Al Johnson’s is an authentic Swedish family owned restaurant where you can find goats grazing the sod roof. It’s quite a sight, and it’s made this place one of the most famous restaurants in Door County. Inside the casual, carpeted dining room, young ladies in Scandinavian garb dish out limpa bread and Swedish meatballs. The menu consists of a variety of Swedish fare, from pancakes with lingonberries to Swedish meatballs, whitefish, sandwiches, salads, and a variety of hot and cold plates.
As you top the hill and head down the main street in Sister Bay, one can not help but get excited. For right in the middle of town, you will spot the goats on the roof at Al Johnson’s! This grassy roof and those goats have drawn tourists and locals alike. An icon for visitors for over 58 years, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant has a rich history in this town and county!
Back in the early days, Al was “chief cook and bottle washer.” He did it all. Friends remember a time when he’d serve the breakfast, clean-up the kitchen, and then hang a “Gone Fishin’” sign on the door and head out for an afternoon break, before reopening for the dinner hour! To many of his local, lifelong buddies, “those were the good old days!” Coffee flowed, the talk was rich, and tall tales abounded. Life in the county was more laid back…it was a different time!
Then, in 1960 Al met who was to be his future wife, Ingert. She was the one who helped change and shape the interior décor of the restaurant. With a flair for style, plus deep roots in Scandinavian heritage and design, she felt it necessary to keep the look of the place very traditional. Ingert’s vision included adding a gift shop where people could browse while waiting to be seated. Today, that vision has grown into two very large and welcoming Butiks that have a draw all their own.
Hard work is the key to any business and that rings true for the Johnson Family. It has been and continues to be family run. In earlier years, you could hear Al’s booming voice in the dining room, saying “I’ve got a two-top here!” or “There’s a 4-top clear over there!” which meant the hostess was to fill that table quickly from the list of waiting customers! Al cleared tables, bussed trays, and washed dishes. Al set a fast pace for the dining room. A two hour wait was common and turn over was key. Al wanted to get the next people in as quickly as possible, so those dishes would be flying off the tables!
The food is served on dishes from Porsgrund, Norway, the decorative rosemaled painting around the interior was done by renowned Norwegian artist Sigmund Arseth. Many of the foods served are Swedish and Norwegian. Anything from the Swedish pancakes and meatballs served with Swedish lingonberries (a small, red berry much like a cranberry or currant in taste) to the varied Swedish crackers and Limpa bread on the bread tray, to the many specialty cheeses from Sweden, there is much to delight the palate! (For those wanting a more American fare, the menu includes the famed Al’s burger, local perch and whitefish plates, traditional ham, turkey, or clubhouse sandwiches, as well as a full array of salads and daily soups.) Breakfast is served all day and is a meal in itself! There is literally something tasty for everyone!
The restaurant was renovated in 1973. The log buildings were assembled in Norway, taken apart and shipped to Sister Bay, where they were put together around the existing building. A special underlayer was put on the roof and it was seeded with grass. The restaurant never closed during that time and it was the beginning of the grass on the roof, which was a Scandinavian style that began when the farmers would build their homes into the side of the hill so the goats and animals could graze on the roof!
It was later that year, in 1973 when the first goat, Oscar, was placed on the roof! Oscar was given to Al by his good friend, Winkie Larson. Winkie was always playing jokes on Al and one day, Al caught him climbing the ladder, with Oscar under his arm, heading to the roof! Oscar had other ideas, and fought and kicked until both he and Winkie ended up on the ground! Oscar was unharmed, but Winkie broke his collar bone! But, Winkie was not one to give up easily, so a bit later, he tried his feat again and this time, he succeeded. So, the tradition began…and soon there were more goats were seen on the roof.
Today, there are usually 5-7 goats on the roof daily during the May-October season. They range in age from young kids to older goats. They graze during the day and “pose” for pictures by the many tourists who frequent Al Johnson’s. They seem rather unaffected by all the attention and play, eat and sleep on the roof, just like they would back at the farm, where they go every evening. They don’t go up on the roof in bad weather, or cold temperatures, and they work about 9-5 on an average day. With the charm of the goats on the roof and the good food served within, Al Johnson’s restaurant serves around 2,400 people a day in the height of the season. Those goats have definitely earned their pampered status!
Many kids from around the area worked in high school and put themselves through college on the tips made here in the summer months. Al also brought over waitresses from Sweden for those early years and more recently from other European countries. Many have stayed and eventually married and have added to the richness that is Al Johnson’s. Our year-around employees, many who have been with Al Johnson’s over 10 years, some as much as 35 years, add to the richness and success of the restaurant and Butiks. Over the years, the employees have added much to the daily running of the restaurant. The Johnson family know and appreciate all the hard work that has gone into this place over the years.
From the early days of the restaurant until today, a main key to the success has been the daily involvement of both Al and Ingert in the business. Today, four of their five children are also a vital part of the restaurant ensuring the Al Johnson tradition will live on. From the goats on the roof and the beautiful flower gardens outside to the many special touches and good food inside, it is a place that has brought people back year after year. Many families have made a stop at “Al’s” a part of their family tradition and have gotten well acquainted with the staff and Johnson family over the years. This makes it a richer place! But whether you are a first time visitor or a seasoned “pancake” eater, you will leave having felt you were at a very special place indeed!