Grandma's Restaurant Plays Key Role in Canal Park's rebirth

Duluth's Canal Park - From Junkyard to Gem - Part 2

Grandma's Restaurant opened in 1976, long before Canal Park was a tourist area. 

Circled is the Grandma's Restaurant building in old Canal Park. Photo submitted.

Grandma's Restaurant opened in 1976. This 1978 photo demonstrates what the neighborhood looked like then. Photo submitted.

When it comes to Duluth’s success stories, Grandma’s Restaurants are arguably near the top of the list. Established in 1976, the brand is positively iconic to anyone familiar with Duluth.

Simply seeing the distinctive, lowercase “g” in its logo or driving past one of their billboards - advertising thick, juicy burgers, crisp onion rings, and giant, chocolatey malts - can set anyone’s mouth to watering.

And many of us can instantly recognize Grandma Rosa Brochi, the company’s matronly mascot, wearing her floral headpiece and a sardonic smile.

But, when we say “Grandma’s,” we aren’t referring to simply one restaurant. The company, which operates under the corporate name Grandma’s Restaurant Company, offers a variety of dishes served in several unique venues. The Grandma’s of today offers something for all palates, including all-American classics, local delicacies, Southwestern, Italian cuisine, and plenty of award-winning wines.

The Grandma’s family has grown to include:

  • Grandma’s original location in Canal Park - (opened in 1976)
  • The Garden (formerly Grandma’s Sports Garden) - opened in 1989
  • Grandma’s Saloon & Grill in Virginia, Minnesota (opened in 1991)
  • Grandma’s Saloon & Grill on Miller Hill (opened in 1992)
  • Little Angie’s Cantina & Grill (opened in 1994)
  • Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar (opened in 1997),
  • Catering by Bellisio’s (added in 2021)
  • Adventure Zone, opened in 2001, a place for year-round family fun in Canal Park.

The Little Angie's building in the 1980's. Photo submitted

Little Angie’s Cantina & Grill opened in 1994.

And, of course, there is another similar-sounding organization that has become synonymous with Duluth: Grandma’s Marathon. While the restaurant and marathon are now separate entities, their beginnings are inexorably intertwined.

A Special Treat

Today, while the Grandma’s brand is incredibly well-known, many do not know the story behind the name. We at Destination Duluth recently had the opportunity to visit with company owner and co-founder Andy Borg, Jr.

Andy Borg, Jr. is co-founder and owner of Grandma's Restaurant Company.

This conversation was a unique opportunity that doesn’t come up very often. Many are not even familiar with Borg’s name, and this is just how he likes it.

“Andy rarely gives interviews,” said Tony Bronson, Director of Business Development - Grandma’s Restaurant Company. “So, this is a real feather in your cap.”


Despite being a titan of Duluth’s tourism industry and owning various hotels and other businesses, Borg remains a very low-key guy.

“Walking through Canal Park, I’m just another visitor enjoying the area,” he explained. “My wife usually tells me I should dress a little nicer, but I like to blend in wearing jeans and a t-shirt.”

The story of Grandma’s Restaurants goes back – way back - to an early friendship between Borg and the children of Jeno Paulucci, the American food industry magnate, investor, and philanthropist who built a life and raised his family in Duluth.

Borg was born and raised in Superior, but his family had a summer cabin on Duluth’s Pike Lake, where the Pauluccis had a summer estate. At age 16, Borg struck up a friendship with Cindy Paulucci; a chance encounter that ultimately led to him becoming an employee and, eventually, a trusted family confidante.

“I started out as the Paulucci family’s personal lifeguard,” Borg explained. “I brought the kids swimming, painted their docks, and did maintenance.”

Borg recalls being treated very kindly by the Pauluccis. “I felt like more of a member of the family than an employee,” he noted. “But with that said, Mr. Paulucci was verrrry particular,” he added with a grin. “Ultimately, I learned a lot from his high standards.”

Fast forward a few years, and Borg worked for another Paulucci - Michael “Mick” Paulucci, four years Borg’s senior. Like his father, Jeno, Mick had big dreams of entrepreneurship.

Then & Now photos of Grandma's Restaurant co-founders Michael “Mick” Paulucci, and Andy Borg. Photo submitted

Borg eventually had the opportunity to work for Paulucci Enterprises, which was run by Jeno and Mick, while concurrently running a side business buying and restoring antiques and bartending in Superior. Eventually, another idea was born.

“I remember Mick saying, ‘I’d like to invest in the Spirit Mountain area,’” Borg recalled. “He said, ‘I’d like to build a nightclub up there.’” So, Mick began investing in Spirit Mountain real estate and Andy kept buying old signs.

However, liquor licenses were incredibly hard to come by at the time. So, a pivot was made. “The owner of the Sand Bar in Canal Park was willing to sell. The original idea wasn’t to open Grandma’s down here but to secure the liquor license and then eventually transfer the license and build a nightclub up near Spirit Mountain.”

