller Hill

A transformed Wendy’s at 1720 Miller Trunk Highway reopened last week after a January fire gutted it. It’s the first Wendy’s in Minnesota to sport the chain’s modern new design. (Bob King / / 6
Bob Sullivan, owner of the Wendy’s on Miller Trunk Highway in Duluth, likes the new look of the remodeled restaurant, which was damaged beyond repair by a fire last winter. (Bob King / / 6
Customers settle in for lunch while others order on Wednesday morning at the rebuilt and redesigned Wendy’s near the Miller Hill Mall. (Bob King / 3 / 6
From left: Brandon Gruber, Wendy’s district manager, Andrew Benoit and Sam Johnson work in the new kitchen during opening week at the newly remodeled Miller Hill Wendy’s. It is the first Wendy’s in the country to get the chain’s New Generation kitchen, which is more efficient and easier to use. Benoit has worked there for more than seven years and Johnson for 11. (Bob King / / 6
The remodeled Wendy’s on Miller Trunk Highway features a lounge with a built-in fireplace, a big-screen TV and free Wi-Fi. (Bob King / / 6
Workers at Wendy’s add cheese, vegetables and condiments to hamburgers in a new-style, full sandwich-making station in the restaurant’s kitchen. (Bob King / / 6

Restaurant owner Bob Sullivan is used to minor disasters … and fixing them.

But when he walked into his Miller Hill Wendy’s restaurant after a devastating fire in January, he knew there would be no re-opening the site anytime soon.

“We had nothing left,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t salvage anything, except the four walls and the exterior brick. It only took a couple of days to know we would not try to repair anything. It was time to totally rebuild.”

Not only did Sullivan rebuild the 30-year-old restaurant at 1720 Miller Trunk Highway in Duluth, he expanded it by 450 square feet. When it reopened a week ago, it was the first Wendy’s in Minnesota to sport the chain’s new, sleeker look and the first in the country to have the chain’s “New Generation” kitchen that’s bigger and more efficient.

“We made the decision we were going to do it right,” he said.

The new design is more spacious, with tile floors that look like wood, red accents that pop, a lounge area, contemporary fireplace, 55-inch TV and free Wi-Fi with its own dedicated bar area. Then there’s the new signage, sporting the chain’s revised logo, LED lighting outside, new landscaping and outdoor patio.

“It doesn’t even look like Wendy’s anymore,” said Rob Anseth of Duluth who, along with his wife, had been eagerly waiting for Wendy’s to reopen. “It’s big, it’s huge and they’ve got high tech pop machines. It’s very modern looking. I would give them a higher rating than before.”

Sullivan, fearing he could lose valued employees during the closure, did something rare among employers.

He continued to pay most of them.

“I have a lot of long-term employees here,” said Sullivan, who also owns Wendy’s restaurants in Brainerd, Nisswa and two in Fargo. “I wanted to retain them.”

Some returning customers had heard about the gesture.

“He paid them while they were closed — that’s amazing, unheard of,” said Jessica Whitledge of Duluth. “That’s treating your people right.”

Reopening the fast food restaurant with inexperienced workers would have been hard, noted general manager Jackie Grandi.

“We’d really be in big trouble without them,” she said. “To start with a new crew is difficult. They’re experienced. Some have been here seven to 10 years.”

Project cost: $1 million The Jan. 13 fire started in the drive-through area, probably from some combustible items in the trash. It was discovered when a manager arrived in the morning. Firefighters put out the fire fairly quickly, but the entire building was damaged by the flames and smoke.

After 30 years, it was time for a major overhaul, said Sullivan, who built the restaurant in 1984. He again used Donald Holm Construction Co. of Duluth, the same contractor that built the first restaurant.

The construction, expected to take three months, instead stretched on for six.

Insurance covered the $700,000 fire damage and a small portion of the wages paid, Sullivan said. He’s covering the bulk of the wages and the $300,000 cost for the addition and added amenities, he said.

While Sullivan paid most of his employees throughout the closure, a few stopped getting checks in May, some of whom went on unemployment.

“We did our best to work with our core group,” he said. “The bottom line is they’ve been very, very good to me and we wanted to help them the best we can. It’s a way of giving back.”

Besides, he said, it’s not always about the money.

“It’s about treating people with respect and dignity,” he said. “It’s about being a part of something.”

About 23 of the 30 employees are back on the job.

Among them is Tammy Graves, a 30-year-old mother of two who has worked for Wendy’s for 14 years, seven years at the Miller Hill Wendy’s. Continuing to be paid was a lifesaver for her, she says.

“You can’t live off unemployment,” said Graves, who earns $10.40 an hour as a crew member. “There’s no way. So that was very generous.”

But, she says, she would have returned to her full-time job at Wendy’s even if she hadn’t been paid during the closure. Schedules are flexible, she gets raises every six months, and she likes her job.

“It’s a good place to work,” she said. “It’s good people and a good atmosphere.”

Moreover, she doubts she could do better elsewhere.

“What I make an hour is not going to fly anywhere else,” she said. “I wouldn’t get that anywhere else.”

Part-timer Kim Thesing, 16, of Duluth is happy to be back. She admits she was a little embarrassed to work there before the remodel; now she brags about it to friends.

“Now I really feel proud to work at this Wendy’s, because it is much bigger and it looks amazing,” she said. “Before, it was crowded in the prep area. Now it’s huge. You can actually walk through and not bump into people. And customers keep telling us how amazing it is and how they missed us.”

Customers approve Whitledge and Tracey Thiel of Iron were excited to see the restaurant back open last week. Whenever Thiel visited Whitledge in Duluth, they would stop at Wendy’s.

“It’s our favorite restaurant,” Whitledge said. “We were very sad that it closed.”

Both like the new look, which, they say is a surprise departure from the traditional Wendy’s.

“It’s so big and open,” Whitledge said. “The other was a little crowded.”

They liked the food before. But they swear the fare is even better now.

“It’s almost not like fast food, it’s actually really good,” Whitledge said between bites of a Baconator, her favorite menu item. “It’s better than before.”

The state-of-the-art kitchen, with a full sandwich station, new fryers and other equipment, might have something to do with it. Some of the original kitchen equipment was still being used at the time of the fire.

“It’s better food-safety wise,” Sullivan said. “It’s more efficient. The way the hamburgers are made is different. People may taste the difference.”

Since the fire, Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill have opened nearby.

But the increased competition had nothing to do with the decision to rebuild and redesign the restaurant, Sullivan said.

“In the restaurant business, you need to remodel every eight to 10 years,” he said. “People want their favorite restaurant to look nice.”

Besides, they’ve always had competition, said Grandi, who has worked there 30 years.

“There’s always something new opening,” she said. “If we do our job well, they’re going to come back.”