It’s been a very long time since country kids went to the Dora Township school in rural Vergas, Minn. The old District 166 school building has been a restaurant for more than four decades.

Since last year, the old schoolhouse has been the home of Blackboard Restaurant, a popular establishment that has leaned into using local ingredients.

Chef Sara Watson and her husband, Eric, have owned several restaurants in the Fargo-Moorhead area, including Mezzaluna and Rustica. They had sold those establishments and were working at the Delta-Marriott in Fargo.

“COVID hit, and as everybody knows, the hospitality industry kind of tanked, like a lot of things,” Watson said. “So I found myself last March, April without a job, which was O.K. at first. But I’m not one to just not do anything.”

She vented to her friend, Terri Trickle.

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“My family has a lake house on Spirit Lake, so does hers, and we joked about buying this little restaurant that we both frequented, The Pickle Factory,” Watson said.

It might have started as a joke, but it became real when they saw The Pickle Factory was for sale.

Blackboard Restaurant is located near Vergas, Minn., in scenic lakes country. (Derek Fletcher / Agweek)
Blackboard Restaurant is located near Vergas, Minn., in scenic lakes country. (Derek Fletcher / Agweek)
“Who buys a restaurant … when the industry is tanking?” Watson reflects. “We just said, what else are we going to do?”

So she and Trickle took a leap of faith. It didn’t go as they expected.

“We had a line out the door. We had picnic tables out on the lawn, and I remember at one point thinking, ‘Somebody take those tables away. We can’t keep up,’” Watson said.

And now, they’re expecting another busy season in 2021. The restaurant is open Wednesdays through Sundays. Anyone who wants to eat there should plan ahead.

“I see on Open Table we have reservations already through the Fourth of July,” she said.

Watson grew up on a farm near Glyndon, Minn., so she’s happy to return to her rural roots and loves to use local ingredients.

“We like to change things up often here, depending on what’s in season, the folks we’re working with to bring our products in,” she said. “That’s really important to me, and always has been in all of my restaurants, but out here it’s really special because they are our friends and neighbors.”

The menu at Blackboard Restaurant changes depending on what's in season. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
The menu at Blackboard Restaurant changes depending on what's in season. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
For example, they’ve been buying beef from Ditterich Family Farm, located just down the road.

“I can go to DuWayne’s market and get a tenderloin if I need one if I’m running low,” she said. “He is one of our sources for meat, and he will be all summer. We also just toured … the LMT Ranch over by Lake Park and we will be buying from them as well.”

Watson said it gives the staff a better appreciation for the food they’re preparing and serving.

“You saw the cow, you know, or the pig, whatever it is. But I think you have a different appreciation rather than just opening a piece of plastic and just throwing it on the grill,” Watson said. “That’s their livelihood, their business. Then we take it and get to turn it into something you or another guest is going to enjoy.”