Molly Yeh's new restaurant, Bernie's, set to open soon in East Grand Forks
Food Network star and cookbook author is excited to share Midwestern- and Scandinavian-inspired cuisine in farmhouse-meets-classic-European-cafe setting
GRAND FORKS – The idea of opening a cafe or a bakery has captured Molly Yeh’s imagination for a very long time. And soon the cookbook author and Food Network star of “Girl Meets Farm” will be opening her first restaurant, Bernie’s, in downtown East Grand Forks.
The much-anticipated multiconcept restaurant — also featuring a cafe and market — will occupy the former Sickie’s Garage restaurant and bar, a location more widely known as the former Whitey’s, at 121 DeMers Ave.
A soft opening is planned, but that date nor the official opening have been determined, Yeh said. A book-signing for her new cookbook, “Home is Where the Eggs Are,” is planned for the afternoon of Oct. 1.
“This is a project that I’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” she said. “Honestly, since I was a kid, I have dreamt up dream menus for dream cafes and dream bakeries, and I’ve always loved putting together big tables and displays of baked goods and dreaming about that type of thing.
“And so, last summer I finally felt like I had the brain power to put some plans into action and that’s when my team and I started looking for different spaces around town and putting feelers out there to see what could be possibilities.
“I had been envisioning some place small – just a small bakery or a small cafe – downtown,” she said. When she and her husband, Nick Hagen, found out that the Whitey’s location was going to be available, “at first, Nick and I were like, oh gosh no, that is way too big of a space for us.”
But when they went to visit the space, “it was as if all of these memories came back to us,” she recalled. “Nick’s sister got married at Whitey’s. Whitey’s was one of the first restaurants Nick’s family took me to, it must have been the first week that I moved here.
And so, even in my short time of living here, I have these nostalgic memories about Whitey’s.
“And I know that everybody in town also seems to have these amazing, wonderful memories of the space,” she said. “It seems like anybody that you talk to has a story — or stories plural — about growing up going to Whitey's or their parents or grandparents going to Whitey’s. Nick’s grandma talked about how, I think it was every Saturday night, she went to Whitey’s. It seems like everybody has a story like that. It’s such a special place.”
And so on their visit to Whitey’s to consider its potential, “we stood in the space. We looked around and we were just moved to take on this project,” Yeh said. “We just felt like this was something that — I don’t know how to put it into words — but really it was this feeling that came over us and, we were like, you know what, this is really big space, and this is going to be a huge undertaking.”
They realized that, as they had never opened a restaurant, “this is going to be huge,” she said. “But we feel like there is something in our hearts that is just moving us to take this project on.”
When it came to the question of the restaurant name, “there was no discussion there,” Yeh said. “I think Nick and I just looked at each other; the space was Whitey’s and later Sickie’s, and at the time we didn’t have Ira, our baby — we were just like, obviously, it’ll be named Bernie’s; what else."
And how is three-year-old Bernie reacting?
“Oh my gosh, she’s so excited,” Yeh said. “Anytime we drive through town or go past Bernie’s or go to visit, she points it out and says, ‘It’s Bernie’s!’
“At this point, she loves all the big open spaces at the restaurant because we don’t have much of the furniture yet. She likes to go and dance in the big spaces.”
Food Network personalities
Yeh has “absolutely” drawn inspiration, she said, from other Food Network personalities, such as Ree Drummond, who has opened a few restaurants in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and Chip and Joanna Gaines, who operate The Silos and The Magnolia Table in Waco, Texas.
Yeh and Hagen visited the Gaines last year, she said. “That was a huge source of inspiration.”
Duff Goldman, a good friend, “gave me some great advice about opening up a space. A lot of network personalities that I look up to have spaces. I just think it’s so awesome that they’ve been able to make such successful spaces.”
Casey Gipson, who helped to open up Tyler Florence’s restaurant in San Francisco, is the head chef for opening up Bernie’s, Yeh said.
Gipson has moved here temporarily from Portland; he has opened up and worked at numerous restaurants. His friend Whitney Patterson, who’s also from Portland, is general manager for opening the restaurant.
Yeh turned to Abby Jensen, with JDD Architects in Minneapolis, to help design Bernie’s. Other key members of Yeh’s team include: Adam Cariveau, general contractor, Adam Cariveau Construction and Triple J Construction; Melina Moser, project manager; Chris Schultz, chef de cuisine; and Hayley Lukaczyk, buyer and art director.
Yeh expects the restaurant will employ between 30 and 40 people. Openings are still available for cooks, bussers, dishwashers and servers.
The team she is working with on this project “has just been incredible,” she said, “and the space is coming along beautifully.”
