The newspaper at the Kendall household is read on Saturday and wrapped around smoked fish on Monday. The sound of bells is constantly heard as customers or the UPS man come strolling through the door for smoked fish. “Line caught Alaskan salmon — arguably some of the finest fish known to man,” says Gordy Kendall, the third-generation owner of Russ Kendall’s Smoke House in Knife River. This is a place that had a reputation even before Andrew Zimmern showed up.
Cody Kendall, who spends most of his day cutting up fish or stoking the fire, will more than likely be the fourth-generation owner. “My grandfather showed me the knots that they used to tie on the packages before there was tape,” he says. Cody has been involved in the business since he was born and has seen it passed down from one Kendall to another.
W.T. Kendall, Cody’s great grandfather, opened the smoke house in Knife River in 1908. “It used to be a log smoke house that my grandfather built with an Indian buddy,” says Cody. The smoke house is now brick that has been blackened with years of fire and smoke. In 1952 W.T. passed the smoke house on to Russ Kendall, who later added his name to the family business. “I’m not sure when my grandfather changed the name, but he built a name for himself delivering my great-grandfather’s fish,” says Cody. Russ passed away in 2007, leaving the family business to Cody’s father, Gordy.
Cody Kendall says that “my grandfather used to catch his own fish for smoking.” The family still sources all of its fish locally except for the salmon, which are line-caught in the Bristol Bay in Alaska. Lake trout, herring, whitefish, and cisco are regularly on the menu. The smoke house ships fish and sells it out of a display case on site. Everything is retail and everything is sold; the fish never go to waste. Walleye also appears on the menu when they are in season. “In late summer they [walleye] come up the south shore,” says Cody. The Kendalls worry that one day they will not be able to buy the fish that their family has been smoking for years. Cody says that there have been fewer and fewer fishermen, as restaurants and people in the area have been sourcing fish from other parts of the world. “It’s definitely dying out — there is going to come a point in time when we are screwed.”
It takes about two days for the Kendalls to smoke a batch of fish. First they put a brine on the fish by soaking it in a salt and water solution. For the sugar-cured Alaskan salmon, they add brown sugar to the solution. The fish are soaked for 24 hours and are then put into the smoke house where a fire is tended for 12 hours. The Kendalls only use maple that is harvested locally. “There is a lot of it in the area, and it has a mild taste,” says Cody. Whitefish and herring hang in the smoke house, whereas cisco and salmon are placed on trays. “There are hot spots in the oven and you have to get used to where they are so you know where to place things,” says Cody. The fish are heated up to 145° F to meet state standards.
Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park and Lou’s Smoke House in Two Harbors are the only other smoke houses in the area. “We don’t really see anyone else as competition — if you make a good product people will buy it,” says Cody. Mel Boogie’s, the only other smoke house in town, is now the Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen.
Russ Kendall’s is a destination for tourists and a regular stop for locals. All fish is sold retail and the customers keep coming back. It is the oldest smoke house on the North Shore and thanks to Cody Kendall learning the skill, it is going to be around for another generation.
Russ Kendall’s Smoke House
149 Scenic Dr
Knife River, MN 55609
HOURS: 9:30am-5:30pm every day of the year except Dec. 25
OWNER: Gordy Kendall
BEST BET: Sugar Cured Salmon ($14.90 per pound)