Northern Minnesota restaurants lead per capita

The Great Northern Cafe in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Park Rapids has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in the state. I'll be broadcasting my Great Northern Radio Show from there Saturday evening on Northern Community Radio.

The Great Northern Cafe in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Park Rapids has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in the state. I’ll be broadcasting my Great Northern Radio Show from Armory Square in Park Rapids on Saturday evening on Northern Community Radio. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

It’s no secret that tourism is big business in Northern Minnesota. The hospitality and recreation industries employ thousands, while the ebb and flow of tourists are a big part of life here in the North Woods.

I often write about Northern Minnesota’s economy, and how its actual composition compares with the idealized one usually discussed in the media. Mining, for instance, gets a lot of attention for its employment figures, and for good reason. Today’s mining jobs are the highest paid positions available to people on the Iron Range without having to leave the area for advanced degrees. But the number of mining jobs available are much smaller than the number of service jobs held by the kinds of unskilled works who, 100 years ago, would have been working in the underground mines and domestic kitchens of yore.

More dollars in mining; more people in service fields. More dollars in doctors and medical facilities; more workers in nursing and personal care.

Where do the young work? Restaurants and gas stations. Where do people new to the area work at first? Restaurants and gas stations. In short, restaurants and other service businesses are a big deal here, and there is numeric evidence to support the theory.

The Pine Poker, a community blog based in Pine City, ranked Minnesota towns based on restaurants per capita. No, this isn’t a qualitative study. Those restaurants include Subways, Arby’s and joints where the deep fryer does the work of ten men. But it shows you the tilt toward higher restaurant ratios in small, rural places.

Tops on the list? Brainerd. In this Crow Wing County seat the Poker finds one restaurant for every 89 permanent resident. This isn’t terribly surprising, since Brainerd remains one of Minnesota’s biggest bastions of  tourism.

The second city on the list, however, with 91 residents per restaurant, came as a surprise: the Iron Range city of Virginia. Looking at the list it’s clear that one of the things that propels Virginia so high on the list is a healthy roster of traditional and chain restaurants, coupled with the town’s historically robust bar scene, where tiny pizzas and wings might be enough to classify some watering holes as feeding stations.

The Poker’s hometown of Pine City is third at 104:1, followed by Park Rapids (106:1), which is also the city where I’ll be broadcasting my newest Great Northern Radio Show this Saturday at 5 p.m. Rounding out the top ten: Detroit Lakes (108:1), Alexandria (129:1), Perham 136:1), another tourist epicenter in Ely (138:1); Wabasha (148:1) and a larger town, Bemidji (156:1). The full list may be found here.

You have to be careful making too many assumptions about a list like this. It’s a simple calculation of the number of restaurants listed on Urban Spoon for given towns, divided by its most recent Census totals. Still, I live in Northern Minnesota, near many of the towns that ended up on the list. Even among towns not listed, the restaurants are something of an economic and cultural hub. As businesses, they’re not particularly profitable, nor is working at one particularly lucrative. Quite the opposite, actually.

So, too, is the nature of Northern Minnesota’s economy. Quality of life is often quite high here, but it’s literally a different economy than the one found in the Twin Cities. Sure there are many, many restaurants in the Twin Cities, more than anywhere else. But the proportion of restaurants to people is perhaps one small clue to a larger hypothesis.

Northern Minnesota is built to serve and extract. The state’s more prosperous cities are built to create, generate and keep wealth. The best economic news for us up North is that we can drown our sorrows with unlimited coffee and a plate full of eggs most any time we want.  We can mine until the ore runs out. The bad news, or perhaps the challenge, is that our tireless service workers can’t afford to eat the food they serve. A vast number of our population have yet to find their economic footing in modern times. Oh, the possibilities if we ever do.

Order up!


This piece was cross-posted with my Up North Report blog at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


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