In Search of the Perfect Lingonberry

(©2015 Swedish News [Nordstjernan], All Rights Reserved. Originally published Saturday, May 30, 2015. Link to full article at page bottom.)

A historic midwest restaurant and popular tourist destination has long been one of the nation's largest importers of Swedish lingonberries, and it just got better.

At Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, lingonberries have been a staple item for generations. Until recently, however, few people aside from proud Swedes and Swedish Americans had ever heard of the fruit. 

That’s changing. As new studies keep touting the health benefits of the lingonberry, similar in flavor to the cranberry, its popularity is increasing as people learn of the red berry's many health benefits. 

Now Al Johnson’s, long one of the nation’s largest importers of Swedish lingonberries, is hoping to capitalize on its growing popularity and the restaurant’s recognizable name and story. 

Lingonberries may not seem so different from other fruit- or veggie-turned-condiment, like ketchup or mustard, but as Lars Johnson, son of the late Al Johnson and co-owner of his famous father's establishment, says, “When you run a restaurant, you find those things that seem simple are never really so simple at all.” 

Nearly every diner at Al Johnson’s is served a pewter tray of lingonberry sauce to go with their Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and, of course, the 112,000 orders of pancakes the restaurant serves every year. When you host as many diners as Al Johnson’s does, it adds up to a lot of 11-pound buckets of berries. In fact, Al’s will use more than 20,000 pounds of lingonberries this year. 

Necessity is the mother of invention 
A bad harvest a couple years ago left head chef Freddie Bexell scrambling to find enough supply to meet the demand. Though University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Elden Stang introduced the berry to the U.S. in the late 1980s, growers are still struggling to consistently cultivate it; and it grows almost exclusively in the wilds of Scandinavia and Canada. After calling several companies, Bexell finally found a small company that had the berries in a remote city in the far north of Sweden, called Lycksele. 

Bexell, a native of Sweden who grew up in the city Österbymo, about 11 hours south of Lycksele, knew he had stumbled onto a great product right away. 

“They weren’t like anything else on the market,” he says. “They’re not quite as sweet as a lot of the products out there. It’s more like a traditional Swedish lingonberry should be, and they’re completely organic.” 

Lingonberries have three times the polyphenols and twice the antioxidants of cranberries. They also contain high levels of benzoic acid, vitamin A and C, and magnesium. Like cranberries, they’ve been used to help treat blood disorders and urinary tract infections as well. 

And they are delicious. 

Bexell immediately began thinking of ways to take lingonberries beyond the restaurant. Though Door County folks associate them with pancakes, they’re also great on turkey sandwiches, in smoothies and as a sauce with game meats. 

A private label 
Al’s is now capitalizing on the growing popularity of these imported lingonberries by packaging them under the private label of their well-known name: “Al Johnson’s Wild Organic Lingonberries.” 

Former Al Johnson’s cook Kit Bütz moved with his family from Chicago back to Door County in 2014 to take on the task of marketing and distributing the products to specialty food stores, gourmet shops and grocery stores in the midwest. 

“The market is extremely competitive — and growing more so as word spreads of the health benefits of lingonberries,” Bütz says. And while other brands have jumped into the market, he says Al's has several advantages others lack. 

“I think ours is better than the other products out there, for one,” he says. “But we also have the Al Johnson’s name, which carries weight in Chicago and throughout the upper midwest. Plus it’s a great story — people love the Al Johnson’s story, and Freddie’s connection to Sweden makes it even more authentic.” 

But Bexell wasn’t comfortable putting the Al Johnson’s name on a product that originated from a company he had never seen in person. So, in May of 2014, he booked a trip to visit his home in Sweden and added a detour to Lycksele to meet the people behind the berries. 

“I needed to meet these guys in person if we were going to do this,” Bexell says. 

He caught the daily flight north from Stockholm to Lycksele and landed an hour and a half later, just a short distance from the Arctic Circle, to visit the Danica Foods factory. He landed at an airport “that makes Austin Straubel look like Chicago O’Hare,” where there was still snow on the ground in mid-May. 

“I didn’t know if I was going to be greeted by a guy in a suit or a farmer,” Bexell says. “There were two people waiting when I got off the plane, one of them in jeans and a T-shirt. I just hoped that was my guy, because it’s more my style.”

It was, and Bexell was impressed by the small-town nature of the lingonberry operation. He toured the facility, met many of the employees and spent hours talking to the owners. He left feeling that Al Johnson’s had found the right partner in the land of the restaurant’s roots. 

Now he is working on bringing several more products to the larger market, including maple syrup and Swedish pancake mix. For Bexell, it’s a chance to grow beyond the boundaries of the kitchen and contribute to his adopted home community. 

“I take pride in it, especially being from Sweden,” he says. “But if we can get this going, it’s also a way for us to grow and employ more people all year, not just seasonally. This can help the whole community if we do it right.” 

Coming up 
Al Johnson's is participating in a food and wine festival that's kicking off the summer season. On June 27, Uncork Summer will take over Wickman House Restaurant during Olde Ellison Bay Days, offering a "taste of Door County" that includes the best from local markets, breweries and restaurants. http://uncorksummer.com 

Al Johnson's Wild Organic Swedish Lingonberries will be available at the festival. Among other Swedish specialties, you can also enjoy Al Johnson's Pickled Beets, their rödbets sallad (beet salad), inlagd gurka (cucumber salad), Al Johnson's Pickled Herring, limpa and of course Swedish Pancake Mix ... which Bütz personally recommends pairing with Riesling, Danish Sommersby hard cider or dark, malty beer such as the Polka King porter from Door County Brewery. Or "last but not least, you can never go wrong with an Aquavit bloody mary." And if you're lucky, you'll see the goats enjoying a sunny day on Al Johnson's grass roof.

Freddie Lingonberries

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