Longtime North Shore restaurant keeps doors closedSatellite’s Country Inn was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outpost along Minnesota’s North Shore, a restaurant popular with locals, truck drivers and tourists who happened to stumble upon its fish cakes, pies and homespun charm.
By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
For more than three decades, Satellite’s Country Inn was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outpost along Highway 61 on Minnesota’s North Shore, a restaurant popular with locals, truck drivers and tourists who happened to stumble upon its fish cakes, pies and homespun charm.
First-time visitors often felt like they had “discovered” Satellite’s, tucked in a fairly nondescript building on the inland side of the highway between Little Marais and Taconite Harbor.
But not enough people were discovering Satellite’s in recent years to keep the operation going. After the restaurant closed for the season last fall, owner Marion McKeever decided that she wouldn’t reopen it this year. Fans who returned to Satellite’s this summer were greeted with a “closed” sign on the door.
McKeever said Saturday that her business dropped off a few years ago when the Minnesota Department of Transportation ordered her to move the restaurant’s sign farther from the highway. In its new location, drivers “can’t read it fast enough, and they don’t know we’re here,” she said. “I tried it for two years and couldn’t make it.”
There’s been a café and cabin rental at the Satellite’s location since at least the 1950s. The
McKeever family well-drilling business is just down the highway, and when the restaurant and cabins came up for sale, McKeever bought the property and opened her business in 1980.
“We sold CB radios, and we sold a lot to the truckers,” recalled McKeever, who grew up along the North Shore in Hovland. “They said, ‘We wish there was a café along the shore with enough parking space, that was good.’ ”
So Satellite’s was born to fill the demand. Why that name?
“The CB business was Satellite’s CB,” McKeever said. The café’s previous owner “said, ‘you’re so well known as Satellite’s, you should have that in your name.’ ” And so it was.
For the first five years, the 40-seat restaurant was open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., year-round; truck traffic in the winter provided just enough business to get by during those lean months, McKeever said. When that dropped off, the café became a seasonal operation, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day.
In its peak years, Satellite’s had as many as 14 employees. “I went down to four employees the last year and still couldn’t make it,” she said. Fewer employees also meant a lot of hours for McKeever, 70.
“Those were long days,” she said.
That happened amid the battle over the restaurant’s sign out along the highway. Business signs along Highway 61 drew scrutiny after the road was designated a scenic byway, and MnDOT said the one for Satellite’s encroached on the right-of-way.
McKeever fought the order to move the sign for a while, but ultimately relocated it farther from the highway. What followed, she said, was a steady drop in business that led to the decision to close the restaurant.
Famous fish cakes
McKeever’s fish cakes, based on a recipe from her mother-in-law, were perhaps the restaurant’s biggest draw, though her pies had plenty of fans, too. Twin Cities-based chef, food writer and television host Andrew Zimmern stopped by once and raved about the sour cream raisin pie, she said.
Bill Hansen, owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, started coming to the North Shore in the 1950s and had stopped in at Satellite’s periodically since it opened.
“When you talk about a home-style restaurant, that’s the epitome of home-style,” Hansen said. “You felt like you were at her home, and not her restaurant. … Tons of character, and very nice people.”
More than just running the restaurant, he noted, McKeever also has given back to the community over the years by making fish cakes and other dishes for fundraising events, including for the Tofte-based Birch Grove Foundation. While the restaurant may be closed, McKeever said she’s open to the idea of continuing to help out with fundraisers.
McKeever said she’ll keep renting cabins, and she now has more time to spend with family — husband Roger “Bill” McKeever, her sons and grandchildren. But while she didn’t miss the café’s long hours and hard work this summer, the closure remains bittersweet.
“I miss seeing the people who came in here year after year,” she said. “I thank them for supporting us all these years. I will miss them.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many who visited Satellite’s over the years.
“It’s sad that the small, family businesses are going away,” Hansen said. “There are so few corner stores, and ma-and-pa cafes where the owner is in there and gives a personal touch. The McKeevers were always in there.”