Al Johnson's brings the restaurant's products to your home, but its famous goats stay back in Door County

Terri Milligan
Special to the Journal Sentinel
Goats enjoy some winter sunshine at the Johnson family farm; you won't find them on the restaurant roof when it's cold.

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant — housed in an authentic Scandinavian wood structure, complete with goats grazing on its grass roof — has drawn Door County visitors longing for pancakes and other Swedish foods for close to 70 years. Now, it’s taken the very modern step of launching a pancake mix and organic lingonberries for home cooks.

The restaurant, unlike some others on the scenic peninsula, doesn’t take the winter off, although its goats hunker down at the Johnson farm a few miles from the restaurant, listening to a little National Public Radio. (It’s true — the radio station is the entertainment choice for the wintering goats, with the goat handlers alternating between the Ideas Network and classical music.)

As long as the weather is hospitable, goats can be seen on the roof of Al Johnson's in Sister Bay.

The goats may take a much-deserved winter hiatus, but not so the restaurant staff. Besides a chance to continue serving customers, the winter off-season provides extra time for the restaurant to expand its reach. This is when members of Al Johnson’s staff hit the road, demonstrating their private-label products at grocery stores through the state.

Expanding beyond the Door

Al Johnson’s Swedish Butik, adjacent to the restaurant, had always sold traditional Scandinavian products. A shortage of lingonberries three years ago led to expansion of the business to include its own food items.

Lingonberries are a small red berry similar in flavor to a cranberry, grown mainly in the wild in Canada and Scandinavian countries. Cultivation on a large scale in the United States has not been successful.

Lingonberries are a small red berry similar in flavor to a cranberry, grown mainly in the wild in Canada and Scandinavian countries. Cultivation on a large scale in the United States has not been successful.

But the berries are a staple at Al Johnson’s. A small pewter dish of lingonberries graces every table, with more than 10,000 pounds used annually in everything from salad dressing to pancake topping, sandwich spreads and as the crowning touch to schaum torte.

So a bad lingonberry harvest in 2015 created a giant headache for head chef Freddie Bexell. Unable to find enough berries from his suppliers, Bexell, a native of Sweden, hit the phones and Internet to search throughout his home country for a company that could help. He found a small, organic supplier in the Swedish city of Lyccksele, not far from his boyhood home.

Bexell was so pleased with the product and the folks supplying it to them, that a partnership was created.

“Having the ability to bring in our own branded product has allowed us to create a product that is more like the traditional lingonberries I grew up with,“ Bexell said. “Our lingonberry product is not as sweet as most of the products on the market. Plus, they’re organic.”

The lingonberries are picked, processed and packaged in the Swedish plant that Bexill partnered with. At first, they were sold only in the restaurant store. But they were so well received that in 2016, the restaurant started distributing them to grocery stores throughout Wisconsin and eventually the Chicago area.  

Three of the Johnson children, Lars, Annika and Rolf, run Al Johnson's restaurant along with their mother, Ingert. The restaurant also sells its own sweetened lingonberries, pancake mix and other products.

“We went from bringing in two pallets of product a year to 19 pallets every two to three months,” said Kit Bütz, the restaurant’s marketing and promotion manager. “We are now in every Roundy’s-owned store in Wisconsin plus some Sendik’s Markets, Metcalfe’s Markets and a host of smaller family-operated stores.”

On the Internet the products are sold at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant’s Marketplace and Amazon.

From lingonberries on to pancakes

In addition to dishing out a lot of lingonberries, more than 112,000 servings of Swedish pancakes, just like Al’s mom made, are flipped and plated in the restaurant’s kitchen every year.

Swedish pancakes at Al Johnson's are topped with Door County sour Montmorency cherries or organic Swedish lingonberries and plenty of whipped cream.

A trademark of the Swedish pancake is its thin, almost crepe-like, texture. Originally the restaurant chefs made the pancakes in a traditional round version. That all changed when Al’s mother came through the kitchen one day and announced, “you’ll never be able to keep up making them that way.”

She spread a large, thin layer of batter over the entire griddle. When cooked on one side, she cut the giant rectangular pancake into squares that she flipped over and then folded. And that’s how the Swedish pancake production line was created.

After sales of the restaurant’s lingonberries proved successful, the next logical step was to market a home-cook version of its pancakes.

“It took a couple of months of recipe testing to get the giant restaurant-version of the pancake recipe down to a home cook’s version,” said Bütz.

The official pancake tester was Al’s daughter, Annika. After months of variations, Annika took a few bites and announced “Yes, that is an Al Johnson’s pancake.”

The pancake mix is now produced by a commercial baking company in the Midwest.  The pancakes can be topped with lingonberries or Al Johnson’s Golden Goat pure maple syrup. The restaurant partners with a Northern Wisconsin farm that produces and packages the syrup to its specifications.

Swedish comfort food

Winter is the perfect time to hunker down and try creating Swedish comfort food.

Start by experimenting with the sweetened lingonberries. They’re great straight out of the jar as a pancake topping or on warm toast and even to create a variation on the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I’m probably one of the only kids in the neighborhood that would bring a peanut butter and lingonberry sandwich to school,” said Bütz, who is also of Swedish heritage.

Turn lingonberries into a vinaigrette by blending them with red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, canola oil and fresh oregano. It’s tasty on a simple bowl of greens, but it’s even better tossed with shredded red cabbage, slivered red onion, tart Granny Smith apples, chopped pistachios and a handful of dried Door County cherries.

A simple sauce of reduced red wine, lingonberries and shallots makes a perfect finishing sauce for roast duck, chicken or fish. Try it with boneless chicken breasts stuffed with herb goat cheese and cut into medallions for a restaurant-quality presentation.

Summer, with its hot, humid weather, isn’t the best time of year to whip up homemade meringues. Take advantage of a chilly day and make the cloud-like meringues. Traditionally served with vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries, schaum torte gets the Al Johnson twist with a glistening topping of lingonberries.

And don’t forget the pancakes. As at Al Johnson’s, they’re made to be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert. Make them from scratch or take the easier route and use the restaurant’s Swedish pancake box mix, adding your choice of milk or plant-based liquid and eggs.