Opening a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic might sound like an unappetizing idea to most entrepreneurs, but for Terri Trickle and Sara Watson, the pandemic is the whole reason they started their new restaurant.
Watson’s job was eliminated because of COVID-19, Trickle explained, and the two lifelong friends, both in their 50s, were each searching for something to do. They found that something when the former Pickle Factory Bar & Grill went up for sale -- a charming historic schoolhouse on five country acres in Vergas, not far from their parents’ lake homes.
“Let’s buy it,” Trickle recalls her friend proposing one day, out of the blue. “And so we did. We looked at it on May 11 and bought it on May 29. It was quick.”
The two had never considered running a business together before, and the pursuit was spontaneous, Trickle said, “But nothing ventured, nothing gained. We figured we might as well try it, even though it was just the dumbest time to open a restaurant.”
As it turned out, the business has “brought us hope and an opportunity in the midst of a really crummy time in the world.”
Trickle said she knew from the get-go that if anyone could make it work, it was her and Watson. The two south Moorhead residents have decades of experience between them as business owners in the region: Trickle has owned commercial and residential painting companies in Little Falls and Moorhead, while Watson and her husband have owned and operated a number of restaurants in the Fargo area, including Maxwell’s, Mezzaluna, Mosaic Catering and others.
The Watsons’ reputation is such that in 2019, Fargo Monthly dubbed them, “Fargo-Moorhead’s culinary couple.”
“I knew we could absolutely do it,” Trickle said of running a restaurant with Watson, even during a pandemic. “Because I know what her skills are, and I know what my skills are.”
While the two have faced added challenges, rules and restrictions because of COVID-19, Trickle’s instincts about their abilities appear to have been dead-on. Their restaurant, Blackboard, is flourishing, even with the mandatory reduced crowds and other obstacles.
Since opening in late June, Blackboard has had no problem drawing people in. And judging from the rave reviews on Facebook and spread via word of mouth, Blackboard’s a bonafide hit.
“The atmosphere and service was the best -- our meal DELISH!!” wrote one reviewer on Blackboard’s Facebook page after attending a wedding there in late August. Earlier that month, another patron posted, “The food is excellent. It’s about time you can go somewhere at the lake with classy libations and good food that takes it up 10 notches from simple bar food.”
Word spread so fast that Blackboard made it into Midwest Nest magazine’s August 2020 issue, as that month’s featured “dining destination.”
Things at the restaurant have been going so well, Trickle said, that, “I can’t imagine what this is going to be like when COVID is over ... What in the world are we going to do when people can actually go out? Because we’ve already got a line out the door every night.”
“It’s great,” she added. “You can’t beat it. We’re just enjoying it.”
With a mix of indoor, outdoor and porch seating, a cozy fire pit and fairly frequent live outdoor music, Blackboard has had no trouble filling to its COVID-19 capacity on warm summer evenings, bringing in about 160 people a night, according to Trickle. Many of those are tourists just traveling through, but they also have a growing group of local “regulars” who keep coming back again and again.
“We are really touched and humbled to have so many local guests,” Trickle said. “We’re getting to recognize a lot of them and know their names.”
Blackboard has a unique menu that changes almost daily, featuring creative dishes with a flair that’s hard to find in rural areas. One night’s featured entree might be honey smoked salmon with red quinoa, black beans, artichoke hearts and sweet tomatoes -- a fan favorite -- while the next night it might be sweet corn and sausage stuffed pheasant breast wrapped in prosciutto.
There are also familiar standards like burgers, appetizers, soups and desserts -- but everything at Blackboard has some sort of original, tasty twist. Many menu items, particularly the nightly chef's features, are made with seasonal, fresh, local ingredients. There’s always at least one vegetarian dish on the menu, as well as gluten-free options.
“The food is fun. It’s all real and whole,” said Trickle. “Everybody loves our homemade chicken cordon bleu, and our homemade meatloaf. Everything is homemade.”
Blackboard’s bar offers beer, wine and specialty cocktails. They have $3 beer every day, pretzels and dip for $4, and most entrees cost less than $20 (steaks are the most expensive item on the menu, at a cost of up to $35). With price points like these, along with the restaurant’s casual atmosphere, Trickle said Blackboard “is not fine dining -- it’s a bar and restaurant. It’s not fancy at all. It’s just good. It’s good food.”
The endeavor has been a family affair for both Trickle and Watson, with many of their loved ones working alongside them at the restaurant, in one way or another. Trickle’s dad Dave, for example, mows the lawn there, and he built the fire pit. He’s around so often that everybody calls him “the mascot,” Trickle laughed. Meanwhile her mom, Shirley, visits the kitchen every day to help make the coleslaw and mashed potatoes.
They, like Watson’s parents, Victor and Linda Krabbenhoft, live just a few miles down the road from Blackboard, on Spirit Lake. Linda made the curtains at Blackboard, Trickle said, and Victor brings the salt for their water softener.
Watson and Trickle’s kids (Watson has four kids, Trickle has three) have also been regulars at the restaurant, helping out during the remodeling process and also stepping in here and there over the summer to assist with day-to-day operations. Trickle’s college-aged son has frequently tended the bar.
“It’s definitely been a family deal,” said Trickle. “They come and help, and it’s been really fun. It gave us all something to do this summer.”
Trickle said it was about a three-week process to transform the Pickle Factory into Blackboard. They did a lot of cleaning and sanitizing, fixed and updated little things where necessary, put in a new heating and air conditioning system, and then repainted the building inside and out. They also installed some new equipment in the kitchen and bar areas.
Other than that, Trickle said, most things are still the same as before -- same furniture, same fixtures -- just cleaned and freshened up a little.
The building’s history as an old schoolhouse inspired the name Blackboard, and antique blackboards have been incorporated into the restaurant’s decor. Blackboard’s logo even gives a nod to the old Independent School District number, 166.
The restaurant currently offers outdoor and in-house dining, as well as catering services (which Trickle said have been very popular). In the near future, Blackboard will offer a carryout menu. There’s also a business website that will launch in the coming months, and Trickle said they plan to host more private group events (like weddings) and fun public events (like large outdoor concerts) as it becomes safe to do so.
For now, they’re just trying to keep up with the busyness of the summer. It’s a full-time job for both of them, with Trickle running the restaurant team and the bar area up front, while Watson works her magic and leads a team of three sous chefs in the kitchen in back.
“We have a great team, just an awesome team,” Trickle said, adding that they’re currently looking for more people to join that team.
Blackboard is open four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday, from 4-9 p.m., and sometimes on Sundays for mid-morning brunch. Check the Blackboard Facebook page for special events and announcements, or call 218-758-2619.