By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Most mornings, you'll find Vern Ehlers, Bert Westerberg, and Harold Wilson at the White Castle on Lake and 36th. They'll talk for hours at the table next to the tiny rest rooms. But they don't spend much money.
Ehlers, 71, is the baby of the bunch; today he put 76 cents towards one egg, one slice of toast, and one coffee. The bespectacled Westerberg, 78, is nursing a 42-cent cup of joe. "Make sure you put down 'senior coffee,'" Westerberg instructs a reporter.
The store's best customer, 92-year-old Harold Wilson, just left. Friends say he's visited twice daily since this location opened in December 1962.
Those days are about to end. The Columbus, Ohio-based fast-food chain is closing the store at the end of April, and the Lake and Blaisdell restaurant may be next on the company hit list.
"It's just a nostalgia thing now," says Larry Windingstad, White Castle area manager, of the Lake and 36th location. "For a lot of people, it's their life. They meet in the morning to solve the world's problems." But there's nothing sentimental about profits. "We have to make a business decision."
Still, Windingstad is saddened at the prospect of closing the store, perhaps because he was preparing burgers there when it first opened. "It's not something we want to do," he says. "I don't feel good about this. Not at all."
Yet the company has its reasons. At 1,575 square feet, the store has room for just two tables, seven bar stools at a classic stainless-steel counter, and a few benches facing Lake Street. The rest rooms are far from wheelchair accessible ("You can't be fat and be in there," Westerberg says), and the basement is nonexistent. But the biggest obstacles to high sales are low automobile traffic at the off-the-beaten-path intersection and no drive-thru. Adding that convenience at the antiquated building would prove impractical, Windingstad says. (The company searched nearby Hiawatha Avenue for a replacement site, but couldn't find one.)
Lack of a drive-thru could also spell the end at the chain's Blaisdell and Lake location, leaving South Minneapolis with no place to grab a bag of Slyders at 3 a.m.--like on St. Patrick's Day, just after midnight, when two women enter the store at Lake and 36th, giggling. One has a shamrock painted on her face. They've been to the bar. "After he said that to me, he was done," one confides to her friend. "I was finished with him."
The friend nods and studies the menu on the back wall. Next to the prices are egg-shaped cutouts of Easter bunnies, sheep, and rabbits. The leader continues talking. After a moment, she stops and blurts out, "Wendy, what are you having? I'm paying."
A minute later, a pair of men with mustaches steps inside. One wears a yellow-and-black TRACKSTAR MOTORSPORTS leather jacket; his buddy sports a simple brown-leather model. "Twenty?" he asks his quiet partner.
"Give me 20, 10 with no pickles," the man tells the cashier.
Soon, three twentysomethings bounce in. They're boys, teetering toward manhood. Two seem only slightly impaired, but the third is definitely having trouble. He leans heavily on the railing. The room is silent. Then, a hiccup. And another. And another. Laughter erupts.
The day shift is more predictable. Here, Vera Olson reigns. An employee for more than a decade, she knows the regulars at Lake and 36th by name. "I mostly know what they want and how they want it," she says, breaking an egg into a disposable Castle cup.
"How do you like your bacon, crispy?" she asks an unknown customer. The man answers and politely reminds her about his request for extra onions in the scrambled eggs. "I'm cooking them the Vera-special way," she says warmly. "The onions are there."
Olson is the one responsible for the store's holiday decorations. All the Easter garnishments are up now. Last year's orange and black balloon arrangement for Halloween was judged the most festive of the 297 White Castle stores nationwide. "It was so pretty," she remembers.
After the doors are locked and the building demolished, Olson will have to move on. "I'll be sorry," she says. "I'm going to miss it." And then to the assembled: "I'm not going to see y'all faces anymore. I don't know where I'm going, but I'll let you know," Olson says.
A little later, three men in blue jeans and work boots are in from the morning cold for a bite to eat. The men are black, brown and white. Each wears a stocking cap, one blue, one brown, one a Gopher maroon and gold. They stand at the counter, patiently waiting for coffee and greasy burgers.
Ron Vensel, the man with the extra onions, remembers coming to the store as a child, when car hops brought orders to customers. He dives into a discussion on business costs and overhead. "Nobody is going to build a new building here," he predicts.
Then it's back to his eggs and toast. He's ordered extra. "Oh well, things change," he says.