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After devastating fire, Russ Kendall's Smokehouse is open again

Gordy Olson, owner of Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse, smiles as he bags smoked fish for customer Ted Ford of Duluth on Friday. The business was badly damaged in a May 11 fire. Olson, with the help of friends, got the shop back up and running this week. The attached bar is still closed. (Bob King / / 4
Russ Kendall's Smokehouse owner Gordy Olson keeps busy Friday with requests for smoked fish from customers (from right) Ben Teasdale, Bob Krumme, Pat Sterner and Bill Ayers. (Bob King / / 4
Word’s getting around that that the store at Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse in Knife River is open again. Owner Gordy Olson attends to a steady stream of customers Friday afternoon. The store is open Saturdays and Sundays until 6 p.m. (Bob King / / 4
Kristi Kendall Olson weighs a couple pounds of sugar-cured smoked lake trout for a customer at Russ Kendall's Smokehouse on Friday. (Bob King / / 4

Gordy Olson was animated and smiling again. That wasn’t something he was able to project in the days and weeks after the May 11 fire that tore through the rear of the family-owned Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse.

“I’m so happy to get the feeling of normalcy here,” said Olson, who re-opened the iconic North Shore fish market Thursday.

Behind Olson, a female customer exclaimed how good the smell was. Behind the glass counter that looks like the windshield of a classic car made for the Scenic Highway 61 drive it takes to get to Kendall’s, there was fresh fish from the Knife River, Lake Superior’s Wisconsin waters and other local and regional freshwaters.

Buoyed by community volunteers and support that helped in both clean-up and fundraising efforts, Olson, his wife, Kristi Kendall Olson, and the rest of the family set a goal of reopening for Grandma’s Marathon.

“We achieved it!” a fist-pumping Olson said. “We couldn’t abuse the support. Getting on our own feet was extremely important.

“Grandma’s Marathon was absolutely a goal for us. It’s kind of the start of the real tourist season.”

A few advantages revealed themselves along the way that helped Kendall’s stay on its feet. First, the smoking oven that saw its housing shed burn down around it was battered but intact as a working oven, albeit in need of some refurbishment.

For now, it’s exposed to the world — like a smoldered bank vault fallen from the sky.  

“After all, it’s fire brick,” Olson said during an impromptu tour of the place. He walked by the north wall and pointed, “This is where the flames were shooting out of the building.”

Also, the market’s storefront was untouched and looks impeccable.  

“This was the heart and soul — the backbone,” Olson said from behind the facility, where the havoc is still recognizable. “But people see what is still there, so we had something to start to work with.”

Finally, while the family works to rebuild the market incrementally, Olson and company are smoking fish in their Knife River neighborhood at a licensed facility owned by loyal friends. The newly installed freezer is a total loss, but the old one it replaced is a worthy backup, one that Olson never thought he’d have to employ again so soon.

The supply and refrigeration room is freshly sheet-rocked, rotating new stock to the market in front of it.

A steady stream of visitors has already returned, assuaging a fear Olson had of losing his customer base.

A new cement floor that was caught in the heart of the blaze now looks like its 50 years old. Olson and his son had just finished applying an epoxy finish to another floor; that went up in flames the next day with nary an Olson or a Kendall ever having walked on it.

After all parts of the building are back online, including the classic beer bar, Olson hopes to have a grand opening.  Olson hopes to have rehoused the oven by fall.

 “The community support was absolutely unbelievable,” Olson said. “Reopening was a monumental task.”