About the new venture, husband Nick Hagen, a fifth-generation farmer in rural East Grand Forks, said, “We’ve gotten tremendous support from the community, and it seems like people are eager to have something in that space.”
Three distinct areas
Throughout its roughly 6,000 square feet of space, Bernie’s will have three distinct areas: a casual, all-day cafe called Bernie’s Cafe; a full-service restaurant called Bernie’s Farmhouse; and Bernie’s Market for pantry items, cookbooks and more.
Bernie’s Farmhouse will serve Midwest- and Scandinavian-inspired dishes with local ingredients, including a Minnesota blend of wild rice in a Rice Burger, Cookie Salad with house-made fudge stripes, seasonal fruit, fresh whip and vanilla bean pudding, and a rotating hot dish such as Molly’s beloved Tater Tot Hotdish. And for brunch, you can try hand-rolled lefse with homemade butter, seasonal jam and cinnamon sugar.
Bernie’s Cafe will offer grab-and-go or counter service with dishes available such as smorrebrod with smoked whitefish, salmon, ham and egg salad; a baloney sandwich with local baloney, mayonnaise and romaine on white bread; and knoephle soup.
‘Farmhouse meets European cafe’
Bernie’s is described as “a blend of cozy farmhouse meets classic European cafe,” with nods to the preserved Art Deco in its historic building, which was home to the first stainless steel horseshoe bar. This bar is now at the heart of the Cafe with booths, bar and table seating, and a living room-inspired seating area in the Market, in total, seating 81 guests.
Bernie’s Farmhouse exudes an open and airy vibe with exposed brick, high ceilings, a mixture of materials, including wood, brick, stone and a copper ceiling. A special greenhouse area for semi-private indoor seating. This area seats 82 and an additional 60 on the west patio.
The basement won’t be opening when the restaurant does, Yeh said, but “it is our eventual goal to do something in the basement. We do have some awesome ideas brewing. We do plan to open the basement with something fun.”
And the restaurant will be available for private events in the future, she said. For information on these and other developments, sign up for the restaurant newsletter on its website www.bernieseastgrandforks.com .
The greenhouse area will be available as a reserved space — for birthday parties, family parties, graduations and other extra-special events, Yeh said. “There’ll be seating for between 8 and 10, or potentially a couple more.”
Walking in from the riverside entrance, the little greenhouse area will be on the right, she said. “It won’t be completely closed off, you’ll be able to see into it. It won’t be fully enclosed in windows, because that would get too hot.”
‘Slow down’ and enjoy a special moment
For inspiration for the design and decor of Bernie’s, Yeh drew from her experience as a tourist.
“One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to find local cafes and to sit and read a newspaper and just kind of linger and enjoy the morning, enjoy the coffee and a pastry. And just kind of slow down and either really enjoy alone time or enjoy time with my family,” she said. “I have had so many wonderful experiences in Paris, in Vienna, in Germany, in Amsterdam just really, like, capturing that energy of enjoying the morning, enjoying what you’re eating and people around you.
“I want people to be able to come (to Bernie’s) — really, at any time of day — and slow down and enjoy time with the people that they’re with, and really love the food,” she said.
“I feel like everybody these days seems to be so busy running around and grabbing a bite to eat, just for sustenance, or grabbing something on their way from point A to point B, but I want Bernie’s to be a special place where you can feel like you can just come here and have a special moment of your day.”
Among the aspects of the venture that Yeh is most proud of is the food she plans to serve.
“The one thing that I am just so excited for is the way that the menu is coming together, the selection of menu offerings,” she said. “We wanted to do a lot with the menu, meaning we wanted to honor Whitey’s; we wanted to honor all of the Scandinavian heritage that is present in this region; all of the amazing local Midwestern cuisine, like hotdish and cookie salad; and ingredients that are local to this region like wild rice and, of course, potatoes.
“We live in such an amazing region for ingredients and crops and cuisine, and the menu truly showcases that and it does so in a really delicious and fun way. It’s special but approachable. It’s the kind of place where you can come for a special event — like a proposal or a first date — but it is also casual enough where you can come here for a weeknight meal too.
“I’m hoping that people come here for multiple nights a week and feel like they can come as they are – you know, you can come in jeans, you can come in T-shirts.”
The decor will include traditional Scandinavian dala horses, and kids will be able to color at their table.
“On the cafe side, stop by and get a hotdish to bring home,” she said. “If you have a friend who just had a baby, you can come by and grab a hotdish and a bouquet of flowers.”
Yeh will “absolutely” be involved day-to-day in the place, she said. “I expect to be there as often as I can.”
Other obligations, such as filming for the Food Network and an upcoming book tour to promote her new cookbook, will keep her away at times, she said. “But when I’m here and in town and not filming, I’m so excited to be able to be there, see the community, and frost a lot of cakes.”