The change at Grizzly's is evident long before reaching the front door.
The aroma of wood smoke and meat cooking on a spit reaches out into the parking lot as a harbinger of things to come.
This past fall Grizzly's Grill and Saloon, just off Highway 371 North in Baxter, closed for two weeks and began an extensive remodel. It re-opened with new carpet, new color, a changed ambiance and a new name - Grizzly's Wood-Fired Grill.
The effort was part of an ongoing redesign in Grizzly's 14-restaurant chain.
The main focus is the live fire visible as customers enter the restaurant. Wood fire, red oak to be precise, is now how Grizzly's cooks. No gas. No charcoal. Rows of meat - chicken, brisket, pork, sirloin for sandwiches, chicken wings and prime rib - are all on a rotisserie above the wood fire.
The emphasis on the wood fire is apparent with the restaurant's name change to include "wood-fired cooking" on its exterior.
Fran Dobis, assistant general manager, said other features include a bread service for the tables after 4 p.m. with honey butter, along with flat-bread pizzas and homemade cheese cake. Dobis said the customer reaction to the wood-smoked food off the spit has been positive. She said the most popular menu item is a spicy rotisserie chicken sandwich with sautéed spicy jalapeno, roasted red pepper, onions, minced garlic and the spit-roasted chicken topped with pepperjack cheese and finished with a spicy roasted red pepper.
In an indication that spicy is in, the restaurant also features a wildfire sauce, a hotter version of its original, that is a combination of barbecue buffalo sauce, Caribbean jerk sauce and honey along with dry rub seasonings.
The Grizzly's restaurant in Baxter is owned by Steve Letnes and Rich Proctor. The restaurant employs about 60.
Curt Letnes, Steve's brother and a partner in the Letnes Restaurant Group, said the Baxter location is the seventh in the chain renovated into the wood-fire cooking. More restaurants are expected to make the change in 2011. Letnes said it's the next generation of Grizzly's.
"It just gives us a product that is very unique," Letnes said. Grizzly's corporate office is based in Waite Park. The family's restaurant experience began in 1975. They started the Grizzly's chain in 1995 and launched the next generation of Grizzly's at the Waite Park site in 2009.
Letnes said the restaurant group looked at other restaurant concepts with rotisserie ovens and tried to offer its own twist. They were able to market products and found the wood-fire cooking provided a draw.
"Wood roasting the item creates such a unique flavor and the quality is really good," Letnes said, adding it provides a visual and aromatic appeal to the restaurant's guests.
As part of the new menu, the restaurant features seafood, prime rib and hand-cut steaks, while retaining hamburgers and sandwiches.
Letnes described the changes as moving from a grill and bar to a dinner house. The wood-fire cooked meat is used in a variety of menus for chicken and pulled pork sandwiches, as well as pastas and salads. Letnes said many chickens are rotisserie cooked just for the pasta and salad dishes.
While Letnes said they are feeling better about the economy, they note the recovery has a way to go with concerns about unemployment rates persisting. And in terms of the restaurant chain, Letnes said the Baxter location has been very successful.
The move to a next generation of Grizzly's - with costs for remodeling and the wood-fire oven additions - has translated into a notable increase in business, Letnes said
"It's been a very positive move for driving sales."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.