Landmark Whitey's closes; reverts back to Stennes family owners with Park Rapids ties
Whitey's, the East Grand Forks landmark bar and restaurant that dates its origins to the Prohibition era in the 1920s, closed Tuesday only a few months after a new ownership group took over.
A hand-written sign in the door Tuesday said "Whitey's Steak and Seafood is closed."
Dave Norman, one of the owners, said he closed the place Tuesday and blamed a competitive marketplace for making it too tough to make a go.
"When our group took over in mid- June, it was the case of a place the past couple years losing a couple hundred grand," he said. "We thought we would see if we could resurrect it, but the direction it was in was a clear tailspin and we were unable to pull it out."
The deal he had struck last summer returns the keys, in effect, to longtime owner/manager Greg Stennes and his partners, Norman said.
"After giving it our best effort, and employees working their butts off, it's just the competitive nature of the marketplace. We struggled for months."
A call to Stennes was not returned Tuesday night.
The demise of the legendary restaurant has been rumored around downtown for months as customer traffic has appeared to dwindle and hours were shortened.
But Norman denied the rumors as recently as 10 days ago, saying any changes he made seemed to blossom into tales of a closing.
He's made several changes in recent months, including paring down the famed late night menu to a few items on a bar menu and serving no lunch during the week.
A bartender said last week when only one or two customers could be seen that the place had run out of food recently and was dropping beer brands as their supply ran out. Closing was happening at 11 p.m. or earlier on slow weekday nights, a manager said last week, by which time only three beers were on tap, in a place that used to boast dozens of imports and domestics.
Norman, 57, a former radio station owner in Grand Forks and part of a family that once owned a funeral home, was the face of a group of seven investors who bought Whitey's last summer from Stennes who said he would retire.
Stennes remained owner of the building leased to Norman and his group, which he said included his daughter, Trisha.
They changed the name from Whitey's to Whitey's Steak and Seafood, a name similar to a Fargo upscale restaurant Norman was involved with in recent years.
Stennes himself went out to dinner Tuesday at Sanders in downtown Grand Forks. Earlier he said he initiated the discussion with Norman, his tenant, that the terms of the lease just weren't being met.
Stennes told the Herald on Tuesday that he and his partners now have Whitey's back under terms of the lease agreement.
"What the heck, it didn't work out," he said. "They
didn't get the business volume they needed, and they had some internal problems."
He's hopeful another buyer will step forward.
"I'm not going to come out of retirement and try to pick up the pieces," he said.
"But we just polish up our rock and try to give it enough time to settle in because I think the whole concept of Whitey's is sound, and I love that place. I think it's very marketable and just needs the right magic to make the public come back. I know the community supports it."
The strong local economy, resting mainly on a tremendous year for farmers, can help, he said.
"I think the time is ripe for someone to come to bat and step up to the plate," Stennes said. "Our business, the hospitality business, is as old as the pyramids. It just takes a direct commitment, and I've been that way and Whitey Larson was that way."
On Tuesday, Jeanne O'Neil, of East Grand Forks, said about 10 days ago she paid a rental and reserved Whitey's lower level for a regular dance of the North Country Fiddle and Dance group for this weekend.
Stennes called her Tuesday to say he found out Whitey's had closed but that he would host her group himself Saturday, O'Neil said.
After decades of being the place to be, bringing visitors to a unique dining experience and serving drinks and food into the late night hours, Whitey's seems to have been lost the past year or two as downtown Grand Forks added establishments just across the Red River.
Last summer, Stennes told the Herald he would follow his predecessor, Whitey Larson, in retirement, adding he may emulate Larson in another way.
"You know, Whitey kept coming in for all those years after he sold it -- I am hoping that will happen in my life."