Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood has undergone a remarkable renaissance in the last ten years. Going from a downtrodden part of Superior Street, filled with dusty storefronts and empty buildings, to what is now a vibrant and active arts, shopping, breweries, cideries, and dining mecca.
Part of the credit for the success of this transformation undeniably goes to two visionaries, Tom Hanson, co-owner of the Duluth Grill, OMC Smokehouse, and Corktown Deli, and Chris Benson, owner of Frost River.
Many think of the two men as the unofficial “Mayors of Lincoln Park” as each has anchored important businesses, and each has fostered and supported many other business people to open up shop and revitalize what is now known as the Lincoln Park Craft District.
“Lifting Lincoln Park” Tom Hanson
Tom Hanson came to the restaurant business early. Growing up in St. Paul, one of his first jobs was as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant.
“My wife and I both began lifelong careers in the restaurant industry. Jaima worked for Wendy’s in Maplewood, and I for my friend’s dad at Primos on the East Side of St. Paul. We both moved on and met at Ground Round in 1980. Since then we have worked off and on together at The Richfield American Legion, The Village Inn Sports Bar, and Augustino’s in Fitger’s Mall,” said Hanson.
Hanson started as part of the Embers chain with The Duluth Grill Embers as a franchisee in 2001. In 2005, he began breaking away and doing their own menu, and, in 2008, established the Duluth Grill as sole owner with his wife Jaima.
Since then, Hanson has been legendary for his wildly popular restaurant. Featuring an extensive menu of good old-fashioned down-home cooking, the Duluth Grill was even featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” in 2010 and again this past April on Fieri’s spin-off “Triple D Nation”.
Known for their comfort foods, new takes on classic dishes, an amazing breakfast menu, and baked goods and desserts to die for, the Duluth Grill has long been an established favorite for tourists and locals alike.
“In 2014, I began thinking of another restaurant and dreaming of a second location, but I didn’t have a specific plan,” said Hanson.
He explained, “Chris Benson from Frost River came in and said, ‘I would love to have you across the street from me.’ He told me of his vision for the street and what it could become.”
Deciding with his son Louis on opening a barbecue place in Lincoln Park, across the street from Frost River, the idea for OMC Smokehouse was born, opening in 2017.
Not long after, once again, it was Benson who came to Tom and said, “You know, you ought to open a deli,” and the seeds were planted. The Hansons opened Cork Town Deli on the other side of Superior Street from OMC Smokehouse in 2018.
In the past months, during the COVID crisis, Hanson has been very conscious of the tough times that his fellow Lincoln Park business owners have been going through during the pandemic year and has worked on “Lifting Lincoln Park”
They put together the OMC Smokehouse Cookbook, filled with favorites with smaller batch recipes for people to make at home. Along with an online fundraiser, the money raised from the sale of the cookbooks went to the neighborhood business owners through initiatives working with Ecolibrium3, whose mission is to care for the community.
According to Hanson, Lincoln Park is now a like-minded group of people, pulling in the same direction. “I live in Lincoln Park and walk to work every day. And I truly love Duluth. It is a big small town with a wonderful quality of life.”
Chris Benson’s Vision
Tom Hanson said of his friend Chris Benson, “I know I get a lot of credit for what has happened in Lincoln Park, but it is really Chris who should get so much of the credit for having the vision of what this neighborhood could be.”
Chris had been working in marketing for many years, and with his wife Dr. Andrea Hustad Benson and their three daughters, living in Rochester and the Twin Cities. Andrea got a job offer from St. Luke’s to work as an anesthesiologist.
She had grown up in Duluth, and so for her, it was a homecoming when she accepted the job. She has since also become Chief of Staff Elect at St. Luke’s.
Chris’s first thought was, “What am I going to do in Duluth?” His friend Jared Rinerson, was starting a leather chopper mitten business and Benson decided to help him get that off the ground.
They were looking for some equipment and went to see Steve Emerson who had started Frost River originally. He had closed the business and was selling all his equipment that was stored in a pole barn in Floodwood.
Benson ended up buying all the equipment eventually and decided to reopen Frost River, first in a building close to WLSSD. He hired a few sewers and the business started slowly with the Frost River label and name remaining the same.
“I wanted a Superior Street address for marketing and as a destination business. So we moved to Lincoln Park in 2011 at the former site of Minnesota Surplus and also bought the buildings on either side,” Benson explained.
With the main floor as a store, the manufacturing operation on the second level, and with bigger equipment on the lower floor, the business has grown, with the mail-order still a big part of what they do.
They sell luggage, shoulder bags, briefcases, messenger bags, and many other Frost River label products that they manufacture by hand onsite, one piece at a time. In addition, the other products they sell are all American-made with such items as mugs, soaps, dog gear and a fun potpourri of other outdoor related goods.
Benson has won the Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award, Emerging Entrepreneur award, and Established Entrepreneur, and the American Made Outdoor Gear Award, among others.
During the pandemic, Benson and his staff shifted their operation for six months to working on PPE and later on renovating their store. Their online sales sustained them and allowed them to continue working on PPE.
Benson bought some new machines, hired more than 50 temporary workers and went to work sewing masks and making face shields.
“I was hearing from my wife as this went on about how frightening this was with what she was seeing at the hospital firsthand and of the immediate need for PPE. We saw that we could make a difference,” he said.
Benson has always looked at every aspect of his business being about honesty, integrity, passion, and character. “It has not been just about developing my business but also developing a neighborhood and being a steward of the Lincoln Park Craft District,” he said.
He added, “I love Duluth. I love seeing the creativity and the sweat equity that craftspeople are putting into Lincoln Park.”