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Famous Whitey's Cafe in East Grand Forks up for sale

Tim Behm, general manager at Whitey's Cafe in downtown East Grand Forks, points to the flood wall the city's erecting that will block off access to the Sorlie Bridge. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Whitey's Cafe, the venerable East Grand Forks institution with an Art Deco look and a wild past, might be changing hands soon.

"We have been approached by an investment group, and they are looking at our place," said Greg Stennes, only the second owner since buying it, with two partners in 1973 from founder Whitey Larson.

Any change of ownership will have historic overtones because Whitey's is the only bar in the city of 8,000 that dates to the 1930s, and it's got a big reputation.

Stennes said the deal is far from done but that if not this sale, another will happen in the foreseeable future.

"I have got two partners in their 70s, and I'm retired myself," he said.

"It's still in a discussion mode at this point. Hopefully, we will get some more definitive news in the next week," Stennes said.

His longtime partners, Wayne Davis, Grand Forks, and Lyle Gerzewski, who lives in Arizona, take no role in the operation of Whitey's.

"I started working there in 1968, actually," Stennes said. "Whitey was my mentor."

Larson, who died in 1992, for years dropped in for lunch at Whitey's long after he sold it.

Stennes, in turn, has been mentoring a possible future owner.

"The hope is Tim Behm will be a major part of this."

In late 2008, Stennes turned over the general manager job to Behm, a veteran of local restaurant management -- John Barleycorn, Ground Round and Village Inn -- as well as in Iowa and the Twin Cities.

A year ago, Stennes said Behm likely would become a partner in the business, and he confirmed that Sunday.

"We have tried to build that as a stepping stone for our management people to move up the ladder," he said. "So, it's always been set up so we could get somebody to take over."

Stennes also is a partner in the Blue Moose, just down the boardwalk from Whitey's, with manager David Homstad, who for years worked for Stennes at Whitey's.

The two operations are separate, and Stennes isn't actively involved in the Blue Moose's operation. Any sale of Whitey's has nothing to do with the Moose, Stennes said.

Wonder Bar

Whitey's Wonder Bar became famous when it opened in 1930 for its big stainless steel horseshoe-shaped bar, cool interior and the gangster clientele it reportedly pulled in when East Grand Forks was known as "Little Chicago" and featured slot machines and dice games.

At that time, the city had 40 bars in the short strip of DeMers Avenue; only Whitey's survives.

After a fire in 1942 and gambling was outlawed in 1947, Whitey's became known as a good place to go for a steak and a drink.

By the 1970s, it was a legend, as college students came to drink at the same place their parents had, and families came in for Sunday dinners.

It was the one place everyone would be sure to bring a visitor from elsewhere, who most likely already had heard of the place. The Flood of 1997 was a big blow, wrecking Whitey's building and rearranging the map of the two cities' downtowns.

After the flood, Stennes bought the former Aakers Business College building in downtown Grand Forks at Third Street and Second Avenue North with the idea of moving Whitey's across the Red.

But a concerted effort by East Grand Forks leaders helped persuade Stennes to just move it down the block a ways and keep it on the East Side. He sold out of the Aakers building shortly after buying it, he said.

Whitey's moved to the former Fail building on DeMers, only a few steps from the Red River, in 1998. Stennes and his partners bought the East Grand Forks building about five years ago.

Since the rebuilding and reorganization of both downtowns since the Flood of 1997, the number of bars and restaurants downtown seems to have grown higher than it was during the 1970s and '80s, with more competition -- especially on the Grand Forks side -- for night life.

Another change in recent years has been closing time. East Grand Forks went to 2 a.m. closing first. But Minnesota charges higher liquor license fees to stay open from 1 to 2 a.m. In 2007, Whitey's was one of the small percentage of bars in Minnesota not to renew its 2 a.m. license. Stennes said the business done after 1 a.m. wasn't worth the extra fee.

Meanwhile, several downtown Grand Forks bars do big business in the last hour before 2 a.m.

The success of the River Cinema in East Grand Forks, which is expanding again, has contributed to some late-night parking crunches being discussed by city and business leaders. It's an obvious sign that the several restaurant/bars clustered along the boardwalk, as well as the Cinema and Cabela's brings people downtown, Stennes said.

But it's been clear for a couple of years, at least, that Whitey's is not as packed most nights of the week as it used to be. Stennes said a sale is inevitable.

"If not now, it will happen sometime in the foreseeable future. We are getting older."