The Sand Bar was purchased by the co-founders of Grandma's Restaurant mostly for its liquor license. Photo submitted.

Andy Borg demolishes the interior of the Sand Bar in preparation for renovation to Grandma's Restaurant. Photo submitted.

The young Borg had never harbored any ambitions to become a restaurateur, but he was smart, hard-working, and had a life-long passion for good food. “My dad wanted me to be an attorney, I wanted to be an architect, but I ended up being a hamburger-flipping restaurant guy,” he said with a chuckle.


Upon announcing their plans, reactions were mixed. “We told Mick’s mom {Lois Paulucci} that we wanted to build a restaurant,” Borg noted. “She wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. But Jeno was very enthusiastic. After all, he was a food guy. He gave us lots of constructive, colorful criticism. There were ultimately some hard lessons learned there.”

While it’s almost impossible to envision the restaurant operating under any other name, it was almost called something else entirely. “Mick wanted to name it Mother’s,” Borg explained. “But we learned we couldn’t use that name because it was already in use. So, Mick said, ‘How about Grandma’s?’”

The name stuck. It helped that the two were already dealing in antiques so that the restaurant could be adorned with plenty of vintage items collected from all around the area, a sweet nod to grandmothers everywhere.

And what about the company’s iconic figurehead, the legend known as Grandma Rosa Brochi?

The legend-filled story woven around “Grandma Rosa” is that of a stern madam working on Duluth’s waterfront red-light district. The present location of the original Grandma’s restaurant was at one time a brothel, which served the sailors of the Twin Ports.

“The picture we use for Grandma Rosa may not be the original madam, but, hey … we needed to change some names and faces to protect the innocent,” noted Borg with a smile.

Early Days

Borg shared some interesting memories of the restaurant’s opening on Sunday, February 8th, 1976. “We were still staining woodwork the night the restaurant opened,” he shared. “We didn’t have servers at first. We were planning to be a self-serve deli with a saloon.

“Customers asked for servers, so on Monday, February 9th, we got busy hiring and training servers,” he added. “And the full-service concept came to life.”

People started to trickle in once word spread about the restaurant’s delicious food. So, a promotional Sunday brunch was added, followed by burger night, Mexican night, Italian night, lobster night, and spaghetti night. The promotions worked, and the trickle became a steady stream of loyal customers.

Grandma's interior in the early days. Photo submitted.

Dishes featuring Minnesota wild rice have also been extremely popular at Grandma’s. “One of my favorite local restaurants is Taste of Saigon, and my favorite dish is their fried rice,” Borg said.

“I’m in there one day thinking, ‘If they can make this wonderful dish of rice, what if we created a dish substituting wild rice for the white rice? It has ended up being so successful that at one point, we were the restaurant selling the most wild rice in the entire world, and may still be today.”

At Grandma’s, wild rice is used in everything from soups and side dishes to burgers. This eventually caught the attention of a very well-known enterprise.

“To our surprise, the folks from Sam’s Club came calling; they wanted to package and sell our signature recipe, Grandma’s wild rice soup in their stores,” Borg explained. “This partnership continued for many years.”


Over the years, many additional Grandma’s locations were added to the portfolio, taking inspiration from some familiar people and places.

For instance, Bellisio’s was named for the Italian village where Jeno Paulucci’s parents were born. And Little Angie’s was named for Mick’s young daughter, Angie. Over the years, many additional restaurants were added in the Twin Cities, the Carolinas, and a few other locations, but have since been sold.

Belisio building Then & Now. Photos submitted.

And Grandma’s Marathon was so named because Grandma’s Restaurants was the original sponsor of the race. Eventually, the race became too much for the restaurant managers to oversee, and it was turned over completely to the race founder, Scott Keenan, and the non-profit organization that was formed.

Grandma’s Restaurants have proudly employed over 10,000 people over the past 47 years. The business has provided jobs and hospitality skills for many, some of whom have moved on to spectacular careers in various fields.

But the company appears to be a great place to build an entire career, too; many employees have a tenure of 30+ years. “We may be the oldest consecutively, locally-owned and operated restaurant business in Duluth,” Borg noted.

Passion for Hospitality

In 2014, Borg purchased the majority ownership from his long-term partner, Mick Paulucci. Now, nearing 50 years in the restaurant business, Borg has no plans to slow down.

Besides eating at Grandma’s, Borg enjoys patronizing the locally-owned and operated food scene in the area. “I still love the classics like the Pickwick and Shamrock Pizza,” he said.

Although his initial plans to become an architect changed, Borg is very proud of the Grandma’s Restaurant Company he and his team have created.

“My favorite part about the restaurant business is still the people, both our customers and my fellow employees,” he said. “And I am still learning from each of those groups every day.”

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Read Part 1 - Duluth's Canal Park - From Junkyard to Gem here


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