When Connie Grover began working at 400 E. Hennepin, a beer cost 25 cents. Now she sells specially branded tequila shots for $35. That’s just one of the many changes she’s seen in her 41 years tending bar at Whitey’s Old Town Saloon.
“When I first started here, we had two tap beers,” she recalled, “Miller and Leinenkugel. People shared a pitcher. Now you come in and we have 14 beers on tap.
“The first week I started here, I had never bartended in my life. I was told to be careful about serving people who were obviously drunk. One day a man came wobbling in, looking really drunk and I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t serve you. I have to be really careful. I watched you walk in here.’ He took off his wooden leg and laid it on top of the bar.”
The bar’s clientele was primarily working class, she said. Workers from the nearby Coca-Cola plant on Central Ave. (where Lourdes Square townhouses are today) would come in on their lunch hour, as would merchants along Hennepin. “Back then, a dime tip meant just as much to me as a $10 tip does now,” Grover said. “That’s all they had.”
The interior of the bar was dark then, without windows. “It was almost creepy,” Grover said. “Back then, people drank their lunch, and you didn’t want your employer to see you. Maybe they didn’t want their wives to see them, either. When they put the front windows in, I could see who was coming in. That made it so much better.”
Grover has worked for four different business owners. She was there when the bar was named St. Anthony East and featured live music such as the Ranchtones, Dave Ray and the Volunteers of the Blue Knight, Dan Bussey, Screaming Bullfrogs and Chris Miller and Joe Dawkins. She was there in 1994, when Randy “Whitey” Rodgers took over the space and made it Whitey’s World-Famous Saloon. And she was there when Eric Stadstad purchased the bar in 2019 and renamed it Whitey’s Old Town Saloon.
Stadstad lives in Idaho, so he appointed her his human resources manager. “I do all the hiring and firing,” Grover said. “The kids call me ‘Mama Connie.’”
Grover has seen a procession of “regulars” over the years. “The regulars really define your business,” she said.
“There was a guy named Trevor who used to do handy work for businesses along the street,” Grover said. “He had an English accent and everybody knew him. He never had any money. When he would borrow $5 from you, you might not see it for a month or two, but when he paid you back, he would buy you a drink. He passed away a year ago in December. He had nobody. So I threw a little get-together for him, and we toasted him and we raised enough money for him to be cremated.” She said his ashes still reside in the bar’s basement. “I don’t know what to do with them!”
Another was a University of Minnesota professor who tipped her a dollar for every beer he drank. “He always drank Heineken, back when it was $3 a bottle. We figured it out — he had over 10,000 Heinekens over the years! I said, ‘Why didn’t you just tip me all at once?’”
The pandemic was hard on Whitey’s, as it was for many in the service industry. “We used to have lines standing on the sidewalk for lunch,” Grover said. “Now people work out of their homes. People don’t come out like they used to.”
The biggest change Grover has seen has been the recent addition of the tall buildings in the neighborhood. “When I started here, there was a little White Castle right here, and a little strip mall with a Red Owl store and MacNamara’s [where Lunds & Byerlys is now]. I remember they moved that little White Castle [to south Minneapolis]. Across the street was the dirty book store [401 E. Hennepin, now the Stray Dog].”
Ferris Alexander, who owned the adult bookstore and porn theater, was a frequent lunch patron and often brought his family in to dine, as did Leo Melzer, who owned Cashway Furniture, which was located at 328 E. Hennepin Ave. Eklund’s Clothing was next door to Alexander’s business, and beyond that, the Terminal Bar. Grover counted all the business owners as friends.
Now she’s making friends among the apartment dwellers whose tall towers surround the bar.
“I don’t plan to retire,” Grover said. “There’s no reason to. The people here have always been good to me.”
Whitey’s was the scene of a 70th birthday party held for Grover on Aug. 27. Owner Stadstad flew in from his home in Idaho. The Rich Lewis Band played for her, just as they did “back in the day.”
Photos: Connie Grover serving a ice cold beverage to Sarah Opheim. “Mama Connie” pulling a beer from one of Whitey’s 14 taps. (Cynthia Sowden)