'Best job in Duluth': Delivering Northern Water Smokehaus products by bicycle
Jeremy Ehlert hears it all the time after he knocks on a door. All he can do is smile and agree.
“It’s a dream job,” Ehlert said. “I can’t stress how much I love riding bike.”
Ehlert delivers food on two wheels from Northern Waters Smokehaus in the heart of Canal Park to customers downtown, on Park Point and even the industrial areas around the harbor. It’s a new, free service that began in May.
Delivering fish and meat sandwiches by bicycle was a concept that started as a joke among employees seven years ago, Ehlert said. The Smokehaus had limited catering delivery and each trip by car was hazardous in navigating the pedestrians and traffic that surround its home in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace building.
“It’s way faster,” Ehlert said on a recent typical day outside the eatery among throngs of Canal Park visitors. Using just his legs, he often gets out of the area sooner than package delivery drivers.
“It’s two birds with one stone,” he said. “Exercise and delivery.”
There are so many requests for sandwiches that Ehlert has taken on two more cyclists for deliveries near the end of the work week. After a meager start that mirrored a summer that was slow to heat up, Smokehaus now does enough deliveries to equate to an eighth day of sales, Ehlert said. That’s a lot considering that the business has gotten “busier and busier” as it has been featured as a must-stop in Duluth in regional and national publications and television shows.
The slow buildup to now brisk requests was good in working out the delivery kinks, Ehlert said.
He had gone on a yearlong hiatus from the Smokehaus and Duluth last year, spending some time out West. When he returned around Christmas last year, the delivery concept came up again. Only this time, it was serious. There would be a new department, with deliveries getting its own prep area in the basement operations center below the retail space on the first floor of DeWitt-Seitz.
“I had to jump on it,” said Ehlert, who manages the courier service.
Ehlert has been commuting by bicycle for eight years and has overcome what keeps many from biking regularly in Duluth — the hills.
“They don’t scare me at all,” he said. “Each year, it gets easier and easier.”
But there are limits.
Smokehaus will only deliver up to Fourth Street downtown between Mesaba Avenue and 14th Avenue East. People on the Central Hillside are still amazed, he said. “People are shocked that we show up on bike.”
“I don’t get nauseous anymore,” Ehlert said of the climbs.
He’s learned to “own the lane” when it comes to sharing the street with vehicles. He said drivers are getting “better and better” at recognizing the rights of bike riders to be on city streets.
“It’s all been kosher with the cars,” he said. In his years of experience on the road, he learned to “steer clear of downtown” because of the congestion. Now, he rides right through it every day.
On a good day, he’ll make 20 deliveries, which means he’s “outside all day,” he said with a broad smile.
Sonja Bjordal is using her bike time as a tune-up for a three-week charity ride around Lake Superior later this summer. Continental Ski & Bike has provided a bike with the Smokehaus label and offered customizing fitting services for each rider and their personal bikes, which can provide a safer ride by virtue of familiarity.
“The first few weeks really kicked my butt,” Bjordal said of her early deliveries. She had been used to a touring pace.
Aerostich, the Duluth company that makes riding gear for motorcyclists, offered some custom courier bags that sport the Smokehaus two-fish logo based on the yin and yang symbol.
Deliveries will go on as long as it’s safe to be on the streets, Ehlert said. Slick wintry conditions make things dangerous because cars slip around. Smokehaus has contemplated weekend deliveries but hasn’t gone that far into the business plan, Ehlert said. They would need more couriers.
“We’ve been so busy,” he said.
Many of the customers are regulars at large businesses downtown — the hospitals, engineering firms and Maurice’s.
Those can be big orders. There’s a trailer for the bike to handle that.
But what about that lowly sandwich order up Lake Avenue? Is one sandwich worth the ride?
Ehlert smiles again, repeating that as long as he’s outside and on his bike — even if the weather is lousy — it’s all good.
“One sandwich or a million,” he said. It’s those words he hears all the time that fuel him:
“You’ve got the best job in Duluth.”