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New restaurant soon to open in Ely, The Frisky Otter

by Parker Loew

The new owner of the former Rockwood Bar and Grill, Michael Cascone, plans on opening his restaurant The Frisky Otter in May of this year.

Cascone has been busy all winter remodeling the kitchen and interior of The Frisky Otter and says he wants to integrate his Italian heritage into the food and ambiance.

“I’m Italian, and my family has a few Italian restaurants,” said Cascone. “There will be Italian specialties on the menu as well as steaks and chops and things like that. We’re super stoked about it.”

A few specific items Cascone plans to have on the menu at the Frisky Otter are a marinated strip steak, a Boston baked haddock, and lasagna.

“Wednesday night, we’re probably going to do a pasta night. Friday nights will probably be a fish fry. Saturday night is prime rib night,” he said. “We’re going to try and have a special every night.”

Cascone said he wants to try and accommodate every price range at The Frisky Otter and said local approval was big for him.

“Many of our items will be reasonably priced,” he said. “We are also definitely going try to take care of the locals and listen to their wants and needs.”

The Frisky Otter might feel like a “Wisconsin Supper Club” according to Cascone, once they open.

Cascone decided to purchase the former Rockwood Bar and Grill because he has experience in the restaurant industry and wanted to own a restaurant in Ely.

The former Rockwood Bar and Grill had everything Cascone was looking for in his new restaurant.

“We have owned restaurants in the past, and I rehabbed one from the studs,” he said. “I didn’t want to do a big project like that, so this was perfect.”

“The kitchen is fabulous,” he continued. “We have upgraded a few things in the kitchen, like the new stove and steam table, but the layout is fantastic.”

Along with updates to the kitchen, Cascone has remodeled the dining area as well, including redoing the tile floors with stained wooden flooring. He plans on knocking out a few windows and installing some flatscreen TVs in the coming weeks.

“There were a couple of little minor things, but overall, the building was in great shape,” he said. “A lot of people know the building as the old Hardee’s, and it had a cold feel to it when you came in. That’s why we did the new flooring, just to warm it up.”

Making the dining area less fast-food-like and more family-dining-oriented is also why he is replacing some of the windows and replacing them with a wall or two.

“We are just trying to make it feel a little more comfortable, a little warmer,” he said.

One of the big draws to buying the former Rockwood Bar and Grill was the outdoor space, including the sizable parking lot, according to Cascone.

“Having a parking lot like this is a big plus, as well as the outdoor seating area,” he said. “Everyone’s excited about that. We plan on having bands perform here on weekends and hosting a variety of events.”

The biggest challenge Cascone expected to encounter when he purchased the former Rockwood Bar and Grill was the same problem that caused Rockwood to close originally, which was finding staff.

This issue is not new to the restaurant industry, especially in Ely, but so far, Cascone has been able to source staff for his new restaurant by promoting top pay and good benefits.

“It seems at this point, it’s kind of going well,” he said. “In the past, we’ve always treated our employees very well. At our last restaurant, we were open for 10 years, and 90% of those employees were there from the beginning to the end. We took really good care of them.”

While Cascone is trying to keep all the employment around renovating and staffing The Frisky Otter local, he said he has had applications coming in from all over the Iron Range.

“We’ve had a tremendous response to our job posting,” he said. “I’m getting people calling from as far as Cook.”

The Frisky Otter will be offering higher wages than most restaurants, but it’s the benefits that have historically helped Cascone retain employees.

“We’re offering probably a little higher wage than some other places, but the perks are great,” he said. “Full-time employees, after they’re here a few months, get an iPhone. We’ll pay for their basic service. We’re flexible as far as working with each employee to what their needs are.”

Cascone’s first experience with Ely was when he was 15 years old on a canoe trip to the BWCAW, and he has been coming on trips ever since.

In 2015, he bought a place with his family on Fall Lake, and though they just stayed there throughout the spring, summer, and fall, Cascone decided it was an area he wanted to live permanently and began looking to purchase a restaurant, which he finally did last year.

Cascone will be moving to Ely full-time within the next year and is excited because his family has so many friends who live in town.

“We feel like we’re filling in a niche,” he said. “There’s a lot of great places. There really is. But we think we’re going to have a little bit different of a menu and vibe, which will contribute to Ely’s culture and lifestyle.”

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