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Stennes family sells Whitey's in East Grand Forks

Whitey's Cafe, the longtime landmark eatery and bar in downtown East Grand Forks, has a new owner and soon will have a new name.

But don't panic -- it's a small change.

Dave Norman told the Herald on Wednesday a seven-member investor group that includes him and daughter Trisha purchased Whitey's this week. They plan to rename it Whitey's Steaks and Seafood.

Norman, who will manage the restaurant for the near future, and his group are only the third owners of the restaurant well-known for its horseshoe bar, colorful past and Art Deco style.

Founder Whitey Larson opened the establishment as the Coney Island Lunchroom in 1925 -- during the wild times of Prohibition, when East Grand Forks was called "Little Chicago" because of its links to bootlegging -- renaming it Whitey's Wonderbar after that was repealed. Larson, who died in 1992, sold Whitey's to a group in 1973 that included Greg Stennes, who ran it until selling it to Norman.

"It is such a huge responsibility," Norman said. "There is such a historical value to Whitey's and Whitey Larson."

Stennes, who "retired" last year but was still heavily involved with the day-to-day operations, said the sale took some time to finalize, which was a bit tough on the staff, but was glad "that we kept some very good, very talented people" at Whitey's.

"We just wish everybody well," Stennes said Wednesday. "We want to see it work, to see it work for the new investors."

Terms of the deal were not released.

No stranger

Norman, 56, is not new to the Grand Forks business scene. He was involved with the family's funeral home business but is best known as the former owner of the local KCNN and KZLT radio stations.

After selling the stations in 2002, Norman relocated to Detroit Lakes, Minn. There, he said, his longtime passion for cooking and for steakhouses became his vocation as he bought the Fireside restaurant. With much of the Fireside's clientele hailing from the Fargo area, Norman eventually entered that market, selling the Fireside and opening Norman's Prime Steaks and Seafood in south Fargo. Norman said he's still part of the investment group that owns that restaurant but is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations.

Although Whitey's is his newest venture, it wasn't the reason he took a look at returning to Greater Grand Forks. Norman initially had his eyes on the former Suite 49 restaurant near Ralph Engelstad Arena as a new Norman's Prime Steaks and Seafood location, going as far as getting the liquor licensed transferred. But when he learned Whitey's was for sale, "this (buying Whitey's) became a no-brainer," Norman said, noting its location along the Boardwalk in East Grand Forks, as well as the drawing power of Cabela's and the River Cinema 12 movie theater nearby.

"It's the best restaurant-bar location," he said. "It's got great parking and a great neighborhood."

Stennes still owns the Whitey's building, but Norman said he has a three-year lease-to-purchase agreement.


Norman said he plans to invest in some new kitchen equipment, and to unveil a new menu later this month, most likely June 28. While no major changes are expected, he said he wants to "return Whitey's to the steak and seafood dominance it enjoyed for a long time." And there will be other tweaks to the menu, as well, in the areas of hamburgers and some Italian fare, for example, he said.

As for bar operations, Norman said he's got some changes in mind, too, from guest bartenders to offering a free wing bar daily. For many years, Whitey's was the premier college crowd bar, but recent years have seen an increase in competition from the Grand Forks' downtown scene, as well as a statewide Minnesota smoking ban that's cut into the late-night bar business. Still, Norman said, with Grand Forks soon to enact a smoking ban, and the popularity of other restaurants and bars on the Boardwalk such as the Blue Moose, he thinks Whitey's can remain strong in that area, too.

"Whitey's has always been a melting pot," Norman said. "And we want that to continue."

While Norman plans to manage Whitey's for the near future, daughter Trisha Norman, 22, a senior at North Dakota State University in Fargo majoring in hospitality management and communications, also will be involved with day-to-day operations, he said.

But what about the sign?

Norman said the iconic "Whitey's Wonderbar" sign along the south side of the restaurant will remain, as will the main sign that faces the Red River, but said a neon "Steaks and Seafood" sign will be added in the near future.

And the horseshoe bar? That stays, too, he said.

As for Stennes, he said retirement won't be hard for him, adding he may emulate Whitey 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."