Bringing a neighborhood back to life through food and song
Emily Hurd Christensen, owner of The Norwegian, a breakfast pub in Rockford, Ill., says, “I don’t want to be interviewed under false pretenses. My ancestry is Swedish. It’s my husband who is Norwegian.”
That’s hairsplitting really, because Emily’s bustling restaurant exudes a Nordic aesthetic that has little to do with national boundaries and everything to do with good food, community-building, and a deep respect for the land from which the food is sourced. The miniature skyline of Bergen’s oceanfront in the children’s area also gives the restaurant a bit of “Norske cred.”
It’s easy to spot The Norwegian along North Main Street on Rockford’s westside. Cheerful, bright, and located in the corner of a large, red brick building from the city’s glory days as an industrial river town 90-some years ago, it’s part of a checkerboard of new businesses opening in an area that had been mostly abandoned. Emily is responsible for a great deal of that new life happening in the neighborhood.
The menu has brunch items familiar to Americans, along with Nordic specialties. “I lure people in with the omelets, then have them stay for the gravlax and frikadeller,” says Emily. The drink menu is the same way. A person can order a mimosa, but honestly, who wouldn’t want to try a Sauna Jumper if given the opportunity?
A native of Rockford, Emily graduated from high school, then attended the International Institute of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts. After working in restaurants on the East Coast and in Chicago, she attended Columbia College Chicago for her other abiding interest: music. Singing, songwriting, touring, hosting “supper clubs” in her apartment, combining good food and good music, kept Emily busy and happy for years in Chicago. After the sudden death of her father in 2013, however, Emily decided it was time to return to Rockford to be close to her mother and to make music and food in her hometown.
That was a bold move. Rockford, though a Midwestern city, has faced all the same problems as northeastern Rust Belt cities and has repeatedly turned up on various internet rankings as one of the worst cities in the United States to live. Undeterred, Emily looked to buy a historic building in which to start her dream restaurant—a breakfast pub that is open a couple of evenings a week for live music and cocktails.
She found her building and bought it, knowing that she was going to have to do a lot of the restoration work herself. “I learned carpentry from my father, my husband, and YouTube,” she says. The building had been abandoned, and squatters had lived there are one point, so there was also a lot of old-fashioned hauling of junk and loading dumpsters.
Then came the discovery of asbestos. Unable to get a bank loan, as banks considered giving money to a musician too risky, Emily turned to Kickstarter. Her story resonated with people and her goal of $93,000 was exceeded by $8,000. Emily was able to have the asbestos professionally removed and disposed of, then install 4,000 square feet of new flooring.
The building progressed, helped by a continual flow of friends and neighbors who showed up, day after day, to help. Meanwhile, Emily had to schedule, travel, and perform 52 house concerts as Kickstarter rewards to supporters for who gave $300 or more. “People think you’re just given money with Kickstarter, but you really work for it, just in a different way,” Emily laughs.
Emily’s vision for the restaurant was shaped by her childhood. “My Swedish grandmother made great breakfasts,” she says. “I wanted to lean into my Nordic inclinations. I followed her example. She was so classy bringing the outside inside when she set the table, even with the humblest foods.” Emily took inspiration from her grandmother’s river cottage; the interior of The Norwegian is reclaimed Rockford wood. Some is from buildings and barns in the area, other is from family land and milled at her home.
The warm atmosphere created by the burnished wood and the sun pouring in the large windows completes the effect. “I wanted to make this a place that no one wanted to leave,” says Emily. (She succeeded; The Norwegian has now had to implement a 90-minute limit on outside tables.)
Customer Mandy Schumacher, a print artist specializing in Nordic designs, says, “It’s the community touches, like the children’s area, that make The Norwegian so special.” Server Verity Graham likes the warmth, both from the interior design and people’s interactions. “It’s like back home,” says the native of York, England.
As for the menu, Emily decided to fine tune the Nordic theme to Norwegian foods. “Rockford already has several Swedish restaurants, so I took a different direction,” she says. Lefse, of course, would have to be part of the menu. Emily contacted Ingebretsen’s in Minneapolis to arrange a private lefse class for her head chef.
Lefse teacher Heidi Eger says, “It was such a joy to teach Emily and her chef how to make lefse the way my grandmother taught me. They had such enthusiasm and focus on getting the details right that I knew the restaurant would be a success.”
Emily also began contacting suppliers for fresh and foraged food in northern Illinois, working directly with farmers and producers. Doug Medearis of Medearis Apiary in Pecatonica, Ill., enjoys working with Emily. “She is very selective and takes a great interest in what you do and how you do it,” he says. Doug reciprocates the courtesy shown. “Every time I do a draw (collect the honey), the flavor is different. When I have something really special, I give her a shout,” he says.
The Norwegian opened its doors in 2018, with a daytime brunch menu and weekend hours with a dinner menu, cocktails, and live music. Then COVID-19 and Illinois’ stringent lockdown began. Emily and her staff pivoted to an outdoor market, building huts and tables, and inviting vendors to sell directly to customers. Of course, there had to be glögg. “The first weekend I made 25 gallons. It went so fast!” says Emily. The outdoor market kept the business afloat and this summer, restaurants were allowed to resume indoor seating.
Right now, Illinois is allowing restaurants to remain open, but The Norwegian staff is prepared to shift again quickly if another lockdown occurs. Like all of us, Emily is hoping that isn’t necessary. Customers coming through the door see Emily and she greets them by name. People who haven’t seen each other for months are hugging in the parking lot before coming in to enjoy Norwegian waffles with the house raspberry sauce. People ask the bartender when the live music events will return, eyeing the stage with anticipation.
People are also going to the studios on the second floor. Emily rents out the second floor, and the huge building is filling up with artists, yoga practitioners, classes, and energy. She’s made an impact here, but she knows that much more must be done to rebuild the city.
“If people wait for change from the top down, it’s not going to happen,” she says. She hopes that more people will become involved in creating music venues, organizing more clean-ups of the Rock River, which flows through the middle of the city, and developing more job opportunities. It is the small business owners and residents of Rockford that will drive the change, and she hopes more will join her in committing to the city. In the meantime, The Norwegian provides hygge, community, and Nordic food to customers who value this bright spot in a reviving river town.
All photos courtesy of The Norwegian.
1402 N. Main St.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.