Patrick Boppre and Nathan Sheppard want to make changes at The Blue Moose Bar and Grill—the long-running culinary and community staple in the GRAND region famous for its location on the banks of the Red River, the lodge inspired décor and atmosphere or its people-pleasing menu—without changing anything. Investors in the East Grand Forks restaurant since 2011, Boppre and Sheppard will officially take over the majority stake and control of the eatery next year. Listening to Boppre, the current manager that started working there at 16 as a busboy, and Sheppard, a local chef talent that has run kitchens across the country and now runs things in EGF, talk about their hopes, dreams and fears about taking over the helm of a Mount Rushmore-type of regional restaurant reveals an interesting and complex set of scenarios. How do two young, fun-loving, energetic food and service enthusiasts with big ideas make their mark at a place that has already made its own mark? And, how, or maybe why, should a place as successful and well-known as “The Moose” even need to embark on expansion or growth?
It has become apparent to the staff, customers, friends and family of Boppre and Sheppard that the two genuinely enjoy working together. Apart from each other, here are
Moose Item: B-Guinness Burger S-Atlantic salmon or Reuben
Food To Make At Home: B-Smoked Corn S-Soups
Time of Year: B-Mother’s Day (they serve more than 800 people)
S-Thanksgiving (because some people wouldn’t get that type of meal otherwise).
Boppre and Sheppard have actually thought about those questions, they say. As we sat at a corner table in the bar section of the restaurant recently, discussing those same questions, Boppre wearing his Blue Moose logoed polo and Sheppard in his chefs’ hat and buttoned shirt, the pair looked at each other and paused, sharing a brief low-rise smile, as if they knew what the other was thinking and about to say. As we are all about to see, smell, taste (or in this case read) Boppre, Sheppard and the Blue Moose dynasty does have a vision for the future.
Spinich dip is always the top seller. Dave Homstad bought the recipe at a food show.
Other popular dishes include the walleye, homemade macaroni and cheese,
spicy wrap and any of the burgers.
After Sheppard started, all of the burgers were made by hand patting, which equates to roughly 600 hand-pattied burgers per week.
Understanding Their Place In East Grand Forks
It’s hard to say what the restaurant is truly famous for, even though it would be hard to find anyone in the region that doesn’t count the restaurant as a staple to revisit or enjoy for the first time. Opened and locally owned since 1994, the facility itself has undergone multiple renovation rounds. It’s been redone after floods, and then redone again after flood protection infrastructure ran through its property lines, forcing it to make changes. Menus have been majorly tweaked. The well-known slogan used by the marketing team simply describes the Blue Moose as a “Place In East Grand Forks.” The slogan is certainly accurate, but there is also so much left unsaid.
Of anyone, Boppre has experienced and embraced the magic of the moose. After bussing tables in high school, he served and bartended there during his college days at the University of North Dakota. Boppre even met his wife at the Moose. “I’ve always really liked the restaurant industry. There is so much energy in the people,” Boppre says.
The energy undoubtedly starts with Dave Homstad, founder and visionary behind it all. Homstad, who also ran another Grand Forks iconic eatery in Whitey’s, not only built a restaurant capable of lasting 100 years or more, he’s also taken on a mentor role to Boppre and Sheppard. Homstad’s LinkedIn profile even describes his position as “mentor to my replacements at Blue Moose Bar & Grill.” The new owners would say Homstad was everything they could have asked from a mentor. When they talk about their early fears for taking over the business or their plans for the future, Homstad’s name comes up in the conversation, usually in a way that indicates the two are only doing what Dave said to do or would do.
Back in 2011, Boppre and Sheppard were excited about the opportunity to work with Homstad. But they were also hesitant. “I remember being excited but also nervous,” Sheppard says. Although he’d learned the chef ropes at the former Sanders restaurant in Grand Forks and spent time at major culinary spots in the Pacific Northwest, Sheppard had never ran a business. Boppre knew management, but like Sheppard, he didn’t know what Homstad did. “My wife had an accounting background, so when I came home and said Dave wanted to help us take over the restaurant, she wanted to see the books.”
As history has shown, there has never been an issue with the finances of food at the restaurant. In 2011, the new owners invested enough to attain 12.5 percent of the Moose. When it is all said and done, Homstad will retain a small percentage of the restaurant as a legacy owner. Boppre and Sheppard both agree retaining any type of Homstad presence in the business is a good thing.
Lessons From Dave
Invest in restaurant infrastructure: buy new ovens, upgrade the bar, put in new carpet
Make building updates every 3 to 5 years
Keep the deck. The view is irreplaceable.
Just because something is a bottom seller, doesn’t mean it is a bad item
Trust in the spinach dip. It's been the best selling item from day one.
Pay more for a better product. People will come back to the better product.
“Dave has been a guiding light and mentor. This is the first place I really learned how to run a restaurant,” Sheppard says.
Boppre agrees. “I feel like I’ve graduated. Now I’m excited to see what this place can become.”
With six kids at home, Sheppard says his favorite dish to make is anything everyone at the table will like. (Lately that has been Asian style noodles). To run a kitchen like a pro, he has these basic tips:
Use the best ingredients you can get. You’ll focus more and the result will be noticeable.
Make the food with love. Think of a carrot, for example. In a well-made stew, all the carrots are sliced the same size and they all cook evenly that way.
If you print out a recipe, pay attention to the details.
Bring some passion to the kitchen. The experience of cooking is about more than just the food.
