Al Johnson wasn’t born in Door County, but his heart took such firm root here at such a young age, and he made such an impact during his life here, that most people forget he wasn’t a native.
Al’s parents came from Sweden and settled in Chicago, where Al grew up. He graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep where his father was a janitor, a position that provided his children with free tuition. During the summer, Al’s parents wanted him to get out of the big city so for three years, around the time he was 6 or 7, Al and his sister went to summer school in Sweden. The youngsters were placed on a train in Chicago, with a note to the train personnel to see that they made it to the boat in New York that would take them overseas and to waiting relatives. That might explain in part why Al never minded trying something new, or venturing into the unknown.
When he was older, Al began spending summers in Door County, living in a small log cabin with a dirt floor in the Appleport area east of Sister Bay. There, side by side with the Swedish “migrant workers,” Al worked in what were once vast strawberry fields. It’s there that he learned some of the Swedish folk songs that he continued to sing as an adult, sometimes for his customers in the restaurant–and sometimes accompanying himself on the accordion.
As he grew older, Al began laying the groundwork for his restaurant career — even though in college he majored in criminal science and hoped for a job with the FBI. Al worked at Johnny’s Cottage Restaurant–today’s Sister Bay Cafe–and in college at Marquette, University in Milwaukee, he worked at Woolworth’s, one of the last of the “five and dime” stores. Cooks didn’t get written orders there; wait staff simply shouted out the orders. It’s a system Al Johnson’s continues to use.
During World War II, Al was a paratrooper, and was among those who were first on the scene at the infamous concentration camps. It’s a part of his life he didn’t talk about much. When he got back home he attended school on the GI Bill.
In 1949, Al bought the current restaurant building which, several remodelings ago, was Hanson’s IGA grocery store. He and a partner, who was eventually bought out, decided to turn it into a restaurant. Before he was married, Al lived in an apartment above the restaurant.
Al’s wife Ingert came to the United States as a young teenager to work at Gordon Lodge inn Baileys Harbor. Al and Ingert were introduced one evening at “the Bowl,” one of Sister Bay’s social hubs, and since Al could speak Swedish and had been to Sweden, they got along great. In 1959 they were married and Ingert became a lifelong partner whose business and customer savvy matched Al’s. Together, they remodeled the restaurant more than once into the landmark it is today.
It wasn’t unusual for customers to see Al doing dishes, cooking meals or even sweeping floors, as well as swapping stories with old and new friends and filling the restaurant with laughter. When he died in June 2010, Sister Bay lost one of its “characters,” in the best sense of the word. His children, however, carry on Al’s legacy.
An excerpt from Norbert Blei’s ‘Door Way,’ published 1981 by The Ellis Press
(‘Door Way’ is available in Al’s Butik next door)
By Norbert Blei
Coming into downtown Sister Bay on 42 from the top of the hill is not a particularly beautiful or memorable sight, especially after the quaintness of the white village of Ephraim, tucked along the bay, with its church steeples probing the heavens, its history of Anderson’s dock, Wilson’s, the Moravian settlement.
Sister Bay means business. If the traveler glides, holds his breath through the silence and serenity of Ephraim at sunset, he is abruptly hurled back to reality in a downhill run onto the Main street of Sister Bay, one foot riding the brake pedal, eyes fixed for trouble at the sudden intersection awaiting the wanderer at the bottom of the hill.
Neither architecture nor natural wonder hold the traveler’s immediate attention. But if you’re looking for sidewalks, a drug store, a department store, a barbershop, a hardware, a bowling alley/restaurant, an honest-to-goodness local tavern, gift shops, pizza, a delicatessen, gas stations, a supermarket, a bakery, a furniture store, a funeral store, plus a number of motels, a hotel, and some good dining places…this is it. Sister Bay means business.
So does Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik, the true center and soul of Sister Bay…and perhaps, in the long run, its conscience as well. Here the eye does rest and delight on a building of authentic Scandinavian design, goats on the grass roof and all. For Al, and his wife Ingert, rare business people indeed, seem a bit beyond the average business operation and definitely set a tone for the way things might be.
