BEMIDJI — Marv Hanson has worn many hats in his lifetime. But a constant theme runs through his past: a desire to help his fellow American Indians.
Born in Red Lake, Hanson will continue that work when he opens the Marvelous Fish House and Market in the former El Mariachi building next month.
There, fresh walleye from Red Lake Fisheries and wild rice from Red Lake Nation Foods will be served. Moreover, the executive chef preparing those meals is American Indian, and Hanson plans on hiring many tribal members looking for work.
"I think this is really the first major Indian business that has really come to Bemidji," Hanson said. "And given our surrounding Indian population, I know that I’ll have some loyal tribal customers."
After working for Grand Casino as its vice president, Hanson returned to Red Lake and eventually became executive director of New Beginnings, a job placement and skill development program. There, Hanson said he found jobs for American Indians in companies such as Polaris, Walmart and Target.
"The tribe doesn’t have enough jobs for everyone that’s on the reservation," Hanson said. "We had probably 1,300 tribal members looking for jobs when I was running the program."
Hanson got the idea for opening a restaurant while visiting with a representative of the Bemidji Walmart about how many of their customers come from the nearby reservations.
"And when I talked to her about that, I got to thinking, ‘Why don’t we just do something like that?’" Hanson said. "Meaning the tribe, or an individual, do something in Bemidji because there’s so many Indian people who spend money here."
A fish house wasn’t his first choice, however.
Hanson first reached out to representatives from Famous Dave’s, a chain launched by an old friend and mentor Dave Anderson. Hanson had worked with Anderson before he became "Famous Dave," helping launch casinos in Minnesota and across the country.
But that plan fell through.
"And so I decided, ‘You know what, why not do my own?"
Hanson got a hold of Michael Christensen, a chef he’s known since they worked together at Grand Casino 20 years ago.
Christensen, who currently works in Albuquerque, N.M., said he envisions the menu featuring different takes in American Indian dishes, such as hush puppies made out of wild rice. It will also include traditional menu items such as fish and chips, lobster, shrimp and crab legs.
Hanson’s restaurant will be in the former El Mariachi building located at 801 Washington Ave. S.
The building, owned by Whelan Properties LLC, is being leased by David Mendoza, who also owns Mi Rancho on the north side of town. Hanson will sublease the building from Mendoza to open the fish restaurant.
El Mariachi had been closed over the winter with plans to reopen in the spring until Hanson came along with a proposal for his restaurant.
"I think it’s too much work for me," Mendoza said of running both Mi Rancho and El Mariachi. "I think it’s good for both sides."
The Marvelous Fish House — a named derived by Hanson’s many nicknames growing up — will open May 16. Until then, he’s overseeing the final preparations and the remodel of the building.
The restaurant will be American Indian-themed, with old photos of American Indians lining the walls, a nod to his people’s history.
But looking to their future, Hanson wants to create a scholarship to St. John’s prep school near St. Cloud, Hanson’s alma mater, out of the restaurant’s revenues. He said having a solid education is what allowed him to be successful.
"But more than anything, I think we bring just something that’s different that’s been missing in Bemidji forever," Hanson said of the restaurant. "And being an Indian guy, I feel good about just being that guy that brought that here.
"And hopefully the Bemidji community will be receptive to this place as some of the Indian people will from around Bemidji."