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Fire claims landmark North Shore smoked fish shop

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Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse, known for its distinctive red storefront and mouth-watering smoked fish, was significantly damaged by fire Sunday morning. The Duluth News Tribune reports that the production area at the back of the North Shore landmark near Two Harbors was gutted.

Popular with locals and tourists alike, only a skeleton of the storefront and attached bar along Scenic Highway 61 in Knife River remains standing. The front section, where customers order their fish, also sustained smoke damage. The cause of the fire at the longtime family business has not yet been determined and no one was injured.

The Northland's News Center reports that the blaze was discovered by an EMT who had been fishing in Knife River and saw the smoke coming from the back of the building.

“My whole family has lost their jobs, their way of making a living — my son, my wife, myself,” owner Gordy Olson told the newspaper. “I don’t know where to start. … I’m in shock.”

Fire officials have not yet attached a damage estimate to the iconic structure, pictured here as it looked before the destruction. Olson said he and his wife, Kristi, were assessing the damage Sunday and would look through insurance policy before making any decisions about the future of the business, but the newspaper report indicated that they hope the store will resume operation.

Olson said that hard drives for the smokehouse’s security cameras were salvaged from the building. Footage will be reviewed for possible clues about what sparked the fire.

“Upon our arrival, the smokehouse and a structure connecting it to the store were fully engulfed,” said Two Harbors Fire Chief Mark Schlangen. “Flames were coming through the roof, and the fire was starting to extend into the store-bar area.”

Legend holds that Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse began when W.T. Kendall was delivering fish from the North Shore to Duluth about a century ago. When his truck broke down in Knife River, he started selling the fish along the road before they could go bad. His son, Russ, eventually took over the business that now bears his name. Russ Kendall died at 85 in 2007. Kristi Olson is the daughter of Russ Kendall and represents the third generation running the business.

The business was expanding, with recent improvements to the production area. “We just put in all-new floors and installed an additional freezer … last winter,” Gordy Olson said

The smokehouse, which featured smoked whitefish and herring, sugar-cured salmon and lake trout, has drawn wider acclaim in recent years among road food fans. Twin Cities-based chef Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel, featured Russ Kendall’s on his show and included it at No. 1 on his nationwide list of “12 Favorite Bites on the Road.”

The fire comes just as summer tourism season along the North Shore is off to its traditional start.

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