Every Friday afternoon that spring, during the last hour of the school day, teachers walked their elementary students from their school at the top of Sister Bay’s hill, down to the center of the village to watch an historic undertaking: the transformation of Al Johnson’s restaurant, which resembled a 1950s diner, into an authentic Scandinavian style building.
The entire county was buzzing about the project—a Scandinavian log building, built in Norway, disassembled and shipped to the United States and then reassembled by the Norwegian builders in Sister Bay.
“Everyone wanted to see the remodel of the restaurant,” remembers Rolf Johnson, son of restaurant founder Al Johnson and also one of the elementary students who enjoyed the Friday afternoon field trips, “and parents knew that on Fridays, they had to pick up their kids in front of the restaurant instead of at school.”
Although the original restaurant didn’t have a Swedish design, the menu did have a decidedly Swedish influence. When Al, a Chicago native who spent his elementary school years in Sweden, started the restaurant in 1949, it was with the help of his Swedish parents—his father bought the building and his mother ran the kitchen and incorporated many of her recipes into the menu—including Swedish pancakes, Swedish meatballs and homemade pickled herring.
However, it wasn’t until the Swedish-born Ingert Forsberg, whom Al married in 1960, arrived on the scene that the restaurant decor began taking on a distinctively Swedish style. Ingert, who grew up five hours south of Stockholm, relocated to Chicago when she was a young adult and eventually found her way to Door County to work at Gordon Lodge in the summer of 1959. When she initially met Al, she wasn’t exactly impressed with his bachelor-playboy lifestyle. But he soon won her over, and by the time she moved back to Chicago that fall, she and Al were dating. By Thanksgiving, they were engaged and a few months later, married.
Ingert insisted on incorporating more Scandinavian style and traditions at the restaurant. She imported Swedish dishes and flatware, hired Scandinavian girls to work each summer and fall and also established a Swedish butik. Once they decided to tackle the restaurant remodel, Ingert and Al knew that they wanted the building to have a traditional Scandinavian design.
“I had seen many buildings in the United States that were purported to be Scandinavian,” says Ingert, “but they were not authentic.” The couple engaged the services of several architects, but none of the plans seemed quite right.
At a time when most of the world was interested in sleek modern designs, it was difficult to find someone who wanted to design traditional Scandinavian architecture. “I told Al, if we can’t do it the right way, we won’t do it at all,” recalls Ingert.
It was a chance encounter while Ingert was working in the flower beds in front of the restaurant that sparked a new idea. Dean Madden, who owned several Scandinavian log buildings in Ephraim, suggested the Johnsons go right to the source and engage the services of a real Scandinavian builder.
So Al and Ingert journeyed overseas to Scandinavia during the restaurant’s off-season to visit family and find a carpenter willing to take on the job. They eventually found Knut Stenerud, who lived in the mountains of Norway.
During the winter months, Knut was a ski instructor for the blind, but in summer he built cabins and maintained historic log buildings. According to Ingert, Knut was hesitant about building such a large building, since small summer cottages were his specialty, but Al convinced him to tackle the restaurant building.
Knut and his crew laboriously built the log restaurant in Norway, then disassembled it, log by log, and shipped the parts to the United States.
In May 1973, Al picked up Knut and his fellow Norwegian builders at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for the final phase of the remodel. According to Rolf, Knut almost didn’t make it out of the airport when U.S. Customs asked him to open his suitcase. Inside, the agents discovered Knut’s favorite ax on top of his clothes. Fortunately, Al quickly interceded, explaining that Knut was a Norwegian builder whom he had hired, and the man had brought his own tools with him.
Before they could get started, the plan hit a major snag. With the Norwegian builders in Sister Bay, Al and Ingert were anxious to have them finish the building before the summer tourist season was in full swing. The clock was ticking.
That’s when Al received a phone call with news that almost scuttled the plans. There was a longshoreman’s strike in Baltimore and the containers with the logs were stranded on the East Coast, indefinitely.
According to Al and Ingert’s daughter Annika, that is when the story gets interesting. Al emerged from his office at the restaurant, mumbling and cursing under his breath. An elderly man in a black hat, who was a frequent weekend customer and usually kept to himself at the counter, looked up from his newspaper and asked why Al was in such a bad mood that day.
“Dad told him about the log building, the containers with the logs being stuck in Baltimore and how he had flown in the Norwegian builders and how they hoped to get the project finished before July,” recalls Annika. After hearing Al’s saga, the man in the black hat excused himself to make phone call.
Four days later, the logs arrived in Al’s parking lot with all the paperwork in order. “Dad tried to thank the man in the black hat the next time he saw him, but the man insisted that didn’t know what Dad was talking about.”
Whatever role the man in the black hat did or did not play in the delivery of the logs, much to the relief of the Johnsons, the restaurant remodel began on time. Knut and his Norwegian crew worked seven days a week, and the busy restaurant never closed.
“To tell you the truth,” says Ingert, “we couldn’t afford to close the restaurant. As soon as one log wall was up, the builders would tear the old wall down. The customers found it very interesting.”
In keeping with the authentic style of the building, the Johnsons added grass to the roof. Then, thanks to a birthday prank from one of Al’s good friends, Harold “Winky” Larson who put a goat on the roof for laughs, the tradition—and famous tourist attraction—of goats on the roof was born.
Although Al passed away in 2010, Ingert and three of their children, Lars, Annika and Rolf, are still very hands-on in running the family business, now an iconic Door County destination known worldwide as “the place with the goats on the roof.”