At Letica’s Iron Mug, the décor is an easygoing mixture of old and new. Chrome furniture, twinkly lights and exposed ductwork are juxtaposed with vintage black-and-white photos featuring shots of Morgan Park’s graduating classes and some of the community’s staple businesses, such as Park State Bank. Add to that the fact that the business is housed within the Lake View Store building, considered by some to be the nation’s very first indoor mall, and you have an intriguing venue.
Besides being a coffee house, restaurant and a great place to grab a cold beer or watch the game, Letica’s Iron Mug is a Morgan Park gathering place. Its energetic owner, Duluthian Mike Letica, is often on-site, and the venue is frequently used as a planning hub and drop-off site for many of his community outreach activities.
With weekly activities such as karaoke, comedy nights and live music, along with weekly pizza buffets and weekend breakfasts, the Iron Mug has something for everyone. While the pizza is baking and the coffee is percolating, plans are often being hatched to organize a toy drive or collect supplies for the homeless.
Mike Letica had never considered becoming a restaurateur. After all, he was doing pretty well for himself in the business world. He worked at Curtis Oil for 35 years, in addition to operating a groundskeeping business, Letica Lawn Care, with his son, Dusty. He also works as a business consultant, and at the time, owned an online auction company.
Letica also has a busy personal life; he is married, with two adult children and five grandchildren. But, when he heard that Morgan Park’s Iron Mug, most recently owned by Paul Johnson, would be closing and the community asked him to step in and help, he didn’t hesitate. Letica said he received over 30 calls, texts, emails and Facebook messages, imploring him to take over operations, which would launch his career in a new direction.
“I would have never thought to do it. It was 100 percent because the community wanted me to,” he said, referencing the wide detour in his professional path. “I’d never owned a restaurant, but over the years, I’ve learned that business is business.”
Letica re-branded the business Letica’s Iron Mug, and re-opened the establishment on June 9, 2018. Letica currently employs five people, including his wife of 36 years and co-owner of the business, Shirley, and general manager Johnny Northfield.
Letica, who was born and raised in Duluth’s Gary neighborhood, graduated from Morgan Park High School in 1980. Although he now lives in Midway Township, the Morgan Park community is deeply imprinted on his DNA. He’s proud to own a business here, and happily cuts the lawns of his business-owner neighbors for half-price, so that visitors get a good first impression of the community.
“Some people come here to eat, and they’ve never been to Morgan Park before,” he said. “It’s really shown people how beautiful it is out here.”
Letica is well-known in the Duluth community for his acts of service. If you watched the local news around the time that Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, in August 2017, you’ll recognize him as the high-energy individual who organized a cash and supply drive in the parking lot of Denfeld High School. With $12,000 in cash raised and over 45,000 pounds of items donated, that event vastly exceeded expectations. Letica then personally drove nonstop to the Lone Star State, along with several other volunteers, in order to deliver the items to hurricane victims.
“I was watching CNN after Hurricane Harvey,” Letica said, “And I saw a lady carrying a tiny baby. I told my wife, ‘I gotta do something.’ I don’t plan these things in advance; if something comes up, I just do it.”
Additionally, Letica has organized a toy drive, diaper drive, backpack drive and drives for the homeless. The toy drive, known as “Make Every Child Smile,” has been going on for the past three years and has given Christmas gifts to more than 1,300 children. Causes helping children and the homeless are particularly close to Letica’s heart. “I’d do just about anything for them,” he said.
The Iron Mug has become a convenient drop-off location for donations, and a natural place for event volunteers to congregate before getting to work. Letica will often reward them with a much-deserved pizza dinner, to thank them for their efforts. Occasionally, Letica also randomly decides to donate a portion of sale proceeds to charitable causes.
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said he and the Duluth Police Department have pitched in multiple times to help Letica with his community service efforts, including a backpack drive, and an event to raise money for youth sports in western Duluth. “Mike is very passionate about giving a hand up to those who are struggling,” Tusken said. “He’s got a heart of gold. It’s great to know we have a community partner like Mike. He really knows how to mobilize people.”
And, Valley Youth Center Program Director Angelo Simone, who has collaborated with Letica on several community service efforts, agreed. “Mike Letica has a big heart, and he’s got such great connections,” Simone said. “The toy drive gets bigger and bigger every year, and it’s been such a blessing to help these kids get what they deserve.”
The menu at Letica’s Iron Mug is diverse. You can order an ice cream cone, a beer, or a sandwich. The restaurant serves salads, pizzas, soups and appetizers, as well as pastries and specialty coffees. Menu items feature fun, Morgan Park street-themed names, such as the Edward, Arbor and Concord. There are also weekly specials and other fun events.
For instance, Mondays and Fridays, there is a pizza buffet, and Thursdays feature a taco bar. On Saturdays and Sundays, breakfast is served, Friday nights offer karaoke, and Saturday nights feature live music and comedy. There is even a kids’ karaoke option on Saturday afternoons from 2-4.
And any time the Minnesota Vikings or the UMD Bulldogs hockey teams are playing, you can catch the game. “I have 11 speakers hooked up to a 70-inch TV,” Letica said. “It feels like you’re in the stadium.” The back room at the Iron Mug can also be reserved for birthday parties, business meetings and other special events.
Letica is very pleased at how this career change has worked out for him, and how Letica’s Iron Mug is benefiting the Morgan Park neighborhood — in more ways than one. “It’s turned into the hub of the community,” he said. “It makes me so proud.”
Andrea Busche is a Duluth freelance writer.