I ate a meatball sandwich at a restaurant this week, while a small herd of goats nibbled grass on the roof over my head.
It’s a tradition that dates back nearly half a century at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. The town is in a small community in tourist-friendly Door County, located on a 70-mile peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan north of Green Bay.
Johnson opened his restaurant, which features specialties like Swedish pancakes, pickled herring, lingonberry juice, and Swedish meatballs, in 1949. In the late 1960s, he remodeled the building and added a sod roof, a nod to houses built partly into hillsides in rural areas of Scandinavia.
How the goats got on the roof at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant
The new roof inspired Johnson’s childhood friend, Wink Larson. Every year for years, Larson had gifted Johnson with an animal on his birthday as a prank. Over the years, he gave Johnson a sheep, a duck, a pig, and a monkey, which Johnson always gave back.
In 1973, Larson marched into the restaurant’s kitchen toting a goat. He didn’t stop there, either. Larson propped up a ladder and lifted the goat, whose name was Oscar, onto the roof of the sturdy log structure. Larson fell and broke his collarbone in the process, but that didn’t dampen the fun.
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The goat began eating and became such a hit that Johnson let him stay. (Larson survived the fall, too.)
The prank, it turns out, was marketing genius. Customers began referring to Johnson’s restaurant as “the place with the goats on the roof.”
In 1996, Johnson trademarked the “goats on a roof of grass” gimmick. A New York attorney tried to strip the restaurant of the trademark starting in 2011, claiming it demeaned the goats, but in 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, effectively upholding the trademark.
The goat routine at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant
Today the goats don’t live on the roof full-time. Eighteen of the long-haired, black and white creatures live in a red barn about a mile and a half from the restaurant. Each day four to six of them clamber into the back of a pickup truck and ride to the restaurant, where they trot up a ramp onto the lush lawn. There, they watch customers come and go while they nibble grass.
You can watch the action from the comfort of your home on this goat cam.
During my visit this week, tourists gathered outside the restaurant, snapping pictures of the goats as they munched and peered down on their admirers.
“It’s probably really good people watching,” says Kit Butz, who handles marketing for Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant.
The restaurant has added a beer garden and several outbuildings, all of which have sod roofs. One is wilder than the manicured lawn atop the main restaurant; another is all clover.
Up on the roof with the goats
After I finished my sandwich yesterday, the restaurant staff invited my small group of traveling companions onto the roof to see the critters up close. We climbed a wooden staircase, opened a gate, and got the goat’s view of things.
The goats are friendly. One, named Snowball, wanted the cookies I was carrying in a bag. (I didn’t let him have any.) Some of them moved in for petting and snuggles. A few of the more aloof goats just scampered to another part of the roof, which isn’t terribly steep.
Apparently, no goat has ever fallen off the roof. The grass gets watered periodically, and even though the goats eat non-stop, someone has to use an electric mower to keep it looking good.