No, Sister Bay will never be Ephraim. But what Al and Ingert are suggesting with their restaurant and butik is that it can be unique, both a successful and beautiful village in its own right without the clamor and cheapness of a tourist area like the Dells.
Sitting in the living room of his tastefully furnished, rustic Scandinavian log home…beautiful paintings, massive stone fireplace, honest wooden furniture, an arresting view of the bay just outside the glass doors…Al Johnson has come a long way from the old Chicago neighborhood – one of the toughest: 12th and Blue Island.
Swedish pancakes made the man. Pancakes and a love for people, business, Door County. And perhaps even more than all this…”Behind every good man there’s a” – someone like his Swedish wife, Ingert, with an instinct for fine taste and old world harmonies of nature, design, and people.
A rather subdued Al Johnson sits before me this morning. If you’ve seen him in action in the more natural habitat of his own restaurant, you would think the man possessed of a singular mood: high geared, volatile energy, especially in the summer season, where he is often observed bent over one table, wiping it with a cloth in one hand, setting up an adjacent table with a fistful of knives, forks, glasses, napkins, somehow clearing a third, and pouring coffee at a table behind…while a new waitress stands helplessly by, witnessing the act in terror and confusion…as Al, totally in charge, keeps a clear head for quick conversation with customers, or directs orders (in English, Swedish, or Al Johnsonese) to whatever pour-soul of an employee happens to be within his firing range:
“A 4-top here…set up that 2-top by the window…they need a high-chair…Hello, how are you?…coffee for that table behind you…How many are you?…put two tables together over there…where’s Ingert?…”
But those of us who haunt his place after the season, long into the fall and winter, know a different Al entirely, a somewhat more relaxed Al. When he isn’t hanging on the long cord of the kitchen phone, pulling it with him far into the dining room, when he isn’t shouting, laughing/cackling into it, calling everyone from Baldy at the sheriff’s office in Sturgeon Bay, to Eddie Valentine, whiling the winter away in Florida, he sometimes finds time to sit at the table of regulars each morning (or afternoon, or evening) and air his views.
His obsessive energy for running a fine restaurant is channeled now into free swinging conversation (debates, arguments, fights) on politics (local, state, national), the Bears, the Packers, jogging, running, cross-country skiing (he does them all), education, world affairs, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Door County Advocate, and the Chicago Tribune – a constant source of irritation among the ex-Chicagoans hibernating at Al’s, expecting the paper (their life-line) to arrive everyday on schedule, as it usually does during the tourist season, only to discover that once again, come fall and winter, delivery is chaotic at best. The Monday edition may arrive on Wednesday…or it may never arrive at all.
“Hey, Norb,” yells Al one morning last fall. “Trib’s in?” (Just how I became responsible for the lackadaisical distribution of the Trib in these parts, I’ll never know.)
“No. The papers didn’t come in.”
“Again! What the hell’s wrong with those people?” exclaims Al. “This is getting out of hand. Gimme a name. Gimme somebody down there and I’m gonna call and get some action, find out why the hell we can’t get those papers up here everyday. Who do I call?”
“Ahhh…I don’t know. Call Jones,” I tell him. I don’t know Jones from the late Colonel McCormick, but I think he might be managing editor or something. Besides, I don’t think Al’s going to do anything about it anyway. But I should know Al by now.
He bursts into the kitchen, picks up the phone, and calls the Chicago Tribune. (I fully expect him to pick up the phone and call the White House someday.) A few minutes later he returns to the table and announces to one and all: “The Trib’ll be here tomorrow! You better believe it! (Bang! goes the fist on the table) And the Trib’ll be here everyday from now on! (Bang) I just talked to that guy Jones…Hey you know what he said to me? ‘Are you the guy up there with the goats on the roof?” (Bang. Laughter. Bang.)
Notorious, that’s Al. Spontaneous. A man of many interests, many dispositions. Mercurial…indifferent. Hot and cold. One morning he may take a cup of coffee , sit down next to you, and seriously discuss the state of education in the county (in the country), and the next three mornings (or the next three weeks) barely recognize your existence. But he knows you’re there. And I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like him. And for all the hell his help must take at times, in the height of the season, hardly a one of them would care to work for anyone else. “He’s generous.” “He’s fair.” His two unanimous characteristics.