Boppre has a sharp eye for great service. When he eats at places other than the Moose, he’s
always watching. These are his staples:
Always have a smile
Anticipate guest needs
Think of extra plates
Think of refills
Always pre-bus tables
Focus on accuracy of guest order
Participate in teamwork
Help out other tables
The plan for the future isn’t so much set in stone as it is a basic mantra to apply in future decisions. The new owners believe in staying on, and just ahead of trends—from their menu changes to their cooking infrastructure in the kitchen. “The industry is always changing,” Boppre notes. “But we aren’t afraid to adapt while providing the mainstay service and quality product we are known for.”
According to Sheppard, future plans could include an expansion of space at the existing eatery. It might also entail branching out and opening up new options, like a kick-butt sandwich shop (an example offered by Sheppard).
Neither Boppre or Sheppard are scared of screwing up what Homstad has established. They were trained how to run his Blue Moose. Now it’s time to run their version. Although it seems contradictory, their plan for the future—to make changes without changing—makes sense in some magical way. Afterall, that is the thing about the Moose. From the literal blue sculpture of a moose at the front entrance, to the view of the Red River, to the décor, to the expansive menu to the people like Boppre and Shepard, it is all magical and famous in a way that is tough to describe. The popular slogan used by the marketing team at the Moose actually makes sense in a way. It sure is, as the phrase indicates, “A place in East Grand Forks.” With the know-how, energy and excitement needed to usher the bar and grill into a new era, it might actually be more accurate to change the slogan. As far as Boppre and Sheppard are concerned, it will not just be “a” place, but instead, “thee” place.
The Founder’s Journey
Even if you don’t know Dave Homstad, you know Dave Homstad. In 1993, he officially opened what has become an iconic eatery and bar in East Grand Forks known as The Blue Moose. At the start of 2020, when Homstad takes a seat at the bar, or in a booth overlooking the Red River, he’ll be just another customer—sort of. After a handful of years spent grooming, tutoring and mentoring Patrick Boppre and Nathan Sheppard to become the new owners, Homstad is handing over leadership of the Moose and retaining only a small ownership portion. “It was my heart and soul,” he says. “It became so much a part of my life that I just wanted to retain a bit of it.”
At a time when independent restaurants continue to show less success than their chain-counterparts, Homstad has left a blueprint on how to run a successful restaurant and now more recently, how to perform a successful transition so that future success can mirror the past.
It all started when Homstad was working at Whitey’s, a staple of the GRAND region’s restaurant and bar scene for decades. A neighboring restaurant had just opened and was struggling. With a hidden desire to own and run his own establishment, Homstad went to the neighboring restaurant “to borrow a cup of sugar,” he says. During that stop, he asked about buying the restaurant, knowing full well he had no money or asset package from which to borrow off. After a conversation with the ownership group of Whitey’s—Homstad explained it would be better for them to know their competition than not—Homstad had what he needed to make the buy. A few months of renovations later, he opened The Blue Moose.
For the first few years, the business was simply okay, despite the rave reviews and commentary he received from the community. “A lot of people thought we were a chain because we had a lot of things figured out,” he says. Before they ever opened, Homstad had already created an extensive training manual for his employees, formulated an operating strategy for his managers to succeed and keep customers happy and developed a full-menu.
In 1997, The Blue Moose was the first to receive electricity after the Red River flood. “Area leaders wanted to get us up and running to provide some normalcy to the community,” Homstad says. “Everyone was looking for something to do that was normal after a long day of cleaning their basements.”
Since then, the Moose has become a constantly packed regional staple known for its food, bar and atmosphere, all of which Homstad had a major role in creating. For several years, Homstad put in 90 to 100 hours per week. He knows it was tough on his children at times and his wife stopped going to the grocery store with him. “Because I came to know so many people from the restaurant,” he says, “it took me twice as long to get groceries as the normal person.”
Homstad has always considered customer interaction the best part of the job. He always tried to stop by as many tables as possible and he always trained other managers to do the same. “It is so hard to create that customer that really enjoys coming back. It is hard to cultivate that. If you don’t take care of the guest, you just have to work harder to get a new guest.”
He loved the spinach con queso dip and the pan-fried walleye. He wishes he would have moved the bar from the center of the facility to where it is today sooner rather than later. He is proud of creating a place that is so well known for more than the food and that in a business that requires great talent behind the scenes, his list of memorable managers and staff is extensive. The longer he talks about his many days and nights managing and bringing to life his vision for the Moose, the more his comments drift away from ovens, bar designs or menus. When he talks about Boppre and Sheppard, there seems to be a sense of quiet pride and confidence related to his business acumen, an unabashed celebration of his new reality that doesn’t involve long nights or rush hours, and the one thing that is never really said by Homstad, but clearly expected and understood. Homstad might be a realist in how he trained others and looked at the business, but he is also a bit sad that his days of doing what he set out to do are essentially over.
The thing is, if you know Dave or you don’t know Dave, it is obvious that one thing can be said regardless: he’ll be back. That is the thing about the Moose, he says. It’s great because people always come back. The food is exceptional, he argues, along with the décor and the drinks. But all that can change, he also admits. It’s not the seats or the booths, he explains, it’s the people in them that matter. Of all the things Homstad says he’ll miss after running an iconic place for so long, it is just that. “I think I’ll miss the people the most.” G
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Photos by Manstrom Photography & Kuntz Photography
From Issue 5, 2019