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'Up north' charm keeps Black Bear Lodge and Saloon thriving

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Log cabins are not necessarily an uncommon sight in the Brainerd lakes area. It comes with the territory of being a getaway destination for vacationers. Populating with tourists in the summer months for its lakes and winter for even more outdoor activity, both residents and out-of-towners enjoy the area for its log cabins and that ‘up north feel’ they tend to bring.

And it’s exactly that sentiment that is part of the Black Bear Lodge and Saloon’s charm and allure that has allowed the privately owned business to survive and thrive the past 20 years.

“It’s somewhat iconic,” Jeni Schwegman said of the restaurant that she and her husband Dave, have owned and operated for the past five years. “A lot of people drive by and recognize ‘that big log place’ and it gives off that true ‘up north lodge feel’ that tourists in the area love.”

Owned and built in 1993 by Rob VanValkenburg, the interior and exterior paint a picture of an authentic north woods atmosphere along with a menu to match complete with the restaurant’s infamous chicken wild rice soup. But as Baxter continues to expand with new businesses and chain restaurants popping up around the Black Bear Lodge and Saloon, the Schwegman’s have acknowledged the challenges brought on the local establishment.

“Sure it’s a challenge,” said Dave of the ever-growing competition in the area. “But you have to embrace it and go with it. It’s not a business that you can sit back and let it run itself. You have to be active and hands on. We didn’t know what was going to happen when we took over this place but we made it through and there is still more to do.

“But the main thing we can do is control our food costs and our labor costs.”

Both Dave and Jeni attribute a large part of their business’ stability and success to their staff, some with as much as 14 years of working with Black Bear Lodge and Saloon. And because of that, Jeni added that turnover in positions is fairly rare. When hires do come about, she said applications are few, and quality applicants even fewer at times.

“We put an ad in the paper for kitchen staff,” said Jeni, who worked as a manager, waitress and bartender at Black Bear Lodge and Saloon prior to owning it. “We hired two guys and they lasted a week...and these were the best guys of our applicants.

“This job is not hard. Do you need a high school diploma to do this job? Probably not, but you need to want to work and want to learn and we don’t get a lot of those people it seems, so it’s tough.”

She said this year has been one of the bigger years they were looking to hire. But Dave added that he is baffled at the amount of people simply not interested in working for a decent wage. He said servers at Black Bear Lodge make minimum wage plus tips and kitchen staff wages varying depending on experience, with $8.50 starting and up to $13 for experience.

“Rob (VanValkenburg) use to say, if you’re not getting your rear-end kicked once in awhile you’re over-staffing,” said Dave, who added they run around 30 staff members, both full-time and part-time, in the summer and roughly 25 the rest of the year. “But our staff does an excellent job. We have plenty of days they are running around but that’s when they make the money, so I think they appreciate that. On top of that, they work hard to develop their cliental and that’s why they make the money they do and it’s impressive.”

Included in that staff appeal, Jeni said Dave does an equally impressive job by making himself available to the public and becoming acquainted with the restaurant’s guests. A big reason she says customers keep coming back.

“I think what makes us stand apart (from other restaurants in the area) is local ownership,” she said. “He’s (Dave) here, he’s the face out front and people see and recognize that and appreciate that. In today’s cookie cutter restaurants you don’t always have that and that’s what I think makes a big difference for us. We do that on top of putting out good food — doing our own sauces, dressings and desserts — but what makes it special is that he has become a face for the public and for this place.”

Dave said interacting with the public is one of his favorite parts of owning Black Bear Lodge and Saloon. It also plays a role in his resistance to social media to further drive customers through the log-framed doors.

“We probably aren’t using social media as much as we should,” said Dave. “And really, I’ve kind of tried to avoid it a little bit. Our culture is so focused on it, that you’re missing the people experience and the people aspect of a business in my opinion. But we’re coming around to it, because we do see that it plays a great role, I think QR codes are great and we’re on Facebook so it’s coming around.”

And while like every business in a difficult economy sees its ups and downs, the Schwegman’s anticipate plenty of future years providing an ‘up north’ charm in the Black Bear Lodge and Saloon.

“It’s a good quality of life,” Dave said. “You’re not rolling in cash but it’s good. It’s a flexible situation and because it’s our business, she (Jeni) can stay at home and take care of our kid (their son, Ty, who is 4-years-old) which is pretty valuable. You can’t put a price on that but it is a monetary value.

“And really we’ve got a great place here. It’s our retirement plan so I am sure we will be here as long as this log cabin holds out and the doors are able to stay unlocked.”

JESSI PIERCE, staff writer, may be reached at 855-5859 or Follow her on Twitter at (@jessi_pierce).