Video by joefairbanks.com
Lou’s Fish House
The North Shore’s Choice for
Smoked Fish, Artisanal Cheese, and Ice Cream
By Andrea Busche - Video by Joe Fairbanks
At the tender age of 16, many of us are preoccupied with fun, but arguably frivolous pursuits, such as cars, sports and dating. Ashleigh Swanson, however, opened a business.
“I started a business before I had a driver’s license,” said Swanson, now 18 and the owner and general manager of Two Harbors-based business Lou’s Fish House. On the occasions when Swanson reveals that she is the owner of the business, customer reactions range from positive, to a little bit of disbelief.
“I’ve always been my own boss,” she said. “Starting with lemonade stands when I was 10. Entrepreneurship has been a large focus of the Swanson family for the last three generations.”
“Ashleigh was an amazing child,” her mother, Rebecca Swanson, said. “As soon as she was mobile, she was chasing and running. She started talking at just a year old.”
“Ashleigh cares about and understands people,” Rebecca added. “She has a big heart. She’s very self-motivated and very responsible.”
For the entire Swanson family, entrepreneurship is second nature. Swanson’s father, Chris Swanson, is the mayor of Two Harbors and a local business owner. And her mother, Rebecca, owns the building where Lou’s is housed, and is the owner-operator of the adjacent property, Vine and Branches Inn.
It started with the Inn
The Swanson family’s involvement with Lou’s all started when Rebecca Swanson wanted to open an Inn. “The Inn was the reason for buying the property,” Rebecca said of her business, located at 1319 Highway 61.
The retail space located next door had operated under the name Lou’s Fish House for generations but had been closed for four years. A family brainstorming session was in order, to decide the future of the space.
“Ashleigh suggested an ice cream shop, which evolved to the idea of a smoked fish and ice cream shop,” Rebecca said. It made sense; the existing infrastructure, including a cinder block smoke room, was already in place. And Lou’s reputation for quality smoked fish was already well-established.
After some renovations, Lou’s opened its doors under new ownership on June 26th, 2018. Ashleigh Swanson explained a bit about her business.
“We have four types of fish: Sockeye salmon, whitefish, herring, and Lake trout. We also have jumbo smoked shrimp.”
“Our whitefish, Lake trout and herring are all caught from Lake Superior, and we purchase it directly from local fishermen. And our spices come from a local spice shop in downtown Two Harbors – McQuade’s Herbs, Spices, and More.”
In addition to smoked fish, Lou’s sells artisanal cheeses, crackers, and twelve “crazy flavors” of hand-scooped ice cream. “Our one cardinal rule is that we will never serve plain vanilla,” Swanson said, perhaps exposing a hint of her youthfulness. “That’s boring.”
The most popular menu item at Lou’s is the smoked sugar salmon. “It’s a balance of salty and sweet,” Swanson said.
Most of Lou’s clientele are tourists and visitors from southern Minnesota, but Lou’s is also known to locals as a great place for delicious ice cream. Lou’s offers online and in-store purchasing, as well as delivery to neighboring business Castle Danger Brewery.
While Swanson is the owner and GM at Lou’s, unbelievably, every last one of its employees are also teens. This includes two of Ashleigh Swanson’s siblings, Natalie – 15, and Micah – 12, along with five employees who smoke the fish and two staff members working as cashiers.
The only person old enough to order a beer is Swanson’s Grandma Kay, who comes in to help on occasion.
Vine and Branches
Concurrent to getting Lou’s up and running, big things were also happening next door. Rebecca Swanson, along with her entire family, lovingly renovated Vine and Branches Inn to what it is today: a beautiful, comfortable place to stay in Two Harbors.
The Inn was already there, however, Swanson installed new flooring, windows, plumbing, electrical, a new roof and fresh paint. And with her keen eye for design, Swanson styled each room with tasteful décor and furnishings.
“I wanted to create a different style than perhaps what is considered normal on the North Shore,” she said. “I wanted a classy, boutique feel. Calm and simple, yet elegant. But also, very comfortable and functional.”
This mother-daughter duo has established themselves and their unique businesses as strong links in the chain of Two Harbors’ small business economy. Both women work incredibly hard at their craft, putting in long hours to get the job done.
One thing is for certain: in their two years of ownership, they have already established a strong reputation. Guests are quickly snapping up reservations at the Inn. In fact, Rebecca noted, they are already beginning to see repeat guests.
And business at Lou’s is hotter than ever. “Our customers frequently mention that our smoked fish is the best on the North Shore,” Ashleigh said.