By Larry Majewski
In 1973 Al Johnson sodded the roof of his restaurant and added goats to graze upon it. At some point between then and today Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik became synonymous with Door County. This Norwegian-style log cabin restaurant with goats atop its grassy roof has grown to become a symbolic representation of its home. Like Mount Rushmore or the Hollywood sign, Al Johnson’s is a must-see.
The evidence of Al Johnson’s importance to the community is overwhelming. The restaurant was awarded the 2019 Governor’s Tourism Service Excellence Award. “Where’s the place with the goat’s on the roof?” is a perennial FAQ at the Door County Visitors Bureau. The restaurant sits squarely in the middle of Sister Bay — the busiest Door County village — its goats presiding over 1,936 feet of contiguous waterfront.
Al Johnson’s is so important to the development of Sister Bay that it invites a chicken and the egg type of debate. Which came first: Sister Bay’s development trajectory or Al Johnson’s? Al Johnson, the namesake and founder, once said that his goal was to get people talking about something other than Ephraim and to honor his Swedish heritage. A decade ago, Al Johnson’s sold — to the Village of Sister Bay — the waterfront property that formed the unobstructed wide expanse of marinas, beaches and parks enjoyed today. And, true to his word, the Swedish heritage carries on within the restaurant with traditional dresses worn by the wait staff and a classic Swedish menu.
Al Johnson famously led by example. He would never ask anybody to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. It is this humility in service that carries on today in the spirit of the restaurant. A personable, humble approach to service is as emblematic of Door County as any of the awards or accolades bestowed upon this uniquely successful restaurant.