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New life for Knife River landmark

Emily's Eatery on Knife River is expected to open in mid-July. (Clint Austin / / 3
Chloe Dryke (foreground) and Evan Rollo of Knife River, managers of Emily's Eatery on Knife River, work on refurbishing the bar at the restaurant Tuesday afternoon. The Knife River restaurant is expected to open in mid-July. (Clint Austin / / 3
Evan Rollo of Knife River, a manager of Emily's Eatery on Knife River, uses a drill to sand a portion of the bar that he is refurbishing at the restaurant Tuesday afternoon. The Knife River restaurant is expected to open in mid-July. (Clint Austin / / 3

Since 1926, people's stories have coursed through the historic Emily's building in Knife River.

The landmark along Scenic Highway 61 about 15 miles northeast of Duluth has been a general store, filling station, bed-and-breakfast, post office and, multiple times, a restaurant. The last people to operate it were three sisters and one of their daughters. They closed their restaurant in October 2015 after a popular four-year run.

Beginning in July, the restaurant located a few hundred yards upstream from Lake Superior is being reimagined as Emily's Eatery on Knife River.

Duluth's Carol Beach noticed signs of life over Grandma's Marathon weekend.

"I called my girlfriend and said, 'Guess what? We're going to Emily's again!' " she said.

On Tuesday, a sandwich board calling for open interviews of cooks, servers, bartenders and dishwashers was in front of the restaurant. The exterior framed by a three-sided porch was overrun with landscape greenery, including giant rhubarb plants. Wood floors and a stone fireplace were visible inside, where it was otherwise spartan save for scattered cleaning and painting materials.

Chloe Dryke, 24, and her partner, Evan Rollo, 25, are living above the restaurant and will operate the new Emily's Eatery on Knife River.

"We're restarting and completely changing our lives," said Dryke, a local grade-school teacher who recently endured an emotional goodbye on the last day of school. "We were approached and had to think about it. I grew up eating here. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The couple is the public face in front of a private ownership group that is leasing the building to capitalize on longtime plans one of the investors had for the place, Dryke explained. The building's owner continues to be based in the Twin Cities.

The fare will be consistent with Emily's previous iterations — including fish sandwiches, burgers and a full bar.

"We're hoping to create a welcoming, family atmosphere," Rollo said. "Nice and clean — make it a destination point."

To that end, the North Shore Scenic Railroad has been approached about bringing a separate passenger excursion train into Knife River, where the Great Lakes Candy Kitchen is across from Emily's on Highway 61 and smoked-fish emporiums are forever popular.

Duluth Depot executive director Ken Buehler called Emily's "Knife River's historical landmark," and described it as having the might to pull travelers off of the nearby divided highway and into the small community.

"We plan to partner with them on promotions and trains," Buehler said. "We'd offer a whole different set of excursions in addition to our regular schedule (to Two Harbors)."

While Rollo said he brings business experience to the table, he ceded restaurant expertise to Dryke. As a longtime server and restaurant insider with experience from London Road to Colorado, she has learned to think about customers' needs before they voice them.

"As far as cooking, I've done it with my dad for many years," she said. "He inspired me to enjoy cooking both for myself and entertaining others."

Most recently, Emily's was known as an anytime touchstone — good for getting coffee and breakfast in the morning and enjoying live music and a beer at night. The new eatery figures to hew closely to what made it successful in the past.

"We'd love to start live music again," Rollo said.

Since activity began to stir earlier this spring, as many as 20 people a day have stopped to inquire about what has become the worst-kept secret in Knife River.

"It's been a whirlwind of learning," Dryke said. "All the feedback from the locals has been great."

They've alternately told her they grew up frequenting the building or enjoyed a regular meal or daily cup of coffee there.

Of the next generation of customers, Dryke said, "We want it to be like we're inviting people into our home."