20 Years of the New Scenic Cafe

Going From Up-and-Comer To Institution

by Robert Lilligard

My friend Josh ate at the New Scenic Cafe lately. His idea was that they could maybe do two menus. One menu would be for people who ate stuff like they serve all the time. And the other menu would have the same dishes, but with explanations to make it clear what all the ingredients were.
Even as a food writer, I still occasionally whip out my phone at the NSC. Tatsoi? Mizuna? It turns out those are lettuces. After 20 years in business, the New Scenic has been the introduction to—or the standard-bearer for—high end food for a lot of Duluthians. It’s where I made my first forays into elaborately stacked garnishes and menus with no dollar signs. It prepped me for a lot of what was to come.

So it was a joy to revisit it lately with my daughters. I enjoyed a crispy asparagus galette with ham, cheese, and egg, as well as a feisty farro salad with anchovies and raw onions. My 2 and 4 year old enjoyed the sheep skins on the bench, rotating lazy Susan table in the yurt, and field out back where we could play tag. I gave Scott a call a couple weeks later to ask him how things are going. Here’s what he said, along with my always-insightful side comments (R: I love making side comments).

Twenty years! Are you tired of people asking about how it feels?

I try to spend most of my time looking forward, so I’m more enthralled in what’s next. If you’re older than 20 you’ve done SOMETHING for 20 years, and I’ve done this. I’m proud of it...but I’m a little more excited about the next 20 years.
A lot of the cool restaurants that have popped up in the Duluth area closed down pretty fast. Assuming the food and service are good, what do new restaurant owners tend to struggle with?
Let’s say you’re [just] a fantastic chef: you’re likely to go out of business. In the restaurant industry, if you’re specialized in one area it’s a recipe for failure. I think the idea is to be a generalist. You have to understand everything from service to food to human resources to community.

What are your three favorite restaurants?

I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel: Noma, Fävika, Trotter’s in Chicago years ago. I like places that meet or exceed whatever they promise. The Earthwood, the Breeze Inn, the Anchor in Superior, you hear people say “for three bucks or five bucks it’s the best burger you can get”. They meet and exceed that promise. Victor’s, the 1959 cafe in the Cities, it’s unique, quality, simple. Cafe Lurcat does a good job.

In 20 years I’m sure you’ve had some dishes that did not work out. Tell me about a memorable bomb.
Three years ago I did a salad with a diorama style plating to it. After a while, we learned it was such a drag on efficiency, and such a low probability of success being able to plate it. If I have 2 cooks out of 10 who struggle, I have 8 who can help. If I have 8 who are struggling, it’s really hard to get myself and 2 other cooks to lift the other 8.

What dishes on the summer menu are you most proud of and why?

I have to say all of it. (R: If you ask a chef about his menu be ready for a long chat). We continue to do our mussels and our sashimi tuna tacos. Those tacos have really become a flagship. Our salmon burger is back on the menu, that continues to receive accolades. We’re doing three open faced sandwiches. Chicken confit on a corn waffle with an egg and some Yker Acres pork loin. Another open faced sandwich we’re doing is a Räksmörgås, and another one is the classic tartine. I think we really have always done a good job with our entrees. (R: my fingers burned out here). Probably a dessert we’re most proud of, well, I shouldn’t say just one, but Gjetost crème brulee with lingonberry is well regarded. It’s kind of out of season but not out of place. (R: my fingers burned out again here. Menu is online at https://newsceniccafe.com/menus/).

I see you have granola, cherry spread, and some spice blends for sale online. Are these still at local stores?

We pushed on that quite a bit. That was a large financial endeavor, an attempt to broaden the brand. We did that with the cookbook, with did that with catering. We never could hit economies of scale. It’s still loosely out there. The Whole Foods Coop carries our pies and granolas, the Blue Heron carries some of our preserves. (R: The NSC also has a product or two at Surdyk’s and the Golden Fig, and you can get everything online on their website).

Are you opening a bakery?

It’s possible, I’m trying. It’s been something that’s been a long run for 20 years. Rita and I had a shared vision of a small restaurant but also a shared vision of a bakery. What I want to provide to the Duluth community is not available yet in this community (R: I’d beg to differ). A little more classic French but also Danish style baked goods. The business plan is pretty intact, we have all of our products, recipes, formulas developed. One of my bakers has gone down and worked with a pretty renowned baker for a few years. I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, we have to get a bakery committed. I thought we’d be open by now.

How do you feel about sick and safe time rules?

Boy, that’s a tough one to talk about. As far as taking care of employees, I think that’s good. I don’t know if the manner in which it’s being approached is the best for the total aggregate value of all the stakeholders in the equation. One of the difficulties is that some of the best solutions for one restaurant isn’t necessarily best for another—some of what would work in a hotel would not work in a c-store. There’s possibly a better way to look at it.

How do you feel about the $15 an hour minimum wage?

I think it’s going to cost jobs. If 50% of my labor cost is minimum wage and it doubles, but my revenue stays the same, that’s enough to close my business. The only thing you can do is remove staff. In some places, there are no servers, the cooks bring it to the table. You’re basically removing the service job. (R: He’s not wrong).

Any last thoughts?

I would end the experience by saying thank you. I’m grateful to the Duluth community for its support for over 20 years. The Scenic doesn’t work without me, without the staff, without the community, without the extended community. It’s a combination with everybody. It’s 20 years of people—not easy to wrap it up in one conversation.