VERGAS, Minn. Opening a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic might sound like an unappetizing idea to most entrepreneurs, but for Terri Trickle and Sara Watson, the pandemic is the reason they started their new restaurant.

Watson’s job was eliminated because of COVID-19, Trickle explained, and the two lifelong friends, both in their 50s, were each searching for something to do. They found that something when a restaurant in the area went up for sale, in a charming historic schoolhouse on five country acres in Vergas, not far from their parents’ lake homes.

“Let’s buy it,” Trickle recalls her friend proposing one day, out of the blue. “And so we did. We looked at it on May 11 and bought it on May 29. It was quick.”

Since opening in late June, their restaurant, Blackboard, has had no problem drawing people in. And judging from the rave reviews on Facebook and spread via word of mouth, Blackboard’s a bona fide hit. Already, Blackboard made it into Midwest Nest magazine’s August 2020 issue as a featured “dining destination.”

The two had never considered running a business together before, and the pursuit was spontaneous, Trickle said, “But nothing ventured, nothing gained. We figured we might as well try it, even though it was just the dumbest time to open a restaurant.”

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As it turned out, the business has “brought us hope and an opportunity in the midst of a really crummy time in the world.”

Chef Watson's house smoked chicken dinner: half of a house smoked chicken, roast garlic mashed potatoes, creamed corn, haricot verts and roast chicken veloute. (Blackboard Facebook photo, used with permission)
Chef Watson's house smoked chicken dinner: half of a house smoked chicken, roast garlic mashed potatoes, creamed corn, haricot verts and roast chicken veloute. (Blackboard Facebook photo, used with permission)

The two south Moorhead, Minn., residents have decades of experience between them as business owners in the region: Trickle has owned commercial and residential painting companies in Little Falls and Moorhead, while Watson and her husband have owned and operated a number of restaurants in the Fargo area, including Maxwell’s, Mezzaluna, Mosaic Catering and others.

The Watsons’ reputation is such that in 2019, Fargo Monthly dubbed them "Fargo-Moorhead’s culinary couple."

“I knew we could absolutely do it,” Trickle said of running a restaurant with Watson, even during a pandemic. “Because I know what her skills are, and I know what my skills are.”

While the two have faced added challenges, rules and restrictions because of COVID-19, Trickle’s instincts about their abilities appear to have been dead-on.

Things at the restaurant have been going so well, Trickle said, that, “I can’t imagine what this is going to be like when COVID is over ... What in the world are we going to do when people can actually go out? Because we’ve already got a line out the door every night.”

Blackboard serves specialty cocktails, like this Agave mint julep, all year round. (Blackboard Facebook photo, used with permission)
Blackboard serves specialty cocktails, like this Agave mint julep, all year round. (Blackboard Facebook photo, used with permission)

With a mix of indoor, outdoor and porch seating, a cozy fire pit and fairly frequent live outdoor music, Blackboard has had no trouble filling to its COVID-19 capacity on warm summer evenings, bringing in about 160 people a night, according to Trickle. Many of those are tourists just traveling through, but they also have a growing group of local “regulars” who keep coming back again and again.

Blackboard has a unique menu that changes almost daily, featuring creative dishes with a flair that’s hard to find in rural areas. One night’s featured entree might be honey smoked salmon with red quinoa, black beans, artichoke hearts and sweet tomatoes — a fan favorite — while the next night it might be sweet corn and sausage stuffed pheasant breast wrapped in prosciutto.

There are also familiar standards such as burgers, appetizers, soups and desserts, but everything at Blackboard has some sort of original, tasty twist. Many menu items, particularly the nightly chef's features, are made with seasonal, fresh, local ingredients. There’s always at least one vegetarian dish on the menu, as well as gluten-free options.

This campfire cocktail paired perfectly with s’mores (cooked over the outdoor fire pit at Blackboard). (Blackboard Facebook photo, used with permission)
This campfire cocktail paired perfectly with s’mores (cooked over the outdoor fire pit at Blackboard). (Blackboard Facebook photo, used with permission)

“The food is fun. It’s all real and whole,” said Trickle. “Everybody loves our homemade chicken cordon bleu, and our homemade meatloaf. Everything is homemade.”

The building’s history as an old schoolhouse inspired the name Blackboard, and antique blackboards have been incorporated into the restaurant’s decor. Blackboard’s logo even gives a nod to the old Independent School District number, 166.

Blackboard is open 4-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and sometimes on Sundays for mid-morning brunch. Check the Blackboard Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Blackboardmn for special events and announcements, or call 218-758-2619.