A new lease on life for Whitey’sWhitey’s had been a fixture in the local bar and restaurant scene for more than 80 years before abruptly closing its doors in February. A local buyer’s offer was selected Sunday to purchase the Whitey’s Cafe building, its equipment and furnishings, the building’s second-floor apartments and the rights to the Whitey’s name and brand.
By: By Ryan Schuster, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Whitey’s had been a fixture in the local bar and restaurant scene for more than 80 years before abruptly closing its doors in February.
A local buyer’s offer was selected Sunday to purchase the Whitey’s Cafe building, its equipment and furnishings, the building’s second-floor apartments and the rights to the Whitey’s name and brand.
Greg Stennes, a longtime owner and manager of the famed establishment and a partner in the group selling Whitey’s, declined to identify the prospective new owner. The sale has not been completed and the potential new owner’s financing has not yet been verified by those selling the business.
The new owner plans to keep the Whitey’s name and run a similarly themed concept, Stennes said.
Despite declining profitability in recent years and an ownership change that ultimately led to the landmark East Grand Forks bar and restaurant’s demise, local business leaders say Whitey’s could make a successful comeback if the new owner does things right.
“It’s a great location,” said Dennis Blackmun, co-owner of Joe Black’s Bar & Grill in Grand Forks. “The Blue Moose and Applebee’s are doing well. Why shouldn’t Whitey’s do well?”
But Blackmun and other observers cautioned that the new owner needs to make some changes.
“You’ve got to do something,” said Blackmun, who attended Sunday’s auction but decided not to make an offer after the prospective owner offered the asking price of $650,000. “You can’t just open the same place back up. What can you offer that would be different than they had before? It could work, but the right person has to be there with the right concept and put enough time into it. It can’t be an absentee owner.”
Jim Richter, the executive director of East Grand Forks’ Economic Development Housing Authority, described the sale of the building as “a turning point” for the city’s downtown.
“This is a key piece for downtown,” Richter said. “It has been talked about as bookends on the boardwalk with the Blue Moose on one end and Whitey’s on the other end. With (owner Bob Moore) and the River Cinema doing well and bringing people downtown, it is a nice environment. Someone with energy is going to get in there and make it work.”
Many consider the Whitey’s location to be ideal. The building is located on the boardwalk in East Grand Forks next to the busy River Cinema movie theater and Cabela’s and a short bridge trip from downtown Grand Forks.
“The location is superb and the history and heritage is there,” Stennes said. “It’s a beautiful spot to be in.”
Despite the benefits of the location, Dave Norman, a member of the former ownership group in charge when the restaurant was shuttered, cited “the competitive nature of the marketplace” in a February interview with the Herald as one of the reasons for its closing.
The Blue Moose Bar & Grill, Applebee’s, Mamma Maria’s and Mike’s Pizza are all located within a stone’s throw of the Whitey’s site. Little Bangkok has also started to develop a following a block away.
But Dave Homstad, co-owner and general manager of the Blue Moose, said he isn’t worried about increased competition from a newly reopened Whitey’s.
“I’m anxious to have another good competitor in the marketplace,” Homstad said. “Competition makes everyone better and brings more people down here.”
Homstad said he hasn’t noticed much of an impact on business since Whitey’s closed, but added the closing appears to have increased traffic a bit at a few nearby restaurants.
Another plus for a new owner is the building includes seven second-floor apartments and their existing leases. Stennes said he doesn’t expect the new owner to make any significant changes to the apartments.
Restaurants and bars have a historically high rate of failure, particularly those under independent ownership.
“You have to be very careful in the food business,” Richter said. “You can be in and out in a hurry.”
Downtown East Grand Forks has also changed considerably from when Whitey’s Wonderbar debuted in 1930 as the first stainless steel horseshoe bar in the U.S. and the city was known as “Little Chicago” for its multitude of bars and nightclubs.
The late night bar hopping scene has shifted from East Grand Forks to Grand Forks now that Minnesota no longer has a lower drinking age. Following the Flood of 1997, the rebuilding of Whitey’s in a new location and the addition of Cabela’s and the River Cinema, East Grand Forks has become more of a family friendly downtown.
But Blackmun still believes Whitey’s can appeal to the late night crowd if it creates a new identity for itself instead of trying to be a cafe, a restaurant and a bar at the same time.
“It needs a fresh start,” he said. “But the possibility is there.”
Homstad also mentioned Minnesota’s higher wage rate for employees, higher insurance rates and more challenging liquor laws as disadvantages to be overcome for Minnesota restaurant/bars competing against Grand Forks establishments.
Richter said he hopes the new owner will have the financial wherewithal to invest in the business and keep it going.
Many in the local business community, including some competitors, say they would like to see Whitey’s succeed.
“I spent 40 years at Whitey’s,” Homstad said. “I cut my teeth in the restaurant business there. It’s really heartening to see them opening back up again.
“When they closed it was like losing an old friend. Now it looks like that old friend might be coming home.”
Ryan Schuster is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald,
which is owned by Forum Communications Co.