FAIRMONT - For decades, the Channel Inn in Fairmont has been a popular spot, but the past year has brought about a major transformation at the lakeside establishment.
Last summer, a road reconstruction project widened the channel and replaced the bridge between Budd and Hall lakes, an area adjacent to the Channel Inn. Dan and Monica Danks, owners since 1982, decided the time was right for a thorough renovation, so they closed the restaurant for 12 days.
"We replaced everything, and it worked out that we were able to put an upper deck on," Monica said.
Dayton Meacham, foreground, Taylor Mattila, center, and Tara Survis handle kitchen duties at On the Rocks, which caters to the Channel Inn patio customers.
By replacing a grassy area between the original deck, which seats 70, and the road with an elevated level, additional seating for 60 guests was added. Another patio strip flanks the lake side of the building and offers 30 more seats.
The increased seating had the desired result by boosting the number of guests, but it also created a problem with staff trying to keep up with the food demand. The wait for one of the Channel Inn's famous burgers might stretch to two hours during peak times. The large number of to-go orders from boats pulling up to the dock compounded the problem.
"We couldn't handle the volume," Monica said. "You have to provide service. We asked ourselves, what could we do?"
After mulling the problem during the winter, the solution came in the form of a separate kitchen to handle the patio customers. Called "On the Rocks," the trailer was designed specifically for the Channel Inn.
"We had to special order it," Dan said. "We had it customized to match the inside (kitchen) so anybody can work in either kitchen."
The response from their clientele has been gratifying. Monica said she hears positive feedback "every time I'm out."
They credit their staff for the continued growth of the business.
"We have great help - all around," Monica said, praising their 30 employees. "Everybody that works here is great, and we're so grateful to all our customers."
The Channel Inn is open year-round, but the warm weather months - and the lure of lakeside dining - creates a peak demand.
Food supplies are delivered four times each week, and the menu is adjusted to allow for new items, like mahi mahi strips, which have gotten positive reviews.
"But our burgers are still No. 1," Monica said.
Those burgers continue to be heralded as a culinary experience.
In 2003, a book called "Searching for the Holy Grill" spotlighted the Channel Inn as one of 37 sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa for having "the most divine burgers." The restaurant was featured in a chapter was called "The Egg and I," in reference to the Channel Inn's signature burger which is topped with a fried egg.
Recently, WCCO-TV in Minneapolis sponsored a contest for viewers to select the best lakeside restaurant in Minnesota.
"We were in the top 10," Monica said. "That was pretty cool."
The Channel Inn is open 362 days per year, closing only on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The indoor kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. On the Rocks is open from 5-9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends.