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New owner of Whitey's to tweak East Grand Forks landmark

Tim Bjerk, right, the new owner of Whitey's restaurant, stands with previous owner Greg Stennes in front of the restaurant last week in East Grand Forks. Christian Randolph / Forum Communications Co.

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - The new owner of Whitey's plans to reopen the iconic East Grand Forks eatery in early September, but not before making some changes to the way the historic bar and restaurant is run.

Roseau businessman Tim Bjerk will retain the Whitey's name, but he plans to make changes to the menu, remodel the restaurant's interior and bring a strong customer service focus to the business.

Bjerk's purchase of Whitey's, the building, its equipment, furnishings and second-floor apartments, closed June 30. Bjerk, who owns and operates Gene's Bar & Grill in Roseau with his wife, Kristi, was the only prospective buyer to meet the former owners' asking price of $650,000 at a May auction.

"There is a lot of history with Whitey's," Bjerk said. "It's been a landmark ever since I can remember. We're glad to be in the position we are today and hope to carry on its good name."

Bjerk, 36, plans to leave his home in Roseau and live in an East Grand Forks apartment while he manages the business hands-on "for a few years." Kristi and Bjerk's two sisters will help run Gene's Bar & Grill and his wife will handle daily logistics for the sanitation company Bjerk owns and operates in Roseau while he's gone.

Greg Stennes, a longtime Whitey's manager and a partner in the group that sold the business to Bjerk, said he has known the new owner for "quite a few years" and is confident in Bjerk's ability to turn around the venerable establishment.

"I think he's the right guy," Stennes said. "He's really excited about it. He has a successful business going and a good local attitude, which is important. And he's a hard-working guy. That's what it takes."

Whitey's, a fixture within the local bar and restaurant scene for more than 80 years, abruptly closed its doors in February - less than a year after a new ownership group took over a business that had suffered from declining profitability in recent years.

The former ownership group had changed the name to Whitey's Steak and Seafood and made changes to the restaurant's menu.

But Stennes, 64, who retired from the business a few years ago only to return last year in an attempt to help right the ship, said Bjerk is much different than the former ownership group.

"There's a huge difference," Stennes said. "All the people in that group are good people, but the concept of the restaurant was a little misguided. It didn't sell real well to our market base."

As traffic dwindled in its final months of operation, the former owners also pared back the bar's famed late-night menu and stopped serving lunch on weekdays.

Bjerk said he is still working on menu details, but he said the new menu will be more affordable than it was when Whitey's closed.

He promised more of an emphasis on "meat and potatoes" dishes such as fresh-cut steaks as well as bar-and-grill fare. Bjerk said the bar menu will be more extensive than the one offered by Gene's Bar & Grill, but added that some Gene's menu items like its burgers, signature recipes and sauces will be incorporated into the new Whitey's menu.

Bjerk said he hasn't determined the restaurant's hours or how early it will close. But he said that Whitey's will be open for lunch all week long, will focus more on the restaurant business and will not attempt to compete with the Grand Forks bars as a late-night hangout.

"At this point, we're going to look more at the restaurant and dining," he said. "We'll be an afternoon bar hangout with the bar available in the evening."

Bjerk said he has applied for a new liquor license for Whitey's after the old liquor license expired last month. Bjerk said he is in the process of determining what will be stocked at the bar and how extensive its offerings will be.

Bjerk declined to get into specifics, but said he plans to redesign the floor plan of the restaurant. He said the changes will not require acquiring any permits. No changes are planned for the building's exterior or existing signage.