Al Johnson’s is an authentic Swedish family owned restaurant where you can find goats grazing the sod roof. It's quite a sight, and it's made this place one of the most famous restaurants in Door County. Inside the casual, carpeted dining room, young ladies in Scandinavian garb dish out limpa bread and Swedish meatballs.
The menu consists of a variety of Swedish fare, from pancakes with lingonberries to Swedish meatballs, whitefish, sandwiches, salads, and a variety of hot and cold plates.
The story about how goats came to be on the sod roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant has floated around Door County for decades. Here’s how local writer Norbert Blei recounted the tale a few years back:
“Wink Larson was a man who understood tradition. Every year, in celebration of Al Johnson’s birthday, he would bring Al a gift. Not an ordinary gift, of course. But something memorable. One year it was a burro; another year a sheep; once a baby pig; and the single gift which would change Al’s life, the village of Sister Bay, and the entire history of Door County tourism—the birthday Wink walked into the restaurant with a goat named Oscar, ribbons tied to its horns and a note: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AL. I was not an eyewitness. But I can see the grin on Wink’s face…sense the commotion in the restaurant. And hear Al’s laughter. The rest—is history.” —Norbert Blei
From the arrival of Oscar the goat, it was a short trip to putting both Oscar himself, and the dozens of later goats onto the roof of the already-famed restaurant, turning it into “that place with the goats on the roof,” as thousands and thousands of Door County visitors have called it while requesting directions.
In an interview shortly before his death this past June 12, Al Johnson spoke about his goats, laughing heartily the entire time, and what they have meant to his restaurant’s world-wide renown: “It doesn’t matter where I’ve been — and Ingert and I have traveled the entire world — but everybody knows about those goats. If I mention to someone overseas that I’m from Sister Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, they usually say the same thing: “Oh, you mean that place with the goats on the roof?”
The intersection of technology with goats was inevitable, says Al’s son Lars, who now runs the restaurant with his siblings Rolf and Annika. “Our visitors fall in love with the goats and are always so concerned about them, their health, and their safety,” said Lars. “They want to know how they get onto the roof each day (there’s a very safe slanted stairway with foot-holds), where the goats go each evening when we take them off the roof and load them onto a pickup truck (to a barn and pasture at Lars’ home outside Sister Bay), and whether they can fall off the roof (yes, it’s happened a couple of times, but no one was hurt).”
“What Rolf, Annika and I like about having a Goat Cam on the roof,” said Lars, “which is actually two web cameras with different perspectives of the entire roof area, is that our visitors and friends can maintain a relationship with the restaurant and the goats throughout the season, no matter where they live the rest of the year.”
Al Johnson’s goats usually go onto the restaurant’s sod roof at the start of each tourism season, in late May. The goats then spend the winter in a barn and pasture from mid-October to the start of the next season.